‘The Vampire a New History’ by Nick Groom Review

Groom’s book, published in 2018, gets its teeth into vampire mythology. Groom argues that these creatures were a unique product of the Enlightenment.

‘How arise the dead? With what bodies come they in?’ – 1 Corinthians 15:35

What is a vampire? It is not simply an undead creature. It is an undead creature that is capable of infecting others with its macabre curse. It is this similarity to disease that sets vampires apart from the other ghosts and ghouls that haunt the horrors of fiction. And while there has been a long-standing lineage of mythology pertaining to the undead in Europe, Groom argues that these beings were not truly ‘vampires’ until this mythology melded with the minds of Enlightenment writers. From gruesome leaders such as Vlad the Impaler to local legends about cadavers rising from their coffins, they were but creatures that formed terror-fueled templates for vampires. They have roamed mainland Europe for centuries. This enduring and vivid fear of the undead survived through mythology, literature and non-fiction including religious and medical texts. But it was advances in medicine, an understanding of contagion and literary love-affairs with death that birthed the vampire proper.

‘The voice of my brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground’ – Genesis 4:10 (1611)

Central to the definition of a vampire is the power to infect others with the lust for blood. This notion is absent from the earliest stories of those who will not rest in their coffins. The contagious aspect of vampirism arises when its mythology travels to the UK and is met by the romantic imagination of Enlightenment-era writers such as Byron, Polidori and Shelley (Mary Shelley refers to Frankenstein’s monster as a type of ‘vampire’). The romantic writer’s fascination with death, recent scientific discoveries that diseased cadavers can continue to infect beyond death and xenophobia sparked a transformation in the mythology of these European beings and marked the start of a creature that would continue to appear time and time again in stories henceforth. The vampire proper was born. Public imagination was enraptured by this fiend. Wealthy politicians were even satirised and mocked as financial vampires that sucked the life out of the most vulnerable in society.

‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’ – John Keats (1819)

This book provides a comprehensive and detailed insight into the definition of vampires and public incarnations of them. The references and bibliography are invaluable to anyone interested in this gothic lore. However, I was disappointed that Groom’s history ended at the close of the 19th century. There is surely so much to explore in the 20th century as we witness the first vampires in film and increasing popularity in literature. In the 20th century we have also seen a rise in female authors, who have bestowed the vampire genre and myth with new dimensions. While this book was far from toothless, there was certainly more scope for analysis before the history of vampires can be put to rest.

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