The modern concept of a vampire is only a century and a half old or so. Aristocratic, posh, and stylish, we picture a vampire as a vision of seductive, masculine power bent over a sleeping woman, greedily drinking blood from her ivory neck. During and before Hoffmann’s prime, however, the vampire was depicted as more of a cannibal or ghoul: eating the flesh of the recently dead. What’s more, far from being well-dressed or suave, vampires were depicted as a mix between a werewolf, zombie, and demon: a stinking, fetid corpse with mummified features, glowing eyes, and putrid flesh. Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and Lord Byron largely led to this change in visualization during the course of the 19th century. Stoker, naturally, introduced us to the courtly Count, inspired by the deep eroticism found in Le Fanu’s libidinous lesbian, Carmilla.
Byron, however, was the first major influence in what we view as a vampire today – though it had nothing to do with his writing and everything to do with his personal reputation. Byron – who was infamously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” – was known to be a very successful seducer of women (and men) and was responsible for at least one woman’s suicide (Mary Shelley’s heart-broken half-sister). His reputation as a lady-killer and sex-addict was blurred into a convincing caricature by his personal doctor – a narcotic-soaked sycophant who hated Byron as much as he adored him – John Polidori. His 1816 novelette, The Vampyre, was written during the same brainstorming session that produced Frankenstein, but his blood sucker looked far more like Byron – a suave, masculine, tall-dark-and-handsome type – than the rotting ghouls of Eastern European legend.
Byron himself had been heavily influenced by Balkan folklore, using it to inspire his own vampire narrative in the Gothic epic The Giaour, wherein the vampire is described as a loathsome ghoul. Partially influenced by Byron’s life, partially by The Giaour, Polidori single-handedly shifted the vampire’s collective image from a necrophiliac cannibal to an erotic seducer feasting on the living blood of the young and beautiful. His vampire, Lord Ruthven, was universally recognized as a caricature of Byron, so much so that – to both men’s chagrin – it was widely believed that Byron wrote the novelette himself. Hoffmann’s own contribution to vampiric literature is interesting because it takes place on the verge of the shift – just after The Vampyre though prior to Carmilla (upon which it had a tremendous influence) – and contains both the Gothic gore and Victorian eroticism of their respective vampire mythologies. Added to this is an especially Hoffmannesque bugbear: a neurotically nightmarish treatment of pregnancy cravings…
In the framing narrative, we listen in on a meeting of the Serapion Brothers – a literary society of Prussian writers and intellectuals (so-named because their first meeting took place on the feast day of St. Seraphin). One member, Sylvester, brings up John Polidori’s recent, sensational novel, The Vampyre. Like Frankenstein (which was born from the same 1816 horror writing contest between Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys), The Vampyre had electrified post-war Europe with its grisly details and unvarnished cynicism. Together, the two novels also jump-started English-language supernatural fiction (previously dominated by the French and Germans) and – with their modern rather than medieval settings – led to a revitalization of Western, paranormal folklore.
At Sylvester’s prompting, the group begins discussing what odds and ends they know about vampire mythology – a topic which they consider repulsive and deeply disturbing. The friends’ contributions include two quotations from historical descriptions of genuinely-believed cases of vampirism (a 1725 treatise from the Rev. Michael Ranft and a 1732 letter from Lt. Sigismund von Kottwitz), before one of them, Cyprian, offers his own true story – or so he has been told – about a vampire. Once told to him by a friend, it involves a coven of vampires who haunted an unspecified European parish sometime in the recent past.
It follows the rise and downfall of the beautiful Aurelia, a debutante living in poverty with her mother, a widowed baroness. One day, they learn that their distant relation, Count Hyppolitus, has inherited his late father’s massive estate, and decide to congratulate him in hopes of reversing their situation. Hyppolitus remembers that his father despised the baroness, though he cannot remember why, and although he is enchanted by the graceful Aurelia, he cannot deny that something about her elderly mother – with her bony frame, cold skin, and cloudy, blind eyes – is repulsive.
Still, after inviting them to stay with him, he rapidly falls in love with the charming Aurelia, and they become engaged in short time. Their wedding, however, is almost immediately marred by tragedy when the baroness is found dead that morning, throwing Aurelia into a hysterical panic attack, during which she admits to her husband that his father was right about her mother: she was an astonishingly evil woman who drove her father to his death and had a scandalous affair with a sadistic baron. She tells him multiple childhood traumas: being shown her father’s corpse, after which she was terrorized – for reasons she wouldn’t fully divulge – by visits from the threatening baron who began paying her adulterous mother’s bills but who was ultimately arrested for physically abusing both of them after Aurelia exposed his tortures.
Far from being grateful for her bravery, however, the baroness brutally punishes Aurelia for having scared away their sugar daddy. During one especially caustic tirade, she puts a curse on her daughter:
“You are my misfortune, horrible creature that you are! But in the midst of your imagined happiness vengeance will overtake you, if I should be carried away by a sudden death. In those [painful contractions], which your birth cost me, the subtle craft of the devil—-”
But Aurelia is too traumatized to finish the curse, only saying that she genuinely fears that her mother might climb out of her grave to drag her away from her happy marriage and into hell. Exhausted and embarrassed, she tries to backtrack her anxieties and attributes her mother’s cruelty to “the delirium of her insanity.” However cathartic her story may have been, Hyppolitus notes that from that point on, she seemed to grow even more secretive and anxious, as if she were responsible for hiding some dreadful thing. She begins taking lengthy, lonely walks, and spurning food:
“In a very short time Aurelia began to alter very perceptibly. Whilst the deathly paleness of her face, and the fatigued appearance of her eyes, seemed to point to sortie bodily ailment, her mental state--confused, variable, restless, as if she were constantly frightened at something--led to the conclusion that there was some fresh mystery perturbing her system. She shunned her husband. She shut herself up in her rooms, sought the most solitary walks in the park.”
