The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 3: Deconstructing the Vampire

The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 3: Deconstructing the Vampire
Journey into the literary origins of the vampire myth with this special series on "The Vampyre's Legacy." Part 3 explores attempted genre deconstructions.

We have seen how, in the first half of the nineteenth century, vampire fiction was pioneered by John Polidori and elaborated upon by later writers. These explorations continued into the century’s latter half as authors placed the vampire under the microscope, poking and prodding their specimens to work out exactly what the literary vampire represented.

We have seen how, in the first half of the nineteenth century, vampire fiction was pioneered by John Polidori and elaborated upon by later writers. These explorations continued into the century’s latter half as authors placed the vampire under the microscope, poking and prodding their specimens to work out exactly what the literary vampire represented. They wrote entire novels about their findings, albeit with somewhat mixed results.


1853: The Spiritual Vampire

One method of deconstructing the vampire is to strip away the literalistic devices of coffins, stakes, and blood-drinking to make way for a more metaphorical form of vampirism. This is the approach taken by the elaborately-titled Yieger’s Cabinet: Spiritual Vampirism, the History of Etherial Softdown, and Her Friends of the “New Light” by Charles Wilkins Webber, an 1853 novel which has now been almost completely forgotten.

Cover for Yieger's Cabinet

Webber presents the novel as a collection of documents found in the cabinet of a man named Yieger following his death. The first of these texts, serving as an introduction to the story, is a treatise on vampirism. But while it outlines the belief in vampires which “prevailed, not many years ago, like a general pestilence, throughout the countries of Serbia and Wallachia,” this section argues that the vampire of folklore should not be taken at face value. Rather, this figure is “a strange compound of ancient superstition with well-known scientific truths.”

The “scientific truths” in question include theories regarding Odic force. Here, the novel draws upon the theories of contemporary scientist Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach, who believed in an intangible force that he named Od, after the Norse god Odin. The terminology may have been mythological in origin, but Reichenbach held that Odic force was a part of natural science as much as electricity or magnetism. He believed that it could be manipulated—knowingly or not—by hypnotists, dowsers, and witnesses of ghostly apparitions. Reichenbach was unable to prove the existence of Od and is now remembered largely as a peddler of pseudoscience, although equivalent concepts are still promoted by those who believe in the reality of psychic power.

In Spiritual Vampirism, Webber claims that Odic force was understood by the religions of Tibet, Egypt, and Greece, but was only now being grasped by Western science thanks to the work of people such as Franz Mesmer. According to the novel, certain individuals give out Odic force, while others take it. Positive Odic poles include prophets, poets, lawgivers, and discoverers; at the other end of the spectrum are “human vampires or sponges,” who “exhaust and undermine the holy purposes of your life to make up that deficit in their own” through the draining of Odic forces.

In the former camp we find the likes of Mozart, whose work is “considered now by mankind as only second to the Divine.” But amongst the ranks of the vampires we find those such as spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis, whose revelations are “justly regarded as morbid, fragmentary, incomplete, and worthless.” The reader is also told that “we most usually find the positive pole in man, who gives out, and the negative in woman, who receives and absorbs from him, the dispenser.” This is not the only time that outright misogyny manifests in the novel, as we shall see.

Having laid out his theories regarding the scientific basis of the vampire legend, Webber begins constructing a narrative around them. He spends much of the book attacking what he sees as the foibles of his era, personified by the social reformers who gather at the Graham House in Barclay Street, New York. In its reactionary ranting, the novel lumps together a number of causes, from the anti-slavery movement to various dietary fads, and portrays their advocates in such grotesque terms that these “New-light People” come across as a coven of devil-worshipping witches:

“From the Meglatherium Oracle, whose monstrous head, covered with a mouldy excrescence, answering for hair, which have it most the seeming of a huge swamp-born fungus of a night—who say bolting his hard-boiled eggs by the dozen, with bran-bread in proportion, washing them down with pints of diluted parched-corn coffee—even to the most meagre, hungry-eyed and talon-fingered of the soul-starved World-Reformers, that stooped forward amidst the babble, and, between huge gulps of hot meal mush, croaked forth his Orphic words—they were all one and alike—the mutterers of myths made yet more misty by their parrot-mouthings of them!

Here every crude, ungainly crotchet that ever possessed ignorant and presumptuous brains; here every wild and unbroken hobby that ever driveller or madman rode was urged together, pell-mell, in a loud-voiced gabbling chaos. Here the negro squared his uncouth and musky-ebon personalities beside the fair, frail form of some lean, rectangular-figured spinster-devotee of amalgamation from New England.”

“Amalgamation”—that is, interracial marriage—is a particular bugbear, as is opposition to slavery. The book claims that the gathering includes “a notorious Abolitionist, with his tallow-skinned and generally-disgusting face” who “roared through gross lips his vulgar anathemas against the South.”

