As noted in the previous post of this series, the biggest change faced by vampire fiction of the 1930s and ‘40s was that authors in the genre were now competing with films. Admittedly, dramatised vampires were not a new phenomenon: after all, the 1819 publication of Polidori’s “The Vampyre” had been swiftly followed by a string of adaptations, imitations and parodies for the theatre. But the vampires of the nineteenth-century stage were ephemeral, and today largely forgotten while the prose works of Polidori, Le Fanu and Stoker live on. With the arrival of vampire films, however, the balance shifted.
Universal’s 1931 film version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, is regarded as a classic of horror, and its sequels Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943) and House of Dracula (1945) remain widely-watched by fans of the genre. If we look at the vampire novels published during the ‘30s and ‘40s, on the other hand, we find a lot of lurid titles — Michael Waugh’s Fangs of the Vampire (1934); John A Kolbe’s Vampires of Vengeance (1935); Cromwell Gibbons’ The Bat Woman (1938); Gerald Verner’s The Vampire Man (1941) – but little lasting hold on the public imagination.
Whether or not any of it is remembered, vampire fiction of this period nonetheless provides an insight into how the genre was adapting to the glare of the cinema projector…
1937: Vampires on the Sound Stage
Henry Kuttner’s story “I, the Vampire” was published in the February 1937 issue of the venerable pulp magazine Weird Tales. In it, Kuttner takes a pragmatic approach to the genre’s present situation: if vampires have left literature for Hollywood, then literature should bring them back – and take some of Hollywood with them.
In the story, a fictional film studio hires a French performer known as the Chevalier Pierre Futaine to star in a vampire film, Red Thirst. Elusive to the extent that nobody has taken a photograph of him, his past career undisclosed to the public, Futaine’s enigmatic aura makes him a boon to studio publicity: he receives “[t]he kind of build-up Universal gave Karloff in Frankenstein,” as one character remarks. The story’s narrator, an assistant director named Mart Prescott, describes Futaine thus:
A charming man, the chevalier. Or so he seemed. Slender, below medium height, his bland, round face seemed incongruously youthful. Blond hair was plastered close to his scalp. I saw that his cheeks were rouged—very deftly, but I know something about makeup. And under the rouge I read a curious, deathly pallor that would have made him a marked man had he not disguised it. Some disease, perhaps, had blanched his skin—but his lips were not artificially reddened. And they were as crimson as blood.
He was clean-shaved, wore impeccable evening clothes, and his eyes were black pools of ink.
As production proceeds, Mart finds himself surrounded by death. Studio actress Sandra Colter has passed away under unusual circumstances, the cause of death uncertainly attributed to pernicious anaemia. Forrest, a cameraman, later turns up with his neck broken. When Mart’s lover Jean goes missing along with Futaine, the protagonist must comb through the murkier corners of Hollywood to save her. Before long, he is confronted with the terrible truth: Pierre Futaine, recruited by the director from a Parisian Satanist club, is not merely playing a vampire.
The story uses the vampire motif as a means of exploring the seediness that lies beneath the glamour of Hollywood. The character of Hess Deming, a handsome leading man who has turned to alcohol following the death of his wife Sandra, is a credible portrait of stardom’s grimmer aspects. When director Jack Hardy falls under the influence of the vampire, his condition is directly compared to drug abuse:
Then I got a shock. I saw Jack Hardy, my host, the director with whom I’d on many a hit. He looked like a corpse. And I’d seen him looking plenty ill before. A man with a hangover or a marijuana jag isn’t a pretty sight, but I’d never seen Hardy like this. He looked as though he was keeping going on his nerve alone. There was no blood in the man.
I’d last seen him as a stocky, ruddy blond, who looked like nothing so much as a wrestler, with his huge biceps, his ugly, good-natured face, and his bristling crop of yellow hair. Now he looked like a skeleton, with skin hanging loosely on the big frame. His face was a network of sagging wrinkles. Pouches bagged beneath his eyes, and those eyes were dull and glazed. About his neck a black silk scarf was knotted tightly.
“Good God, Jack!” I exclaimed. “What have you done to yourself?”
Hess Deming, upon seeing the director’s state, drunkenly accuses him of passing a throat infection on to Sandra – implicitly moving the analogy from drug addiction to venereal disease. But Kuttner is not interested in reducing the vampire to a mere metaphor, and makes inventive use of the genre’s supernatural aspects. The idea that a vampire casts no reflection, introduced by Bram Stoker, receives an imaginative update to suit the story’s cinematic backdrop:
I blinked, thinking that my eyes were tricking me. Something like a glowing fog—oval, tall as a man—was moving across the screen. You’ve seen the nimbus of light on the screen when a flashlight is turned directly on the camera? Well—it was like that, except that its source was not traceable. And, horribly, it moved forward at about the pace a man would walk.
