Popular Gothicism? A review of Book of the Vampire

Posted by Gerald Gaylard on March 10, 2009 in Guest Blog, Prof Gerald Gaylard tagged with

Book of the Vampire
Wisley: AAPPL, 2008
Nigel Suckling
Illustrations by Bruce Pennington

Hard to imagine as it is, Nigel Suckling does not appear to be a nom de plume invented specifically for a book on vampires as one might expect: he has written and co-written books on a number of fantasy topics ranging widely from werewolves to mermaids. Indeed, Book of the Vampire is an example of what one might call the popular gothic in that it is an accessibly written, sometimes even arch, unannotated and glancingly referenced, text with broad non-specialist appeal. This is reinforced by the rather poor and clichéd line drawings by Bruce Pennington that accompany the text. Nevertheless, there is not only entertainment value between its covers but also much that is informative and even hard-nosed. For instance, there is a substantial amount of information on vampires in different cultures and traditions, though none of this is anthropologically referenced, leaving the reader wondering where Suckling got his information. Moreover, the final two chapters are devoted to historical monstrous figures (Vlad Tepes, Elisabeth Bathory and Gilles de Rais) and more contemporary killers (Fritz Haarmann and the Hernandez brothers, amongst others), doing much to debunk that aura of metaphysical evil that lingers around vampire stories and actual historical homicidal maniacs. However, in this “realism”, if I may call it that, even “Anglorealism” (Suckling is English), lies the limitation of the book which is not really prepared to delve into body, psyche or desire (there is nothing on haemophilia or porphyria, for example) in order to more fully explain the enduring appeal of vampires. For example, at the end of the book after two prededing chapters devoted to actual mass murderers, Suckling admits his limitation thus: 

What we have just considered are extreme examples of where an interest in vampires and blood rituals can lead, reminding us that the theme still has a genuine potency for evil. By contrast, most of the vampire enthusiasts I came to know during the writing of this book have been the most charming people you could hope to encounter. There is, or can be, something terribly healthy about allowing oneself to be fascinated by all that vampires represent, though I still can’t quite put into words what it is. (216)

So what is it that is “terribly healthy” (a strange conjunction of terms that) about a “fascination” with vampires, or with the gothic more generally? Indeed, this question cuts straight to the heart of the matter. The gothic presents us with a problem: does a focus on the dark side of life exacerbate that darkness? This is a metaphysical question of whether one should protect oneself at all costs from darkness, surrounding oneself in a protective radiance, as the scriptures advise, or whether such attempts at cocooning are vain and repressive, actually inviting darkness in via reactivity? To put these same questions in a less metaphysical manner, it is commonly asked of Gothicism whether it is not simply indulging in morbid fascination and melancholia. This perspective would argue that Gothicism indulges in sensationalist hammer-horrorisms in order to increase sales (and indeed this is undoubtedly true of the more popular end of the style and its market, as this book exemplifies). Nevertheless, it is true that Dracula has not been out of print since its first publication in 1897, suggesting strongly that it has tapped into a deeper vein than mere affected morbidity. Consider also that despite the strong critiques of the first big wave of Gothic rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s as indulgent and obscurantist (I am thinking specifically of Steve Sutherland, reviewer for New Musical Express at that time), that it is Bauhaus that is being reissued now in remastered gatefold numbered editions for the connoisseur collector’s market and not Wham! or Milli Vanilli. 

What value, then, could there be in the Gothic? More, what would a “terribly healthy” way of approaching the dark be? Suckling himself, much earlier in his book, suggests the answer to this question when discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

Virtue alone is no great defence against the vampire because virtue usually requires the suppression of many natural as well as unnatural urges, which the vampire can secretly tap into. In fact it is probably safe to say that any virtue that has been won through great effort and self-denial creates a hook which the vampire can secretly latch onto, or whole nests of repressed instincts that are open to temptation. Bram Stoker seems to have understood this very well, whether consciously or not, from the way he charts Lucy Westenra’s descent into vampirism. At the outset she is a lively and flirtatious character but well within the bounds of the Victorian ideal of femininity, complete with suppressed sexuality. But once she has fallen under Dracula’s spell what emerges in her behaviour is a growing sensuality and even wanton lust that shocks her friends as much as anything else. (55)

Leaving aside how unconvincing this argument is in relation to Dracula given that in the novel Mina is far more repressed and saintly than Lucy and is relatively immune to Dracula, Suckling does answer his own question in this passage. Indeed, one wonders if he had forgotten that he wrote this by the time he reached the end of the book and asked the question. An interest in vampires, or the gothic, can be a healthy thing because it allows us to be less socially suppressed or self-repressed; it allows more possibility of desanctification, of laughter; more possibility of accepting imperfection, of compassion. In other words, an interest in, and investigation of, evil, is liable to, ironically, turn us away from evil because it is that much less opaque and tempting. In other words, despite the recent work done on sympathy and the imagination (Sophie Ratcliffe’s On Sympathy, for instance), we are back in the territory of Matthew Arnold’s sympathetic imagination, and we might regard this as a good thing. Because the Gothic deals with suffering, particularly hidden and horrific suffering, it tends to have an expansive, even disenchanting, affect upon the imagination. If there is a value in the Gothic, then this would seem to be it. If there is a value to popular Gothic literature, such as this book, then it lies here (even if its author cannot always articulate it).  

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