An eloquent case for the vitality of the vampire figure, from 18th-century Slavic folk tales to Twilight, via Dracula.. Nick Groom concludes this invigorating study of vampires by suggesting that we should try to be a bit more like them. Thankfully this doesn’t entail hanging shiftily around blood donor banks or having your cuspids filed to a point... Rather, Groom wants us to think about vampires as a way of re-enchanting the contemporary human condition... This insistence on the historical specificity of vampires is carried through to Groom’s account of Dracula, in which he shows that while Stoker’s classic of 1897 plays off gothic tropes from earlier in the century, it is also strenuously up-to-date... At exactly the moment when human life was becoming circumscribed by the digital datasphere, vampires were a reminder that some aspects of experience are simply too slippery and strange to be captured in an algorithm. And it is to keep us open to that numinous unreality, Groom says, that we should continue to invite vampires across the threshold and into our imaginative lives.
These points are all good, but do they need to be made quite as insistently and repetitively as they are here? The Vampire is academic to a fault, drawing on sources as diverse as early theological tracts, contemporary accounts of the Habsburg empire, and pre-Victorian medical manuals. One gets the sense that no piece of research has been allowed to go unmentioned: the bibliography runs to some twenty-five pages, the notes to forty. Groom sounds like an enthusiastic teacher – he is indeed a Professor of English in the University of Exeter – pursuing his pet topic through a series of interminable lectures, in which only the occasional gruesome nugget shakes awake the dozing student.
We’re suckers for those suckers — so much so that even academia is getting in on the act. As Nick Groom, an English professor at Exeter university says in his densely researched new book: ‘Vampires are good to think with.’... For all the sex, though, the book steers clear of anything too semiotic or psychoanalytic. For a literature don, Groom writes with great clarity. The sections on Romanticism’s roots in the Eastern European Gothic are very impressive. He is good on paralleling what he calls Keats’s ‘deathly wooings’ with the lure of Transylvanian transubstantiation, and I found it hard to argue with his suggestion that Frankenstein ‘reverberates with vampire thinking’... Talking of feelings, it’s only right to point out that The Vampire is a joy to behold. This is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen for a long time. Elegantly designed and typeset, and printed on a creamy paper that bulks out a slim page-count into something handsome and hefty, it ought to make rival publishers ashamed of their, well, vampiric practices.
Groom pays due attention to the scientific background to the vampire phenomenon, including the studies of blood, plagues, transfusion and mass delusion. (Fascinating detail: Sir Christopher Wren carried out one of the pioneering experiments in hypodermic injections by making his dog drunk on wine injected into its veins.) He also notes the importance of the theological debates that the vampire phenomenon provoked, since they might be seen as weird proof of life after death. Protestant divines tended to ignore the undead, while Catholics, more carnally inclined, were worried, or sometimes inspired, by this new evidence for bodily resurrection. There was talk of Lazarus and another, more fundamental case of bodily resurrection...The final chapter is on Dracula, which prompts the obvious and major objection to Groom’s otherwise admirable study. To call your book ‘A New History’ and end – some hasty afterthoughts aside – in 1897 is akin to producing A New History of Britain that ends with the death of Queen Victoria. The book’s conclusion, which runs to no more than twelve pages, breathlessly stuffs in everything that has happened in the vampire world in the last 121 years, including vampire films and television programmes, Goth music and culture, and – bathetically – a discourse on the potato as vampire...None of this would greatly matter had the book been presented to the reading public as, say, The Vampire: From Folklore to Dracula. There is a good deal here that is indeed new (to me, at any rate), especially in the profusion of detail Groom has dug up from 18th-century sources, but his study does little to change the overall shape of the story, familiar to anyone who has read the magisterial books on vampires by Christopher Frayling, the Van Helsing de nos jours. Fans of, say, True Blood, the Twilight books and films, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Blade comics and films, and other enormously successful modern productions might enjoy encountering the roots of their favourite entertainments. To anyone who has long since been bitten by the topic of the undead: caveat emptor.