Born Violet Mary Firth in 1890, the British writer Dion Fortune is one of the most influential figures in Western occultism. She penned a sizeable number of books – both fiction and non-fiction – prior to her death in 1946, including a sequence of occult novels. The first of these, a 1927 book entitled The Demon Lover, is a story of vampirism.
Dion Fortune holds a strange position in the history of vampire literature. Despite her prominence as an occultist, her work is often ignored in overviews of vampire fiction. This is perhaps because her approach to the subject is so personal and so unusual, that it has little bearing on the John Polidori and Bram Stoker tradition that dominates the field. This, of course, only makes her work more deserving of attention.
1927: The Demon Lover
The Demon Lover deals with an occult fraternity that reads like a fanciful version of the Alpha et Omega, a splinter group of the Order of the Golden Dawn to which Fortune belonged. In the novel, the fictional order started out as a group of antiquarians but has since grown in scope to exert an influence on international politics. This development is attributed to Justin Lucas, a former journalist who reshaped the organisation to suit his personal ambitions, prompting unease among established members.
The novel’s protagonist, Veronica Manwaring, applies for job as secretary at the fraternity without realising the occult nature of the organisation. Something of a blank slate in terms of characterisation, Veronica soon enters the machinations of Lucas, who is cast as a fearsome but fascinating figure right out of a bodice ripper (“a sinewy forearm pinned her ruthlessly against his chest; and he smelt of strong pipe tobacco and shaving soap, strange, unfamiliar unfeminine smells”). Using supernatural abilities, Lucas forces Veronica to do his bidding, first conjuring an invisible collar around her neck:
‘There is something round your neck,’ he said
Up went Veronica’s hand involuntarily.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘It is a steel collar.’
The image his words evoked flashed into her mind, and as it did so, she felt cold hard metal under her hand.
‘There is a steel chain attached to it,’ the man’s soft level voice continued. ‘A slender steel chain. Run your hand down it.’
He took her hand in his and drew it towards him, and she felt the links run through her fingers.
‘And I hold the end of it,’ he added significantly. ‘If you try to call out, or to tell what I do not wish told, that collar will contract till it strangles you. Feel, it is contracting now.’
From here, the magician forces Veronica to act as a spiritual medium. On a regular basis he drives her soul from her body and sends it on journeys through another plane. Typically she is unconscious, although on one occasion she awakes from her trance in terror, having seen the “fiend faces and clawing hands” that pursued her through space. Exactly what Lucas hopes to achieve is a mystery to Veronica, kept as she is in the dark about his ambitions.
As time passes, Lucas reveals the reason for his interest in Veronica: they are reincarnated lovers. Lucas has memories of a past life in ancient Rome, where he was in love with a prior incarnation of Veronica, but she rejected him when the two came to follow different spiritual paths, the man studying pagan mysteries and the woman converting to Christianity. They were subsequently reincarnated again in Avignon, but met similar fates: Lucas’ past self was burned for witchcraft, while Veronica’s precursor became a nun. Now, however, Lucas hopes that he and Veronica can be together:
‘You’re coming, too, Veronica. There are possibilities in you. Your nature is so simple it is almost primitive. I’ll push you back to Pan. I’ll put you on the Green Ray. You with the pale nature-green, I with the dark occult-green, we should have the complete Green Ray between us. Veronica, will you come? It means power, it means life. Not the cooped-up existence of civilization, but free, as the pagans lived!’
Sinking deeper into Lucas’ world, Veronica continues to undergo out-of-body experiences at his behest. Only too late does she learn the reason for the trances he has been placing her in: he is using her soul to spy on the upper echelons of the occult fraternity – and the fraternity catches her in the act.
Initially, it is Veronica who faces punishment. But Lucas, showing a softer side, pleads that she was an unwitting accomplice and offers to take her penalty. Accepting this arrangement, the Order lets Veronica free but sentences Lucas to execution by “the Dark Ray of Destruction.”
The powerful and ambiguous figure of Justin Lucas removed from her life, Veronica begins afresh. She finds a new, more conventional partner in Alec Butler, who proposes to her. But it turns out that Lucas’ attachment to Veronica is strong enough to have survived his bodily death…
First, Veronica is visited by a mastiff that turns out to be possessed by Lucas’ spirit: “as Veronica watched, the pupils of its eyes slowly contracted till two disks of greenish-brown, opaque as china looked back at her. The face of a man superimposed itself upon the face of the dog; old, forgotten tales of were-wolves came to her…” Through the dog, Lucas succeeds in killing his new rival Alec Butler, and this turns out to be merely the beginning of his posthumous vengeance.
After re-entering Veronica’s life, Lucas’ ghost is able to take on more substantial form by draining her vitality. In other words, Lucas has gone from werewolf to vampire:
For a while she lay thus, in a dreamy, somnolent state that was not unpleasant. Then a new sensation made itself felt, as though something were being drawn out of her left side, at first a trickling, then a strange draining sensation, and she saw a white, mistlike pool accumulating at her feet. Slowly the pool spread out, rose up, took form in front of her, and then a face began to form, and it was the face of Lucas!
