Vampires on the Margins: Forbidden Desires

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One reason for the enduring appeal of the vampire as a concept is its erotic element, and this is something that manifests in both heterosexual and homosexual terms. From the lesbian vampire exploitation films of the seventies to the queer undead of Anne Rice’s bestsellers, modern audiences have come to expect vampires to exist outside the straight and narrow.

Same-sex desire is not a recent addition to vampire fiction, however. Homosexual vampires can be found in nineteenth-century literature – most famously in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1871-2), which has its female narrator describe being on the receiving end of the vampiress’ affections:

I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly.

It would be a large leap indeed to conclude that this material reflects Le Fanu’s own sexual orientation: he did, after all, marry a woman and have children. But even if the most famous queer vampire was created by a straight man, the nineteenth century nonetheless had authors outside the heterosexual mainstream who found the vampire a potent symbol for their desires, repressions and anxieties.

Engraving of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.

One example of this is “Manor” by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, originally published in the author’s 1885 collection Matrosengeschichten (“Sailor Stories”). At least two English translations exist, one by Mike Lombardi-Nash and the other by Hubert Kennedy; all quotations in this article come from the latter translation.

The story takes place in the Faroe Islands and opens with an atmospheric description of its desolate, fog-shrouded setting. The main character, a teenage boy named Har, is caught in a storm while fishing with his father; his father dies in the disaster but Har himself is rescued by an older teenager, the titular Manor.

Despite living on two different islands, Har and Manor pursue a close friendship. After Har is first reunited with his mother, we learn that “[g]ratefully the boy embraced his rescuer around the neck as they parted.” The two teenagers spend later reunions boating, walking in the forest, and swimming together: “stripping themselves of their clothing, they dove into the waves and swam to the nearby sandbar, which lay opposite”. The relationship between the two teenagers has a strong element of physicality:

As they sat there on the rock, Manor would lay his arm around Har’s shoulder and call him ‘my boy’; and the boy never felt more content than when Manor held him in that way. If it was already late when he came, then he quietly went up to the lilac bush which shaded Har’s window and knocked on the pane. Har would wake up and slip out to him. He felt so happy, if he could be with Manor!

The story takes a tragic turn when Manor dies at sea and his body is found by Har on the beach:

His slender form was good-looking even in death. ‘This is the way I have to see you again, Manor!’ Har cried, and threw himself sobbing across the beloved body, for a moment tasting again the bliss of an embrace.

But death is not necessarily the end in the Faroe Islands, portrayed by the story a realm where Christianity never quite erased heathen ways and strange magic lingers. The characters swear by “the gods”, Thor still lives in folklore, and according to a particular legend repeated by the narrator, Urda – one of the three Norns of Germanic myth – is prone to reviving the deceased: “A dead person is often so strongly filled with longing for one or another of his loved ones left behind that he leaves his grave in the night and comes to him. For this is the old belief, that at midnight Urda gives back a brief half-life to many and then lends them strange powers from beyond the grave.”

And so Har is reunited with Manor one night when the latter returns from his resting place. Manor’s temporary departure has not made his interactions with the other boy any less physical – if anything, it has strengthened this aspect of their relationship:

The window opened and a figure climbed inside. Aha! He knew that figure! In spite of the darkness he recognized it immediately! With slow steps it came up to him and laid itself on him in the bed. Har shivered, but he offered no resistance. It caressed his cheeks, though with a cold hand, oh! so cold, so cold! A feverish chill made him shudder. It kissed the warm, quivering boy-mouth with ice-cold lips. He felt the wet garment of the kissing figure, whose wet hair hung down onto his forehead. A feeling of dread passed through him, but it was mixed with bliss.

The following night brings a still more intense visit from Manor:

He embraced the boy with cold arms, kissed his cheeks and mouth, and laid his head on the soft breast. Har trembled. His heart began to pound at this intimate embrace, and Manor laid his head directly over the pounding heart. His lips sought the gently heaving knob over his heart, which had been set into motion by its pounding. Then he began to suck, demandingly and thirstily, like a nursing infant at its mother’s breast.

The nocturnal visits carry on, with Har being reunited with Manor on every night of the full moon (“He saw now again and again how yet another weak little drop of blood dripped from his left nipple”). The locals notice strange things afoot: a fisherman witnesses the eerie sight of Manor’s shrouded body swimming between islands, while Har’s mother sees her son becoming pale and withdrawn. After casting her runic sticks, the local wise woman reveals that the boy is being visited by the dead.

Led by the wise woman, a band of people dig up Manor’s body and find it as fresh as in life; and so they prepare a stake from fir wood. Har pleads with them, embracing Manor’s body to block the attack (“They want to impale you. Manor, wake up! Open your eyes! Your Har is calling you!”) but the islanders push him aside and hammer the stake into his heart.

More resilient than many later vampires, Manor is able to pull himself free of the stake and return to Har (“He lay again on Har, embraced him, and sucked. He sucked more demandingly and thirstily than before”). The following day the islanders nail him in place once again, this time with a stronger stake. But such acts do nothing to help Har, who continues to deteriorate as he pines. He eventually dies, and the story ends with his mother carrying out his final wish: that he be buried in the same grave as Manor.