This state continues for weeks, and Hyppolitus’ concern turns into dread that Aurelia might starve herself to death. He summons a renowned doctor who informs him that, while he can't explain her malaise, he deduces that she is pregnant. The doctor suggests that her lack of appetite will likely give way to pregnancy cravings, and begins musing on the "wonderful longings which women in that condition become possessed by, and which they cannot resist without the most injurious effects supervening upon their own health."
Sometimes, he notes darkly, while Aurelia listens with unusual attentiveness, "these strange, abnormal longings" can lead to tragedies -- even "terrible crimes." For example, he tells them about the disturbing case of a pregnant woman who began to foster a psychotic desire to eat her husband’s flesh. One night when he came home drunk and she savagely butchered him with a carving knife.
The doctor is also boggled by how Aurelia is managing to stay alive without any signs of having eaten in weeks, but one of Hyppolitus’ servants comes forward with some information that may explain the mystery: ever since the wedding, Aurelia has been slipping out of the chateau at night, returning just before daybreak. Hyppolitus, who has been sleeping heavily since then, wonders if she is drugging him in order to see a lover like her lecherous mother.
His fears are at least partially accurate: that night he discreetly avoids drinking the tea she makes him each night, and is disturbed to find himself alert when he is usually overwhelmed with sleepiness. At midnight, while spying on his wife, he sees her steal out of the chateau making a beeline through the countryside to a local graveyard. He watches her in the gloomy moonlight as she heads towards a violated grave, which is surrounded by a ghoulish coven of cannibals:
“There, in the bright moonlight, he saw a circle of frightful, spectral-looking creatures. Old women, half naked, were cowering down upon the ground, and in the midst of them lay the corpse of a man, which they were tearing at with wolfish appetite.
“Aurelia was amongst them.”
Stunned, he staggers around the countryside until dawn, when he returns to the chateau to find Aurelia already returned. Despite his yearning to believe that it was all a gruesome dream, he loudly explains that he now understands why Aurelia never eats human food, accusing of being a cannibal and a ghoul. Instead of being shocked, hurt, or embarrassed, sweet, docile Aurelia lunges at him:
“As soon as those words had passed his lips, the Countess flew at him, uttering a sound between a snarl and a howl, and bit him on the breast with the fury of a hyena. He dashed her from him on to the ground, raving fiercely as she was, and she [expired] in the most terrible convulsions.”
Shaken to the depths of his soul by this sight, Hyppolitus is driven hopelessly insane and dies a maniac.
At the closing of the tale, Cyprian’s friends express shock and disgust, comparing Ranft and von Kottwitz’s stories to children’s Christmas entertainment. However, one of them – Theodor – quietly thanks Cyprian for censoring himself: he had read a fully detailed account of Aurelia and her mother years ago and particularly remembers the baroness’ “atrocities … in all their minutae.” Traumatized by the memory of those details, he quietly admits that it “took a long while [for him] to get over.”
Hoffmann’s influence on the modern vampire story is surprisingly strong. While Polidori holds the title of first major vampire story in the English language, and while Germans, Slavs, and Poles had been writing about vampires for some five centuries or more, his nuanced treatment – the beautiful vampire winning its way into the trust of an aristocratic circle – was something rather new. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written about a similar set-up in his 1797 poem “Christabel” (although the malevolent Geraldine is more monster than vampire), but Hoffmann’s hallmark dedication to realism (setting the tale in the near past rather than – as Colderidge – in a nondescript medieval time) would have ramifications for Le Fanu’s design of Carmilla (also about a female vampire who is introduced to a respectable family by a malicious, mysterious mother who immediately disappears), which would be the pattern upon which Stoker developed Dracula (with bits and pieces borrowed from The Vampyre and Trilby).
Hoffmann’s own unique take on the vampire myth, however, has never been replicated and bears unpacking. Like so many of his horror motifs, the idea of pregnancy cravings leading to necrophagia seems to have its roots in the unconscious. Freud, of course, would have had much to say about the obvious anxieties of fatherhood. Hoffmann represents his pregnant antagonist completing a transformation complained of by husbands for centuries: she turns into her mother. And, in a Freudian sense, she goes from desired sexual partner to used-up nag – from Madonna to Whore, or – more accurately – from innocent child to worldly woman.
Hoffmann certainly seemed to have a thing for young, unspoiled girls. I don’t necessarily mean to say that it was an inappropriate or pedophilic instinct, but his experience living with his overbearing, independent mother certainly made him wary of rough, unnurturing women, and he found himself perpetually drawn to imaginative, impressionable girls who would not trespass on his creativity with lectures about practical life. A basic Freudian interpretation of the story points to Aurelia’s climactic exposure (being taught by a coven of matronly, saggy-breasted women how to consume the body of a man) as a common masculine anxiety of watching your pretty, young wife become her mother and – with the introduction of children – gradually eat away at your time, resources, peace of mind, and creativity.
The demands of fatherhood and marriage would certainly be challenging for an independent, imaginative loner like Hoffmann. The story certainly comes with some strong misogynistic elements, but, as with nearly all of his work, it speaks with conviction and sincerity, not as a politically correct parable of gender roles, but as a viscerally honest expression of a personal anxiety.