It should seem obvious: death is that “thing” behind the “fear” that Lovecraft used to define our genre. Yet for the most part, Horror writers seem to prefer the more visceral kinds of death – the vainglorious, the heroic, the tragic – death that glorifies the person or the plot. Therefore, Horror writers also tend to avoid the obviousness of rampant disease as their story-behind-the-story. When it comes to death-by-disease, our genre prefers to utilize the mystery of illness and disease (if not life and death) as a way to explore human nature, leaving the horrific details of unfolding pandemics to the Science Fiction genre.
But we have had writers who embraced the horrors consequential to pandemics – specifically Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, Stephen King and even Anne Rice.
So perhaps now is the time to discuss what those writers did to translate disease and death into top-rate reading experiences, and to add a few titles to your pandemic self-isolating reading lists.
As fans and readers, we might learn something about ourselves and our often-forgotten national and international histories when whole peoples are faced with the overwhelming, unthinkable effects of uncontrolled contagions of the past. But if you are a writer, you may also see a way to bend your current sense of personal trauma, your own fears and grief into something that might propel your next piece of fiction well past the inevitable crush of future publications about pandemics.
Vampires: the Undead for a Reason
I have a confession to make: I am absolutely weary of Vampire stories.
But there is something inevitable about them in our genre, and perhaps we should be glad to have them stirring things up now and again. However I admit I draw a heavy sigh of resignation to think that, well, here we go again…Because sure enough, Vampires have their origins not merely in folklore, but in premature death as dealt by disease and pandemic. In his book The Vampire: a New History, author Nick Groom states that despite those more remote folk origins:
“Many accounts of vampires associate outbreaks of vampirism with contagion, making them vectors and consequently part of the history of infectious diseases. Although the means by which illness and infection spread was not fully understood until the middle of the nineteenth century, William Harvey had, in 1628, published his theory of the circulation of the blood…Circulatory networks are the very media of vampirism: they roam, feed and infect through the circulation of blood.” (15-16)
We are indeed doomed, if only because we as humans will never completely control the versatility and lethal beauty of the biology of viruses. That fact has left many a creative door open, many plots and superstitions circulating…with Vampires to carry them into our imaginations. They nest there, never fully staying buried.
Yet if we as writers of the genre really look at what the genre did well for Critics or well for readers (often not exactly the same thing), we might perchance envision how to turn our own, more recent personal experiences into both original and unforgettable Horror. How do we turn this pandemic into something we can write about (if not within)? How do we stay the course in Horror writing?
When we think back on earlier times when science was new or nonexistent (or merely outdated and outclassed by modern medicine), what we see are the Horrors of our own making – grisly deaths marred by our own inability to understand how people pass viruses on to each other. We see theories about transmission and consequence that dumbfound and horrify us reading about them today – theories that transmission occurs by the mere glance of an ill person (resulting in blindfolded patients), by simple breath of or conversation with a sick person (resulting in a whole other kind of isolation), “venomous and infected air,” complicated “fear of standing water in ditches or sloughs or other corrupt places,” dread of decay and physical corruption, all mixed with the even more terrifying fear of it all being the instrument of Divine Judgment on a person or a people…. (Groom 16-17)
Mix all of that fear with the rush to get dead and decaying bodies off the street and underground, and the Horror of bizarre medical practices, untold suffering and the possibility of premature burial begins to surface…
From the Black Death to cholera – another disease that could be carried by infected persons up to two weeks before the exhibition of symptoms – our international history of pandemic is carried on the backs of war, travel, and commerce. (Groom 164) Yet our core fears of not only dying, but of contracting disease and being judged for it if not exiled because of it has never left us.
We have not really changed all that much from our ancestors. For example, by the nineteenth century multiple pandemics of cholera were no longer legitimately associated “with meteors or divine visitation but with barges and ships, railways, markets and fairs, and mass movements and assemblies of people – be they marching troops, escaping refugees, or crowds gathered at political rallies and popular demonstrations. In tune with the modernity of the disease, traditional scapegoats such as witches and Jews escaped blame: instead it was the medical profession who were first held responsible…” (Groom 165).