Fortune describes this ghostly entity using the pseudoscientific terminology of spiritualism (“Apparently Lucas had now got enough ectoplasm gathered together to allow him to manifest at will, provided the light was dim enough, but not enough for speech or any definite action”) but makes no attempt to hide the folkloric associations of her villain. After Lucas begins praying upon children (“Lucas, remorseless individualist that he was, stole from those who could offer least defence”) the story’s narrative voice makes the connection clear:
Had such mysterious child-deaths taken place in the Middle Ages they would have been recognized for what they were, and a vigorous vampire-hunt set on foot. The body of the suspect would have been dug up, and if it were found to have resisted decomposition it would have been burnt to ashes.
In a novel variation on the idea that vampirism is contagious, Veronica begins to inherit Lucas’ parasitic tendencies. “When I went down the lane the other day a little child ran out to me,” she relates, “and I picked it up and cuddled it; it seemed to me as if I could feel the vitality radiating from it. The mother ran out and snatched it from me, and I was thankful, for I realized that I was doing just the same thing that Mr. Lucas had done.”
The occult fraternity decides to do something about the rampant vampirism. Its initiates conjure up the spirit of Lucas, who manifests “in the exact semblance of an Egyptian mummy” and speaks gravely of the fate that awaits him:
‘My own place,’ he said, ‘is the Dark Planet of Disintegration, the Wandering Planet, that has no orbit. There I shall be returned, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, to the primordial substance whence I arose, for it will not be Purgatory I go to, but annihilation, for I have given myself unreservedly to darkness.’
But yet, Lucas is not beyond redemption: he does, after all, show a degree of remorse for misdeeds (“I am sorry the child is dead… I must have taken more from it than it could stand. The others will be all right in a day or two”). Eventually, a higher member of the occult order – a mysterious, implicitly immortal individual known as the Third – intervenes. The Third uses his power to resurrect Lucas, who returns from the dead without sight; he accepts his blindness as a just payment for his past transgressions, and agrees to follow a nobler occult path while married to Veronica.
The idea of the vampire as a sort of supernatural Mr. Darcy, who merely needs his rougher edges smoothed down before he can serve as an appropriate love interest to a mortal heroine, is something that would much later become a convention of the vampire romance subgenre. Other than this, The Demon Lover is remarkable in how little it resembles the bulk of vampire fiction before or since.
Indeed, Fortune sometimes places herself specifically at odds with familiar conceptions of vampirism. When a member of the fraternity suggests destroying Lucas with a stake through the heart, a wiser initiate dismisses this as mere superstition. The Third then explains that Lucas achieved his spiritual state through “a very advanced yogi operation” that involved placing himself in a trance at the time of his physical death. Where Bram Stoker delved into authentic vampire legends, Dion Fortune draws upon a more esoteric range of influences.
How did The Demon Lover come to have such an unusual vampire? The reason is quite straightforward: Dion Fortune sincerely believed in the existence of vampires, and in portraying such a being in her novel, she avoided drawing upon legends or literary conventions and instead made a concerted effort to describe how she believed a vampire to operate according to her occult philosophy.
Admittedly, it was not totally new for an author of vampire fiction to believe in the reality of their subject matter. After all, Charles Wilkins Webber appears to have written his 1853 novel Spiritual Vampirism with conviction. However, behind the pseudoscientific discourse on “odic fluid,” the vampirism that Webber described was ultimately a form of emotional manipulation. In her 1930 non-fiction book Psychic Self-Defence Fortune argues that this phenomenon would be better termed parasitism, and draws a distinction between it and true vampirism, which “cannot take place unless there is power to project the etheric double”.
As a case study of the latter variety, Fortune tells the purportedly true tale of a young man (apparently from a family “whose blood is too blue to be wholesome”) who, while stationed in France during World War I, was “caught red-handed in that unpleasant perversion called necrophilia”. After returning home the former soldier continued to act in a disturbing manner, at one point biting his young cousin on the neck hard enough to draw blood. However, after an occult rite, the patient allegedly abandoned this troubling behaviour.
The rite was performed by Dion Fortune’s mentor, Dr. Theodore Moriarty, who is referred to as “Z” in Psychic Self-Defence. Fortune used Moriarty as the basis for a character named Dr. Taverner, who starred in a series of short stories; one of the tales, “Blood-Lust” (1922), was based on the case described above.
The story has a woman named Beryl Wynter coming to Dr. Taverner with a strange problem. Her fiancé Donald Craigie has a history of deliberately avoiding her, and sent her a letter with a curious request: “Even if I should come to you and ask you to see me, I beg you not to do it.” After that, while investigating attacks on the poultry in her hen-house, she found not a fox but her betrothed:
“It was quite light, for the moon was nearly full, and I recognized Donald. He held out his arms and I went to him but, instead of kissing me he suddenly bent his head and—look!”
