Monday, August 23, 2010

Chapter 48: In Which a Vampire Finally Gets Staked (Maybe)

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Varney checks up on the Bannerworths and the mob discovers a "vampire."

In Chapter 48 (THE STAKE AND THE DEAD BODY.) begins with a sentence masquerading as a paragraph, which I read three times and then gave up on:
The mob seemed from the first to have an impression that, as regarded the military force, no very serious results would arise from that quarter, for it was not to be supposed that, on an occasion which could not possibly arouse any ill blood on the part of the soldiery, or on which they could have the least personal feeling, they would like to get a bad name, which would stick to them for years to come.
It continues fairly soon with the woman at the end of the previous chapter, who thought a dead man was a vampire. Other townspeople crowd around the body to examine it. They summon a man who saw the body a few days ago, who confirms that it looks fresher now than it did when he first died.

So they decide that they must drive a stake through the body. Interestingly, the heart isn't specified as it is in many vampire stories; just the stake itself, "it was currently believed, inflicted so much physical injury to the frame, as to render his resuscitation out of the question."

The act itself is carried out by a handful of drunk guys unaffiliated with the current on-lookers -- I suppose that's so JMR (who puts on great airs of horror and disgust at the violation of the body) can continue looking down at the mob while mostly viewing them as stupid and misguided, rather than evil.

Was the guy actually a vampire? It's hard to say, although JMR comes down pretty strongly on the side of "no, and you're stupid for believing that there might be vampires in a vampire story."

But whether he was or wasn't, the problem with this scene is that it exists only so JMR can do what he's done every single chapter since the mob was introduced: smack us over the head with how stupid and uncivilized they are. The whole "drive a stake through the heart/cut off the head of someone who might have been turned to prevent them from rising" is a classic vampire trope, and in most stories it works because we are familiar with -- and care about -- both the character who's dead and the character doing the staking. It becomes a poignant moment of angst, reinforcing the loss of the loved one and demonstrating that the vampire slayer will do whatever it takes to stop others from getting hurt.

The mob is a sort of character, certainly, but by bringing in some random guys to do the deed, JMR fails to show the impact of the staking on that character. Worse than that, he gives the mob someone to look down on -- someone who's reviled for doing the dirty work that, if the mob is correct in their assumptions of vampirism, needs to get done. Like so much of the story, it's just all too convenient.


  1. The “driving a stake through the heart of a loved one turned vampire” might be a classic trope now, but I don’t think I’ve come across it in any vampire story prior to Dracula. What happens in this chapter is closer to accounts of real exhumations and stakings of supposed vampires. Apart from my general frustration at the idiocy of the people in the mob, I liked the scene, since it seemed to be showing how these incidents, and the fear and hysteria that accompany them, feed into vampire mythology in real life. That would be why he skips over the actual staking: you’re left with what people said they saw, and, like the people the witnesses would tell the story to, you have to guess at what actually happened.

    The more drunken members didn’t seem like a convenient way to keep looking down on the mob without making them evil to me, or even that they were supposed to be condemned any more than the more sober members of the group. It seemed more like an attempt to portray the group dynamics within a mob. There are people who are genuinely afraid, there are those who are along for the excitement and entertainment, and the way those two groups infuence each other is part of why the mob’s able to do such terrible things. It’s possible I’m being influenced by later chapters; I think the sense of outrage gets toned down a bit and the author switches back over to humorous commentary later.

    All the outrage over the desecration of the dead might be due to Victorian values. This was written for a society that would add dissection to death sentences because the death sentence wasn’t harsh enough, after all, and everyone was afraid of the body-snatchers. The horror and disgust might be real, and shared by the readers.

    Overall, the town appears to be in the middle of a case of mass hysteria. From the start they’ve been on edge because they’d heard of a violent and seemingly random crime in their neighborhood. That’s understandable, but as soon as someone names a culprit, they immediately assume it’s true and head off to kill the suspect. No trial, no investigation, nothing to make sure they’re not about to kill an innocent person. Then, when Varney escaped, they needed to do something else to make themselves feel safe and in control again, and it’s lucky for everyone they’ve only been attacking corpses, since if Varney can look human and turn out to be a vampire, then so can anyone else.

    I still maintain that it’s not clear that there actually are any real vampires in this story yet. When I first read it, I was so convinced that the evidence pointed in the other direction that I was banging my head against the wall because Henry and Flora kept refusing to realize Varney wasn’t a vampire. Flora I can sort of excuse, since what happened to her was either a rape or a vampire attack (and I know I’d prefer it turn out to be a vampire attack if I was her), but Henry’s just a gullible idiot. I don’t think even the author likes him very much. This series might be called Varney the Vampire, but its tone is closer to Scooby-Doo.

  2. It's hard for me to make any kind of sweeping generalizations about the tone because it's so inconsistent. I'm still not understanding where you're getting the sense that the evidence points to a lack of vampires, however. Perhaps that's a discussion for another post.

  3. Some of the inconsistency in tone might be because it's Victorian; the novels from that era sometimes feel like they're throwing every single genre together. Here, though, there's so much humor I have trouble believing it was meant to be taken completely seriously.

    Having read the entire series, it's a little difficult for me to discuss the plot too much, other than to say that I took a more skeptical approach and the story seemed to make more sense that way. If you want to discuss the evidence piece by piece, that's fine, but I don't want to risk spoiling the plot more than I have to. I like this series quite a bit, and I'd like to see people enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. I don't think it was meant entirely seriously; it's just that I have a lot of trouble figuring out which parts are supposed to be serious and which parts are supposed to be intentionally funny or over-the-top.

    I'll probably come back to this once I've read more of the story and have more context.

  5. I agree with you there; I also have trouble figuring out which parts are funny, which parts are serious, and which parts are funny but weren't supposed to be. Some of the humor got a little more obvious for me after reading a bunch of gothic novels, which have no sense of humor whatsoever, but it's still hard to tell.

  6. Staking a corpse into the grave without regard to placement of the stake is folklorically correct( Hungarian & Romanian vampire panics of the 1700's); the idea was to pin the corpse to the earth. Even metal stakes were used. Rymer's departure from folklore is that the body is staked unburied in the coffin, and Rymer is justifying it with the hypothesis of damage.

    Rymer's portrayal of the mob is both classist (sneering at the uneducated & laboring class) and also a pretty accurate portrayal of mobs.