· By Demona Lauren

INTERVIEW with Dr Nick Groom | DEMONA LAUREN for Vampyre magazine

Dr Nick Groom is a Professor of Literature in English at the University of Macau. He first became a lecturer in English at the University of Exeter in 1994, before moving to the the University of Bristol 6 years later. He has also been a Visiting Associate Professor at Stanford University, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. In 2007, he returned to the University of Exeter, as he was made Professor in English and established the Exeter Center for Literatures of Identity, Place, and Sustainability in 2008. Nick Groom has written books on subjects from literary forgery, to the history of English seasonal customs, as well as essays on J. R. R. Tolkien, the singer Nick Cave, and national identities. He is a frequent commentator on television, radio, and at literary festivals. He is best known for his work on the Gothic - which includes The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction and editions of major works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – and he has since become known as the "Prof of Goth" in the media and in academic circles. His most recent book is The Vampire: A New History.

 

 Hello Dr. Groom. It is a pleasure to have you with us today. Your specialty is the political context of 17th and 18th century England. To what extent has the case of the Vampires turned out to be relevant and established itself as obvious in the context of the study of this historical period ? 

 

Hello – it is nice to meet you. I wouldn’t actually say that my specialism is confined to the political context of 17th- and 18th-century England. Rather, I’m a literary and cultural historian. The vampire was first identified in the early 18th century, and my work examines how it was investigated, and analyzed by commentators in different fields: physicians and bioscientists, magistrates, theologians and churchmen, political theorists, philosophers, economists, and of course poets, dramatists, and novelists.

 

 You released a book entitled The Vampire : A New History. Through which lens do you study the creature in your work ?  

 

All of the above! For example, when the first account of the appearance of vampires was published in London, it was interpreted as a political allegory and satire; meanwhile, the first poem on a vampire was published in German in a scientific natural history journal; and major French philosophers discussed vampire appearances as part of a debate about the reliability of witnesses and testimony.

 

 How do you consider your book to be different from previous books on the subject ? 

 

First, I don’t present a general history of bloodsuckers from around the world – although there are plenty of them. I present the vampire as effectively a ‘discovery’ when Enlightement science and philosophy encountered East European folklore in the early 1730s. This is the first time that the term ‘vampire’ is recognizably used. Officials of the Habsburg Empire then investigated the cases in considerable detail, interviewing witnesses and exhuming corpses, and the results of their enquiries were published in scientific journals and reached the popular press. I then trace these debates as they developed through the 18th and 19th centuries, covering areas such as animal rights and theories of contagion – as well as literature. I argue that Dracula is very much a culmination of nearly two centuries of vampirology ; after all, Bram Stoker spent seven years researching his novel and was familiar with much of the science surrounding vampire activity.

 

 I remember you said that vampires were a very relevant tool for understanding how power shapes individuals and citizens. Could you more explicitly explain how Vampires contribute to the analysis of specifically social dynamics between societies and individuals ? 

 

Broadly, in two ways. First, by presenting us with a non-human humanoid that, (not unlike Frankenstein’s Being) is very ‘near human’, but has significant differences – such as diet, (turning human blood into nutrition), infection, (turning humans into vampires), and mortality, (only able to be slain in certain ways). Secondly, vampires are effectively ‘thought experiments’ that enable us to analyze how powers such as the law, or medical science, define humans and non-humans, (outsiders). In V-lit (vampire fiction), particularly in the 19th century, there are often doctors and physicians involved in the stories, so there’s a strong indication of how bio-sciences are shaping the definition of the human against the non-human outsider – and this may, for example, focus on the very definition of life in post-mortem practices that recommend how long an apparently dead body should be left ‘lying in’ before it is buried; there’s also material on premature burial in the book....

 

 Today, if I may, I'd like to tackle the question by studying it through its religious prism. For many people and academics, the Vampire is a popular myth. For others, it is a reality, and more specifically socially, as an identity more than the simple embodiment of the undead. In his study of mythical figures, scholar Joseph Campbell, (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces), defines mythical nature as an imagery, a symbolism that allows human societies to handle the evolution and advancements of civilization. Thus, vampirism would be an actual “religion", as he explains it, as being a tool for understanding changes in the environment, be it social, political, or economic. What do you think of this idea of ​​the quasi-religious role of vampirism in the historical context of the 17th and 18th century in Europe?   