She drew her scarf from her neck and showed us a semicircle of little blue marks on the skin just under the ear, the unmistakable print of human teeth.
Taverner concludes that this is “a case of psychic interference—what was known in scriptural days as ‘being possessed by a devil.’” Next, Donald Craigie himself books an appointment at Taverner’s nursing home, and explains that his appetite for blood developed as a result of sustaining shell shock in World War I. (The story makes no mention of necrophilia: in Psychic Self-Defence, Fortune admits that “the actual facts are such that they were unsuitable for a work supposedly designed to amuse.”)
“It seems a horrible thing to say,” confesses Craigie, “but it is fresh blood that attracts me, blood as it comes from the veins of the victim.” Initially, he has trouble even bringing himself to enter the nursing home – recalling the notion, codified in Dracula and hinted at in earlier vampire stories, that a vampire cannot cross a threshold without permission. Taverner later clarifies that this resulted from “a kind of psychic bell jar, over this house to keep out evil entities.”
“I used to read myself to sleep with Dracula once when I had a spell of insomnia” remarks Rhodes, the story’s Watson-like narrator; but Taverner, who holds the philosophy that “[n]o one does wrong because he likes it, but because it is the lesser of the two evils,” sees Craigie as a patient to be cured rather than a monster to be destroyed in the manner of Stoker’s count. During his time at the home, Craigie succeeds in sneaking out at night to feast upon livestock, and this is where the story begins to delve deeper into Fortune’s occult philosophy.
Up until this point, “Blood-Lust” appears to be very different tale of vampirism to The Demon Lover: its vampire is not a spirit that drains vitality, but a psychologically troubled man who drinks blood. However, when Rhodes follows Craigie to witness his attacks on sheep, he sees that the man is accompanied by a discarnate spirit – not unlike that of Justin Lucas – in the form of a German soldier:
I saw something that was semitransparent pass between me and the dark, struggling mass among the heather. As the moon cleared the clouds I made out the flat-topped cap and field-grey uniform of the German Army. I cannot possibly convey the sickening horror of that sight—the creature that was not a man assisting the man who, for the moment, was not human.
After Craigie is apprehended and put on the road to recovery, Taverner outlines the cosmology which, it turns out, underpins both of Dion Fortune’s vampire stories. According to the doctor, every person has two bodies, one physical and the other etheric; the etheric body typically exists for only a short time after death before the soul departs for the afterlife, but its existence can be prolonged by an accomplished magician – so long as sustenance is provided:
“There is a pretty good working knowledge of black magic in Eastern Europe. Now, supposing some man who has this knowledge gets shot, he knows that in three days’ time, at the death of the etheric body, he will have to face his reckoning, and with his record he naturally does not want to do it, so he establishes a connection with the subconscious mind of some other soul that still has a body, provided he can find one suitable for his purposes.
In “Blood-Lust”, the magician was an unnamed German soldier who attached himself to the shell-shocked Donald Craigie, just as Lucas had attached himself to Veronica in The Demon Lover. Returning to Psychic Self-Defence, we find that Fortune was drawing directly upon the thoughts of her mentor Moriarty regarding the case of the necrophilic soldier:
His opinion concerning the case, though there was no means of obtaining independent confirmation of this, was that some Eastern European troops had been brought to the Western Front, and among these were individuals with the traditional knowledge of Black Magic for which South Eastern Europe has always enjoyed a sinister reputation among occultists. These men, getting killed, knew how to avoid going to the Second Death, that is to say, the disintegration of the Astral Body, and maintained themselves in the etheric double by vampirising the wounded.
The earth-bound soul of a vampire sometimes attaches itself permanently to one individual if it succeeds in making a functioning vampire of him, systematically drawing its etheric nutriment from him, for, since he in his turn is re-supplying himself from others, he will not die from exhaustion as victims of vampires do in the ordinary way.
Dion Fortune and Theodore Moriarty’s theory that Germany and its wartime allies were haunted by vampires has an intriguing parallel with a more famous instance of allegedly true-life vampirism. The German artist and occultist Albin Grau claimed that, while stationed in Serbia during the war, he spoke to a comrade who showed him a news report from Romania describing a man named Morowicz coming back from the dead as a vampire.
Grau certainly had an affinity for vampires. After the war he teamed up with director F. W. Murnau to create Nosferatu, the first full-length film adaptation of Dracula. Released in 1922, the same year that Fortune’s “Blood-Lust” saw publication, Nosferatu retains its fascination: like Fortune’s work it feels distinct and idiosyncratic, more a work of magic than a work of genre. A few years later Hollywood got in on the action with a vampire film of its own London After Midnight – which was released in 1927, the same year as The Demon Lover.
As intriguing as Fortune’s works are, it is ultimately Nosferatu and to a lesser extent London After Midnight that stand as the most significant vampire texts of the 1920s; even the latter film, which is lost, retains iconic status. From now on, vampire literature would co-exist with the new phenomenon of vampire cinema.
The following article in this series will look at how the vampires of the printed page reacted to the arrival of their celluloid cousins.