Auerbach's 'Vampires': Scholarship and politics



"Our Vampires, Ourselves," by Nina Auerbach. University of Chicago Press. 231 pages. $22 Despite a liberal dose of pop-culture references - including its title, a witty send-up of the self-help staple, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" - Nina Auerbach' s "Our Vampires, Ourselves" is not for the casual vampire fan. Still, this monograph is accessible enough to attract more than a niche market of Gothic scholars and devotees of Bram Stoker or Bela Lugosi.

Literate readers of many stripes will find much to savor in this academic survey of vampires from romanticism to Reaganism, and those who have been yearning for a thorough analysis of the shifting role of the character Van Helsing (originally from Stoker's classic 1879 novel, "Dracula") will no doubt be in Transylvania heaven.

Ms. Auerbach, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is so steeped in scholarly form that she feels obliged to footnote the scarcely shocking claim that vampires dislike the daylight. But on balance, she is both good-humored and erudite about her confessed preoccupation, demonstrating as much flair in her discussions of Vietnam-era horror films as in her pursuit of vampire-allusions in Wordsworth and Wilde.

Her facility with the subject is impressive and occasionally infectious; even when addressing such marginal texts as obscure 50-year-old vampire novels or the George Hamilton spoof, "Love at First Bite," the author's lively and fluent prose style engages the reader.

Ms. Auerbach's thesis, that we can chart the changing times by paying attention to vampires, is wry yet reasonable. "More than our heroes or pundits," she submits, "our Draculas tell us who we were," and before long, the author convinces the reader of the versatility and gradual development of this enduring literary and cultural symbol.

Her comments on the 1970s are especially entertaining and provocative: In the 1979 John Badham version of "Dracula," the character of Renfield, who attempts to expose Dracula as a vampire, is a radicalized "whistle-blower," "a silenced seer" not unlike "other post-'60s culture heroes who vanished after giving fragmentary warnings (such as) the Black Panthers (and) Karen Silkwood."

Similarly, the author traces societal evolution by positing a droll contract between the Draculas of the 1930s and the 1970s: To striking effect, she measures the immobile, impassive Bela Lugosi against the touchy-feely, Alan Alda-ish Dracula of Jack Palance and Frank Langella. The author reports that Mr. Palance, in a 1973 TV-version of Stoker's novel, weeps into a coffin, and in the Badham movie, "Langella's graceful hands replace Lugosi's transfixing eyes." According to Ms. Auerbach, vampires of the '70s, "sensitized" by Women's Lib, are more apt to reach out: While "Lugosi was an estranged and estranging Dracula," Ms. Auerbach writes, "Langella is a Dracula of fusion."

To the author, the '80s saw an attenuation of vampires in fiction and film: The dual evils of Reagan and AIDS provided society with more than enough literal horror, and, in apparent response, the "wisest" of Anne Rice's vampires "crawled out of their stories to die." The fact that Ms. Auerbach is bracingly candid about her political leanings - "I loved vampires before I hated Republicans," she admits in the Introduction - lends this book about vampires additional bite.

Drew Limsky teaches literature at American University. He has published fiction in Genre and Christopher Street magazines. He writes articles for the Washington Post and the Washington Blade.

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