The Dead and the Undead: James Joyce and the Origin of the Modern Vampire

Cover detail, Dubliners © Penguin Random House

Transylvania gets all the glory for being the homeland of the vampire, but the true capital of the Undead has always been dear, dirty Dublin. After all, it was two Protestant Dubliners who largely created the modern vampire that’s loomed large in pop culture ever since: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu with his novella Carmilla and Bram Stoker with Dracula. But to understand why those men conjured the dark shadows of Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula, we need to turn to Dublin’s most beloved literary son, James Joyce. It’s in his novella The Dead that Joyce lays bare the true specters that led to Victorian Dublin becoming the birthplace of the vampire we all know and love today–namely, sex and religion.

Carmilla and Dracula are both stories, at their dark hearts, about proper Protestant English ladies who are preyed upon by bloodsucking undead aristocrats from the decadent, Catholic East. In Carmilla, Laura and her father live in Styria (now part of Austria) and take in a sickly young woman called Carmilla, who is both an emotional and actual vampire. Carmilla throws herself on Laura with barely-sub lesbian subtext by day, and feeds on her blood by night.

In Dracula, the Count leaves his crumbling castle in Transylvania and comes to London, where he assaults Lucy Westenra and her friend Mina Harker in their beds. Lucy dies and is turned into a vampire, and Mina begins turning into the Undead, becoming so “unclean” that even a communion wafer burns her skin. In the end of both stories, it takes retributive male violence (led by Laura’s father and Mina’s husband) to destroy the vampires and save the women in body and soul.

Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads, of course, but what’s fascinating about Carmilla and Dracula is that in both stories, Catholic superstition about the Undead proves to be not only true, but the only means of saving the good Protestant women Laura and Mina. Carmilla is physically hurt by peasants singing a hymn, and in Dracula, Mina’s husband Jonathan is shocked to find that a “heathenish” crucifix given to him by a Transylvanian woman proves most effective in warding off the Count.Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads.

Le Fanu and Stoker were both Protestants themselves, members of a ruling minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and it’s impossible for me (a descendent of Protestant Irish myself) not to think that Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula reflected a very real religious anxiety in their creators.

It’s in Joyce’s The Dead where this combustible mix of sexual and religious anxiety manifests as an “impalpable and vindictive being … gathering forces … in its vague world” that haunts good middle-class Dubliner Gabriel Conroy. In the story, Gabriel and wife Gretta go to a party thrown by Gabriel’s aunts. During a dance, Gabriel is accosted by an Irish nationalist named Miss Ivors, who chides him for writing for a Unionist newspaper and not knowing his own country better, and pushes him to join her and Gretta on a trip to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands in the West.  His aunts also discuss visiting a Trappist monastery, where the monks are believed to sleep in coffins (Le Fanu and Stoker surely heard of this same monastery, too, and I wonder how much that image of Catholic monks sleeping and waking in coffins informed their visions of Carmilla and Dracula’s resting places).

After the party, Gabriel is stoked to get hot and heavy, but Gretta is too distracted and distraught after hearing an old song that a dead boyfriend, Michael Furey, once sang for her when she lived in Galway in the West. Gabriel’s own sexual and religious anxieties come together in the specter of Furey, this romantic Catholic boy from the Gaelic West, who loved his wife.

Le Fanu and Stoker turned their anxieties–about death, women’s sexuality, and their own religious heritage–into implacable blood-sucking creatures of the night who haunt our pop culture today. It’s fitting that the lapsed Catholic Joyce turned his own anxieties (Michael Furey was based on a real boy who’d courted Nora Joyce) into a haunting story of love, death, and sympathy.

In the end, Gabriel doesn’t vanquish Michael Furey–he accepts him. He can’t be destroyed like Carmilla or Dracula. Gretta’s sexuality isn’t a thing to be vindicated through violence, but simply accepted. Gabriel drifts off to sleep after having a vision of Michael Furey’s spirit and other members of the “vast hosts of the dead.” He decides, in his final moments of consciousness, to take a trip to the Gaelic West with Gretta and the nationalist Miss Ivors, as snow falls over Ireland: on Dubliner and Westerner, Catholic and Protestant, and upon all the living and the Undead.