The group’s support for interracial marriage leads to it being attacked by a lynch mob. Webber apparently approves of this atrocity: “The house was the scene of other vices than those implied by amalgamation merely,” he notes, before commenting on “how much there was of real danger to the well-being of society, in the doctrines taught and practiced within its unhallowed walls” and warning that “these people … enjoy a fatal impunity even now, and we shall endeavor that men shall know them as they are!”

Amongst the women associated with Graham House is the novel’s central character, Etherial Softdown. Born in a desolate stretch of rural Vermont, Etherial spent her childhood with “squint eye and stooping shoulders … unkempt locks tangled and writhing like snakes about her face,” her ugliness in looks and manner unnerving the adults around her. Then, at sixteen, she married a Quaker, marking “the first great step in her life in which she seems to have attained to some gleams of the knowledge of that extraordinary power of Odic irradiation and absorption which was afterwards to be exercised with such remarkable results.” Specifically, she developed a talent for spiritual vampirism:

“She did not make her great discovery without comprehending its meaning quickly. She grew more comely to look upon … her figure was becoming erect, and losing its harsh angularities—the pitiless obliquity of her features growing more reconciled to harmonious lines—and last, and most astounding, that the immediate result of the contract of marriage had been a rapid increase of her own spiritual and mental illumination, accompanied as well by a corresponding decline on the part of the husband in both these respects.”

“Eureka! Eureka!” exclaims Etherial. “They shall all be my slaves! They taunt me with being born without a soul, with being under witted. I shall devour souls hereafter by the hundreds!” She goes on to muster a range of fakir-like tricks, allowing her to cough up blood at will and even imitate death; using these, she is able to smear her innocent husband as an abusive tyrant, with the social reformers of Graham House naturally taking her side.

After Graham House is disbanded as a result of the lynch mob’s attack, Etherial abandons her husband and curries favour with a new social circle. Again indulging his contempt for social reformers, Webber has Etherial join a group of what would now be termed first-wave feminists. They are described in unappealing terms: “young women present who were clearly under twenty; whose foreheads, when they elevated their eyebrows, were wrinkled and parchment-like as any ‘Painful warrior famoused for fight.’”

Together, the feminists plot against the men in their lives. “Overwhelm him with our strength,” one declares. “Make him feel his littleness beside us, and he will slink into any hole to hide.” Etherial then chimes in with a plan of action: “We must seek out everywhere men who hold places of power and public influence, and win them – not to our cause, for that would be hopeless—but to ourselves … We must find, by whatever stratagem, art, or intrigue, that may be available, the assailable points in the characters of those who may be of use to us.”

The main portion of the novel has Etherial put her misandrist scheme into practice by courting a writer named Stewart Manton. When they get into a brief argument, she again fakes illness by deliberately coughing up blood. Manton is stricken with guilt and remorse, and concludes that he has the moral obligation to stay by her side and cater to her every whim. This takes a dreadful toll upon Manton’s self-esteem: “He shrank from the sunlight, as though each ray were a fiery arrow, to cleave hissing through his brain. He dared not look his fellow-man in the face, lest he see the mark upon his brow, call him accursed, and spit upon him.”

As her manipulations grow more audacious, Manton finally sours towards Etherial and instead begins doting on her daughter, Elna. When Elna turns seventeen, Manton confesses his love for her. Alas, this is just another example of Manton’s misplaced chivalry, as Elna turns out to be as heartless and manipulative as her mother. Manton, we are told, “grew thinner and more pale each day” as a result of his relationship with Etherial’s daughter, while Elna herself “grew fairer and more strong each day—seeming to have fed upon his slow consumption.” Fortunately for him, Manton is able to escape Elna’s influence and ultimately marries a good-hearted woman named Moione.

So ends the narrative purportedly found in Yieger’s cabinet. Stepping in as editor, Webber commentary on the “class of crimes … enabled to work and worm their way nearest to the core of the social state” as described in story. He includes a mission statement of one such group, again attributed to the collection of Yieger, revealing a plan to “govern this nation … subvert its institutions … demoralise the republic [and] make public virtue a by-word and a mockery, and private infamy to be honor.”

Finally, the reader is treated to a potted biography of Etherial Softdown, purportedly written by her allies in the subversive society. This refers to her lectures “on the benefits of Amalgamation, Abolitionism, and Non-resistance,” her meeting “with one of the chief expounders of Fourierism,” and a time in which “she turned out in a few weeks a Phalanxsterian lecturer” after which “she came forth a Communist.” We are assured that others like her are being produced by “the female high-schools of demoralisation on the Continent … patronised by the Council of Disorganisation.”

Charles Wilkins Webber succeeds in spinning only a thin storyline from the concept of spiritual vampirism. Having introduced a theory of vampirism with a scientific—or, at least, pseudoscientific—basis, he uses the notion chiefly as the starting point of a reactionary polemic. To Webber, vampires who feed upon innocents are analogous to women who desire the same rights as men, or to black people who seek the same liberties as white people.

