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The long and bloody history of vampires in literature

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'Varney the Vampire' illustration
"Varney the Vampire" was a popular gothic horror story that was distributed on pamphlets called "penny dreadfuls" in Victorian England. This illustration from the series shows the vampire striking.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: When did the first vampire appear in literature?

The first mention of vampires in literature seeped through from European folklore. 

In the mid-1700s, a vampire panic swept the Serbian countryside. Victims reported being visited in the night by their recently deceased relatives or neighbors, who throttled the life from them. Those struck by these visions died within days. 

When panicked townspeople exhumed the offending corpses, they found "tell-tale" signs of vampirism: hair and nails that continued to grow after death, blood in the mouth, a lack of decomposition. 

The panic worked its way into poetry. Heinrich August Ossenfelder's 1748 poem "The Vampire"  (available in the original German), was one of the first to speak about the nocturnal horror:

And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life's blood drain away.

When the English got ahold of these tales, however, the vampire genre took root. Notices of the strange deaths in Europe were printed in London papers, according to the Oxford University Press. There they became fodder for several writers. 

The epic poem "Thalaba the Destroyer," by Robert Southey, is considered to be first appearance of a vampire in English literature. Thalaba, the hero, is confronted by Oneiza, his recently-deceased bride who has risen again as a vampire. This was in keeping with the European tales: Vampires were often related to their victims. 

The next influential entry in vampire literature came from a familiar source: The same ghost story competition that spawned Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." In 1816, Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, gathered with Lord Byron and his personal doctor, John William Polidori, at a mansion close to Lake Geneva. It proved to be a spectacularly rainy summer, and to combat the boredom, Byron proposed everyone write a ghost story. 

'The Vampyre'
"The Vampyre" by was incorrectly attributed to Lord Byron when it was published. John Polidori was the author.
Public domain via Houghton Library

That challenge gave rise to "Frankenstein," a story about a re-animated corpse of a very different kind. Byron's contribution to the competition was an unfinished tale about an aristocrat's mysterious encounters on his travels — that story inspired Polidori, his doctor, to publish "The Vampyre" three years later. (The novella was originally incorrectly attributed to Byron himself, which probably helped sales.)

This marked the beginning of vampires with class. The vampires prior had mostly been unremarkable townspeople, climbing from their graves in a manner more reminiscent of modern zombies. But Polidori took Byron as his model for the vampire character Lord Ruthven — a charming aristocrat with dangerous appetites.

"The Vampyre" sparked a pop culture phenomenon: There were unauthorized sequels, a flurry of other vampire tales and numerous stage adaptations. Even Queen Victoria saw the vampire plays, according to one of her biographies".

Fifty years later, Sheridan Le Fanu gave the world its first favorite female vampire in "Carmilla," which he published in 1872. In "Carmilla," a young woman falls prey to a vampire in an isolated castle. Sound familiar? Scholars have noted many similarities between "Carmilla" and Bram Stoker's vampire masterpiece, "Dracula," which followed twenty-five years later.

By the time "Dracula" was published, the reading public was steeped in vampire tales. Stoker drew on the existing tropes to create a lasting horror masterpiece that has become a cultural staple. The character of Count Dracula has since appeared in more than 200 films.

A still from 'Nosferatu'
The 1922 German horror film, "Nosferatu," is based on Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." Here, the vampire Count Orlok is destroyed by sunlight.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images

The portrayal of vampires in literature has continued to evolve. Richard Matheson gave vampires a zombie bent in 1954's "I Am Legend," where a vampire plague ravaged the planet. 

Anne Rice, however, is the one who gave vampires a heart. Rice's wildly popular vampire books gave a backstory to the bloodsucking monsters and made them not only sympathetic but sexy. "Interview with a Vampire" is credited with reviving the vampire genre.

The mix of vampires, sex and romance wasn't new — even the 19th-century vampire tales had suggestive overtones — but Rice's spin was sensational. The rise of vampires as objects of romance eventually led to the young adult phenomenon of "Twilight," where Stephenie Meyer made millions reinventing the fanged legends. Meyer's vampires sparkled in the sun and opted for deer blood over humans. (That's a vegetarian as a vampire can get.)

So what's next for the fanged legends? Another reinvention is likely waiting in the wings.

From undead peasants to dangerous aristocrats to paperback heartthrobs, it seems vampires just won't die.