5 Prequels, Sequels, and Sidequels to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Count Dracula is one of popular culture’s greatest and best-known monsters: an instantly recognizable bogeyman with the undoubtable power to terrify, yet somehow still liked enough to shill breakfast cereal and candy bars on television. Of course, our hunger for Dracula goes far beyond sugary treats. Hardly a year goes by without a new take on Bram Stoker’s immortal novel, many of them expanding the original story in new and inventive ways. Here’s five of our favorites.

The cover of the book DraculDracul
Dracula is one of the most popular horror novels of all time, but what if it’s a true story? In this prequel to the novel, young Bram Stoker’s childhood encounter with a sinister housekeeper sets the stage for an adult confrontation with the living dead — and a future as a horror legend. Co-author Dacre Stoker is Bram’s great grand-nephew, so this is going to be as close as you get to a fully authorized spin-off.


The cover of the book Covenant with the VampireCovenant with the Vampire
Fifty years before the publication of Dracula, a young man named Arkady arrives at Castle Dracula with the intention of managing his beloved great-uncle Vlad’s estate. Arkady soon discovers his Uncle Vlad is not as harmless as he seems. He is a monster, thirsting for the blood of new victims, and Arkady, as his servant, is expected to provide them. Arkady is determined to stop Vlad, if not for the people of his land, then for the sake of his own family.


The cover of the book RenfieldRenfield
Renfield’s brush with Dracula shattered his sanity and ultimately prompted his commitment to an asylum. What really happened in Transylvania? These and other questions are answered in Barbara Hambly’s account of the short, tortured life of Renfield, a man condemned to be a puppet of evil.


The cover of the book Dracula in LoveDracula in Love
Dracula portrayed Mina Murray Harker as a woman in need of rescue. In fact, Mina was a woman in love. Seduced by Dracula, she fell deeply under his spell. This is Mina’s side of the story, as revealed in her own journal. Prepare to have your impression of Mina forever changed in this intimate account of supernatural passion.



The cover of the book Dracula in LondonDracula in London
Dracula arrived in London plans to conquer the city, only to have his ambitions thwarted by Van Helsing and his fellow vampire hunters. What could he have gotten up to before his eventual expulsion? In this anthology, an all-star list of authors imagines the Count’s encounters with many of the city’s most notable residents: Nikola Tesla, Prince Edward, and many others.

Genre Friday – Vampire Fiction

Despite how it may have seemed over the last decade or so, Vampires are not a genre unto themselves. They mostly reside under the Horror genre, although they are popular enough that they pop up everywhere from Fantasy to Romance to Literary Fiction.

Vampires are not new – they existed in the minds of humanity long before Twilight – and they will likely be sticking around for quite some time. Fittingly for an idea that has spanned over many centuries and cultures, vampires, even when found in their native habitat, Horror fiction (and sometimes Fantasy), come in several different varieties. The reading list below gives a nice variety to choose from to get you started.

So You Want to Read Vampire Fiction: Here’s Where to Start

It isn’t hard to find books featuring vampires these days, but finding one to your taste can be a little more difficult. In our list of suggested reads, we’ve tried to provide an overview of the vampire in all of its literary incarnations: suave, savage, sexy, and psychopathic.


The cover of the book The Powers of DarknessThe Powers of Darkness
I know that if you’ve even got a cursory interest in vampires then you’ve probably read Dracula. It’s been done to death on these kinds of lists — no pun intended. That said, it keeps popping up for a reason. With Dracula, Bram Stoker took a hodgepodge of Eastern European folklore and produced an indelible horror archetype that has haunted the popular imagination for going on two centuries. Still, you’ve likely read it. With that in mind, why not check out Powers of Darkness? Icelandic author Valdimar Ásmundsson’s 1900 supposed translation of the novel is actually a stand-alone work that adds new characters and plot elements not found in Stoker’s original.


