Dracula’s forefathers: Lord Ruthven, Varney and Carmilla

The depiction of the vampire which we see in most of contemporary horror fiction has its roots in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).  Of course, vampires have lurked in the shadows of folklore through recorded history, and Stoker drew upon that folklore in the development of his own tale.

It is worth noting, and not generally appreciated, though, that Dracula was not the first vampire in literature, nor even the first popular vampire in literature.  There were at least 3 precursors, or forefathers, to the modern vampire, stretching back to a dreary summer night in Lake Geneva in 1816, which also produced one of the other great monsters of literature.

Let’s take a look at each of these monsters, their origin, and a little of their influence on the character of “The Count”.

Lord Ruthven, in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819).  In June of 1816, an eclectic group gathered at the summer residence of famed poet Lord Byron in Lake Geneva, Switzerland.  The group consisted of Byron’s mistress Jane Clairmont, her step-sister Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  They joined Byron and John Polidori, a doctor, who were already present, for a nice summer holiday.  The weather was uncharacteristically bad, however, and, unable to enjoy outdoors activities, the group began reading German ghost stories.  A crowd with such literary minds could not be constrained to simply read such stories, and a challenge was raised amongst the group to write their own supernatural tales.   Clairmont and Shelley didn’t finish anything; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, eventually to become Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein.  Lord Byron wrote a fragment known as Augustus Darvell.  John Polidori produced the nightmarish short story The Vampyre.

The tale follows a naive young gentleman named Aubrey who finds himself intrigued by the suave yet peculiar Lord Ruthven.  He joins him on part of a European tour, but quickly finds himself put off by the Lord’s seeming disregard for humanity and, indeed, his desire to worsen the lot of it.  Aubrey travels alone to Greece, where he hears from the locals the story of the vampire.  His path is bound to cross Ruthven’s again, though, and after he makes an ill-advised oath of secrecy to the sinister Lord, he is helpless to stop the creature from achieving its goals.

The connections between Dracula and Lord Ruthven are quite clear: Ruthven is aristocratic and suave, very much a lady’s man, and has a gaze of some power:

He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein.  Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned.

Apart from these traits and, of course, the drinking of blood, Ruthven shares little physiology in common with the modern vampire.  He has no apparent issues with sunlight or crosses.  He can be grievously wounded by mortal weapons, but will be brought back to full health by exposure to the moonlight.  He is very picky about his choice of victims: only pure and innocent women can be the prey of the vampire,

But though the common adulteress could not influence even the guidance of his eyes, it was not that the female sex was indifferent to him: yet such was the apparent caution with which he spoke to the virtuous wife and innocent daughter, that few knew he ever addressed himself to females.

The aspect of Ruthven I found most intriguing is his apparent desire to worsen the state of humanity whenever possible, even in his gambling,

…he betted, and always gambled with success, except where the known sharper was his antagonist, and then he lost even more than he gained; but it was always with the same unchanging face, with which he generally watched the society around: it was not, however, so when he encountered the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family; then his very wish seemed fortune’s law…

Polidori’s tale was a highly influential one, even being made into a play, The Bride of the Isles (1820), by J.R. Planche.

It’s worth mentioning that the foul weather that resulted in two of the most influential horror tales of history likely had a volcanic origin: in 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in the most violent eruption in modern history.  One of the results of the eruption was the disruption of the climate from volcanic ash in the atmosphere; the year 1816 was referred to as “The Year Without a Summer” or “Eighteen hundred and froze to death” because of the uncharacteristically cold and rainy weather.  It is reasonable to suspect that the miserable weather that chased the vacationers in Switzerland inside was the result of Tambora’s cataclysmic eruption.  (What is it with my weird fiction posts and volcanoes?  This concludes the trilogy of such posts, which started with They Found Atlantis and continued with The Last Days of Pompeii.)

I should also mention that a fictionalized film about the events at the summer home has been made, Gothic (1986).  (h/t PD and Critter, who first introduced me to the enjoyable but not spectacular movie.)

Sir Francis Varney, in James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1845).  I’ve already discussed Varney in some detail in an earlier post, so I won’t go into significant detail here.  The 1800’s saw the birth of the “Penny Dreadful” style of fiction, inexpensive, poorly-printed and sensational serials that catered to the newly-literate working class.  Varney the Vampire was one of the most successful of these PDs, and ran for over two hundred chapters before its dramatic end.

The character of Varney serves as sort of a bridge between Lord Ruthven and the later Count Dracula, as he possesses some of the same attributes of Ruthven and introduces other attributes that will become part of Dracula’s character.  Like Ruthven, Varney has a powerful, almost hypnotic gaze and can only feed upon women of virtue.  Also like Ruthven, Varney can be hurt, or even killed, by conventional weapons, but exposure to moonlight will bring him back to life and health, a point that features often in the plot of the serial.

Other aspects of Varney’s tale would eventually become iconic aspects of vampire lore, and even part of the Dracula story.  Varney is often found sporting a long dark cloak, much like the Count.  Most notable, perhaps, is the scene introduced in the opening of Varney, in which a young woman awakens to find the monster at her window:

A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window.  Its finger-nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased.  Intense fear paralysed the limbs of the beautiful girl.  That one shriek is all she can utter — with hand clasped, a face of marble, a heart beating so wildly in her bosom, that each moment it seems as if it would break its confines, eyes distended and fixed upon the window, she waits, froze with horror.  The pattering and clattering of the nails continue.

Flora, paralyzed by the gaze of the intruder, cannot resist as he enters, seizes her, forces her head back and bites her neck:  only then can she cry out for help.  Fortunately, her family is quick to come to her aid, and they rescue the girl from being drained completely of blood.  This scene of a vampire’s invasion into the bedroom is now standard vampire tale fare.

