The ‘bloodthirsty babes we all love to be scared of’ – or vampires as they are better known – are the subject of this exciting edition of the humorous yet informative BBC Radio 4 podcast You’re Dead to Me. Hosted by Greg Jenner, the public historian, author, and ‘chief nerd’ on children’s comedy programme Horrible Histories, the podcast covers an array of key historical figures and moments. For each episode Jenner is joined by a ‘brainiac’, in this case Dr Corin Throsby, and a comedian, the role taken here by Ed Gamble. The objective, like Horrible Histories, is to convey information to listeners who do not necessarily like history in a uniquely comic way (but aimed at adults so swearing is allowed).
In this episode, Jenner expertly guides his listeners through the history of the vampire in the western world, with Throsby and Gamble interjecting their own nuggets of wisdom and/or silliness as applicable. The podcast begins with a look at vampires in medieval times, who were known as sinister ‘revenants’. The vampiric voyage then continues with the story of the ‘Bad-Breath Vampire of Pentsch’, aka the ‘unfortunately named’ Johannes Cuntius who was awful in life and suffered an equally unfortunate and awful death. Whilst Gamble guessed his cause of death as being ‘staked up the bum’, the reality was perhaps even worse – ‘general groinal damage’ after being kicked by a horse in a delicate area. This point in particular provoked extensive discussion. After his death, Cuntius returned and terrorised the townsfolk, by vomiting fire, throwing goats around, and as causing mayhem is hungry work, sucking the milk out of cow’s udders.
Of particular interest for us BSECS Criticks readers, Jenner and his guests emphasise that these creative stories formed the basis of the wave of vampire fiction that became prominent during the long eighteenth century. The remainder of the podcast focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the increasing number of popular prose and poetical works that focus on bloodsuckers.
1746 saw the publication of the most famous vampirologist of the eighteenth century, Dom Augustin Calmet’s work, the snappily titled Dissertation on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. This work includes a number of top tips to kill vampiric personae, including sucking on their gums (as Gamble points out, this would be exactly what a vampire would want you to do as the sucker – in both senses of the word – would be then near the vampire’s mouth). Two years later in 1748 came Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’, a short German poem, which includes what is thought to be the first reference to a vampire in modern Western literature.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the word vampire was being used in the English language, not just for signalling bloodsucking fiends, but also for those who exploited others. The vampire was also increasingly featured in popular literature of the time. John Stagg wrote his ‘The Vampyre’ in 1810, which features a vampiric husband staked through the heart by his wife who refuses to turn into a vampire herself. Vampires returning to harm family members or those they are close to is a popular theme in fiction, as also seen in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, which features the mysterious Geraldine (who Gamble categorises as an ‘erotic Vicar of Dibley’), and ‘hot and heavy’ scenes with the vampiric Christabel. Incidentally, it was this poem that was read by Byron to his circle in Switzerland which Percy Shelley took such aversion to – reportedly as it left him with disturbing “visions”. Jenner helpfully points out that descriptions of Percy Shelley ‘freaking out’ at this poem would ‘get all the kids reading Romantic poetry, because who doesn’t want to think of boobs with eyes’.
The game-changer in vampiric fiction came with John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, published under Byron’s name in 1819. This short novel is remarkable as the first prose piece about vampires, and has Lord Ruthven, the principle character and a thinly veiled caricature of Byron, as a powerful seductive nobleman who just happens to be a vampire. Instead of being a revenant or simply an erotic creature, the vampire became an embodiment of the Byronic hero. Sexy, attractive, brooding yet sociable, Polidori’s vampire is a figure who can pass as human.
The denouement of the Romantic movement (which came about as Jenner says due to ‘everyone dying dramatically’) did not end the fascination with vampires. James Malcolm Rymer published his 876-page penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire in the 1840s, which featured the first sympathetic vampire, and the first with fangs! 1897 was a particularly good year for vampires, as demonstrated with the publication of Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire, which features an orphaned heiress from Jamaica who unknowingly kills her victims by draining their life energy. Also, in this year came Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s text, whilst not originally that popular, is now canonical when we think of vampire literature and much of our “knowledge” of vampires comes from this novel. Over two hundred films have been made about Dracula, and he is probably the best-known vampire in popular culture (bite me, Edward Cullen).
With the end of the podcast and following further discussion on the depths of the Dracula story came the ‘nuance window’, in which the expert guest talks uninterrupted for two minutes. Throsby chose to discuss Byron, who went from writing about vampires in The Giaour to becoming a vampiric figure himself. Films throughout the twentieth century have portrayed Byron as a ‘bloodsucking demon from hell’ with surprising frequency. This includes in Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic, where Byron takes part in satanic rituals and disturbing oral sex scenes. As the first literary celebrity, Throsby concludes that Byron is the perfect vampire for our age. The discussion then turned to the vampires of the future. Gamble remains convinced that the entire UK government are probably vampires (particularly Michael Gove).
On that bloodthirsty note, the podcast quizzed Gamble on his vampiric knowledge (you will have to stake your bets now and listen to the podcast to see how he fared. It won’t be in vein). This concluded an enlightening and dead enjoyable forty-five minutes. The combination of historians Throsby and Jenner and comedian Gamble was an excellent one, who together created a light-hearted and humorous listening experience. Jenner’s aim to present history in a joyful and amusing way is perfectly achieved, and you can bat your bottom dollar that I cannot wait to listen to more You’re Dead to Me podcasts in the future. Count (Dracula) me in.
You’re Dead to Me: Vampires in Gothic Literature was released on 7th August 2020 and is available on the BBC Radio 4 website.