Meanwhile, the memorable scene in Dracula where Lucy is staked by her lover is reworked into a harrowing, Poe-like sequence, where Deming goes insane after witnessing the cremation of his vampirised wife:
His face was glistening with sweat. “It’s awful—I’m not sure yet what happened. His wife—Sandra Colter—came to life while they were cremating her. They saw her through the window, you know—screaming and pounding at the glass while she was being burned alive. Hess got her out too late. He went stark, raving mad. Suspended animation, they say—I’ve got to get to a phone, Mr. Prescott!”
Whether he is finding allegorical potential or else taking familiar scenarios to new macabre heights, Kuttner appears to be working on the basis that his audience has already seen films or read stories about vampires and would like a fresh take. Significantly, “I, the Vampire” has no counterpart to Dracula’s Van Helsing or Carmilla’s General Spielsdorf, a character serving to educate the protagonist (and, by extension, the reader) on the workings of vampirism. Instead, Mart is able to deduce Futaine’s nature by following the clues himself – he works in horror cinema, after all – and the reader is assumed to be able to follow his thought process.
Indeed, the conventions of the vampire story are so familiar by this point that Kuttner is able to deliberately subvert explanations with a twist ending. When Mart finally confronts Futaine, we learn that the vampire was attracted to Jean because he suspected her to be a reincarnation of his lost love, Sonya. He loves Sonya/Jean so much that, in the end, he is unable to curse her by turning her into a fellow vampire – and so, he allows Mart to kill him.
“I, the Vampire” is not one of the best-remembered stories to come out of Weird Tales, but Kuttner had nonetheless hit on an idea with staying power: the 2000 film Shadow the Vampire is based on essentially the same premise, positing that the star of Nosferatu was a genuine vampire.
1942: A Vampire Mystery
Rather curiously, Irina Karlova’s 1942 novel Dreadful Hollow achieved a certain immortality as the basis of a film that was never made. Esteemed director Howard Hawks bought the film rights to the book in 1944, and his off-and-on collaborator William Faulkner worked on the screenplay; while the project never came to fruition, the talent involved has assured attention from generations of film historians.
“Irina Karlova” was in fact a pseudonym of Helen Mary Elizabeth Clamp, an author who penned romance novels under her real name. Her pen-name has definite celluloid connotations, recalling two actors associated with horror and mystery films of the period — Irene Ware and Boris Karloff — and suggesting an attempt to curry favour with film fans.
The main character of the novel is Jillian Dare, a 19-year-old girl who is sent by a London agency to spend time at a country home. Here, she must help take care of the ailing Countess Ana Czerner, a woman of striking appearance:
Above the wrappings of a soft white shawl, the face of the Countess Ana Czerner turned toward her, a face as transparent as fine porcelain… a whiteness that seemed scarcely of this earth. In startling contrast, her hair was very black, gleaming with a peculiarly dull luster through the exquisite lace scarf draped over it, and a pair of magnificent black eyes, brilliant as jewels, seemed to blind the girl with their fire.
Jillian shares the Countess’ grange with gardener Jacob Lee and Sari, a housekeeper who calls the countess her “Precious”. Jillian notices a number of disconcerting things about her new lodgings, from a large taxidermied wolf nicknamed “the Werewolf” to Sari’s strange insistence that Jillian lock her bedroom door every night.
The Countess turns out to be a Transylvanian expatriate, one prone to talking in detail about her family tree:
“You are from Rumania, madame?”
“From Transylvania. Ours is a very ancient family. Our blood is the bluest of the blue—except for one drop, one tiny drop, but in that drop is all the fire and fury of a volcano! It is a single drop of black gypsy blood, and I have it in my veins as a legacy from my Tzigane ancestress…”
Her fascination with blood is not confined to that of her own family – she also pays close attention to Jillian’s blood:
“It is good to have you here, my dear. You bring a little vitality to this silent death in life—young—pretty, yes, very pretty—such a smooth cheek flushed with young blood, such rounded limbs, and a warm throat so creamy white with a thick pale blue vein that pulses strongly. Ah, you will give me some of that life–?”
While staying at the grange Jillian chances to befriend Larry Clyde, a doctor who has – to his chagrin – wound up stuck in the remote village, making him Jillian’s one connection to the outside world. Clyde takes over as narrator for stretches of the novel, and his sardonic outlook shines through: he repeatedly refers to Jillian as “Little Miss Muffett” and has even more colourful nicknames for the other residents of the grange.
The Countess develops an affliction that prompts Sari to hire a Romanian professional named Doctor Vostok; when he arrives, the doctor turns out to have the Countess’ niece, Vera, in tow. To Jillian, Vera is an alluring but unnerving figure, “brimming with the red blood that is life so that her lips appeared wet with it, radiant with vitality, glowing with almost a terrible power.”
