In 1897, Dracula had successfully transported the vampire from a hazy Gothic past to turn-of-the-century London – and it is quite possible that the Count would have found himself at home. After all, he arrived just in time to see a rising interest in occultism that occurred during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Real-life occult pursuit frequently overlapped with supernatural literature. This is summed up by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organisation that was based on rituals and teachings purportedly handed down from the spirit world, and which included multiple prominent authors of fantastic fiction. Rumours that Bram Stoker was a member have never been confirmed, but W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood are known to have belonged to the group. Another Golden Dawn initiate of note was the notorious Aleister Crowley, who delighted in his reputation as the “wickedest man alive” and whose hedonistic explorations of the occult provided many a sensationalist news report. Entering the Edwardian imagination as a dark magician active in modern Britain, Crowley might have made Count Dracula’s literary exploits seem almost prophetic.
The early twentieth century was not only haunted by ghosts of the past, but also saw occultists of conflicting moral stripes making promises of a new era. Small wonder, then, that the period saw vampire literature undergo some strikingly weird transformations.
1904: When is a Vampire not a Vampire?
M. R. James was an author who bridged the gap between old and new approaches to weird fiction. In many ways he embodied the established tradition of the English ghost story, as practiced by the likes of Charles Dickens; yet he also showed a flair for the unexpected and the twisted that gave his stories a strong element of novelty. Away from his fiction James was noncommittal as to the reality of supernatural phenomenon, although he clearly had some awareness of the Edwardian occult scene: the villain in his 1911 story “Casting the Runes” is a thinly-veiled portrait of Aleister Crowley.
James’ contribution to the vampire canon was “Count Magnus,” one of the tales included in his 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. “Count Magnus” is presented as a story that the narrator has pieced together from a set of papers by a Victorian travel writer named Wraxall. The narrative follows Wraxall as he travels to Sweden, where he visits a village with an adjacent manor house and church. In the church is a mausoleum, but the door is locked, affording Wraxall only a tantalising glimpse through the keyhole at the sarcophagi and effigies that lie within.
Wraxall studies the history of the manor and becomes intrigued by one of its former occupants, an ugly and brutal man named Count Magnus de la Gardie. Speaking to the landlord of the local inn, Wraxall learns that Count Magnus is a subject of local legend:
[T]he Count was decidedly not a favourite. If his tenants came late to their work on the days which they owed to him as Lord of the Manor, they were set on the wooden horse, or flogged and branded in the manor-house yard. One or two cases there were of men who had occupied lands which encroached on the lord’s domain, and whose houses had been mysteriously burnt on a winter’s night, with the whole family inside. But what seemed to dwell on the innkeeper’s mind most — for he returned to the subject more than once — was that the Count had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.
You will naturally inquire, as Mr Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for the time being, just as his did.
Continuing his research, Wraxall comes across a collection of alchemical documents owned by Count Magnus, with intriguing names like “the book of the Thirty Words.” Among these is a document written by Magnus himself, describing the nature of the Black Pilgrimage: a journey to the city of Chorazin to “salute the prince of the air” so as to “obtain a long life.”
Wraxall speaks to the local deacon and arranges to see the mausoleum where Magnus is buried. At the same time, he asks about Chorazin, which turns out to be a place of ill repute: “I have heard some of our old priests say the Antichrist is to be born there,” replies the deacon, who cuts himself off before he can divulge any further tales related to the place. The landlord, meanwhile, offers a chilling story of the fates that befell two men, Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjon, nearly a century ago:
‘So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands — pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones…’
The time comes for Wraxall to visit the mausoleum. He finds the resting place of Count Magnus engraved with lurid scenes of bloodshed and horror, including one of a man being chased by a short, hooded figure with what appears to be a tentacle. Wraxall interprets this as an allegorical scene, and speculates that it inspired the local legends.