We can see today how easily we all slip into the blame-game just like those ancestors, even if we have to embrace a little superstition or magical thinking now and then to carry it off: isn’t it true even today that we cast suspicious eyes on those we presume to “know more” than we do ourselves? Are we not blaming a lab in China right now for a virus that originated in nature –no matter how it jumped species?
We are not so different than we were in those times. But indeed those times had significant differences because medicine was evolving in plain sight – not in laboratories with top secret clearances and nondisclosure agreements.
Enter the age of early medicine and body snatchers and those characters today we might find unsavory – yet whose relentless pursuit of knowledge while sometimes marred by tales of gruesome scenarios where live patients thought dead were buried or vivisected by misadventure – led us to understand the nature of disease and the frailty of human flesh. As we struggled to understand pandemics and control the outbreaks, we sacrificed some of the things that allowed us false senses of control. Our lack of control became bold-faced truths.
That we were in those times surrounded by blood – from animal husbandry to hunting to daily life and death – did not alleviate our terrors. That science was getting involved in mystical, magical, paradoxical and experimental thinking did little to help human imagination. Even now, we have trouble separating pandemics from Divine Judgment. (It just seems easier to control our own religious devotion or to game God than it does to outsmart a virus.) But then a lot more of us had no clue what medicine was ultimately about. In fact, most of us still don’t.
But that certainly has never stopped Horror writers from “going there”….
When it comes to pandemics, however, it is true that most fiction works surface in Science Fiction. Perhaps this is because we (as a general reading public) don’t really want to explore the raw, methodical, Horror of death-by-disease — let alone the dull scientific details; it can be far more entertaining and mentally engaging to dive right into the what-if scenario of apocalypse if we are looking at things as probable survivors instead of likely victims.
But that is often where Horror diverges from the rest of the genres. We do describe the ugly stuff. We do imagine or document the gritty details of death and describe them liberally. But the best of Horror doesn’t stay there… Pandemics, disease and death-by-illness are often consequences of humanity’s conscious choices and consequential collateral damage. It is our job as Horror writers to point that out – especially in the subtext.
Dracula, Disease, and Bram Stoker
Fear of disease and its evil cousin pandemic was often associated with fears of blood and decay and bodily fluids. This would be because medicine took a while to catch up to understanding cause and effect, and the rest of the world was left to care for and dispose of disintegrating flesh. Many illnesses cause the body to bleed, spew, leak and smell…not a pleasant thing to experience or suffer, but definitely a thing to fear if the word “contagion” is added or bandied about.
Says author Nick Groom, “Early theories of plague considered it to be an instrument of holy displeasure…” (16), something we ourselves do even now on a regular basis (we have only to look at the AIDS crisis to see how quickly we are willing to accept the superstitious rationale if doing so can possibly save the rest of us from contagion). Continues Groom, “Early vampires need to be understood within this sacred context. These mystical plagues were manifested through invisible forces – qualities that would come to characterize vampires – and the more radical conjectures on contagion speculated that it could be spread by immaterial means, by the words, or simply the breath of an infected person.” (16)
Toss in humanity’s groomed fears of new medicine at the time, the mysteries of death and illness, a little awkward knowledge of human biology, and a certain fever pitch of panic could be generated. This is how Dracula was born – straight out of the fears of preternatural contagion, a rich history of vampire folklore, and one Bram Stoker. States biographer David J. Skal in his book Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker:
“Bram Stoker came into the world midway through a century of scientific and technological change more rapid and destabilizing than human beings had previously experienced. The tension between religious and scientific world views was especially pronounced, and Stoker’s own intellectual development and literary output would amount to a lifelong juggling act of materialism versus faith, and reason against superstition.” (Skal 7)
Does it not feel like we are experiencing similar times right now? We should then keep in mind that this was (and still is) the perfect breeding ground for vampire novels, as Nick Groom states: “Dracula is the climax to over 70 years of vampire tales…But the vampire clearly existed before Dracula as a species of Enlightenment thinking in the contexts of medical science, theology, empiricism and politics, and it was this figure that both thrived in the nineteenth century and was adapted by Stoker.” (170)
Combine that understanding with the devastation of what was happening at the time of his birth in November of 1847 – the Irish potato famine, wherein “starving and evicted tenants flooded into the city slums and workhouses, and with them dysentery, famine, fever, and typhus. Terrifying accounts reached Dublin from County Mayo, where workhouses had begun the inexorable transition into death houses.” (9-10), and the stage is set. Life in grim times has a way of feeding a writer’s imagination and Literature of the time. And while we think of popular Gothic Romances of the same period as islands of Literature, what they really were is fictionalized documentation of what was happening during the period. So would become Dracula…a Gothic Horror story reeking of its historical time.
