During the sixties and seventies, pop culture was hit by an explosion of interest in the occult. Aleister Crowley glowered from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil”, and before long Black Sabbath would be embracing Gothic imagery as part of the nascent metal scene.
During the sixties and seventies, pop culture was hit by an explosion of interest in the occult. Aleister Crowley glowered from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil”, and before long Black Sabbath would be embracing Gothic imagery as part of the nascent metal scene. Meanwhile, in bookshops, the mood was captured by the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series of paperback reprints, where vampire stories by Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Sax Rohmer turned up alongside non-fiction volumes about palmistry and tarot cards.
Surrounded by this spirit of occult experimentation and countercultural expression, contemporary authors began writing a new strain of vampire fiction — one in which vampires would not necessarily be the villains.
1968: The Vampire as Star
Vampire literature of the 1960s was influenced by the rise of film and TV tie-in novels. The popular vampire films of Hammer and Amicus were the subjects of prose adaptations, but these were outnumbered by the expansive range of titles based on Dark Shadows, a Gothic TV soap opera that debuted in 1966 and — since 1967 — had included a vampire named Barnabas Collins as part of its ensemble.
The Paperback Library published a long-running series of Dark Shadows tie-ins, all penned by William Edward Daniel Ross under the pseudonym of Marilyn Ross. Barnabas Collins, published in 1968, was the sixth Dark Shadows novel but the first to feature the eponymous vampire; Barnabas went on to serve as title character throughout the series, from the seventh volume The Secret of Barnabas Collins (1969) to the thirty-second and final book Barnabas, Quentin and the Vampire Beauty (1972).
Barnabas Collins opens with a contemporary-set prologue, with a character from the TV series delving into the history of the Collins family, after which the story heads back to 1902. The action begins with Margaret and Jonas Collins and their teenage daughter Greta receiving a visitor to their Maine household: Barnabas Collins, ostensibly Jonas’ cousin. But Margaret eventually learns that Barnabas is actually a vampire — one who has been scaling the branches of the Collisn family tree for generations.
Confronted on the matter, Barnabas explains that he was cursed by a woman named Angelique who arrived from the West Indies (“Long before she arrived at Collinwood her soul had been poisoned by the voodoo rites of the island where she had lived”). Desiring Barnabas for herself, Angelique spitefully sabotaged his relationship with a girl named Josette:
“I faced her with her villainy. And I was so enraged I made an attempt to kill her. I fired a pistol at her at short range. She thought she had been fatally shot and cursed me and any who loved me.” He paused, a haggard expression shadowing his gaunt features. “A bat came flying at me from out of the darkness and bit me in the throat. She invoked it with her witchery. And I became one of the living dead from that moment on.”
But before she reaches this revelation, Margaret is – like the reader – forced to traipse through an assortment of over-familiar elements from past vampire stories. An early clue to Barnabas’ immortality is that he is identical to an ancestor in a family portrait – a plot device also used in James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Like Dracula, Barnabas has hairy palms, casts no reflection, and is discovered by the protagonist sleeping in a coffin with blood on his lips. He has a deaf-mute servant, Hare, who recalls Boris Karloff’s character in the Universal film The Old Dark House – and, by extension, the Addams Family’s butler Lurch. And, of course, members of the household start turning up with bite marks on their necks. But there is one noteworthy twist – an element that indicated the new direction in which vampire literature was heading.
During the course of the novel Barnabas adopts an orphan, Judith, because she physically resembles his long-dead lover Josette, and he begins treating the girl as a reincarnation of his old flame; it is never confirmed whether he believes that Judith actually is a reincarnation of Josette, or whether this is just a twisted game of dress-up on his part.
The idea of an immortal villain seeking the reincarnation of their deceased lover was a major element in H. Rider Haggard’s influential 1886 novel She, and had later turned up in vampire stories like Dion Fortune’s The Demon Lover and Henry Kuttner’s “I, the Vampire” (along with Universal’s 1932 film The Mummy, which owed a considerable debt to the vampire genre despite introducing a different variety of monster). It is a quick and simple way of making the vampire sympathetic – and Barnabas Collins clearly expects the reader to feel a degree of empathy for its title character.
The novel uses Barnabas as a villain, yet it presents him unabashedly as a likeable villain. The front cover slogan describes the book as being “[t]he first novel about the vampire America loves to hate”, while the back cover bills its star as “America’s Grooviest Ghoul”. No matter how many members of the Collins household he picks off, the reader is encouraged to see things from his point of view: “Was Barnabas to be pities rather than reviled?” wonders Margaret at one point. “Should she try to help him as he’d begged her?”
