Sunday, 25 November 2012

Dracula's Guest

Victorian Vampire Stories! Well I don't know about you, but I'm sold already. Michael Sims begins his collection by making excuses. Not all of the stories are Victorian, either by era, locality or the holder of the pen that spawned them. I'm still sold. And this is despite Sims' efforts to shake me from my purchase with a stumbling beginning to the collection. To get to the good stuff we have to climb over the scattered rough debris of several supposed true accounts preceded by  Sims' introduction, filled with personal asides and  an unconscionable concluding paragraph, which seems to hold up Stephanie Meyer as some kind of guru and ultimate literary culmination of the genre.
Each story begins with a short essay from Sims that include some biographical information of the authors and an examination of their story's place within the literary development of the Vampire genre, particularly in how they might have influenced Bram Stoker.
Byron's incomplete effort, conceived on the same famous night that would birth Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, gives way to his friend John Polidori's story featuring his Vampyre, a bloodsucker hardly indistinguishable from Byron himself. The vampire as a seductive parasite is prevalent throughout the collection, the main plot being generally either the victim's struggle to free themselves from their wasting doom as in Tieck's Wake Not The Dead or Gautier's The Deathly Lover, or the same scenario featuring the victim's friends trying to break the spell as in Anne Crawford's A Mystery of the Capagna.
Limits of the genre aside, there are some excellent stories here, like the unattributed The Mysterious Stranger, without which Stoker's Dracula would surely have turned out differently; Mary Elizabeth Braddon's challenging atmospheric Good Lady Ducayne; M,R,James' Count Magnus, finding a more comfortable home here away from the ghosts and demons of his anthologies and Aleksei Tolstoy 's doomed Family of the Vourdalak. Sometimes it's just a moment in the story that sets it above other stories like the nightmarish slow invasion of the room by the long fingered blood sucker picking the lead from the window glass in Augustus Hare's And The Creature Came In.
Not all the stories are of such high standard though. The first chapter of Rymer's Varney the Vampire is included here, hugely popular in its day and even influential, but whose peculiar style reads often like an extended list of stage directions. Thankfully we are spared the remaining 108 instalments. Aylmer Vance and the Vampire by Alice and Claude Askew, a sort of supernatural investigator hybrid of Holmes and Watson crossed with John Silence but without much flare, wit or invention. Other stories score high on the creep-o-meter but are questionable as true vampire stories e.g. What Was it? & Let Loose.
The anthology concludes with the title story,  billed as an omitted chapter from Dracula, though I would surmise that it was more of a false start by Stoker before he committed to the epistolary format.
I recommend this book for all connoisseurs of the vampire story and its literary evolution, vampire lovers or just seekers of chills before bedtime.