Victorian Vampires: Varney and Carmilla

“Penny dreadfuls” were cheaply printed Gothic novels in serialized form

Before Dracula, There Was Varney

Before Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, the world had known Varney since 1845.  Written by James Malcolm Rymer (creator of everyone’s favorite hairdresser, Sweeney Todd), Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood was published chapter by chapter (serialized) in that Victorian staple, the “penny dreadful.”  In a world in which no well-bred lady’s husband or father permitted her to read the newspaper (they were, after all, filled with politics, financial concerns, and social issues) reading a penny dreadful was a guilty pleasure indeed. Taken altogether the book is long — over 600,000 words — and filled with ideas and images that inspired horror fiction for decades to come.


Not The First Vampire, But The First Sympathetic Vampire

Long before Louis whined to Lestat, and before sparkling vegetarian vampires ruled their local high school, Lord Francis Varney hated being a vampire.  Rymer actually includes various “origin” stories in his long narrative — Varney’s past was often re-written as his popularity grew, just as the X-Men’s Wolverine underwent many an origin tweak as his star rose.  In one version, Varney was hung and brought back against his will via application of electricity.  (Frankenstein, a Regency novel, got there first.)  In another, he committed suicide after accidentally killing his child, and was brought back as a form of punishment.  Varney has the fangs, the mania for blood, and the superhuman strength, but he’s more hero than villain — a true anti-hero.

A man with his big long knife threatens to break up the girl/girl love fest

Not The First Female Vampire, But The First Lesbian Vampire

Ah, 1872!  Education was reserved for children whose families could pay for it, married women couldn’t own property, contraception was against the law and Carmilla, a lesbian vampire story by Sheridan Le Fanu went over surprisingly well.  Not in the penny dreadfuls, but in a literary magazine and later among a collection of short stories.  A sample:

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”. (“Carmilla”, Chapter 4).

Cute couple

Le Fanu, considered a master of Gothics and ghost stories, had written something daring and original for its time.  And eventually Carmilla was enjoyed by a whole new audience, in a slightly different form, once Hammer Horror discovered it.  Thrill below to a scene from The Vampire Lovers:

One thought on “Victorian Vampires: Varney and Carmilla

  1. This is one area I'm educated in, and you managed to teach me a thing or two about Varney! Although I have seen it referenced, I have never managed to find it and read it. And thanks for the dose of Hammer! Always a joy!

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