Vampires on the Margins: The Black Vampyre

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The development of vampire fiction throughout the nineteenth century is often boiled down to four key authors. Dr. John Polidori established the genre in 1819 with his short story “The Vampyre”. James Malcolm Rymer demonstrated that vampires could find popular success through longer-form storytelling with his penny dreadful saga Varney the Vampire, completed in 1847. J. Sheridan Le Fanu gave the genre further sophistication and refinement with his atmospheric 1872 short story “Carmilla”. Finally, Bram Stoker unleashed Dracula upon the world in 1897, demonstrating that vampires still had relevance at the turn of the century and setting the scene for innumerable stage and screen interpretations.

But for every vampire story that enshrines itself in the canon, there are any number of tales that are forgotten – not always deservedly. The margins of nineteenth-century vampire literature are dotted with stories that offer unusual and provocative interpretations of the genre’s motifs; stories written by authors from a variety of different backgrounds, bringing with them personal insights into topics such as race, gender and sexuality.

This series will examine some of the lesser-known stories vampire stories of the nineteenth century, and how they reflect – or reject – the dominant attitudes of their time. The perfect case study to start with is “The Black Vampyre: A Legend of Saint Domingo”, a story written in 1819 shortly after Polidori’s influential “The Vampyre”.

“The Black Vampyre” was originally published under the name Uriah Derick D’Arcy. However, when the story was partially reprinted by The Knickerbocker magazine in 1845, it was attributed to the poet and humourist Robert C. Sands: “A friend, to whose courtesy in the same kind we have heretofore been indebted, has by good luck been enabled to furnish us with another of the quaint and curious productions of the late lamented Robert C. Sands, which has never been included in any of his published writings”.

Portrait of Robert C. Sands
Robert C. Sands, possible author of “The Black Vampyre”

Not everyone accepts that Sands was the man behind the pseudonym, as “Uriah Derick D’Arcy” is a near-anagram of Richard Varick Dey, a valedictorian of Columbia College. Katie Bray, writing in the American Literature journal in 2015, argued that Dry was the true author. Ed White and Duncan Faherty likewise concluded that Sands was “probably incorrectly” named as author.

But Andrew Barger, who pulled “The Black Vampyre” out of obscurity to include in his 2012 anthology The Best Vampire Stories 1800-1849, champions Sands as its author. Noting that Sands studied at the same institution as Richard Varick Dey, Barger theorises that the writer modelled his pseudonym on the name of the latter man as a crafty effort to not only hide his identity, but also to misdirect any speculation. This would have been in line with Sands’ prankish tendencies: he was fond of sharing quotations from authors and publications which, in reality, he had made up on the spot.

Whatever the identity of its author, “The Black Vampyre” starts out conventionally enough with an opening quotation from Byron’s “The Giaour”; but it then moves to an unorthodox setting for vampire fiction: St. Domingo, a French colony in what is now Haiti. The story introduces us to a group of slaves who were “reduced to mere skeletons” during transit from Guinea, most of them dying shortly after their arrival. The sole survivor is a ten-year-old boy who is purchased by plantation owner Mr. Personne. When the boy turns out to be too weak to work, his new master resorts to murder – only to be confronted with a strange phenomenon:

The gentleman who purchased him, charitably knocked out his brains; and the body was thrown in to the ocean. The tide returning in the night, it was washed upon the sands; and the moon then shining bright, the gentleman was taking a walk to enjoy the coolness of the evening; judge of his surprise, when the little corpse got up, and complaining of a pain in its bowels, begged for some bread and butter!

Mr. Personne tries twice more to kill the boy, but each time he returns and the slave-owner soon starts to fear that he is dealing with “Satan, Obi or some other worthy”. In a final effort to do away with the child, he builds a fire – but the slave responds by pushing Mr. Personne into the flames.

The badly-burnt plantation owner survives this ordeal, only to learn from his wife Euphemia that something terrible has happened to their infant son: “when she went in the morning to see her baby, whom she had left in the cradle, there was nothing to be seen, but the skin, hair, and nails”, the unfortunate child having been “sucked, like an unripe orange.” The corpse is described as resembling “the exsiccation in Scudder’s Museum”, in what appears to be a reference to the mummified body of a Native American found in Kentucky a few years before the story was published. Upon hearing this news, Mr. Personne dies of shock.

