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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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F. Marion Crawford's For the Blood is the Life: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Today the word “vampire” conjures immediate images of courtly men exuding an aristocratic masculinity – tall, dark, and handsome. Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Brad Pitt, Frank Langella. But before Bram Stoker the word “vampire” had an almost universally female connotation: the femme fatale, the lustful seductress. This is patently obvious in the arts, where paintings titled “The Vampire” overwhelmingly feature female subjects: Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting shows a redheaded vixen plunging her teeth into the neck of a bowing suitor; Sir Philip Burne-Jones’ highly erotic 1897 print shows a naked woman straddling an unconscious man, crowing over his lifeless body; Ernst Stoehr’s 1899 illustration depicts a woman gleefully pinning a screaming man to the earth – her bare breasts sway beneath her, her eyes and teeth gleam. In literature, the female vampire is a creature as ancient in human mythology as the alluring Sirens of Homer, the mortifying Medusa, and the bloodthirsty lamia and strix – female eaters of men in Greek mythology. The Romantics took up the mantle of Greek Antiquity: Goethe introduced the murderous “Bride of Corinth,” Coleridge gave us his leprous specter, “Life-in-Death,” and his lizard-hided lesbian Geraldine, while Keats generated the ambiguous but sinister “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and Poe’s Sirens included the willful Ligeia, Morella, and Madeline Usher. Not to be beat, Le Fanu offered up his masterpiece in the character of the Byronic seductress Carmilla – the consummate lesbian vampire, who is frequently depicted as Dracula’s female counterpart (indeed, “Dracula” was a well written rip off of “Carmilla”)..

In the Edwardian period Arthur Conan Doyle featured the trope in “John Barrington Cowles” (wherein a hypnotic sadist – implied to derive sexual pleasure from whipping her servant and harming dogs – seduces a man and drives him to his death), F. G. Loring famously used it in “The Tomb of Sarah” – a one hit wonder that continues to be a vampire classic – and even Bram Stoker made a female vampire the subject of his Dracula prequel, “Dracula’s Guest.”

"For the Blood is the Life" certainly owes a great deal to Keats, Poe, and Le Fanu in particular, as well as Arthur Machen (for it is an unmistakable cousin of “The Great God Pan” and its fiancé-killing femme fatale, Helen Vaughan). Like “The Tomb of Sarah,” it has become a cult classic, well represented in vampire anthologies. It contributes little to the conversation – essentially rephrasing a good ghost story in terms of a vampire tale – but is well written, compelling, and remarkable for several chilling moments. It remains one of Crawford’s most famous tales, perhaps only bested by “The Upper Berth.” The narrator is visiting his friend -- a Scandinavian artist living in an Italian villa -- and the two enjoy a pipe on his balcony, overlooking a moon-drenched landscape. In the dusk the narrator seems to pick up on a strange mound of earth -- gravelike and solemn. His host acknowledges that it is indeed a grave. What's more, however, the visitor swears that he sees the figure of a woman in white stretched out over the mound. This is also no trick of the moonlight, the host calmly assures him: it is a phantom that appears in the moonlight on a regular basis, but one which is only visible from far away. To prove his point, he walks to the grave and stands where the figure was. Still able to see It, the narrator is horrified to witness the Thing -- invisible to his host -- writhing up and down his body in supplication. Utterly stunned, the guest demands to know the backstory of this tragic figure. The stoic artist tells him how a love triangle (between an arrogant boy named Angelo, his devoted admirer, a Gypsy girl named Cristina, and her own admirer, a dejected shepherd named Maratea) lead to Cristina's dramatic murder at the hands of robbers, who killed her while making off with Angelo's inheritance. Wild and sensual while alive, and cut down in the passion of her love for Angelo, her vampiric ghost returned from the grave to court Angelo in her shroud. Depressed at his sudden poverty, Angelo accepts the overtures of the beautiful phantom -- a woman he believes to be the subject of a dream -- and the two consummate their frustrated love on her grave. When Angelo awakes, however, he is on the damp ground, and it is clear that his nightmare has more reality to it than he would care to confess. Throughout the story's remainder, the artist details how Angelo's necrophilic encounters sucked him deeper and deeper into Cristina's spell, and his hair-breadth escape left her spirit mired in eternal misery.

In European folklore, there are far more ways for a person to become a vampire than through an infected bite or a Satanic bargain. Some of the most popular causes of vampirism were suicide (probably the MOST popular), dying while still a virgin, dying young, being murdered, trying exotic sexual acts, partaking in witchcraft, or – wait for it – having your corpse jumped over by a dog or cat before burial. In Cristina’s case it seems to be a combination of implied participation in the black arts and the violent manner of her death. Many scholars believe that legends like this may have been spread to discourage acts of violence (you may be less likely to kill that guy you just robbed if you fear he might return from the dead), and stories like this were widely spread across Central and Southern Europe. Germanic, Slavic, and Mediterranean countries particularly perpetuated vampire stories (French, Norse, and British cultures were dominated by the seductive fairies, kidnapping elves, and murderous demons popular in Nordic and Celtic folklore, making vampires a tad redundant). Crawford was most famous during his lifetime for his Italian settings and his accurate depiction of life in the Mediterranean. While we cannot know for certainty if this story – which sounds so little like literary fiction and so much like a folk tale – it would not be surprising in the least considering his coziness with Italian culture and his dedication to exposing readers in Britain and America to a slice of the Mediterranean experience.

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