For a vampire to be portrayed as both overtly sexual and as desirable for his victim is itself unusual for a story of this period; once the homosexuality is factored in, “Manor” becomes still more remarkable. But the story’s sympathetic (albeit tragic) portrayal of same-sex love is less surprising when the personal life of its author Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is considered.

Robert Beachy devotes much of the first chapter of his 2014 book Gay Berlin to the life and times of Ulrichs, who was both homosexual and willing to take the unpopular step of justifying his homosexuality. An early example of Ulrichs’ writings on the topic can be found in an 1862 letter to his family, as summarised by Beachy:

Men who loved men, he ventured, represented a third sex, characterized by a feminine nature trapped in the physical body of a man. The chief evidence for this claim came from Ulrichs’s recollections of his own boyhood and adolescence: “How often did my dear mother complain, ‘You are not like other boys!’ How often did she warn me, ‘You will be an odd one.’ Coaxed or by force, nothing could bring me up to the standard of boys. It was not in me. I was already an odd one, namely by nature. Because of my feminine nature even as a boy I was unjustly mistreated and set apart.” […] To demand, as his closest family members did, that he and those like him lead a life of sensual deprivation was “an extreme abuse, since we are justified to exist in human society, just as you are.”

Ulrichs would later elaborate upon these views in a series of anonymous pamphlets. As the term “homosexuality” did not exist at this point, and the equivalent “sodomy” had connotations of Biblical sin and punishment, he was forced to invent new terminology. Drawing upon Plato’s Symposium, which used Uranus’ sexless begetting of Aphrodite to represent same-sex attraction, Ulrichs referred to homosexual men as Urning, lesbians as Urninden, bisexuals as Uranodioning and heterosexuals as Dioning (in reference to an alternate myth in which Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione). He also discussed the existence of intersex people; meanwhile, his framing of homosexuals as a “third sex” marks a crude but recognisable predecessor to today’s discourse on transgender people. In short, Ulrichs can lay claim to establishing the concept of an LGBTI community.

Ulrichs’ advocacy was carried out either in private or anonymously until 1867. This was when he delivered a public speech not only revealing his own sexuality but also condemning anti-sodomy laws, citing high suicide rates among homosexuals, and arguing that the existence of homosexuality was simply part of the natural order – all comprising what Robert Beachy calls “the first public coming-out in modern history.” The vampire story “Manor”, published nearly two decades after this speech, can therefore be counted amongst Ulrichs’ less scandalous pieces of writing.

But while Ulrichs was an unabashed Urning, other gay writers of his age may have felt greater degrees of conflict and ambivalence about their sexual orientations. Such is the case with the English author Count Eric Stenbock, whose writings on same-sex desire were shot through with the morbid – small surprise, then, that he was also attracted to the motif of the vampire.

Photograph of Count Eric Stenbock.
Count Eric Stenbock.

Stenbock published three volumes of poetry: Love, Sleep, & Dreams (1881), Myrtle, Rue and Cypress (1883) and The Shadow of Death (1893). The second of these – which was dedicated to, amongst other people, Simeon Solomon, a painter twice convicted for homosexual acts in the previous decade – includes a poem entitled “The Vampyre”:

I would seek thee in secret places
In the darkest hour of night,
Embrace thee with serpent embraces,
Delight thee with strange delight.

In a serpent’s coils entwine
Thy supple and exquisite form,
And drink from thy veins like wine
Thy blood delicious and warm.

With slow soft sensual sups
Draw the life from the tender spray.
And brush from thy soft lithe lips
The bloom of thy boyhood away.

I would breathe with the breath of thy mouth
And pang thee with perfect pain;
And the vital flame of thy youth
Should live in my limbs again.

Till thy vital elastical form
Should gradually fade and fail,
And thy blood in my veins flow warm,
And glow in my face, that was pale.

The difference between Ulrichs’ short story and Stenbock’s poem is striking. The protagonist of “Manor” showed an eager yearning for the forbidden embrace of the vampire; but the victim described by Stenbock is reduced to a passive, abstracted figure with little say in his fate. Meanwhile, the reference to the vampire draining the victim’s boyhood as well as his blood adds an uncomfortably paedophilic subtext.

Stenbock returned to the themes of this poem with a short piece of fiction entitled “The True Story of a Vampire”, which was published in his 1894 collection Studies of Death: Romantic Tales and sometimes reprinted under the alternate title “A Sad Story of a Vampire”. The tale begins in a drily sardonic tone:

Our Vampire arrived by the commonplace means of the railway train, and in the afternoon. You must think I am joking, or perhaps that by the word “Vampire” I mean a financial vampire. No, I am quite serious The Vampire of whom I am speaking, who laid waste our hearth and home, was a real vampire.