Sixteen years later, Mr. Personne’s widow Euphemia has remarried twice but outlived each of her two subsequent husbands. She is then approached by “a colored gentleman, of remarkable height, and deep jetty blackness; a perfect model of the Congo Apollo…. dressed in the rich garb of a Moorish Prince”. This newcomer is accompanied by his page Zembo, “a pale European boy, in an Asiatic dress”.

Impressed by the Black Prince’s beauty, intellect and regal standing, Euphemia marries him. But it turns out, of course, that Euphemia’s latest husband is a vampire – the same revenant that had troubled Mr. Personne sixteen years before.

After the wedding comes a gruesome scene set at the family graveyard that holds Euphemia’s numerous husbands and children, including her third son Spooner (who died “in a fit of intoxication” at the age of seven). The Prince exhumes Spooner’s body, gouges out the child’s heart with his long nails, and squeezes the blood into a chalice to be mingled with particles of freshly-turned earth. He then forces a terrified Euphemia to drink this concoction while vowing never to disclose what she has seen that night. This is followed by the spectacle of Euphemia’s deceased family rises from their graves:

Immediately the tumuli yawned! The ponderous stones and slabs were shaken from their ancient sockets; and the ghastly dead, in uncouth attitudes, crawled from their nooks; with their hair curling in tortuous and serpent twinings; and their eyeballs of fire bursting from their heads; while, as they extended their withered arms, and tapering fingers, furnished with blood-hound claws, their gory shrouds fell in wild drapery around them, transiently revealing their forms, bloated as if to bursting, and often incarnadined with clotted blood, yet warm and dripping!!!

This is more graphically gruesome fare than anything seen in Polidori’s tale; if anything, it is closer to the scandalous Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. But it soon segues into comedy, recalling perhaps the humorous spook-stories of the author’s countryman Washington Irving.

Recovering from a swoon, Euphemia notices a strange wound in her chest and a newfound appetite for blood: “Imagine, if you can, her surprise; when, by a certain carnivorous craving in her maw, and by putting this and that together, she found she was a–vampyre!!!” The scene quickly becomes farcical as she learns that all three of her deceased husbands are back from the dead, and not entirely pleased to see one another.

Euphemia’s first husband picks a fight with the Black Prince: “Mr. Personne, brandishing his thigh-bone, warned they to stand off, as he had the first title to the lady”. Meanwhile, her other late spouses – Dubois and Maquand – fight for her attention, but being revived corpses they have a hard time killing one another. Even after both of them have had their brains bashed out, they continue to struggle until the Prince intervenes by driving stakes through their hearts with a sledgehammer (“which he carried about his person for such emergencies”).

As for Mr. Personne, the Prince settles things by sending him and Euphemia away with the pageboy Zembo – who is revealed to be their son, although exactly when they conceived him is unclear. The boy leads the newly-minted and decidedly bewildered vampire couple to a subterranean retreat “known only to the Professors of the Obeah art, who held here their midnight orgies.” Inside this ornately-decorated cave are vampire monarchs in Moorish dress, and amongst them is the Prince. He delivers a speech, although this is undercut by comedy as he is unsure how to address the assembled mixture of vampires and mortals:

The oratorio being finished, the African Prince arose, and making an obeisance to the company,–cleared his throat, and began to address them as follows:—“Gentlemen and Vampyres!”—but the Vampyres expressing their resentment against this breach of etiquette, he corrected himself:—“Vampyres and Gentlemen!”—but the negroes were no more willing to come last, than the Vampyres, and a loud growl, accompanied by a slight hiss, again interrupted the orator.

The wry humour gives way to classical erudition when the Prince posits that vampires are indeed entitled to be named before mortals, as they have a divine origin. “Prometheus was the first Vampyre”, he declares, before – somewhat contrarily – claiming that vampires are descended from the bird that dined on Prometheus’ liver. Citing Aeschylus, the Prince says that the bird in question was also part mammal and part insect – and therefore the ancestor of various land, sea and sky predators, including vampires:

Now, from this amphibious monster have descended the Crows, —the Jackalls, —and the Bloodhounds;—the pirate Bat of Madagascar;—and the man-killing Ivunches of Chili; —the Sharks; —the Crocodiles; —the Krakens;–the Horse-leeches; —the Cape-cod Sea Serpents; —the Mermaids; —the Incubi; —and the Succubi!!! (loud cheering from the Vampyres.)

These “full-blooded—unadulterated—immortal bloodsuckers” are known by many names, says the Prince, including Gouls, Afrits, Vampyres, Vroucolochas, Vardoulachos and Broucolokas (here, again, we see the author’s familiarity with Byron, who used these terms in “The Giaour” and its footnotes). The topic of the speech turns from the supernatural to the political, as the Prince calls for the emancipation of black people.

