Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

By Peter Day | Go to book overview

The Discourse of the Vampire in First World War
Writing

Terry Phillips

The Great War, as those caught up in its far-reaching effects, came to call it, was a time of unprecedented upheaval, most often seen in cultural terms as heralding the advent of Modernism, or at least confirming the predominance of the Modernist vision.1 However this reading back to posit the Great War as origin has the effect of blinding the cultural analyst to the fact that the War itself was interpreted for subsequent generations by those who were themselves, in one way or another, the products of preceding decades and more particularly of the fin de siecle. They thus brought both the conflicts and uncertainties as well as the narrative forms of turn of the century discourse to their reading of The Great War. What follows is an examination of the way in which the cultural figure of the vampire functions within the consciousness of those writing during and after the experience of the war.

Many of those uncertainties and anxieties, which can be traced back to the closing years of the nineteenth century, found expression in the fictional forms of second wave Gothic, among the most pervasive of which, thanks to the influence of Stoker's Dracula, is the vampire. By the turn of the century there were a number of threatening possibilities which are well documented: the New Woman, sexual deviance, invasion and racial contamination, fear of mental and physical degeneracy. Indeed, the declaration of war in 1914 was seen by many as a remedy for some of these threatened ills, particularly those associated with degeneracy.2 However, beyond all these threats, there lurks the greatest fear of all – the fear of death, the ultimately nonhuman condition. The supreme irony is that World War I, far from removing this threat made its reality present in a way that it had rarely been before. The result of four years of unremitting conflict on the Western Front and elsewhere not only did nothing to solve turn of the century anxieties but rather gave them only new impulses and new forms.

True to its chameleon character, sexual indeterminacy and occupation of territory on the boundaries of life and death, the vampire lingered through these years of political and cultural crisis, not obviously as it had done in the 1890s, but rather like Dracula himself circulating almost unnoticed. The vampire's cultural history shifts almost at will between male and female, suggesting an indeterminacy in itself alarming to Edwardian society, but in spite of the maleness of the vampire's most famous representation it tends to be associated in the popular mind with disturbing female characteristics. Indeed a number of modern critics have argued that Dracula's own sexuality is ambiguous and few critics ignore

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