Earlier this week, on Sunday, July 15, George Romero passed away at the venerable age of 77.
Alternately ridiculed as a low-budget B movie that leans too heavily on sometimes ridiculous stock footage and lauded as a brilliant cult classic – as a number of media outlets have already commented – it’s hard to exaggerate the impact his iconic film Night of the Living Dead has had on genre media. His influence has been broad, from his own sequels to imitators to comics to books to games and back to TV and film again. His vision could be said to have radically transformed the conception of “zombie” in English genre media, despite the fact he never used the word himself and in fact didn’t think of his creations as zombies at all.
But then, you know all this – Romero’s impact is almost certainly a fixture in the lives of many of you reading this blog, whether you know it or not. So I won’t bore you with what the traditional media will already be going on about.
Instead, let’s ask ourselves: where did Romero come from?
The quick and dirty answer is one that probably a lot of people already know: Richard Matheson’s 1953 novel I Am Legend.
Romero acknowledges this inspiration himself in an interview with Cinema Blend in 2008:
“I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? … And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this. That’s really all [the zombies] ever represented to me. In Richard’s book, in the original I Am Legend, that’s what I thought that book was about. There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, I’m still a human. He’s wrong. Go ahead. Join them. You’ll live forever! In a certain sense he’s wrong but on the other hand, you’ve got to respect him for taking that position.”
In fact, as Romero tells us elsewhere he based his script for the film on a short story of his own in which he explicitly “ripped off” Matheson’s idea: in a fundamental way Night of the Living Dead is a prequel to Matheson’s novel and the 1964 film adaptation The Last Man on Earth.
Curiously, despite getting a strong enough reception after its publication in 1954 to warrant film adaptations in 1964, 1971, like many of the post-apocalyptic social commentary works of the era I Am Legend seems not to have tickled the SFF community of the day quite as much. If print runs and translations are any measure, I Am Legend seems to have done quite well – having seen 7 English language printings and 5 foreign language editions (French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and German) in the years between its release and the 1964 film adaptation.
Despite the apparent popularity of the book, and the fact that authors such as Brian Lumley and Steven King cite the novel as the inspiration to write horror themselves, I Am Legend got no love from Matheson’s peers in SFF – in fact, Damon Knight quite thoroughly torpedoed the book in his 1956 essay collection In Search of Wonder. Though I suppose scathing negative reviews were something of a habit of Knight’s at the time.
Lest we forget, horror per se had not yet calved off from other SFF genre fiction into a category of its own, and in any case Matheson was certainly no stranger to the SFF community proper: his first story Born of Man and Woman was published in F&SF Magazine (July 1950) and was very well received, gaining recognition in 1970 as one of the best pre-Nebula stories written. So what’s up?
Well, one thing is that despite the bizarre novel Hugo outcome at Worldcon 1955, 1954 was actually an amazing year for SFF. Among the good books published that year were such classics as:
Poul Anderson’s two offerings of the year: Brain Wave and The Broken Sword
Heinlein’s Star Beast
Norton’s The Stars Are Ours
Not to mention: Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers (which won the 1955 IFA) and Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (which came in second), and several others.
Matheson was in good company, but I think Knight (and others who demurred in the review pages) were perhaps responding to the idea that Romero echoed – that I Am Legend is a story about revolution, seeing it in the context of the other dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels of the decade. As a metaphor, and in an era when Ayn Rand hit top ten lists with her novel Atlas Shrugged I suppose that wasn’t an unreasonable reading. Except for one thing:
“The idea for I Am Legend came to me when I was about 16. I went to see Dracula and the thought occurred that, if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would really be scary. I did not write the book until 1952. We lived in Gardena, California and I set the story there, using our house as Neville’s house. I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly. My son Richard provided a much more likely one – that it was prophetic because of AIDS. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.”
So then, I Am Legend comes directly from Matheson’s re-imagining of the monster conceit of Dracula, quite simply as an exaggeration of it (and as a “scientification” of it). This seems simple enough – but should we take another step back?
Despite its place in the canon as the archetype from which all vampire modern literature emerges, from cloaked European aristocrats, through hordes of hungry revolutionaries, right on to extra-pallid, sparkly teenagers, Dracula in fact has antecedents of its own.
Naturally, Stoker explicitly cites his years of research into the vampire mythologies of Europe – folklore studies were in vogue at the time, and studies of this sort were a way for a middle-class gentleman to make himself seem cultured. But the fact of the matter is that in 1897 Dracula was not the first vampire “penny dreadful” and it’s likely that Stoker got at least some of his inspiration from Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which was serialized in the short-lived literary magazine The Dark Blue starting with the December 1871 issue. There are some strikingly similar plot elements between the two stories, including the night-time visitations of the monster to the bed-chamber of its young, female victims and the involvement of the gruff, hard-bitten expert on vampirism and how to slay the creatures.
Both these tales – moreso Dracula than Carmilla – also draw inspiration from the much earlier story The Vampyre, written by John Polidori in 1816 and published in 1819. Here we have the tale of a mysterious European nobleman who attracts the interest of our protagonist – who himself serves as the gateway for the nobleman to reintegrate himself with society after a “death” and ultimately marry, and consume the protagonist’s sister. A quick read, the story is clearly the point at which the outlines of many later vampire stories began to congeal – and in fact, Polidori’s formulation triggered a bit of a fad across Europe, with plays, operas, imitators, and even echoes in other tales we know well today: such as Polidori’s vampire Lord Ruthven earning a mention in The Count of Monte Cristo!