Varney is unique among early vampire stories in that he is an exceedingly sympathetic, even human, character.  Though he begins the serial as an out-and-out villain, he eventually evolves into a character of more depth and even sympathy.  Vampirism is indeed a curse for Varney: he is trapped in an existence which gives him no joy, and later in the serial he will even make attempts to end that existence.  This sympathetic depiction of vampires is unmatched in other contemporary tales of vampirism and would not be reexplored until Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976).  Varney himself is motivated by distinctly human appetites, and seeks after wealth and women (and apparently not only for their blood).

There is no evidence that suggests that Bram Stoker read Varney himself; the story was, however, so popular that it is likely that he was aware of many of the plot elements and may have internalized them for his own tale.  For those interested in reading Varney’s exploits, the 2007 Zittaw Press edition is the first new edition in a century, and the definitive one.  Much of my understanding of the influence of Varney stems from the very insightful supplementary material in the edition.

Carmilla, in Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly (1872)Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was one of the most influential writers of supernatural tales of the nineteenth century.  His collection In A Glass Darkly was published only a year before his death.  The five tales contained within are loosely connected as the case files of Dr. Martin Hesselius, “metaphysical doctor” (and one who I should be adding to my post on psychic detectives in fiction).  Two of the tales in the collection are regularly anthologized, the innocuously-named Green Tea and the fascinating vampire novella Carmilla.

Carmilla takes the form of a narrative written to Doctor Hesselius by a woman named Laura, who relates a series of incidents which took place in her youth.  Laura and her father live in Styria, in the southeast of Austria.  Laura, a young women of nineteen during the story, is eager for some companionship — she has never had a friend of her own age.  One day, as she and her father are out walking, they come across a carriage accident.  A lady and her daughter emerge from the wreckage, seemingly unharmed, though the daughter is in a swoon.  The lady explains that she is on an urgent mission, and cannot delay; Laura’s father agrees to take care of the daughter, Carmilla, until the lady can return.  Laura is delighted, and indeed she and Carmilla become close friends: too close, in fact, as Laura slowly finds her health draining away, and young ladies throughout the region begin to die of a mysterious wasting illness.

(SPOILER ALERT!  The vampire’s (obvious) secret revealed!)

It doesn’t take much of a keen insight for a modern reader to deduce that Carmilla is a vampire.  Though it is certainly true that the vampiric act has always been a metaphor for sexual activity, Le Fanu took this idea even further, making his vampire story one of nearly overt lesbian sexuality.

Carmilla is drawn to Laura, and her affections are returned, though with some mixed feelings:

Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger.  I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her’, but there was also something of repulsion.  In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.  She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.

The feeling is not one-sided either; Laura clearly holds a special place in Carmilla’s heart, as well, though not necessarily a spot reserved for love.  As noted in the tale,

The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons.  In pursuit of these it will exercise inehaustible patience and strategem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways.  It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim.  But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship.  In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent.  In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.

Le Fanu seems to have chosen this woman-to-woman attraction to maximize the unnaturalness of the encounter, as lesbianism would have seemed in his time.  The tale of Carmilla was one of the fundamental inspirations for Stoker’s Dracula, and many connections can be made between them.  The beautiful lady, preying upon the young ladies of the land, is a clear inspiration for Stoker’s ‘Bloofer Lady’, who haunts the streets searching for children.  The hunt for the vampire’s crypt, a race against time to save the life of an innocent woman, appears in both stories as well.  Stoker’s Van Helsing could be seen to have a predecessor in the character of Baron Vordenburg, a man knowledgable in the ways and weaknesses of vampires.

The powers of the vampire Carmilla are numerous.  She is possessed of amazing strength, and shapeshifting appears seemingly for the first time in a vampire story: “a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat.”  There is still no indication of any weakness to sunlight or holy symbols, though the vampire is described as requiring a return to the grave for several hours each day.

Carmilla, as much as the Count and his minions, broke wide open the door of vampires as creatures both horrifying and desirous; Carmilla herself is “sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church.”


These three characters: Lord Ruthven, Varney, and Carmilla, are well-established as the major fiction influences and predecessors of Count Dracula.  There may be additional minor influences which I am as yet unaware of; if I turn them up, I will return to update this post.

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8 Responses to Dracula’s forefathers: Lord Ruthven, Varney and Carmilla

  1. Stephanie Z says:

    Very nice post, and a couple of things I’ll have to add to my reading list. One quibble, though. Saberhagen beat Rice by a year with The Dracula Tape.

  2. Stephanie: Thanks for the comment! Now that you mention it, I seem to recall hearing about Saberhagen’s book; I’ll have to look into it!

  3. Personal Demon says:

    Dr. Skull wrote: “This sympathetic depiction of vampires… would not be reexplored until Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976),”

    and subsequently sucked dry by Joss Whedon’s Angel TV series.

  4. PD: To be fair to Whedon, I don’t think he alone can bear responsibility for overtapping the ‘sympathetic vampire’ concept.

  5. Merovingian says:

    Fabulous post. This is really exciting stuff, you have now populated my reading list for the next few months, thank you!

  6. Sanders21 says:

    Hey can you tell me where you got your information for the comparing of the Undead Four (The Vampyre, Varney, Camille, and Dracula)?

    • Well, first I had read all of the stories in question — no small feat, especially with Varney, whose serialized adventures are massive! Otherwise, I did internet searches on the books to find some of the background information that I needed; some of the results of those searches are found in the links within the post.

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Most Memorable Vampires in History, Fiction and Film/TV – Who AREN’T Dracula! | The Alpha Wolf Series

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