The scene is interrupted by the abrupt arrival of the French military. The soldiers are aided by the Personne family, who help them to impale the vampires – even the Prince, despite fighting back with a scimitar in each hand, is slain. Euphemia escapes with her family back to their plantation, where they use a concoction stolen from the Prince to cure their vampiric states; they awake fit and well the next morning save for “slight colds in the head.”

But it turns out that Euphemia is pregnant with the Prince’s baby – and having used up the last of the potion, they are unable to cure the vampire-child. The narrator concludes by revealing that a descendent of the Prince’s offspring is alive and well in New Jersey.

The echoes of the Haitian Revolution, which concluded fifteen years before the story was published, reverberate through “The Black Vampyre”. Rather than any kind of personal familiarity with that country, however, the author seems to have borrowed from Bryan Edwards’ 1793 History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. The story paraphrases Edwards’ descriptions of minor cultural details (such as musical instruments) along with more significant supernatural concepts. Here is Edwards’ account of Jamaican folk-medicine:

A Negro, who is taken ill, enquires of the Obeah-man the cause of his sickness, whether it will prove mortal or not, and within what time he shall die or recover? The oracle generally ascribes the distemper to the malice of some particular person by name, and advises to set Obi for that person […] The Obi is usually composed of a farrago of materials, most of which are enumerated in the Jamaica law (b), viz. “Blood, feathers, parrots beaks, dogs teeth, alligators teeth, broken bottles, grave-dirt, rum, and egg-shells.”

In “The Black Vampyre” the walls of the Prince’s cave are adorned with “the beaks of parrots;—the teeth of dogs, and alligators;—bones of cats;—broken glass and eggshells; plastered with a composition of rum and grave-dirt, the implements of Negro witchcraft!” A more subtle connection occurs when the Prince turns Euphemia into a vampire, a process that involves feeding her potion of blood and grave-dirt. Later, the Prince mentions a narcotic “by whose lenient and opiate influence, the individual is restored to the plight, in which he was previous to his death, or his becoming a Vampyre, and belongs to the Obeah mysteries” – again recalling Edwards’ description.

While the story’s transplantation of vampires into West Indian folklore may same strange at first, it is typical of a period when the literary vampire paid little heed to cultural borders: Byron depicted vampires as part of Islamic lore “with Gouls and Afrits”, while his imitator Polidori located them in Greece. Given that Haiti’s supernatural folklore had already become material for popular entertainment in the English-speaking world – see William Earle’s 1800 novel Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack and the pantomime of the same title by John Fawcett – it should not be a great surprise that the Polidori-derived vampire found his way there. But what political intent might the author have had in setting his story against the backdrop of the Haitian Rebellion?

As with the identity of the author, the message behind “The Black Vampyre” and its portrayal of race is open to interpretation. On the surface, the story can be taken as a purely reactionary text: it casts the family of an infanticidal slave-owner as protagonists and equates black emancipation with vampirism, with a slave revolt being quashed by the military so that the plantation owners can live happily ever after. But such a reading ignores the copious amounts of irony that run through the story. While the title character of “The Black Vampyre” is cast as a villain, he is an alluring villain, presiding over a carnivalesque world of joyous liberty that is so much more enticing than the dreary, vapid existence of the white characters.

The early scene in which Mr. Personne repeatedly tries and fails to kill the young vampire quickly shifts from the ghoulish to the absurd: “as fast as Mr. Personne could upset him, he recovered his altitude; just like one of those small toys, fabricated from pith-tipped with lead, called witches and hobgoblins by the rising generation.” While there is horror in the situation, it is the salve-owner rather than the vampire who is the cause – and it is the white man who ends up the butt of a joke when he is set on fire and rescued “looking like a squizzed cat”.

Certain vampire stories from later in the century had overtly racist aspects: witness the pro-slavery filibustering in Charles Wilkins Webber’s Spiritual Vampirism (1853) or the association between race-mixing and monstrous contamination in Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897). Compared to the obvious contempt felt by those authors for African-Americans, “The Black Vampyre” seems palpably progressive.

