Transylvania gets all the glory for being the homeland of the vampire, but the true capital of the Undead has always been dear, dirty Dublin. After all, it was two Protestant Dubliners who largely created the modern vampire that’s loomed large in pop culture ever since: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu with his novella Carmilla and Bram Stoker with Dracula. But to understand why those men conjured the dark shadows of Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula, we need to turn to Dublin’s most beloved literary son, James Joyce. It’s in his novella The Dead that Joyce lays bare the true specters that led to Victorian Dublin becoming the birthplace of the vampire we all know and love today–namely, sex and religion.
Carmilla and Dracula are both stories, at their dark hearts, about proper Protestant English ladies who are preyed upon by bloodsucking undead aristocrats from the decadent, Catholic East. In Carmilla, Laura and her father live in Styria (now part of Austria) and take in a sickly young woman called Carmilla, who is both an emotional and actual vampire. Carmilla throws herself on Laura with barely-sub lesbian subtext by day, and feeds on her blood by night.
In Dracula, the Count leaves his crumbling castle in Transylvania and comes to London, where he assaults Lucy Westenra and her friend Mina Harker in their beds. Lucy dies and is turned into a vampire, and Mina begins turning into the Undead, becoming so “unclean” that even a communion wafer burns her skin. In the end of both stories, it takes retributive male violence (led by Laura’s father and Mina’s husband) to destroy the vampires and save the women in body and soul.
Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads, of course, but what’s fascinating about Carmilla and Dracula is that in both stories, Catholic superstition about the Undead proves to be not only true, but the only means of saving the good Protestant women Laura and Mina. Carmilla is physically hurt by peasants singing a hymn, and in Dracula, Mina’s husband Jonathan is shocked to find that a “heathenish” crucifix given to him by a Transylvanian woman proves most effective in warding off the Count.
Le Fanu and Stoker were both Protestants themselves, members of a ruling minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and it’s impossible for me (a descendent of Protestant Irish myself) not to think that Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula reflected a very real religious anxiety in their creators.
It’s in Joyce’s The Dead where this combustible mix of sexual and religious anxiety manifests as an “impalpable and vindictive being … gathering forces … in its vague world” that haunts good middle-class Dubliner Gabriel Conroy. In the story, Gabriel and wife Gretta go to a party thrown by Gabriel’s aunts. During a dance, Gabriel is accosted by an Irish nationalist named Miss Ivors, who chides him for writing for a Unionist newspaper and not knowing his own country better, and pushes him to join her and Gretta on a trip to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands in the West. His aunts also discuss visiting a Trappist monastery, where the monks are believed to sleep in coffins (Le Fanu and Stoker surely heard of this same monastery, too, and I wonder how much that image of Catholic monks sleeping and waking in coffins informed their visions of Carmilla and Dracula’s resting places).
After the party, Gabriel is stoked to get hot and heavy, but Gretta is too distracted and distraught after hearing an old song that a dead boyfriend, Michael Furey, once sang for her when she lived in Galway in the West. Gabriel’s own sexual and religious anxieties come together in the specter of Furey, this romantic Catholic boy from the Gaelic West, who loved his wife.
Le Fanu and Stoker turned their anxieties–about death, women’s sexuality, and their own religious heritage–into implacable blood-sucking creatures of the night who haunt our pop culture today. It’s fitting that the lapsed Catholic Joyce turned his own anxieties (Michael Furey was based on a real boy who’d courted Nora Joyce) into a haunting story of love, death, and sympathy.
In the end, Gabriel doesn’t vanquish Michael Furey–he accepts him. He can’t be destroyed like Carmilla or Dracula. Gretta’s sexuality isn’t a thing to be vindicated through violence, but simply accepted. Gabriel drifts off to sleep after having a vision of Michael Furey’s spirit and other members of the “vast hosts of the dead.” He decides, in his final moments of consciousness, to take a trip to the Gaelic West with Gretta and the nationalist Miss Ivors, as snow falls over Ireland: on Dubliner and Westerner, Catholic and Protestant, and upon all the living and the Undead.