Reviewing: A History of the Vampire in Popular Culture: Love At First Bite, by Violet Fenn

A copy of this book was provided by netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. 

Highlights:

  • I love a deep dive into folklore
  • Looks at everything from Carmilla to Twilight.
  • Why are vampires so sexy? I mean on paper they shouldn’t be. And I bet very few people wanted to bang Nosferatu. 
  • I mean, I say that – the world is a weird place.
  • Vampires are so cool

Humans have, for almost all their existence, taken refuge in folk tales. Winding fear into superstition gives us a semblance of control, no matter how elusive that control might actually be. There is little more terrifying than impotence in the face of disaster – better to create a target upon which to vent one’s anger and to use as a focus for the un-channelled fear.


One of my university modules was called ‘Gothic to Goth’. It was among the highlights of my rollercoaster of a university experience and of course we couldn’t do the gothic without paying a visit to a certain Count. Despite being in places quite outdated in terms of its treatment of women , mental health and anyone not from England, it is by and large a bloody good book. 

Pun absolutely intended and I refuse to be sorry.

Fenn takes the discussion back even further, to the origins of ‘vampiric’ folklore (though it may not necessarily use that term) throughout history, from Lamia and Lillith to Mercy Brown. The undead are not a new invention – centuries of misunderstood diseases, accidental live burials in the age of early anesthesia (and isn’t that horrifying?) and simply attempting to explain away the fear caused by the shadows of the night have left humanity with a rich and complex set of stories of monsters seeking to drain us of life and make us something ‘other’. Often these stories are, rightfully, terrifying – nobody wants to be murdered in the dead of night by a terrifying beast with an uncannily human face after all. But sometimes; a lot of the time actually as it turns out, there’s something erotic to be found in these stories. Following our basest urges without fear of social repercussions, the allure of eternal life, the often sexual implications of fangs piercing our bodies…people have been perverts since the beginning of time, is it really any surprise we’ve sexed up the boogeyman?

What I really enjoyed is her emphasis on how these stories are, as we know them, relatively recent and almost entirely shaped by the media we consume. Whether it’s Varney the Vampire or Edward Cullen, once vampires entered the world of print, and later screen, they seldom left it for long. Fenn also takes a deep dive into the treatment of women in these narratives, like Lucy Westenra – “a ‘modern’ woman who ends up paying for her sexual freeness with her life”, and Twilight’s Isabella Swan, subject to emotional and in one instance sexual abuse as well as physical harm by a parade of sexy supernatural teenagers attempting to lay claim to her heart, virginity and potentially eternal soul. Of course, with so much to cover there’s often only a glancing discussion of one movie or another, more an overview of vampiric media than a microhistory in some regards, but I do feel this can be forgiven given how much there is out there. 

My main complaint about this book, and what cost it a star in the end, was that it seemed to bounce about theme wise, finishing with a section talking to various goths (The Musician, The Aesthete, The Promoter etc) which felt like an odd way to finish it off. Despite this, however, I found it a remarkably easy book to read. A more recent convert to reading non-fiction, I can often find them difficult to start off and sometimes slow going as I absorb the information, but Fenn’s tone and clear interest in the subject matter made reading this enjoyable and easy to pick up after putting it down (a lot of my physical reading is done over lunch breaks or in the evening after work, so can involve a lot of putting down and picking up). 

Honestly I really enjoyed this book, it reminded me of the best modules of my university days and reminded me of how much I love vampire media. It is an excellent ‘beginners’ book to the history of the vampire, great for inspiring a deeper dive into one or more of the movies, books and folk tales mentioned within. More experienced readers in the topic will be unlikely to find anything particularly new here, but it is good fun! 

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