The Vampires of Venice utilises many elements of vampiric lore. I had intended to explore the mythology of vampires throughout history, yet perhaps that’s the wrong approach. Partly because it is too big a task, but also because vampires in Doctor Who come from a more recent source. No, not Bram Stoker; the cinema.
There are vampire myths across the globe and throughout history, with differing details of their creation, powers, and means of dispatch. Some traditions (notably Babylonian and Assyrian) trace them back to Lilith. Lilith may have been Adam’s first wife, though the authenticity and historicity of this idea is dubious.
Western Europe’s (and specifically England’s) fascination with vampires dates back to more modern times. By ‘modern’, I mean the 18th and 19th centuries. By ‘19th Century’, I mean Dracula. Or do I? Yes and no.
My theory is that British interest coincided with the growth in popularity of the Grand Tour. From about 1660 until the early 19th Century, wealthy people would tour Europe. In The Woman In White, Percival & Laura Glyde’s honeymoon is the Grand Tour. This is where they join up with the Foscos. My contention is that those who undertook the Tour encountered folk tales, including vampires. They brought those tales home.
But these vampires were not European noblemen in evening suits and capes. The noble vampire was a 19th Century creation. And I still don’t mean Dracula. These revenants wore funeral clothes: shrouds or rags. Watch the Wurdalak segment of Black Sabbath. No, not the one with Ozzy Osbourne or Ronnie James Dio, depending on your preference. The Mario Bava film. Actually, watch the whole film; it’s a masterpiece.
In the mid-18th Century, there was a wave of mass hysteria in Eastern Europe over a spate of vampire attacks. The notion of vampirism now had a wide audience.
The fish aliens from Saturnyne were content for humans to think they were vampires (hence Vampires In Venice) because the truth was much worse. Had we been talking about ‘real’ vampires, this would have been wrong. ‘Real’ vampires were much worse. But we are not talking about ‘real’ vampires; we are talking about vampires in the perception of the non-expert.
The popular image of the noble vampire comes to us courtesy of a house party in the summer of 1816, although it was inspired by a poem written three years earlier by Ada Lovelace’s Dad. Yes, the Villa Diodati gave us more than just Frankenstein…
John Polidori was the personal physician and friend of George Gordon, Lord Byron. That same year, Byron had published A Fragment Of A Novel. In 1813, he had published The Giaour. These influenced, to a significant degree, Polidori’s novella The Vampyre. The mysterious and charming Lord Ruthven appears in London society. He befriends the narrator, whom he swears to silence and marries his sister. It does not end well.
What Polidori added to vampire lore was the noble vampire, who was accepted into society and who was attractive – seductive even.
We are 81 years before Dracula. Let’s move on 29 years. James Malcolm Rhymer ended his days running a hotel or guest house in Bournemouth. Between 1845 and 1847, he was the author of a penny dreadful. Published in weekly instalments, Varney the Vampire tells of Sir Francis Varney and his interactions with the Bannerworth family. It runs to 876 double-columned pages and is wildly uneven in tone. Two of the protagonists are the Grandfather of the nominal hero, who is a retired sea captain, and his manservant. They spend a lot of the book arguing and are, frankly, barking. Varney himself is driven by a lust for blood but is also tormented by a conscience.
1871. Ireland. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu publishes In A Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories including Carmilla, the tale of a (probably) teenage girl subjected to the blood-sucking and romantic attentions of the titular vampire. This was the template for the lesbian vampire. Women in nighties had arrived.
28 years later, Bram Stoker writes Dracula and shapes public perception of vampires for decades.
Let’s save deep analysis of that single novel for another time. Suffice to say the novel was a massive hit and has never been out of print since. Stoker skillfully combined fear of death, exsanguination (losing or taking blood), and sex appeal. The vampire’s kiss is deeply erotic and Victorian society lapped it up. (I am not remotely sorry for that pun.)
Bram Stoker was theatre manager for Sir Henry Irving and Count Dracula was inspired in part by the actor. It was inevitable that Dracula would appear on stage. Hamilton Deane took the play on tour and eventually to America. Actors who played the titular roel included Raymond Huntley and a matinee idol from Lugosh in Hungary who is reported to have been unable (at that time) to speak English and had to learn his lines phonetically. More of him shortly.
Deane took the play to America. This is where the Hungarian matinee idol comes in. Bela Lugosi (for ‘twas he) played Dracula for much of the tour. Which makes it odd that, when Universal sat up and took notice, not only was Bela not first choice, he wasn’t even on the list! Universal wanted Lon Chaney (senior, not the Wolf Man). Have a look at stills from London After Midnight to see him as a ‘vampire’. When Chaney inconveniently died, Universal looked to Boris Karloff, then Ian Keith and several other actors for the role.
Universal used many of the elements mentioned above: the suave, elegant nobleman in an evening suit; the romantic undertones; girls in diaphanous nightwear (the Spanish-speaking version filmed at the same time was much more daring). Lesbian undertones (well, they were full of tones, actually) came five years later in Dracula’s Daughter.
Universal added to the lore: in the novel, Dracula doesn’t transform into a bat; the vampires in the book can go out in daylight (destruction by sunlight comes from Nosferatu).
When Hammer Films got round to remaking Dracula in 1958 and as the series progressed, Christopher Lee (particularly) wanted to get back to Stoker. Neither Lee nor Peter Cushing had much editorial input in the film. But they had some. In the film, Van Helsing dictates notes and states that turning into a bat is not a vampire power. By the very next film, it is, such was the fluidity of vampire lore. Lee’s Dracula spoke with a perfect English accent (and vocabulary). Universal’s eastern European accent was necessitated by Lugosi’s eastern European accent.
Lore has altered over the years, but it remains fluid. And that is where we are now. When Doctor Who deals with vampires, it picks from a melting pot. State of Decay, for example, owes more to Hammer than to Stoker (per Lalla Ward) .
The Vampires of Venice does the same and this makes the suggestion that alien fish creatures are worse than vampires credible. Here vampires are attractive women with fangs and low-cut gowns. Saturnynes are scaly, toothy bipeds. Clearly, beauty is indeed skin deep, when that skin has scales. Body fascism is nothing new, it seems.
I have only given a very fleeting history and I may (and most likely did) attributed events and influences incorrectly. I apologise for this, but stand by my conclusion.
I finish with a quotation from one of my two favourite Hammer Draculas. First, it is a quotation I love. Secondly, it describes my approach to writing this article (and generally):
“You may think me an eccentric old cleric and not much credit to my cloth. Perhaps I am. I enjoy shocking people’s susceptibilities. But I can be serious.” [Father Shandor (Andrew Keir) – Dracula Prince of Darkness]