Still curious, Wraxall mumbles to himself, expressing a desire to see Count Magnus – and he gets his wish. He sees the padlock falling from the coffin, and hears the sound of the hinges creaking as it opens…
The ensuing scene is left to the reader’s imagination, but the narrator informs us that Wraxall’s subsequent writings indicate that he returned to England a deeply troubled man, obsessed with the notion that he was being pursued by two figures in black cloak.
“Count Magnus” is remembered in large part as a halfway point between the traditional English ghost story and the weird pulp fiction that would later flourish in America. H. P. Lovecraft was an admirer of the story, and it is easy to imagine the tale’s image of an unseeable tentacled monster, its usage of forbidding (but fictitious) occult tomes and the eventual fate of its mentally-fragile protagonist influenced Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It has also picked up a reputation as a classic vampire story, being included in the anthologies The Dark Shadows Book of Vampires and Werewolves (1970), The Rivals of Dracula: A Century of Vampire Fiction (1977), Classic Vampire Stories (1996), Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Fiction (1997), The Vampire Archives (2009) and Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories (2010).
Yet the tale never uses the word “vampire,” nor does it depict the drinking of blood – although the description of the supernatural being sucking the flesh from a man’s face could be seen as a rough analogue. The implied image of Count Magnus – long presumed dead, but actually kept alive through occult means – rising from his coffin has obvious parallels to vampire fiction; but in folklore, such notions exist beyond the vampire beliefs of eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. For example, the medieval historian William of Newburgh wrote of multiple corpses getting up and walking about England and Scotland until they were duly cremated; none of these entities were said to drink blood or otherwise drain life, and so cannot strictly speaking be termed vampires. It is quite possible that M. R. James was drawing upon a strand of indigenous British folklore, and coincidentally created a cousin to the vampire.
But even if James did not consciously write “Count Magnus” as a vampire story, the tale shows a number of intriguing overlaps with the genre. As a scholar of forbidden arts, Magnus belongs to the Faust archetype – an archetype which Bram Stoker had already conflated with vampires by making Dracula a graduate of the legendary scholomance. The town of Chorazin, abandoned and spoken of only in dark legend, recalls the village of the Karnsteins in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
While M. R. James may not have set out to tell a vampire tale when he wrote “Count Magnus”, he nonetheless demonstrated the strange new forms that vampire fiction could take in the twentieth century. The Byronic vampire established by Polidori was no longer the default.
1918: Witches, Mummies and Vampires
As well as praising “Count Magnus,” H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” talks about the influence of Stoker’s Dracula. It cites three books in particular as significant examples: Richard Marsh’s 1897 novel The Beetle (which actually began serialisation before Dracula was published), Gerald Biss’ werewolf story The Door of the Unreal (1919) and Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918) by Sax Rohmer. Each one of these novels depicts Britain under attack from a supernatural menace, but only the Sax Rohmer novel follows follows Stoker’s lead by including vampires.
Sax Rohmer is an example of an author whose public persona was one of his own literary creations. He was born to humble origins as Arthur Ward, a working class lad who earned his keep writing material for music hall performers – including his first book, which was ghostwritten for the popular comedian Little Titch. But after adopting the alluring pseudonym of Sax Rohmer, he reinvented himself as an altogether more mysterious and intriguing figure.
His most famous work is the series of books published from 1913 to 1959 starring the semi-mystical Chinese crime lord Fu Manchu. Although these are tainted by their heavy use of racial stereotyping, Fu Manchu himself is an interesting halfway point between the Moriarty-style criminal mastermind and the Dracula-style supernatural fiend; like Stoker, Sax Rohmer helped weird fiction to spread into modern urban settings and genres.
Rohmer styled himself as an occultist and wrote a non-fiction book on the subject, The Romance of Sorcery (1914). Various legends surround him; some of these he established himself, while others were spread after his death – in some cases by his widow Elizabeth, who contributed to his posthumous biography Master of Villainy (1972). Reportedly, the idea of Fu Manchu came to him during a Ouija board session; and as with Stoker, he is sometimes alleged to have been a member of the Golden Dawn (if so, he would have been very young: when he turned twenty, the Golden Dawn existed only in splinters). While his crime novels have a sprinkle of dark magic, Rohmer was able to more fully indulge his occult interests in out-and-out horror novels like Brood of the Witch-Queen.
