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The Origins of Dracula and the Modern Vampire; Part 2

Updated on June 19, 2013
Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

In the late nineteenth- century, A. K. Tolstoy wrote a short story about vampires entitled Le Famille du Vourdalak. This story was translated from French into Tolstoy’s native Russian in 1884. Tolstoy’s tale is an early example of a Slavic literary vampire in that the author is Russian and the vampire a Serb.[1] It’s clear that Tolstoy was familiar with Calmet’s work as he summarized much of it in the story and mentions Calmet by name. “The abbot Augustin Calmet, in his curious work on the supernatural, cites some frightening examples of just this. The German emperors on more than one occasion appointed commissions to clear up cases of vampirism.”[2]

Also in the nineteenth- century, the vampire entered English literature, where it has flourished ever since.[3] One of the earliest works in English literature which alludes to the vampire is Lord Byron’s The Giaour.[4] Byron revised The Giaour in the fall of 1813, and the poem was published later that year.[5] However, this poem was not the only eighteenth- century work on vampires in English literature that would be credited to Lord Byron.

Lord Byron was incorrectly credited with writing The Vampyre, which has been called the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre of fantasy fiction. The work is described by Christopher Frayling as "the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre."[6]

The Vampyre featured Lord Ruthwen as the work’s vampire. The name Lord Ruthwen was the representation of the arch villain and the prototype of the sinister vampire in early nineteenth- century English and French literature. Lord Ruthwen was actually based on Byron by the book’s actual author, John William Polidori. Polidori was not confident enough in his influential tale to publish it in his own name, so he credited it to his colleague, Lord Byron. Polidori’s The Vampyre was initially published in the New Monthly Magazine of April 1, 1819. However, the origin of this short story goes back to the summer of 1816 when Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician- secretary, was vacationing in Switzerland with Lord Byron and, perhaps the most famous horror writer of the early nineteenth- century, and possibly of all time, Mary Shelly.[7]

The group of vacationers had been reading a volume of German ghost stories when Lord Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story based on these tales. This casual suggestion produced one of the most famous horror novels of all time, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, as well as the most famous vampire of the nineteenth- century, Lord Ruthwen, from Poldori’s The Vampyre.[8]

Like Stoker’s Count Dracula, Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthwen, was in fact the title of an actual lord. The title dates from 1651. In the early nineteenth- century the bearer of the name was James, fifth baron of Ruthven. However, unlike Stoker’s vampire, there seems to be no reason to associate the actual Lord Ruthven with the literary vampire that was to bear his name. The source of the name seems to be a literary one drawn from a novel by Lady Caroline Lamb entitled Glenarvon, published in 1816.[9]

Polidori’s narrative reveals all the details of the vampire’s behavior. Lord Ruthwen, the rage of London, is joined by the young Aubrey in his travels. But when Aubrey realized that Ruthwen was indeed evil, he flees to Greece. There, Aubrey falls in love with a girl who was herself a vampire victim. Aubrey and Ruthwen meet again; since Ruthwen has apparently reformed, they travel together again. Ruthwen suffers a fatal wound at the hand of bandits during their travels and convinced Aubrey not to reveal his death. During the night his corpse disappears. Back in London, Aubrey finds Ruthwen resurrected, but is sworn to silence. Ruthwen then seduces the young Aubrey’s sister and marries her. No one heeds the objections of the “mad” Aubrey, and his sister becomes Ruthwen’s victim.[10]

Lord Ruthwen appears in French literature in Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires, published in 1820. This two- volume novel uses Poldori’s Ruthwen as it central character, and introduces some additional vampires. However, at the end of this work, Ruthwen’s secret is discovered and he is executed in the ritual manner prescribed for vampires: his heart is pierced and eyes gouged out.[11]

In 1820, Ruthwen also appeared on stage for the first time. On June 13, 1820, the first performance of Le Vampire, a play based on Polidori’s The Vampyre, took place at the Porte- Saint Martin Theater. The play was a huge success, inspiring a series of immitations and parodies. Ruthwen again appears as the lead vampire in an 1851 production of Le Vampire. Though the title is the same as the 1820 version, the plot and playwrites were new.[12] Ruthwen’s dominance among literary vampires in the West lasted throughout the nineteenth century, until the character was almost forgotten with the rise of Stoker’s Count Dracula.

Another early literary work concerning vampires, On the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions, was published in 1851 by Herbert Mayo. Like Stoker’s Dracula, Mayo’s book was compiled in the form of letters. According to Clive Leatherdale, Stoker did in fact read Mayo’s work.[13] Not only did Stoker use Mayo’s method of compiling his book in letter form, he also may have been influenced by the name of one of Mayo’s characters. In Mayo’s work, the lead female character is named Nina, Stoker’s lead woman is named Mina, though not the same, similar enough to suggest that Stoker used Mayo’s work for more than its form.[14]

There are at least two other fictional pieces of English literature concerning vampires published prior to Bram Stoker’s novel which helped to conduct the vampire legend through fiction in the nineteenth- century. They are Rymer and Prest’s Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.[15] Le Fanu’s short novel, published in 1872, lifted the vampire motif to new heights of literary creativity. The work’s impact on Le Fanu’s Irish compatriot, Bram Stoker, was such that Stoker has been said to have come near to plagiarism.[16]

Stoker’s research notes show that he initially intended to locate his novel in Styria, the home of Carmilla.[17] But he soon changed his mind and shifted the location of his masterpiece to Transylvania, and built the novel’s central character around a fifteenth- century Wallachian Prince renowned for his ferocity in his campaigns against the Turks, Vlad III Dracula.[18] In doing so, Stoker changed the evolutionary course of the fictional vampire in literature, on stage, in film, and in nearly every form of media available from 1897 until the present.