 

Yes – a good example of the vampire as ‘thought experiment’. But with regards to religion, I’d first want to stress that vampires came in for a great deal of theological analysis from the Catholic church in the 18th Century as they seemed to provide evidence of some sort of afterlife – but, more importantly, that vampires are physical, tangible beings that have a biological logic, and require certain conditions in which to thrive. Even when they shapeshift and dematerialize, (as Count Dracula does), they retain physical characteristics. So they are very different from intangible ghosts and spirits. They are, in many senses, ‘things’ rather than aspects of faith. Even within the Christian church, vampires appear to identify fault-lines between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

 

 The question that might come to be asked is ultimately quite obvious. Why did the Catholic Church not immediately try to eradicate vampirism if it gradually imposed itself as the alternative religion or counter-religion of some people ? 

 

It wasn’t a counter-religion – it was a way of making sense of things such as sudden and terrifying fatal contagions. Explaining the spread of infection through vampire attacks was just as believable as putting it down to the breath, or even the look of infected persons. You have to remember that this was long before contagion was understood – as well as how awful and supernaturally swift diseases such as Cholera were. The Church did support investigations into vampires – such as by allowing exhumation – but it was really up the military, medical, and imperial authorities to eradicate them.

 

 The historical study of vampirism shows that rather than negate it, the Church encouraged its propagation in order to strengthen its own discourse on salvation for all the faithful who came to fight the " Evil " that the Vampire represents. In your opinion, is it legitimate to think that the Church also had its role to play in the pure and simple creation of the Vampire as we know it, with its highly depreciating characteristics ?   

 

Not really, no. The vampire may be seen as a parody of communion or crucifixion, or, (as I say), of the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox churches – so it is wedded to Christian symbolism, (as one would expect). There were certainly some communities in which the local priest encouraged the belief – but higher church authorities were outraged by the exhumations, stakings, and cremation of corpses.

 

 If I may, let me remind to the readers that the Church was in urgent need of expanding into the territory of the Balkans during the 15th century. It was also during this same historical period that the figure of Vlad III, Dracula, was born. I would like to allude to Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film, the book in which Erik Butler depicts the Vampire as a kind of historical skinshifter. Why would it evolve if it was not to adapt it to the needs of the time? Isn't this the ultimate proof of a religious, politico-social appropriation of the creature?  

 

Erik Butler is a very thought-provoking commentator on the vampire, (and also, in his latest book, on the Devil). In terms of changing through time, the shifts of the nature of the vampire certainly shadow changes in all the fields and sciences I have mentioned – for example, when Karl Marx adopts the figure in Capital. It really functions as what Laurence Coupe has described as ‘radical typology’, (referring to the work of Marina Warner). There is no original, fixed vampire figure to which all later versions refer – at least, until we get to Count Dracula after nearly two centuries. What we have are a series of reworkings and accretions; Stoker then does come up with a detailed, composite depiction that profoundly influences later vampires – if only as a depiction that they try to resist.

 

 While a good number of documents on vampires fall within folklore, there are a number of accounts that fall within the academic realm. Research at the University of Hertfordshire has uncovered the intriguing tale of the Croglin Vampire, who first appeared in Cumberland to a Miss Fisher in the 1750’s. The Vampire is said to scratch windows before returning to his vault. They would have discovered that the vault did exist and that it was full of broken coffins, the contents of which were found mutilated. Only one coffin was found intact, that of Vampire Croglin himself. It is very widely spread that the Vampire is a creature that first appeared in Eastern Europe. However, there is a so-called parallel historicity all over Europe. Was it the idea of ​​instrumentalization of the Vampire that has moved across Europe or was the proper creation of ​​the Vampire basically uniformly European but declined in different forms on national plans according to needs? 