Continues Skal, “The years of Bram Stoker’s childhood were filled with oral accounts of horrors attending the famine. Most poignant and tragic were the now-legendary tales of the “coffin ships” which carried typhus and cholera along with desperate immigrants to North America. Many never arrived alive; as many as a hundred thousand refugees were interred in one mass grave at a St Lawrence River quarantine station in Quebec. Bram undoubtedly heard these stories, told and embellished like folktales, and later could have read published first-person accounts of doomed passengers…” (22)
Thinking about that should get our attention; as of today the U.S. alone has attributed more than 74,595 deaths to the coronavirus pandemic. And just as what was obvious and part of daily life served as the backdrop for the story of Dracula, we are painting our own backdrop right now.
The fact of pandemic today is likely to influence coming new fiction for our century. Now is the time to take in the details – perhaps to journal if not to write the story needing to be born. Little details may fade if we ever get back to “normal”…But even if we don’t, this moment of transition is not unlike the birthday of Dracula. We should never forget the feel of a mask worn across the face, the suppression of breath, the inability to read faces, the heat of exhalation against layers of linen, the burn of the ears from hours of loops affixed there…the freedom of pulling it off in a car with the windows rolled up, the endless long lines and the types of things limited and the times they are limited for (including the order in which they go missing from stores). Details need to define a character and a character’s actions and available options. Don’t count on your memory. Write it down.
Then let it bake in the imagination.
Bram and the Rest of Us
When we want to understand how an author takes the external raw facts of happenings, configures them with his or her own experiences and reshapes them into fiction, it pays to have Horror authors as examples of how it was done. Bram Stoker is just such an author, battling with something arguably more powerful and intrusive than the internet: surviving Victorian Society as an Irishman during pandemic and famine…
Here we have an example of how a writer living through times of immense change (such as now) dealt with oppressive religious mores and social constrictions. There were other peculiarities affecting the period of his youth, including being one of many photographed male children dressed as little girls and living through an ever rising tide of disease and illness accompanied by folk and fairy lore and abuse of opium and laudanum for controlling disease and the vivacity of children… Stoker himself suffered a mysterious paralysis, leaving him bedridden during his childhood (and which may or may not have been connected to period parental use of opium or laudanum), and tying him to so much post-mortem speculation about his sexuality and internal struggles with the changes in play around him – all of which consort with an imagination that could have drafted a monster like Dracula.
Says Skal, “How many nineteenth century writers, especially writers of horror and fantasy, had their early imaginings or mature productions colored and intensified by childhood perceptions of death and the experience of opium? Early death was everywhere, and laudanum use was so accepted and widespread that it may not have registered as a particularly remarkable reminiscence. But it is almost impossible to imagine Poe’s claustrophobic tales not being informed by his famous abuse of alcohol…” (40).
What are you experiencing? Are you writing it down?