The novel ends in tragedy: a bizarre love triangle develops between Barnabas, Judith and Greta Collins, with Barnabas ultimately choosing Greta. After literally loving her to death, he departs the Collins household, never to be seen by Margaret again. It is a stark conclusion, one that harks back to John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” — where Lord Ruthven escapes after killing the hero’s sister — rather than later, more familiar narratives that end in the vampire’s destruction. Yet, even at this point, the reader is nudged towards Barnabas’ side. Margaret, contemplating her daughter’s death, concludes that Greta desired her fate: “They loved each other… Her love for Barnabas was full and complete.” But then, how could it have been otherwise? Barnabas Collins was America’s grooviest ghoul, after all. No wonder he went on to star in twenty-six more novels while his victims were swiftly forgotten.
The idea of a vampire as a series star – one who could appear across a line of books for as long as readers remained interested — was not entirely new: Varney the Vampire had worked in essentially the same manner back in the days of serialised penny dreadfuls. But it was an approach that had long been dormant. As the sixties gave way to the seventies, Barnabas Collins was joined on bookshelves by rival vampire stars: Robert Lory reinvented Count Dracula as a series star for Dracula Returns (1973) and its eight sequels, while comic book antiheroine Vampirella migrated to prose with a series of paperback novels by Ron Goulart that ran from 1975 to 1976.
But the true vampire superstar of the seventies was not to arrive from television, comics, or past classics. He was to be the original creation of an author whose name became synonymous with vampire fiction…
1976: The Vampire as Hero
The evolution of vampire fiction can be summed up with three key works, published at intervals of around eighty years. John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” from 1819 was about a quest to unmask a vampire. By the time of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, the narrative had become that of a quest to destroy a vampire. Then, in 1976, Anne Rice’s book Interview with the Vampire introduced a third narrative: the quest to justify a vampire.
The novel’s framing device has the central character, Louis de Pointe du Lac, regaling a mortal interviewer with his (after)life story. Louis begins with his youth as a member of a wealthy plantation-owning family in eighteenth-century Louisiana. Developing suicidal urges after the death of his brother, Louis had a chance encounter with a vampire named Lestat de Lioncourt, who turned him into a vampire in turn.
What follows is a long, rather loose narrative of the vampire Louis struggling to find a place in the world. He tries to avoid harming people, feeding instead on animals; but Lestat tries to persuade him that feeding on humanity is the true way of the vampire. Louis sometimes allows his convictions to lapse, at one point feeding on a 5-year-old girl named Claudia — to Lestat’s delight:
“I threw the child down. She lay like a jointless doll. And turning in blind horror of the mother to flee, I saw the window filled with a familiar shape. It was Lestat, who backed away from it now laughing, his body bent as he danced in the mud street. ‘Louis, Louis,’ he taunted me, and pointed a long, bone-thin finger at me, as if to say he’d caught me in the act. And now he bounded over the sill, brushing me aside, and grabbed the mother’s stinking body from the bed and made to dance with her.”
Lestat then torments his protégé still further by raising Claudia as a vampire, the three becoming a perverse nuclear family. Claudia finds herself torn between obeying her sanguinary impulses as Lestat does, or following the more humane philosophy of her other parent, Louis. Her anguish grows still greater as the years pass and she realises that she will never grow, instead remaining within the body of a child for her entire existence. Louis and Claudia eventually escape from the cruel Lestat and, at long last, meet other members of their kind in Paris: the French capital is home to a community of vampires who, in a cunning ruse, disguise themselves amongst mortals by running a theatre, where they pretend to be merely acting as vampires. Even here, however, Louis continues to find conflict and strife, as not all of the Parisian vampires are happy to see the newcomers.
Richard Matheson placed vampire biology under the microscope in I Am Legend, but Anne Rice went a step further: by telling a story where all of the principal characters are vampires, she was able to explore the mentality of the undead, even assembling a vampire philosophy.
The novel’s climax includes a philosophical discussion between Louis and the centuries-old Parisian vampire Armand, in which the latter reveals that Louis’ search for meaning is one shared not only by his vampire kindred, but by mortals as well. “This is the very spirit of your age”, says Armand. “Don’t you see that? Everyone else feels as you feel. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of a century.” Armand’s theatrical vampires “reflect the age of cynicism which cannot comprehend the death of possibilities, fatuous sophisticated indulgence in the parody of the miraculous, decadence whose last refuge is self-ridicule, a mannered helplessness.” But Louis is different, as Armand explains to him: “You reflect your age differently. You reflect its broken heart.”