Though Stoker’s vampire has been the most influential fictional vampire in history, Count Dracula’s image did not fully capture the public’s perception immediately. This process was gradual. Initially, Dracula’s image was confined to the printed page. It was through stage and film that the Count cemented his immortality in the imagination of audiences. This is not surprising as Stoker, though most famous for his 1897 novel Dracula, devoted most of his life to theater.[19]

While researching aspects of his novel in the summer of 1890, Bram Stoker was introduced to Vlad III Dracula in the public library at Whitby. It was here that he came across William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, published in 1820. Wilkinson’s account confuses matters concerning the two Dracula’s, Vlad III and his father Vlad II, more commonly known as Vlad Dracul.[20] Wilkinson also misinterpreted the meaning of the name Dracula, claiming that “in the Wallachian language [Dracula] means Devil.”[21] Though this is inaccurate, this mistake may have caused Stoker change the name of his character, and ultimately vampire history. Not only did Stoker use Dracula’s name, he also used a slightly altered history of Vlad III Dracula in his novel, forever changing the historic interpretation of the Wallachian Voyvode (prince).

Stoker’s original name for his vampire was Count Wampyre. Several times in his early notes Stoker was using the name Wampyre, or simply Count followed by an empty space he would underline, revealing his apprehension to use this name for his monster. He later scratched out the name Wampyre, replacing it with Dracula, but left the original name clearly legible to later readers.[22] The origins of the word wampyre or vampire, like so many of Stoker’s inspirations come from Eastern Europe.

According to some researchers, the term’s origin is clouded in mystery, often credited to Hungary or Transylvania. There are four different schools of thought on the topic which advocate, respectively, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, and Hungarian roots for the term. The most commonly accepted theory is that the term is Slavic in origin.[23]

The first appearance of the term vampire occurs as a proper name in an East Slavic manuscript from 1047 A. D. in which a Novgorodian prince is listed as Upir’ Lichyj meaning ‘Wicked Vampire.’ In a thirteenth- century Serbian manuscript, the vampire concept, in macrocosmic terms, first appears. The manuscript describes a creature known as a vuklodlak (vampire/ werewolf) that devours the sun and moon, while chasing the clouds. Among the contemporary Balkan Slavs the terms vampire and vukodlak (literally: wolf pelt) are synonymous.[24] The word vampire entered the English language in 1734. This was the result of multiple works being written on the subject in German, brought on by the “vampire epidemic” that was sweeping Eastern Europe at the time.[25]


[1] Perkowski, Vampires of the Slavs, 15.

[2] A. K. Tolstoy, “The Family of the Vurdalak,” in Vampires of the Slavs, ed, Jan L. Perkowski (Cambridge: Slavica Publishers, 1976), 251.

[3] Perkowski, Vampires of the Slavs, 11.

[4] Charles S. Blinderman, “Vampurella: Darwin and Count Dracula,” The Massachusetts Review 21 no. 2 (Summer 1980): 412.

[5] Michael G. Sundell, “The Development of the Giaour,” Studies in English Literature 9 no. 4 (Autumn 1969): 587

[6] Christopher Frayling, Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), 108.

[7] Richard Switzer, “Lord Ruthwen and the Vampires,” The French Review 29 no. 2 (December 1955): 1007- 8.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] Ibid., 107.

[10] Ibid., 109.

[11] Ibid., 110.

[12] Ibid., 111.

[13] Leatherdale, The Origins of Dracula, 57.

[14] Herbert Mayo, “Vampyrism,” in The Origins of Dracula: The Background to Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece, ed. Clive Leatherdale (Essex, UK: Desert Island Books, 1995), 61.

[15] Blinderman, “Vampurella,” 412.

[16] Leatherdale, Origins of Dracula, 86.

[17] Eighteen- Bisang and Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, 14- 15. Stoker’s handwritten notes, presented here in facsimile, show that he began to write “Ge” (most likely Germany) but quickly scratched it out and replaced it with “Styria.”

[18] Leatherdale, 86.

[19] Perkowski, The Darkling, 12.

[20] Leatherdale, 86- 7.

[21] William Wilkinson, “An Account of Wallachia, Moldavia . . . and Dracula,” in The Origins of Dracula: The Background to Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece, ed. Clive Leatherdale (Essex, UK: Desert Island Books, 1995), 96.

[22]Eighteen- Bisang and Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, 27, 33.

[23] Katharina M. Wilson, “The History of the Word ‘Vampire’,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46 no. 4 (Oct.- Dec. 1985): 577.

[24] Jan Perkowski, The Darkling, 18.

[25] Paul Barber, “The Real Vampire,” 74- 5.

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    • TheBudness profile image
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      TheBudness 5 years ago from Appalachia

      Thank you and thanks for reading! Still a few more parts to the series.

    • Rod Rainey profile image

      RodneyBlaec Rainey 5 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Another amazing hub! So thorough and insightful. Thank You!

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