Steampunk Sourcebook: Victorian Vampires
Fun Facts and Context
- There are many different terms for vampires (also spelled vampyre in English), such as vyrkolakas (Greek), Bulgarian and Macedonian вампир (vampir), Bosnian: lampir, Croatian vampir, Czech and Slovak upír, Polish wąpierz, and (perhaps East Slavic-influenced) upiór, Ukrainian упир (upyr), Russian упырь (upyr ’), Belarusian упыр (upyr). However, “nosferatu” was not actually a term in any language for vampire until it appeared in a travelogue. Most likely, this word came from a mis-attribution of a word the loosely means “devil” or “demon” in old Romanian, and referred specifically to the illegitimate offspring of illegitimate parents.
- Cultures across the ages and the globe have some variation of the vampire in their mythology. But, the vampire as we know it in the English-speaking world is largely based on the same handful of European legends, and aspects of these stories have become canon. The Victorian era (and those immediately before and after) was when many of these tales were recorded for the first time. This is what we know about vampires from that era:
- They are dead. Or, undead to be more precise.
- They are cold, on account of said dead-ness.
- They have bad breath.
- They drink blood. They don’t seem to do so maliciously, rather they are trying to prolong their existences. (Though of course, certain individuals who were probably jerks in their regular lives as well as their after lives, prove to enjoy mind games in addition to supper.)
- In these stories, there is a first-person narrator but it is never the vampire. There is a survivor telling a tale to others, be it around the fire at Christmas or just to record it for posterity. This gives the stories the feeling of a warning or morality tale.
- Then there are the things that we all think we know about vampires, but only became canon later in a large part because of films like Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), which were both more or less based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Here are some examples:
- They hate Christian stuff such as crucifixes and communion wafers. Despite being one of the first things a person will say if you ask them to describe a vampire, I didn’t find many references to this particular phobia in my research. This appears to be a totally Victorian era addition to the lore. It may have had something to do with the belief that the bodies of heretics do not in fact decompose.
- They can turn into other things, such as bats, wolves or mist. Again, this is not common. They may have power over animals, but this seems to be more like a large predator scaring away smaller ones rather than some sort of magical ability.
- They need to return to their coffins (or at least to the soil in which they were buried) in order to sustain themselves. Blood alone is not enough. Though many vampires rest in their coffins, this seems to have more to do with safety than any real need.
- Vampires hate garlic. This is from the Slavic vampire tradition, from which Stoker drew for his material. People in this part of the world believed that garlic was effective against a number of supernatural evils, including witches. If one was suspected of cavorting with the supernatural, they were given garlic either raw or cooked into a dish. This practice continued as late the 1970s in some churches in the Slavic region, as well as stuffing the mouths of the deceased with garlic to keep evil spirits from inhabiting the body.
- They sleep all day and only come out at night. And, when it is their nap time, vamps don’t put up much of a fight.
- Then, of course, there are things that are true for some tales and not for others. The earliest vampire stories and myths that influenced the Victorian era were from places like Hungary and, of course, Romania. Each culture has a slightly different take on vampire detection and habits. For instance:
- Hungarian vampires only feed on family members. In small, rural villages this could mean that an entire settlement can become infected with vampirism due to the shallowness of the gene pool. The family tie vampires seem to be the most concerned with making more vampires, while the majority are only eating folks to keep themselves living.
- Some vampires only come out at night, while others are at total liberty to walk about as they please.
- Some vampires are snappy dressers, while others prefer to wear whatever rags they still have from their burial.
- Many vampires have been imprisoned for centuries, only to awaken because of a disturbance of their tombs. This is an interesting parallel to another fan favorite of the Victorian era, stories of a mummy’s curse.
- While some tales favor burning the body as a means to a final end, others advocated the driving of a stake through the heart, decapitation, an incantation/prayer, or some combination of these. Starvation can occasionally do the trick, but usually only incapacitates rather than kills.
- As convenient as it is for vampire slayers when their victims turn to dust, this isn’t always the case in the lore. This seems to only happen if the vampire is extremely old, where new vampires just look like corpses once slain.
- Some vampires are cold-blooded predators, while others feel really bad about what they are doing to their victims and try to make what is left of their lives pleasant.
- Some of them have hypnotic powers which can be used to seduce their victims or to make witnesses keep a vow of secrecy.
- In some cultures you should never speak the name of a deceased person whom you suspect could rise as a vampire or it will come to pass.
- Though many vampires take pains to get a formal invitation into their victims’ homes, others just break in and take what they want.
- Some vampires are made by other vampires, but living a “sacrilegious life” in Greece could also do the trick, and includes such small infractions as drinking too much. Slavs should also be on the lookout for people who are excessively happy, while we are told that in the 1700’s in Moravia it was not uncommon for dead people to show up at a party and point out the next to die, who will repeat the performance for the next victim unless precautions are taken.
As I discussed in last month’s How to Punk Your Steam article, the steam era was full of supernatural stories and creatures to lurk in the shadows of our nightmares. Unlike today, it was not uncommon for people in the 18th-19th centuries to see dead bodies, either right after death or after they were exumed to make more room in an over-crowded cemetery. Public executions and dissections were treated as a cause for celebration. But, even though there was more exposure to the dead, the nature of decomposition was not well-understood. Sometimes corpses just refused to look the way people thought they should, whether due to the amount of moisture or acid in the soil, depth of burial, or some other factor. This often lead to supernatural explanations for totally natural phenomena.
Men and women penned vampire tales for periodicals, short story collections and even recorded myths in their travelogues. I recently finished a fantastic collection of these stories published in 2010 called Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories and edited by Michael Sims (The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, Arsene Lupi, Gentleman Thief). The following is a partial list of vampire stories based on his selections, and while many are old enough to be in the public domain they can be hard to track down on their own.
A Mystery of the Campagna, Anne Crawford
A True Story of a Vampire, Eric, Count Stenbock
And the Creature Came in, Augustus Hare
Good Lady Ducayne, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Let Loose, Mary Cholmondeley
The End of My Journey, George Gordon, Lord Byron
The Family of the Vourdalak, Aleksei Tolstoy
The Mysterious Stranger, Anonymous
The Tomb of Sarah, F. G. Loring
The Vampyre, John Polidori
Varney the Vampire, James Malcom Rymer
Wake Not the Dead, Theophile Gautier