When we are given such details in historically framed prose that has a distant and clinical feel, it is not then so difficult to see how earlier Horror writers have been influenced by their times. Yet it often remains a mystery to us as to how to turn the fears and dread we experience today into actual working fiction. For example, we hear fellow contemporary writers talk of the struggle to concentrate, to imagine, to construct stories; we hear about disorientation and distraction. No doubt, writers like Stoker had similar competing distractions, although not on the exact level of the loud and intrusive internet.
In those earlier times, one could shut the door to turn off the stimulus. But that doesn’t mean the imagination didn’t work, or that mass burials and the accoutrement of mass death wasn’t lurking right outside.
We should not underestimate the complexity of those earlier times with their own challenges. Rather, we should accept every generation has its own burdens to carry, that all great things take time, and all writers – even the old greats – are often riddled with the self-doubt we may feel even today as we are overwhelmed by the modern flotsam of facts and rumors. We should take heart, as even Stoker struggled to get it all down in those gritty times of his.
Says Skal, “The reason Dracula took seven years to write was that Stoker had great difficulty writing it, especially through the overload of his own imaginative clutter. The process was twisted, arduous, and constantly interrupted. He stopped to write other books. He questioned himself. He censored himself. He had second, even third thoughts about almost everything.” (306)
We have to remember that even as we are affected by and then separate from times of historic change, the way to arm our Muses is to take in the experience with all of our senses: the details will convey the Horrors more profoundly than trying to explain them. Show, don’t tell…and always, always dig deeper.
Today, when students of the Vampire look at Dracula-the-written-work, it is the details that impress. Says Nick Groom in his foreward for his book The Vampire: a New History:
“I had originally intended to downplay Dracula simply as a representative example of late-Victorian vampire fiction; but the novel is so profoundly informed by the myriad deliberations of its time on vampires, blood, science, technology and literature that all the paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, just as they lead away from it”(xv)
Stoker then proves that knowing the vehicle of destruction is as important as knowing the path of destruction.
And whether we like him (or her) or not, the Vampire fits the Literary bill to frame such a period of history as any ravaged by pandemic. In the Vampire we have a fear of contagion; fear of the night when death often descends to spirit away beloved souls; we have a stirring of confusion about sexuality and the role of blood in both sex and disease; we have the debate about what life and death and immortality mean; we have the rich fabric of folklore and superstition juxtaposed against new science and the efficacy of religion; we have fear of what nature can do and might have done to us, combined with dread of what mistakes in society and even nurture might have caused… Stoker’s times were loaded with internal and external battles that we can identify with if we only choose to look at them.
We can see where his inspiration came from – especially when we consider the prominence of Varney the Vampire and theatric pantomimes in Stoker’s life. But this tells us little about where the focus comes from to sit down and write a Dracula…
Instead, it tells us that we have to see a novel not as a playful hobby, a hope for a surprise bestseller, but an act of sheer will. Writing an artful work of fiction, an original, a Literary statement, a genre-changer… that is an act of work. It is childbirth – agonizing and bloody labor…
It takes conceptualizing and research, it takes feedback and beta reading, it takes revision and pause. It even takes doubt.
We have to be willing to see the Horrors for what they are. That means seeing the details of this modern pandemic for what they are… raw, unadorned and paralyzing with perspectives akin to war… We have to be willing to ride the tides of PTSD, of nightmares rooted in truth, of the dead and dying coming in endless waves without repose.
Some of us will succeed in doing this. Some of us will create Draculas. But we cannot think of Bram Stoker sitting blithely at his writing desk, wringing his hands in glee, already spending his author’s profits. He would have done no such thing. There would have been no such promise in writing a work of Horror. We must stop imagining that the greatest writers of Horror had no troubles like our own, and did not suffer as we suffer; each had his or her own demons to battle. And in truth, translating the horrors of death and illness into something like Dracula is more about the ability to take our internalized fears and marry them with the mythology and society of our day.
Do you dare look? More importantly, will you dare remember and remind the rest of us? Will you speak for the dead?
Groom, Nick. The Vampire: a New History. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, c2018.
Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, c2016.