Brood of the Witch-Queen is the story of Dr. Bruce Cairn and his son Robert, who become involved in the machinations of an occultist named Antony Ferrara. Through black magic, the sorcerer succeeds in killing his adoptive father Michael Ferrara, thereby beginning a reign of terror across modern England. At points the novel resembles a strange mutation of the mystery genre: bewildering events happen, and the characters muse over who could be responsible; yet the reader knows full well that Ferrara’s black magic is at the bottom of it.
Antony Ferrara surrounds himself with Egyptian trappings, hinting at exotic origins for this mysterious adoptee, and the reader may initially suspect that Sax Rohmer will be doing for Egypt what he did for China in the notoriously racist Fu Manchu stories. In fact, the novel comes to dwell less on Ferrara’s ambiguous ethnicity and more on his ambiguous gender. He is described as “a slim and strangely handsome young man, having jet black hair, lustreless, a face of uniform ivory hue, long dark eyes wherein lurked lambent fires, and a womanish grace expressed in his whole bearing and emphasised by his long white hands.” Elsewhere, we read that he has “the face of a handsome, evil woman” complete with “over-red lips” and “straightly-pencilled brows”. “[I]n common with all humanity,” he says at one point, “I am compound of man and woman.” It has often been noted that Rohmer’s portrayal of Chinese people in his Fu Manchu series shows a strange mixture of racial hatred and exotic fascination; with the character of Ferrara, Rohmer approaches gender nonconformity in a similarly ambivalent manner.
As a sinister magician active in contemporary England, Antony Ferrara is another Crowley-esque creation. The real Crowley was bisexual and liked to frame himself as an androgynous figure – although, bald-headed and portly, he bore little physical resemblance to the elfin Ferrara. In imagining this androgynous figure, Rohmer may have been harking back to the scandalous late-Victorian decadence of Oscar Wilde; then again, he may have taken inspiration from the gay bohemians who visited Regent Street’s notorious Cave of the Golden Calf nightclub until its closure in 1914. Either way, the character of Ferrara continues a strain of queerness within vampire fiction, previous examples being Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Eric Stenbock’s “The True Story of a Vampire” (1894).
But while vampires factor in the novel, Ferrara is not among their number; he merely uses a vampire as a pawn. During the course of the story Dr. Bruce Cairn meets one Lord Lashmore, who describes having woken up in the night to find mysterious fang marks on his neck – and receiving a similar attack the following night. Cairn, as it happens, knows something of Lashmore’s family history, and confronts the aristocrat about his ancestry. It turns out that his family tree can be traced back to a seventeenth-century woman named Mirza Dhoon and her son Paul, both of whom were vampires. Lord Lashmore admits to having visited a hidden chamber of the castle, where he witnessed the corpse of Paul Dhoon inside: yellow and emaciated yet still with flesh, despite having been there for centuries; his hair having grown to the point that his eyelashes hung over his cheekbones; grinning in death, with two wolf-like fangs revealed in his mouth; and a stake driven through his heart and pinning his corpse to the ground.
Here, Rohmer makes an interesting elaboration upon the vampire “rules” laid out by Bram Stoker. Dracula made much of the fact that vampires need to be both beheaded and impaled through the heart to be destroyed, but did not explain what would happen if only one of these measures was carried out. In Rohmer’s story, a stake through the heart was sufficient to destroy Paul Dhoon, but Mirza was merely beheaded – an incomplete execution that left her physical frame unable to move, while her spirit remained active. As Dr. Cairn explains:
‘Mirza, the Polish Jewess, who became Lady Lashmore in 1615, practiced sorcery in life and became, after death, a ghoul – one who sustained an unholy existence by unholy means – a vampire. […] She was decapitated by her husband. This punishment prevented her, in the unhallowed life which, for such as she, begins after ordinary decease, from practicing the horrible rites of a vampire. Her headless body could not serve her as a vehicle for nocturnal wanderings, but the evil spirit of the woman might hope to gain control of some body more suitable.’