Later writers such as Dion Fortune would derive more interesting fiction from the theme of the spiritual or psychic vampire. Meanwhile, Yieger’s Cabinet: Spiritual Vampirism, the History of Etherial Softdown and Her Friends of the “New Light” was rightly destined for the rubbish dump of literature.

1860: The Vampire as Literary Archetype

Spiritual Vampirism did away with any Gothic trappings and used vampirism as a metaphor for what the author considered to be social ills. This was not the approach taken by French writer Paul Féval when he penned a deconstruction of the vampire—quite the opposite, in fact. The trappings of supernatural happenings and larger-than-life villainy, so hastily discarded by Webber, were precisely what interested Féval.

Le Chevalier Tenebre

Féval’s novel Le Chevalier Ténèbre was originally serialised in 1860, and collected as a book in 1875. Brian Stableford’s English translation, retitled Knightshade, was published in 2003. It was the second of three vampire novels written by Féval, and demonstrates his fascination with the vampire as a literary archetype.

The novel opens in 1825 at a gathering held by the Archbishop de Quélen, where the French elite trade stories of supernatural menaces and colourful rogues. A visitor introducing himself as the Baron von Altenheimer offers a story that combines three popular topics: phantoms, brigands, and vampires. It is the story of the Ténèbre brothers.

Set in 1821, the Baron’s story sees a pair of wandering Romani arriving in Hungary at the court of Prince Jacobyi. There, they try to entertain the prince’s melancholy daughter, Lenore. After their dances and juggling fail to amuse her, they read her palm—and declare that Ange Ténèbre has his eye on the girl.

The prince asks them to explain, and they describe their encounter with the dreaded Ténèbre brothers. They explain that the younger brother, Ange, is a vampire who drinks blood; the elder brother Jean is of a different species—he is an oupire, who eats human flesh. So the story goes, the two have been in and out of their graves for centuries:

“On many occasions, during the four hundred years, those graves have opened, to the terror and the horror of the surrounding country. Sometimes, two corpses were found beneath the stones, one tall and one short, which gave every indication of recent death: eyes open and shining, blood liquid in the veins, tongues moist and lips red. At other times, the open graves displayed nothing but their emptiness: two black cavities from which the odor of death emerged.”

The Baron later reveals what the reader will have likely come to suspect already: that the two supposed Romani brothers Mikhael and Solim, who told this story-within-a-story-within-a-story, are none other than the Ténèbre brothers. He goes on to relate his own encounters with the Ténèbre brothers, and the audience is unsure of whether or not to believe such stories—until word gets out that the supernatural brothers have just committed a daring act of art theft, and are now wanted by the French police.

The Ténèbre brothers are masters of disguise, capable even of masquerading as women. They are present in Paris, but in what guise? The novel sets up a number of possible candidates before revealing that Baron von Altenheimer and his brother Benedict are the latest identities adopted by the notorious siblings. Eventually, the two brothers are unmasked as a pair of English criminals named William Moore and Bobby Bobson, apparently using folklore of vampires and the supernatural to sow confusion. But just when it appears that their tale is over, they manage to slip away, leaving behind yet more stories of their diabolical antics.

Whether the two villains are supernatural beings or crafty rogues is beside the point. From its very first chapter, the novel positions the brigand of fiction as a fantasy figure equivalent to the vampire or phantom, and capable of producing the same frisson of fear. The different possible identities of the Ténèbre brothers are merely different details of the same picture. It is what the characters represent that is important.

Le Chevalier Ténèbre is an intertextual novel, spending much of its time ruminating on the nature of the literary elements with which it plays. The third chapter opens with Féval’s omniscient narrator commenting on the different ways audiences respond to tales of horror, remarking with regret that Parisian drawing-rooms are poor locations for story-telling compared to blazing log fires. Later, the author ruminates upon “the innocent pleasures of farcical comedy [and] the joy of becoming something else for a little while,” an implicit acknowledgement that the identity-swapping antics of the Ténèbre brothers become something of a farce itself.

Perhaps the closest point that the novel comes to a definitive statement as to its villains’ identities is when Baron von Altenheimer declares that the Ténèbre brothers embody two of the Seven Deadly Sins—namely, Avarice and Lust—and that somewhere out there are five more vampires who represent Ambition, Wrath, Hatred, Dishonesty and Pride. The characters are archetypal villains; they can be brigands, vampires or both, depending on the requirements of the present story.


Between the dour reinvention of Charles Wilkins Webber and the joyful celebration of Paul Féval, vampires had received a thorough literary analysis. With the deconstruction out of the way, it was time for the literary vampire to be reconstructed in a sturdier form. This is precisely what happened the following decade, when J. Sheridan Le Fanu created one of the most enduring vampire characters of all time: Carmilla.

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