Those of us who have dabbled much in the lore of the nosferatu tend to think of them as imaginative creations of the German and English Romantics, and not without reason. Modern vampire literature took off properly in the notorious dark summer of 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and Dr John Polidori, forced by the incessant rains to stay indoors at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, beguiled their dull nights and days by coming up with spooky tales for a competition. The most enduring of these fabricated nightmares has been Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but two much shorter texts – Byron’s ‘A Fragment’ and Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ – are the ancestors of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and begin the primary bloodline of vampire fiction.
And yet, as Nick Groom shows in the first half of his formidably well-researched study, English literature was already teeming with vampires by the Augustan period – not in tales of the supernatural, but in political polemics and social satires, where they provided a potent metaphor. Almost all the major writers indulged in the conceit. Henry Fielding raged at literary critics as ‘Vampyres, being dead and damn’d’ who ‘with the Blood of living Bards are cramm’d’. Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of the day, played with the fantasy of being an undead nuisance to society ‘like the Vampires in Germany’.