The arrival of the younger Countess coincides with the older Countess disappearing from Jillian’s life; she no longer sees the sickly aristocrat, and begins to wonder if she had been no more than a dream. Meanwhile, the younger woman shows no concern for her elder relative’s ill health, and even begins wearing the sick woman’s jewelery.
Over time, it becomes clear that there is something strange about Countess Vera. She begins to physically deteriorate as though ageing at high speed, causing her to look more like the older Countess; and when Jillian catches sight of Vera’s feet, she sees that they are long and tapered like the claw of a bat.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of a local boy named Wally Spikes brings another newcomer to the village: a detective named Gregory (“Not the Gregory at whose name all scoundrels flinch?” enquires the jaunty Dr. Clyde). To Gregory, all of the locals – even Jillian and Clyde – are potential suspects, and Jillian’s attempts to escape the grange hardly help to underline her innocence.
In the midst of this confusion, a dark episode from Countess Ana Czerner’s family history comes to light. Clyde reads the journal of his grandfather, who visited the Transylvanian alps in 1885 and heard of how a Romani woman named Magda was murdered by superstitious villagers – decapitated and buried with a stake through her heart and a wreath of garlic over her grave. Before her death, the woman married into an aristocratic family and became the ancestor of Countess Czerner, whose family remains the subject of fear within Transylvania.
Finally, the truth comes out. The Countesses Ana and Vera are one and the same: Ana suffers from a hereditary condition that can be halted only by human blood, prompting her to murder Wally and – once rejuvenated – pass herself off as her own niece. In a macabre climax, the boy’s body is found to have been hidden inside the stuffed wolf, while housekeeper Sari decides that it is time to finish off the homicidal Ana Czerner through the traditional method of decapitation.
Dreadful Hollow makes heavy use of vampire iconography and borrows some stock scenes of the genre. The Countess becomes excited at a red scratch on Jillian’s hand, mirroring Dracula’s response to Jonathan Harker’s shaving mishap; the discovery of an old painting that exactly resembles the younger Countess has a counterpart in Carmilla; and the portrayal of vampirism as a hereditary taint – uncomfortably associated with racial mixing – was not new to the genre (the Romani Magda recalls the Creole witch Careys in Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire and the “Polish Jewess” Mirza in Sax Rohmer’s The Brood of the Witch Queen). But it never commits to portraying a literal vampire; instead, the Countess is revealed to be suffering from some bizarre disease that causes rapid aging unless she regularly imbibes human blood. At times the novel feels like a story of mad science as much as a vampire tale, as when Clyde reads sensationalistic reports alleging that Vostok kept “rows of hearts in jars of electrified liquid, beating, beating as though they were still within the bodies” and “obtained human beings at the point of death and injected some magic substance into their veins, embalming them alive”.
It is quite possible that Dreadful Hollow was meant as a mystery novel rather than one of Gothic horror. The story is certainly structured as per mystery convention: it offers clue after clue before reaching a tidy conclusion – including the discovery of a missing body – with the facts spelt out in detail once the main characters are out of harm’s way. Indeed, in 1946 it was republished as part of the successful Dell Mystery line (“complete with crime map on back cover”). But if read as a mystery novel it seems something of a cheat, relying as it does on a completely fictitious disease.
Not quite supernatural horror, not quite mystery novel, Dreadful Hollow works best when read as a spoof. Elements of spoof were an established part of Gothic horror by that point: Universal’s 1932 film The Old Dark House, starring Boris Karloff, was directed in a characteristically camp fashion by James Whale, and in 1938 cartoonist Charles Addams introduced the characters who would become known as the Addams Family. Dreadful Hollow fits right into this trend for ghoulish humour; and whenever the sardonic Clyde inserts himself as narrator, it becomes clear that Irina Karlova’s mash-up of horror and mystery plot elements and character types should not be taken too seriously:
One more grotesque to add to the motley crew inhabiting the Grange: the Gaunt Housekeeper, the Village Idiot, the Sinister Scientist, the Ancient Beldame, and now—the Wicked Vamp! No collection of waxworks could be more varied. I see Muffett as Little Nell walking among the effigies of Jarley’s.
In different ways, “I, the Vampire” and Dreadful Hollow each try to square vampires with science. The former does so figuratively, using the vampire in part as a metaphor for drug addiction and sexually-transmitted infection; the latter does so literally, treating vampirism as a disease rather than a supernatural phenomenon. In doing so, each story foreshadowed the next major transformation that vampires would undergo: with the atomic age dawning, it was time for vampires to join the creatures of science fiction.