As some may guess by the dates, and by the fact that Polidori was Byron’s friend and personal physician, he was present for the sequence of events that summer in 1816 that led to Shelley penning Frankenstein – and as it happens, Byron was no stranger to the vampire trope:
During the same “competition” that produced both The Vampyre and Frankenstein Byron penned the fragment of a tale (also entitled A Fragment) that is actually so similar to Polidori’s that it’s hardly any surprise that Polidori’s work was often mistakenly attributed to Byron.
But Byron’s own foray into vampire tales was hardly limited to this one fragment, and in fact he had penned a poem with vampire imagery a few years earlier – The Giaour . This is an interesting connection for three reasons:
Second, because of the curious link between this poem and the later story – as in both cases the full, official title uses the word “fragment”, making me wonder if there may have been a mental connection between them for Byron.
Finally, Byron’s epic isn’t even the first mention of vampires in English fiction – it’s merely the link between the later work of Edgar Allan Poe (and other gothic children of the 19th Century) and Robert Southey’s far less commercially successful poem Thalaba the Destroyer. And it’s interesting indeed that Percy Shelly apparently considered it his favourite poem, considering the link to that evening of summer entertainment I’ve noted above.
Now, Southey’s mention of the vampire curse in Thalaba seems to be the first mention of the creature in English literature, but the story of vampires in European literature hardly starts here. In fact, Southey’s mention of the creature is probably part and parcel of a general interest in “orientalism” of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in Britain, which at the time was more focused on Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, India and – of course – mysterious Eastern Europe than on what we would normally call the Orient today.
Southey’s vampire reference is a relatively minor element in Thalaba so, despite the obvious influence Southey’s work had on Shelley, Keats, and Byron (not to mention later writers like Poe and his descendants) it’s more likely that the real root of the gush of English vampire stories in the mid-19th Century lies in actual vampires – and the literature that sprang from them.
Actual vampires? Well, not quite:
In the early years of the 18th Century, Eastern Europe suffered an escalating string of vampire panics that peaked with official exhumations and post-mortem countermeasures. OK, so likely not actual actual vampires. But naturally, the yellow journalism of the day jumped on the opportunity and the news spread rapidly into the West of Europe, where titillated readers began rediscovering the chills of superstition (assuming they had really ever shed them).
In terms of literature, it is perhaps the German canon that serves as the gateway for British poets, via Goethe’s 1797 poem The Bride of Corinth and the earlier poem The Vampire by Heinrich August Ossenfelder.
Obviously, the roots of vampire stories go far deeper even than this – after all, creatures that come in the night and steal the very essence of life as part of some dark curse or pact that gives them eternal life are common to many cultures and the stories go back centuries if not millennia. So why at this time was the vampire theme so popular in Germany and Britain?
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know – after all, fads wax and wane in time with forces we only barely sense, let alone understand. But here’s an interesting theory for you:
While it’s common to read Dracula – and the vampire fiction craze it sprang from – as metaphorical of Victorian Britain’s fears of sex and eroticism there are interesting senses in which the story reflects political and social realities as well. Some have pointed out the role Count Dracula plays in representing the tension between a modern, industrial Britain and “old Europe” – particularly the stodgy aristocracies of the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. But considering the period during which the European and later British fad grew, from about the 1830s through to the end of the 1890s, I have to wonder if there may be another way to read it:
Consider the insidious threat a vampire poses – perhaps even from one’s own family.
Consider the themes of contagion and madness.
Consider the theme of a revolt against the natural order.
And consider what was happening in France, in Hungary, in the Habsburg Empire, in Wallachia and Serbia through the middle of the century.
Can we read Dracula as a warning story about the dangers of the “contagious” revolutionary spirit?
I don’t know, I’m just spitballing – but the idea has merit, if only to bring the tale full circle and back to the late George Romero and his brilliant reinterpretation of the vampire/ghoul imagery as a metaphor for revolution.
So maybe this is where Romero comes from.
And, somehow, it seems right.
 Specifically in the documentary One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead (2008) which is included in the North American DVD release of the film in that year.
 Conceivably also The Omega Man, though this adaptation came out in 1971, 3 years after Romero’s film.
 Did anyone really like They’d Rather be Right? It doesn’t seem so. But it was published as a serial in Campbell’s magazine – and could it have been yet another Scientology plot? Who knows.
 Admittedly long after Knight and others could have been annoyed with him.
 In fact, the work Matheson put into devising a plausible “sciency” explanation for the vampires in his novel has been said to be a precursor for the pseudo-realism of later novels such as Rosemary’s Baby.
 Including of course the infamous Varney the Vampire! While not the finest of 19th Century British literature, this penny dreadful series enjoyed quite a run
 An amusing trivium in this tale, in that it brings things full circle: Shelley invoking science as the motive force (literally!) of her monster, Matheson invoking science as an explanation for mass vampirism.
 Indeed, one wonders what part the publication of Polidori’s story played in Byron’s decision to dismiss him in the same year.
 The concept is inverted entirely in the 2012 film Dark Shadows by director Tim Burton.
 This poem is a beast, but filled with amazing fantasy themes beyond just the vampire reference (which is actually a fairly minor part of the thing). It’s a monster to work through, but worth it just for a look into the 18th Century roots of modern fantastic fiction. It’s available in various formats on Project Gutenberg – and I really recommend an electronic text version for this one, because the footnotes are valuable.
 Have we?
 For those who are interested, Ossenfelder’s poem is quite short and a translation is available here. Goethe’s work is somewhat longer, but still easily digestible – see his text in translation here.
 Both in social terms and in terms of the increasing awareness of sexually transmitted disease epidemics.
 Insofar as the latter can even be considered European, I suppose.