Stenbock appears to have been familiar with Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”. The opening line comments that “[v]ampire stories are generally located in Styria” – an apparent allusion to the Le Fanu story, which took place in this region. Stenbock names his adolescent heroine Carmela, in what is unlikely to have been anything other than a conscious reference. The plot follows the rough outline of “Carmilla” by casting the vampire as an adopted member of the household – although, that said, the role of the vampire as family invader was a genre convention at this point, having been established by Polidori. Acting as narrator, Carmela describes her father arriving home with a stranger, Count Vardalek:

Vampires are generally described as dark, sinister-looking, and singularly handsome. Our Vampire was, on the contrary, rather fair and certainly was not at first sight sinister-looking, and though decidedly attractive in appearance, not what one would call singularly handsome.

As alluring as he may be, Vardalek manifests some strange qualities. While typically languid, he shows marked excitement when Carmela’s father mentions an incident in which a drummer-boy was injured in battle. He is also prone to curious physical changes: “When the stranger came down to dinner his appearance had somewhat altered, he looked much younger. There was an elasticity of the skin, combined with a delicate complexion, rarely to be found in a man. Before, he had struck me as being very pale.”

These changes tend to occur after Vardalek has come back from a trip and been reunited with Carmela’s younger brother Gabriel: “Vardalek always returned looking much older, wan, and weary. Gabriel would rush to meet him, and kiss him on the mouth, then, he gave a slight shiver: and after a little while began to look quite young again.”

In one scene Carmela comes downstairs at night to see Gabriel walking as though in a trance to the room of Vardalek. The vampire expresses his desire for the boy as he plays a piano:

“My darling, I fain would spare thee; but thy life is my life, and I must live, I who would rather die. Will God not have any mercy on me? Oh! oh! life; oh the torture of life!” Here he struck one agonized and strange chord, then continued playing softly, “O Gabriel, my beloved! My life, yes life—oh, why life? I am sure this is but a little that I demand of thee. Surely thy superabundance of life can spare a little to one who is already dead. No, stay,” he said now almost harshly, “what must be, must be!”

The character of Gabriel appears to have been based at least partly upon Stenbock himself. The boy is described as having an affinity for animals, with various fauna from squirrels to foxes following him on walks, and he picks up so many that his family “had to fit up a regular zoological gardens” to hold them; Stenbock, in real life, kept something of a menagerie of his own. Under the influence of Vardalek, Gabriel continues to waste away until death finally comes:

One day I was alone in the room: and Vardalek cried suddenly, almost fiercely, “Send for a priest, at once, at once,” he repeated. “It is now almost too late!”

Gabriel stretched out his arms spasmodically, and put them round Vardalek’s neck. This was the only movement he had made for some time. Vardalek bent down and kissed him on the lips. I rushed downstairs: and the priest was sent for. When I came back Vardalek was not there. The priest administered extreme unction. I think Gabriel was already dead, although we did not think so at the time.
Vardalek had utterly disappeared; and when we looked for him he was nowhere to be found; nor have I seen or heard of him since.

While the story’s portrayal of same-sex attraction is far from favourable, it is also unusually forthright for a story of this era, something that has lent “A True Story of a Vampire” a place in the canon of LGBT English literature. In 1970 it was reprinted in the second issue of Jeremy, a British magazine with a bisexual focus. Stenbock’s story also has the bizarre – but by no means shameful – distinction of having been attacked by the pro-paedophile organisation NAMBLA. “The contemporary media gives the impression that all boy-lovers are Count Vardaleks” complained Linda Frankel, a Marion Zimmer Bradley collaborator, writing in a 1986 edition of the NAMBLA Journal. “The vampire stereotype represents a calumny.”

In writing “Manor”, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs emphasised the perspective of the victim. He told a story of a protagonist who felt secret desires, faced opposition from his community, and reached a romantic – if tragic – end buried in the same grave as his vampire lover. Count Stenbock, on the other hand, showed more interest in the emotional state of his vampire: the story of Count Vardalek is a tale of self-loathing and purely predatory lust.

In the process, the two authors hit upon novel variations on the vampire theme: the victim who desires and accepts a vampire’s kiss, and the vampire who hates himself and his impulses. Neither was entirely new – Théophile Gautier had written of a male protagonist in love with a female vampire in “La morte amoureuse”, while James Malcolm Rymer’s notoriously ramshackle Varney the Vampire ends with the title character becoming so consumed with self-loathing that he jumps into a volcano – but they were still unusual in vampire fiction of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the stories’ engagement with the taboos of their day lend them a distinct power of their own.

While we should be wary about reading too much of an author’s life into their fiction (especially when biographical details are scarce, as in the case of Stenbock) it is easy to imagine that Har’s longing for Manor and Gabriel’s tragic fate at the hands of Vardalek reflect, if not the writers’ experience, then at least their anxieties.

The figure of the vampire is a classic misfit, existing between life and death, between the human world and the realm of spirits. Small wonder, then, that some of the most intriguing and provocative vampire stories of the genre’s formative century have come from writers who were, themselves, misfits and outsiders. Even to readers of the twenty-first century, stories on the margins of vampire literature retain their power and mystique.

Series Navigation<< Vampires on the Margins: Women’s Perspectives
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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