That hope was fulfilled by Antony Ferrara, who sent the vampire’s spirit to possess the present Lady Lashmore during a séance; she remembers the experience only in dreams (“My hair hung dishevelled about me and in some inexplicable way – oh! am I going mad! – my head seemed to be detached from my living body!”) The only options available to the Cairns is to either find and destroy Mirza’s body with a stake through the heart, or kill Ferrara. Alas, the heroes fail to save Lord Lashmore, who dies of a heart attack upon realising that his wife is possessed by the vampire.
At this point the novel, which has a somewhat episodic structure, abruptly drops the plot thread of vamprisim; the remainder of the story follows the protagonists as they pursue Antony Ferrara. The chase him to Egypt, where they encounter him conducting occult practices in the Meidum Pyramid; they are too late to stop him from carrying out a ritualistic murder (implied to have been the eventual fate of Lady Lashmore) and returning to England with implements for further black magic. There, he places his innocent cousin Myra under his spell – distinct shades here of Mina’s plight during the climax to Dracula – until the heroes confront and finally defeat the sorcerer.
The vampire Mirza is one of multiple supernatural beings manipulated by Antony Ferrara during the course of the novel. At the climax he conjures a devilish fire elemental; meanwhile, the ghost of the titular Witch-Queen – a sorceress of ancient Egypt – periodically emerges throughout the story. Antony himself turns out to be a supernatural entity, as we learn that he was found as a mummified infant and resurrected years beforehand by Michael Ferrara and the elder Cairn, with Michael subsequently adopting him as a son. The ancient child was the son of the Witch-Queen and her high priest Hortotef, and inherited the latter’s magical powers. This plot element was possibly influenced by another Bram Stoker novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), in which the heroine turns out to be a reincarnation of an Egyptian witch-queen.
In Dracula, Stoker gave the Count and his brides ghostly or werewolf-like aspects, but vampires remained the only distinct class of supernatural being encountered by the protagonists. Rohmer’s novel, published twenty-one years later, depicts a world where vampires exist alongside ghosts, magicians, revived mummies and elemental spirits. For context, it should be remembered that the period between the two novels saw the rise of the occult detective in literature.
Shortly after the publication of Dracula, an occult detective named Flaxman Low starred in a series of stories by “E. and H. Heron” (actually Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard and his mother Kate Prichard) which appeared across 1898 and 1899. A similar character, John Silence, was created by the Golden Dawn initiate Algernon Blackwood and made his debut in 1908. The next major addition to the field of occult detective work was Thomas Carnacki, created by William Hope Hodgson for a series of stories published between 1910 and 1912. Just as a more mundane literary detective such as Sherlock Holmes is expected to encounter a colourful range of criminals during his career, an occult detective will typically be confronted by a spectrum of supernatural beings. For example, the Flaxman Low tale “The Story of Baelbrow” (1899) includes a mummy being brought to life by a vampire ghost.
The turn of the century did indeed bring a new dawn for weird fiction. Supernatural beings had been carried from hazy folklore and inserted into a sort of occult taxonomy. The figure of the magical scholar became a dominant character types, represented by benevolent investigators like Professor Van Helsing and Dr. Cairn as well as fiendish practitioners of the dark arts like Count Magnus and Antony Ferrara. Vampires still had a place, but they were now being analysed and classified alongside other supernatural entities, with strange new varieties and hybrids being identified all the while.
Things were set to grow weirder still. The next post in this series will look at the work of an occult author who not only wrote stories about vampires, but who sincerely believed in their existence: Dion Fortune.