Evolution of the Vampire Narrative
While Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem “Christabel” explores Christian themes in a gothic setting, there exists a foundation of both homosexual and vampiric elements within the work as well. We see these elements successively built upon in literature such as Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, followed by the well-known Dracula by Bram Stoker. The religious base in “Christabel” provides a starting point from which good and evil are explored in relation to and combination with folklore that ultimately leads to our basic definition of a “vampire.” This is done through even subtle details such as an old mastiff’s uncommon growl while in the presence of Geraldine.
Christabel, our female protagonist, is representative of innocence and purity. Her name, a combination of “Christ” and “Abel,” sets up strong religious themes, and the use of “Abel” alludes to the threat posed against her through interaction with Geraldine. In addition, the transformation of Geraldine’s eyes into those of a serpent near the conclusion of the poem confirms the girls’ religious representation of good and evil.
While the character of Geraldine is not explicitly a vampire, she possesses several vampiric qualities. One of the first indications is how she “sank, belike thro’ pain” (Coleridge, line 124) when approaching the iron gate surrounding Christabel’s home and, because of her sudden weakness, “Christabel with might and main/Lifted her up, a weary weight, over the threshold of the gate” (Coleridge, lines 125-7) before “the lady rose again/And mov’d as she were not in pain.” (Coleridge, lines 128-9) This is significant for two reasons. First, is because iron is associated with multiple superstitions. There is the belief that horseshoes bring good luck. This particular superstition may, at first, seem to be independent to another superstition; that iron itself wards off supernatural entities that are malevolent in nature, such as ghosts, witches and demons. However, when taken into consideration that horseshoes are made of iron, one can conclude that the good luck which horseshoes are said to bring, is tied to the protection they would provide from negative energy. One theory behind the supernatural power attached to iron is associated with the iron nails with which the son of God was sacrificed according to the Christian religion; a significant detail when looking at a piece of literature in which the protagonist is named with a combination of “Christ” and “Abel.” Furthermore, prisons and cemeteries are traditionally heavy utilizers of iron. The iron in these instances obviously provides benefits through its physical strength, but when the trend is juxtaposed to the superstitions surrounding the material we can observe how deeply rooted these beliefs became in society. Secondly, is that one of the attributes that became key to the definition of a vampire is the requirement that they be invited into a home before crossing the threshold. Although vampires did not yet have a notable presence in literature at the time of publication of “Christabel”, we can see some vital evolutionary steps in this text alone. One of the ways in which malevolent supernatural beings might generate trust between themselves and the one whose home they attempt to enter, is through enchantment.
Traditionally, while vampires are certainly seen as threatening creatures, they also tend to possess a highly seductive magnetism; “Christabel”, in part, introduces this dynamic through its sexual themes. Christabel immediately regards Geraldine as “beautiful exceedingly” (Coleridge, line 66) and builds an attractive image through descriptions of her appearance. However, the sexual tension reaches its peak when
“…half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did recline
To look at the lady Geraldine.
Beneath the lamp the lady bow’d,
And slowly roll’d her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shudder’d, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! Her bosom and half her side-
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
And she is to sleep by Christabel!”
(Coleridge, lines 236-48)
Furthermore, the mutism that Christabel later experiences when introducing Geraldine to her father, Sir Leoline, in addition to the ill Baron’s swift infatuation with the strange girl suggests that not only is sexual tension present, but as is sexual conquest. This sexual conquest mirrors the lustful manner in which contemporary vampire’s thirst for blood is often portrayed.
Fifty-six years after the publication of Coleridge’s “Christabel”, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu published his novella, Carmilla, that is unmistakably influenced by the former and in which themes of vampiric and homosexual nature are enhanced. Unlike Geraldine’s ambiguous quality, Carmilla is ultimately revealed explicitly to be a vampire. However, Carmilla shares many similarities with Geraldine, included but not limited to: exquisite attractiveness perceived at least by her intended victim, fluctuations in behavior, and even an embrace that brings Laura, the protagonist “into a trance, from which [she] only seemed to recover [her]self when [Carmilla] withdrew her arms.” (LeFanu, Location 400)
Finally, just as “Christabel” preceded and influenced Carmilla, Carmilla preceded and influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which provides the leading vampiric model to this day. So, although Geraldine may have remained undefined, her character, as well as Christabel and Sir Leoline, served as significant stepping stones in the creation of modern vampiric narratives.
Coleridge, Samuel T. “Christabel.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 652-68. Print.
LeFanu, J. Sheridan. “Her Habits – A Saunter.” Carmilla. 1872. Location 377-519. Kindle.
Frances, Victoria. “Vampire Girl.” http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.com/2012/02/being-human-and-vampire-art.html. May 2, 2014.