 

There are plenty of revenants, walking dead, and bloodsuckers in folklore the world over. The ‘Croglin Vampire’, (published as a story in 1871 – so about 120 years after it supposedly manifested,) is a typical English revenant reinvented for a Victorian audience electrified by Varney the Vampire and the dozens of other 19th Century vampire tales. But, as I suggested at the outset, if one treats every undead bloodsucker as a vampire, the category of vampire becomes diffuse. There are plenty of undead beings in Medieval tales, in archaeological evidence of ‘deviant burials’ of the Anglo-Saxon period, in Icelandic saga, and earlier in Roman and Ancient Greek mythology – not to mention in China and elsewhere. Describing all of these as ‘vampires’ is a bit like saying that everything is ‘Gothic’ – it dilutes the term and ultimately makes it meaningless. So I stick with when they were first called ‘vampires’.

 

 What is the political climate in England around the issue of Vampirism in the early 17th century? And what are its early political ends?  

 

The vampire was treated as a political allegory and gradually moved up the social scale: stockbrokers, venture capitalists, army officers, even literary critics were all described as vampires.

 

 Generally speaking, how does the average Englishman react to this political discourse around Good and Evil in the midst of the Age of Reason?

 

With scepticism – which is why V-lit is slow to take off. It is only with the advent of the Romantic movement in which supernatural extremes become the stuff of literature that the vampire finds its place in culture.

 

 In England also, Vampirism revolves around religion. I am thinking in particular of Dracula by Bram Stocker. We know that, at that time, the people gradually start questioning traditional Christian practices due to the rise of scientific understanding in the 19th century, and it has an impact on literary themes. Why is it in the Gothic novel that this struggle against and within religious communities is expressed the most ? 

 

Some hidden references aside, Stoker’s Dracula isn’t primarily about religion in my opinion: it is about new science, weird science, (Kodak cameras), invisible forces, (the telegraph), that seem to overlap with the psychic and supernatural. The book was praised at the time for its ‘up-tp-datedness’: it is very much a novel of the 1890’s. The social aspects of the 1890’s, (such as the ‘New Woman’ movement), are more telling than the more conventional Gothic attention to ruined abbeys and so forth.

 

 Is it necessary to point out that The Croglin Story was retold by Dr Augustus Hare, a clergyman, in his Memorials of a Quiet Life in 1871? The Church then, once again.

 

Not exactly – it is told by Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, the author and nephew of Revd Augustus William Hare. Augustus John Cuthbert Hare used some of his uncle’s letters for Memorials of a Quiet Life – but again, the tale was being told decades after the apparent events. More interesting to my mind is Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote four vampire tales. But what else is a cleryman to do ? 

 

 How will the figure of the Vampire continue to evolve in the coming decades according to you? 

 

It will continue to haunt scientific progress – most obviously in vaccination and contagion theory, and medicophobia. As early as 1904 Sabine Baring Gould describes a vampire speaking as follows:

 

Folk called us [vampires] once Anarchists, Nihilists, Socialists, Levellers, now they call us the Influenza. The learned talk of microbes, and bacilli, and bacteria. Microbes, bacilli, and bacteria be blowed! We are the Influenza; we are the social failures, the generally discontented, coming up out of cheap and nasty graves in the form of physical disease. We are the Influenza.

 

More generally, it has been interesting how vampires have in the past 20 years shadowed ethical issues, (so we now have ‘green’ vampires,) and social media: they are reflections of current anxieties.

 

 Last question. Are you working on another book at the moment ? Does it have anything to do with Vampires ?  

 

I am editing an anthology of pre-Dracula vampire tales for Oxford University Press – it should be published in paperback in the next 18 months or so, (and will contain a few surprises). Some of that work has led to two essays on Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, due to be published shortly.

 

 It sounds very interesting then. The culture of many Vampyres turns out to be highly influenced by Polidori's literature. I have no doubt of the interest that your future work could generate. It was a pleasure to have this conversation with you, Professor.

 

Thank you – a pleasure!

 

 

Official links :

https://fah.um.edu.mo/nick-groom/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/criq.12576

Twitter : @Prof_Nick_Groom

 

For his books :

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-gothic-a-very-short-introduction-9780199586790?cc=gb&lang=en& 

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/frankenstein-9780198840824?q=nick%20groom&lang=en&cc=gb

https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300232233/vampire

 

 

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