A review of a classic scholarly study on vampires by Massimo Introvigne (from Transylvanian Journal: Dracula and Vampire Studies, vol. 2, n.1, Spring-Summer 1996, pp. 53-54)
You may believe that there is nothing left to say about the literary vampire, after hundreds of books on the subject. You would be wrong. The secret of vampire in literature is precisely that it is a mirror, reflecting the hidden little secrets of each reader and of each time. Nina Auerbach, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania (where she teaches what should be extraordinarily entertaining classes on vampires), brings us a brand new history of vampire in literature, theatre, and movies. That is, mostly, English-language literature and movies (the rich non-British European tradition is almost completely ignored).
For students of the vampire literature the sequence Lord Ruthven - Varney - Carmilla - Dracula, as Auerbach retells it, is somewhat obvious. Much more interesting is her survey of 20th century vampires, where Auerbach is able to shed light on some of the most obscure authors, offering what effectively amounts to new information. Auerbach does not disguise her own preferences and is, at times, quite partisan. She hates Coppola's film and regards Chelsea Quinn Yarbro as "homophobic". Many readers may disagree, and argue that Yarbro's treatment of homosexuality is much more subtle than common bigotry, while Coppola's movie - although obviously not faithful to Stoker - remains a great piece of entertainment in itself.
What mostly interests Auerbach is the dual relation of the vampires with gender and politics. As far as gender is concerned, early vampire literature seems to Auerbach both reactionary and surprisingly progressive. On the one hand, one has the impression that death is represented as a sort of fair retribution for each kind of female sexuality that transcends the Victorian boundaries. This is how Auerbach reads the character of Lucy in Dracula. On the other hand, nowhere else is lesbianism discussed with such liberty - even as early as 1872 in Carmilla - than in vampire literature. Lesbians continue to figure prominently in vampire literature to our days, and male homosexuality is, of course, a key feature of Anne Rice's more recent novels.
What is perhaps slightly less convincing is Auerbachs attempt of categorizing vampire literature by relating it to current American political events, in order to distinguish between Vietnam era vampires, Nixon-Watergate vampires, Reagan vampires (and perhaps, now, Clinton vampires). What remains true is, however, that vampires display a "foreign-ness" perhaps epitomized, still more than by Stoker's Count Dracula, by Bela Lugosis persona. "Foreign-ness", however, is in itself ambiguous, and the foreigner can be, as Auerbach notes, either a reactionary or a rebel. Thus, although Auerbach has produced the ultimate politically correct book on vampires, it remains unclear - both in matters (homo-) sexual and in politics - whether vampires are politically correct themselves, or may dangerously verge on the reactionary and the nostalgic.
Auerbach's book is a welcome addition to the body of literary history and criticism on vampire literature (and movies). Its strength is the application of the modern tools of feminist and political literary criticism to vampire stories. Its limit, on the other hand, is that no attempt is made to relate the vampires of literature and movies to the vampires found in folklore and in medical, criminological, and theological literature. Since these latter kinds of literature abound in details open to gender and political criticism, a broader analysis may perhaps have offered to Auerbach herself some additional new insights.
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