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Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film: Cultural Transformations in Europe, 1732-1933, by Erik Butler; pp. ix + 225. Rochester and Suffolk: Camden House, 2010, $75.00, £40.00.

The last thirty years have seen a colossal amount of academic work on the vampire, ranging from revisionary writings about the classic vampire texts, including nineteenth-century ones, to book after book seeking to demonstrate the vampire's ongoing cultural force. Vampires, we are told, are all around us. This is evidenced by the plethora of new [End Page 756] fiction, film, and television centered on the vampire, from Anne Rice onward. The reasons advanced for this are many. Some say that an increase in the visibility of the predatory and eventually terminal processes of capitalism has given the motif of the vampire a new lease on life. Others argue that a fuller set of cultural identifications with the life and fate of the outlaw has provided us with new perspectives on a figure that, by definition, operates outside the conventional assumptions of a life otherwise based on the primacy of social and familial norms. Others side with William Wordsworth in his castigation of the taste for sensational thrills evidenced, for him, by the early gothic novel. Still others say that the processes of vampirism are nothing more than a real, if caricatured, version of the prevailing relations between the genders—and in the case of this argument, vampire fiction provides for more genders than the usual two.

One of the crucial matters here concerns the relationship between vampires and history. This is a long-contested issue. In anthropological terms (and what science could be more vampiric than anthropology?), it is said that the underlying issue of rejuvenation through blood can be traced back through a number of ancient civilisations. The blood is indeed the life; if the ancient Egyptians had an imperfect understanding of the importance of the brain (a messy and largely indescribable piece of matter to be extracted after death through the nose), they certainly understood blood, albeit largely as a hindrance to mummification; practices of halal and kosher butchery reflect late adaptations of the anxiety of contamination which always accompanies what we have now come to call blood products. Has this to do with the haemophilia that has historically attended the need to conserve the purity of the so-called bloodline? A rather primitive medical approach to vampirism would say that it all has to do with the need to prevent clotting; more sophisticated ones have dealt with the question of blood in terms of menstruation, disease, and the timing of the cessation of bodily processes at the point of death. And as yet we have said nothing about the concept of aristocracy, of the perception that incest is allowable if it permits so-called purer blood. Think of the notion of royal blood, which one might fairly suspect would be a rather anaemic substance if ever discovered.

And so to this book, and the questions that need to be answered: first, what of (bodily) substance does it add to our repertoire of explanations; and second, how does it increase or improve our sense of the cultural development of representations of vampirism through the ages, specifically in the period quaintly known as Victorian but perhaps better thought of as the long nineteenth century? What Erik Butler brings to the feast is a rare cross-cultural perspective. Beginning from an interestingly contentious search for vampiric origins in early eighteenth-century Serbia, he moves with ease among a range of European sources, principally British, French, and German. He also, and very convincingly, calls attention to the instability of genre that haunts vampire narratives: some of them, of course, fall more or less neatly within the conventional rubric of the tale of terror, but the vampire has also been used for a variety of specific and chiefly satirical ends. All these connect—or perhaps coagulate—in the vampire's relation to the representation of the state in a condition of corruption: as the state (and here the most compelling example is Weimar Germany) rots from the inside, so the figure of the vampire emerges...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 756-758
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-25
Open Access
No
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