Katherine Ramsland’s 1991 biography of Rice, Prism of the Night, discusses the authorial influences behind Interview with the Vampire. During her childhood, Anne Rice saw the film Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and heard a family discussion about Richard Matheson’s 1951 story “Dress of White Silk”, which introduced her to the idea of the vampire as a point of audience sympathy, rather than simply a monster to be destroyed. But not all of her influences arose from genre fiction.
Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Rice drifted away from this milieu and into the countercultures of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Although she found herself surrounded by beatniks, hippies and women’s libbers, she was unable to fully commit to their lifestyles and ideologies – just as Louis, although cut off from his mortal existence and the religious faith he once followed, is reluctant to fully join the world of vampires. The resemblance between postwar countercultures and Rice’s vision of vampirism is particularly vivid when Louis describes the drug-like sensory stimulation that comes with his new status as vampire:
“Lestat was standing again at the foot of the stairs, and I saw him as I could not possibly have seen him before. He had seemed white to me before, starkly white, so that in the night he was almost luminous; and now I saw him filled with his own life and own blood: he was radiant, not luminous. And then I saw not only Lestat had changed, but all things had changed.”
“It was as if I had only just been able to see colors and shapes for the first time…”
On a more provocative level, the vampire subculture depicted in the novel also has similarities to gay subculture, which was growing in prominence during the seventies — Interview with the Vampire was published six years after the Stonewall riots. Anne Rice had long been fascinated by homosexuality and gender noncomformism (as Ramsland quotes her as saying, “I think I have a gender screw-up to the point that I don’t know most of the time what gender I am, in terms of anyone else’s thinking”) and explored these topics in her earlier, non-fantasy literature. Although romanticised, her fictional portrayals of the homosexual underground captured some of the darker aspects of the subject: influenced by Vladimir Nabakov, she depicted the relationship between an adult predator and an underage gay youth in her 1966 novella Nicholas and Jean. This kind of predator-and-prey association is echoed in the relationship between Louis and Lestat.
One of the most striking overlaps between the plot of Interview with the Vampire and Rice’s personal life was actually unintentional on her part. In 1972, Rice lost her 5-year-old daughter Michele to leukaemia; she noted that the terminally ill girl seemed unusually mature in personality for her age. It is hard to avoid speculation that this family tragedy was the basis for the novel’s haunting portrayal of the child-vampire Claudia; while Rice has denied that this was a conscious decision on her part, the loss may well have been an unconscious inspiration.
Interview with the Vampire reinvented the vampire genre – and as is often the case with successful reinventions, it gave rise to imitators. Anne Rice herself penned an entire series of follow-ups starting with 1985’s The Vampire Lestat, which shifted focus from Louis and towards the character who had — to Rice — become more appealing than the original protagonist. Innumerable other writers joined in, and Interview with the Vampire joined (or even replaced) Dracula as a standard model for vampire fiction.
Looking at the original novel today, it is easy to be distracted by the unstructured storyline and sometimes stilted dialogue (“As you can see, my face is very white and has a smooth, highly reflective surface, rather like polished marble”). But if we compare it to something like Barnabas Collins, it is clear how Anne Rice blew away the dust and cobwebs of cliché and brought new life to the vampire genre. To a readership in 1976, this was a new and idiosyncratic type of vampire fiction.
Significantly, Interview with the Vampire actually works this novelty into its worldbuilding. The story posits that there are multiple species of vampire – an intertextual touch that allows different interpretations of the vampire archetype to coexist. The elegant, philosophical New World vampires like Louis and Lestat are contrasted with the Old World vampires they encounter during their European travels, prior to reaching Armand’s theatre: subhuman, zombie-like creatures that exist to mindlessly suck blood. This can be read as a slight at Dracula, as Rice has expressed a lack of interest in the unclean, bestial vampires described by Bram Stoker (and, in The Vampire Lestat, has her protagonist deride Stoker’s villain as “the big ape of the vampires”).
Anne Rice’s vampires hark back to something older than Count Dracula: the Byronic vampire conceived by John Polidori nearly a century and a half before Rice’s novel was published. After all, the alluring Lord Ruthven was a figure of fascination not only to his female victim, but also to the story’s male lead, Aubrey.
For all its innovation, Interview with the Vampire can be summarised as a novel-length exploration of a very straightforward question: what if Lord Ruthven had chosen Aubrey, rather than his sister?
If a community of sympathetic vampires lives among us, as Anne Rice would have us believe, this raises a number of possibilities. Do the vampires have jobs, or attend schools? Do they form alliances with humans — friendships, business partnerships, even romances? Are there other communities of supernatural creatures existing alongside them?
These are possibilities that would be explored — with results ranging from the stimulating to the whimsical — over the following decades. The next post in this series will discuss how vampire fiction was affected by the flourishing of urban fantasy.