Sunday, April 28, 2019

Q&A with Nick Groom

Nick Groom is the author of the new book The Vampire: A New History. His other books include The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction and The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year. He is a professor of English at Exeter University, UK. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this history of vampires?

A: I’ve written a lot about the Gothic, and my approach has been to think about its political context, particularly in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a way of looking at constitutional history, Protestantism, and progress.

Vampires don’t fit in that model. They’re supernatural beings. They got me thinking in a different way about politics and theology. It’s not just a history of bloodsucking demons, but that the vampire was a thought experiment used in Enlightenment thinking.

Q: Vampires are very common in today's popular culture. Why do you think that is, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: A lot of people who write books on vampires are keen to write the obituary of the vampire, that the vampire has now lost its allure. But it hasn’t. There might be even more in the next few years. The Lost Boys classic ‘80s vampire movie is being remade, What We Do in the Shadows is on TV—it’s all going to kick off again.

It’s similar to why it was popular earlier—it’s a way of trying to understand the human predicament, what makes us human, against a background of growing secularism. Some areas are losing faith, while others are more fundamentalist.

And with the political issues, there’s a renewed popularity of vampires connected to the rise of global populism. In that sense, it’s about how we deal with power, how power shapes the way we think. The vampire is a useful tool for thinking about things.

The environmental crisis is another issue. The vampire is hunted to death. It’s an endangered species. Can we coexist with a sentient, intelligent humanoid creature that survives by preying on us? There are many more ethical vampires that live on blood from a blood bank.

Vampires help us think in different ways about how we see ourselves…I see no end to it.

Q: How would you define a vampire, and at what point did vampires begin to play a role in popular culture and folklore?

A: I tried to have a very strict definition of a vampire—it’s not every bloodsucking ghost and monster. To my mind, vampires were discovered on the border of the Habsburg Empire in 1725, when the word was first used and we see the contours of what’s recognized as a vampire today.

Early vampires didn’t have pointy teeth, and they didn’t suck blood. But they were associated with blood. The Habsburg authorities sent investigative teams of physicians and magistrates to investigate. It was a bit like The X-Files. They performed autopsies and took written testimony. Vampires were tangible, not like ghosts. It’s a creature you can touch and feel.

Q: Why has Dracula retained such a grip on the popular conception of a vampire, and what do you see as its role in vampire history?

A: Dracula is absolutely central. I wanted to write a book to argue that Dracula is a symptom of the vampire craze, but Dracula is a lot more than that. It’s a great novel.

Bram Stoker took seven years to write it. It gathers a huge amount of vampire lore that had been accumulated through the 19th century. He did research, he knew about the early cases.

At the same time, he makes vampires very contemporary. We remember the garlic and the crucifix, but they’ve got Kodak cameras. He writes that [vampires] can’t be photographed….He makes the supernatural very up to date….

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a collection of vampire tales, tales that predate Dracula, to demonstrate that Dracula didn’t come out of a vacuum. It was part of a cultural movement. Robert Louis Stevenson did a story. There’s Polidori’s vampire tale, published 200 years ago this month. Polidori moves the vampire into the aristocracy…

I’m also going to be working on some theater, working with a local dramatic group. We got funding to work with an epidemiologist, trying to raise awareness of blood conditions and encourage people to give blood.

In the background, I’m writing a longer history of the Gothic. I’m thinking about how vampires fit into the story, and about what happened to the Gothic novel in the 20th century.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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