The cover of the book I Am LegendI Am Legend
Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic tale of one man — possibly the last man on Earth — waging an impossible war against the vampires who used to be his friends and neighbors has been adapted several times for the silver screen, with none of the results really capturing the tragedy and paranoia of the original story. Ironically, the one film that kind of did was an unauthorized rip-off: George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” : a movie that, in turn, single-handedly created the zombie apocalypse genre. All of that aside, if you’re looking for a thoroughly modern interpretation of the vampire — one without the gothic affectation or erotic subtext — then you can’t go wrong with this one. (“Come out, Neville!”)


The cover of the book Interview with the VampireInterview with the Vampire
Okay, I hear you: You’re actually more in the mood for the other kind of vampire — the sexy kind. In that case, I recommend Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, a gothic novel par excellence. Rice wrote Interview following the death of her first child, and the book is overflowing with the grief and anger she must have felt. Protagonist Louis de Point du Lac is a tragic figure who wants nothing more than to die when he is transformed into an immortal being by the vampire Lestat — a dark miracle that brings him no closer to understanding the savage world around him.

Editor’s Note: There’s a new book in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles coming out on October 2nd! It’s called Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat, and if you like Interview with the Vampire, you’re going to want to check it out.


The cover of the book Already DeadAlready Dead
Forget the velvet and lace. Maybe you’re more of a leather and chains kind of reader. Following wizards and witches, vampires are among the most popular protagonists in the paranormal detective genre. While there’s no shortage of great material in that vein (Get it? Get it?), my personal favorite has to be Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casebooks. A former punk rocker turned street hustler, Joe’s transformation into a “vampyre” leads him to a career as a fixer and leg-breaker for New York City’s rival vampyre clans. Joe refuses to swear allegiance to any of them, making him the go-to guy for odd (and bloody) jobs around the city. Joe is a killer with a heart of stone — he’s nobody’s idea of a knight in shining armor. If you see him coming around, then you’d probably better start running.


The cover of the book The Moth DiariesThe Moth Diaries
Vampires are also popular in young adult literature, but wait, don’t leave — I’m not going to recommend Twilight. Instead, I’d like to direct you to Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries: a gothic novel of toxic friendship and (possibly) the supernatural set at an exclusive girl’s boarding school. The set-up and subtext of this mature tale for younger readers will undoubtedly remind longtime vampire aficionados of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic story “Carmilla”.



The cover of the book The HistorianThe Historian
Do you like alternative history and conspiracies? If so, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian should be up your alley. When a scholar and her father investigate the historical Vlad the Impaler they uncover a secret that should have been left buried. Is there some truth to the old legends of the blood-drinking Voivode of Wallachia? Did he have more of a connection to the story of Dracula than even popular culture would have us to believe?


The cover of the book Let the Right One InLet the Right One In
Obviously, the vampire myth is a great one for exploring the darker corners of human existence, and Let the Right One In does so in spades.  The story of a friendship between Oksar, a bullied boy, and Eli, a centuries-old vampire stuck with the body of a child, Let the Right One In a truly unsettling book.




And you thought your business trip was bad…

Ah, Transylvania in the springtime. According to the dates of his journal entry, Jonathan Harker arrived, after a brief layover in a slightly unsettling little village filled with slightly unsettling little villagers, at a certain Castle Dracula on the evening of May 5th, sometime in the late 1890s.Castle Dracula

It did not go well.

Intrigued? You can learn more about his trip and how it ended at the library. There is also a ton of stuff dealing with Count Dracula’s spiritual descendants – even the sparkly ones.

Don’t know or care about what I’m talking about? Then at least your day can seem a little brighter and your steps a little lighter with the certain knowledge that it will go better than Jon’s… Unless you too are currently working your way ever closer to the creepy abode of an ancient, nearly indestructible creature of the night; in which case you are on your own. We can help with a lot of stuff but that’s a bit outside of the library’s wheelhouse.