The story establishes that Euphemia’s family chaplain disapproves of mixed marriages, but this is drowned out by the narrative voice with some choice citations: “It is remarked by the Abbe Reynal, that there is a peculiar elegance and beauty in the complexion of the Africans […] Shakespeare, true to nature, has also remarked, ‘Black men are pearls in beauteous ladies’ eyes.’” In another scene the Black Prince waxes lyrical about the beauty of the women on his home continent, from “the well-proportioned Zilias, Calypsos and Zamas on the banks of the Niger” to “the great Hottentot Venus herself”, albeit to praise Euphemia as being still more beautiful. Most striking of all is the rousing speech that the Prince gives on the topic of black emancipation:

But to come to the object of our present meeting. Sublime and soul-elevating theme!—The emancipation of the Negroes!—The consecration of the soil of St. Domingo to the manes of murdered patriots in all ages!—No matter whether the bill of sale was scrawled in French or in English;—No matter whether we were taken prisoners, in a battle between the Leophares and the Jakoffs, or in a skirmish between the Samboes and Sawpits; —No matter whether we were bought for calico and cotton, or for gunpowder or for shot;—No matter whether we were transported in chains or in ropes—in a brig, or a schooner, or a seventy-four—the first moment we came ashore on St. Domingo, our souls shall swell like a sponge in the liquid element;—our bodies shall burst from their fetters, glorious in a curculio from its shell;—our minds shall soar like the car of the aeronaut, when its ligaments are cut; on a word, O my bretheren, we shall be free!—Our fetters discandied, and out chains dissolved, we shall stand liberated,—redeemed,—emancipated,—and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of Universal Emancipation!!!

Andrew Barger’s introduction to “The Black Vampyre” hails it as “the first short story that advocates ‘emancipation of the Negroes’… fourteen years before Lydia Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, which is widely considered the first anti-slavery book”.

Of course, any reading of “The Black Vampyre” as a statement about slavery and emancipation is complicated by the fact that it is also a satire of contemporary vampire literature: Polidori’s “The Vampyre” was the default template for stories of this type, but “The Black Vampyre” makes a particularly playful engagement with its predecessor.

The story impishly frames itself as a prequel to “The Vampyre” with a footnote theorising that Euphemia’s deceased son, Spooner Dubois, may be the same individual as Polidori’s villain Lord Ruthven. It ends with a humorous aside about a man who is too fat to be a vampire himself, and who after death “may not prove a titbit, to GLUT THE THIRST OF A VAMPYRE!!!” – a direct parody of the final line in Polidori’s work (“Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”).

After this comes a moral, which turns out to have nothing to say about race or slavery but instead a satirical list of various groups of people that the author terms vampires: con-artists, plagiarists, derivative scholars, literary critics, and even the author himself. Rounding off the publication is “Vampyrism; A Poem”, which begins by conjuring a vision of America alive with spirits, all rendered in humorous couplets (the poem rhymes “Salem” with “fail ‘em”). When the author arrives at the topic of vampires, he again uses them to send up conmen, misers, indulgent dandies and other groups he dislikes (“All PLAGIARISTS—concise to be/Are GOULs of high or low degree”).

Aside from a description of surgeons dissecting the stolen body of a “huge, fat negress” there is little to find about race relations in the poem, but there is something to be learnt about the author’s literary opinions. Significantly, the poem contains a swipe at “THOMAS who vends as Byron’s own/The works of doggrelists unknown”. This appears to be a reference to Moses Thomas, a bookseller who published an addition of Polidori’s “The Vampyre” under Byron’s name. Did the author of “The Black Vampyre” really consider Polidori a mere doggerelist? Perhaps this slight should not be taken too seriously, as the author again ends by revealing himself to be yet another vampire.

The poem contains a tantalising hint as to the possible identity of the person behind the name Uriah Derick D’Arcy. One verse mentions the Wyandot deity Ariouski (sometimes rendered Areskoui or Areoski); this personage also turns up in “Yamoyden”, an 1820 poem written by Robert C. Sands in collaboration with James Wallace Eastburn. Of course, the same figure was previously mentioned in Thomas Campbell’s 1809 poem “Gertrude of Wyoming” (there spelt Areoski), so the allusion is not as obscure as might first be thought. Even so, if D’Arcy and Sands were different men, it would be quite a coincidence for both to invoke the same deity – and for both to use the same unorthodox spelling.

The authorship of “The Black Vampyre” may never be known for certain, but perhaps this is appropriate for a story that is itself rather enigmatic. It is framed as a parody of contemporary literary trends, and yet has a remarkable amount to say about slavery and abolitionism. It is morbid but comical, broad-humoured yet filled with erudite allusions. In short, it is exactly the sort of fascinating curio that we should hope to find in the margins of vampire literature.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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