Gothic Monsters

Vampires have been around a long time in folktales and literature. It was author John Polidori in 1819, however, who popularized the urbane, Byronesque vampire that’s become so beloved to fans today. Bram Stoker had a lot to do with it too, of course, but it was Polidori (with a little help from Percy Shelley) who did it first. 

Unlike Dracula, Lord Ruthven (the titular hero in “The Vampyre”) was a beast with a curious moral compass. For example, he wouldn’t attack easy prey like a flirty party girl because of her lowly status. “His character was dreadfully vicious, the possession of irresistible power of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society,” writes Polidori. In other words, Ruthven had contempt for the adulteress, because he wanted his victims, the partners of his guilt, to be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue. 

For another thing, Lord Ruthven was fully committed to his victims—he wasn’t a one-night-stand kind of guy. He took his time to court and marry young ladies before sating his thirst. If Polidori was using this bloodsucking metaphor for marriage, we’ll never know. 

Like vampires, tales of shapeshifting werewolves have been around a long time too. Maybe in high school, like me, you read the Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of Zeus and Lycaon. Looking back, it was probably the 19th century that was the golden age for wolf men in literature.

Also like the vampire, the werewolf often carried the weight of symbolic erotic fantasy. And that’s definitely the case with Clemence Housman’s story from 1896 called “The Werewolf.”

A lone female inexplicably appears during a snowstorm to bewitch an isolated family. Introducing herself to the multigenerational household, she says “My real name would be uncouth to your ears and tongue. Instead call me White Fell, the great white wolf.”

And like a femme fatale, she successfully casts a dark spell over the twin brothers of the house. Writes Housman: “They being twins in loves as in birth, had through jealousy and despair turned from love to hate, until reason failed at the strain, and a craze developed, which the malice and treachery of madness made a serious and dangerous force.”

In an attempt to defeat the she-wolf’s sexual power, one of the brothers follows the beast through the woods at night. He knows, as legend decrees, that the werewolf’s form will be resumed and retained if human eyes witness the change at midnight. 

There’s no big surprise at the end of the story—man defeats beast again. After several tiresome pages of running through the snow, the wolf-hound is slain in an act of selfless brotherly love. “No holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil thing than the life-blood of a pure heart.”   

[The Vampyre, the Werewolf and Other Gothic Tales of Horror / Edited by Rochelle Kronzek / First Printing: April 2009 / ISBN: 9780486471921]