As everyone knows, e-books about gay vampires are proliferating these days—a very good thing for those of us who love to read and write them—but it would be a mistake to think of these publications as some hot new thing. The gay vampire has a long and illustrious history. In fact, the very first vampire story in English literature had strong homoerotic tones. In some ways, the current crop of e-books is expanding on a theme that was first developed almost two hundred years ago.
The story starts with none other than Lord Byron, who in some ways provided the blueprint not only for countless literary heroes (known in academic study as “Byronic” heroes—Heathcliff and Rochester are two prominent examples), but for most modern romance heroes as well, no matter what their sexual orientation. Rumors arose even during Byron’s lifetime that he dabbled in bisexuality, and an attraction between two men served as an undercurrent in his famous vampire short story (dated 1816) that is now generally known as “Fragment of a Novel.” Though Byron never wrote enough of the story for readers to draw any definite conclusions, the setup for the plot involves a young man who is fascinated by a handsome, magnetic male friend who seems to resemble Byron himself. This friend, it is suggested, is actually a vampire, though the unfinished tale never resolves this plot thread.
“Still, Polidori set the stage for the male/male chemistry present in so many vampire stories to come, whether it was presented blatantly or just suggested.”
Luckily for all of us, Byron’s personal physician John Polidori (who is rumored to have had sort of a crush on him) took the fragment and expanded it into a full story, called “The Vampyre.” Published in 1819, the tale again concerns two men who have a strange and dangerous bond with one another. Lord Ruthven, the vampire, attacks a few women during the course of the story, but the primary focus is on the main character’s near-obsession with his mysterious companion. Modern readers have no trouble seeing the homoerotic elements in the story, and it’s quite likely that Regency-era readers didn’t either, even if such things couldn’t be expressed or discussed openly. Still, Polidori set the stage for the male/male chemistry present in so many vampire stories to come, whether it was presented blatantly or just suggested.
After Byron and Polidori came the most influential vampire novel ever written: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). To this day, scholars argue passionately about the nature of the homoerotic content in the story, pointing to some suggestive scenes between Dracula and Jonathan in particular. Many critics have also seized on the fact that Stoker knew Oscar Wilde, who once courted Stoker’s future wife. Wilde’s Victorian trial and imprisonment for homosexual acts, illegal at the time, shocked and titillated London society in 1895. Since he surely followed accounts of the trial and scandal, many believe that Stoker might have included some of the panic against homosexuality in the novel’s symbols and situations. The vampire is seen as a perverse and decadent corrupter of humans, notably one who stirs what the character Mina calls “unclean” passions in men and women alike. In this way, the horror of what Dracula represents is made all the more frightening to a repressed (and repressive) audience.
This idea was made a bit more tangible in the 1931 film, with the character of Renfield replacing Jonathan in the film’s opening scenes. Renfield is portrayed as a dandy, overly groomed and a bit prissy in his mannerisms before Dracula bites him (offscreen), after which he goes insane. Film critics make a convincing case that these clues would have been understood in the 1930s as depicting Renfield as a gay man. In the conservative time at which the film was made, the suggestion is that his socially unacceptable tastes led him to temptation and destruction. Lugosi’s Dracula is also described by some film critics as a bit campy and “different” from the other characters, with his melodramatic accent, mannerisms, and flamboyant tux-and-cape ensemble.
“For the first time, gay male relationships could be portrayed on-screen and even on television, with many depicted in a positive light.”
Though there is nothing overtly sexual in the film, such cues may have resonated with the public at a subconscious level, reinforcing what were then social taboos. All of that changed after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. For the first time, gay male relationships could be portrayed on-screen and even on television, with many depicted in a positive light. From this tradition emerged what is probably the second most influential vampire story of the modern era, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. The original novel, first published in 1976, features a main character, Louis the vampire, openly discussing his attractions to men like Lestat and Armand. Though Rice (through Louis) makes it clear that vampires cannot and do not have human-style sex with one another, his emotional attachments are first and foremost to men. This idea was subtle, but still noticeably present, in the popular 1994 film version. Today’s gay vampires owe a lot—perhaps their very existence—to Anne Rice’s sexy, sensual vampires, who were presented as attractive bad boys rather than corrupted parasites like the original Dracula. Though Rice’s male vampires preferred one another, they still had the ability to get many women’s erotic imaginations fired up. Gothic tales of male/male relationships soon found a whole new enthusiastic audience…many of whom went on to pioneer the erotic m/m e-book field.
Today, gay vampires can be found in many mainstream shows and movies. Lost Boys and The Hunger hinted at male vampiric bisexuality, but True Blood features a gay male couple and The Vampire Diaries dramatized the turning of Caroline’s father, already an out gay man. A cable series aimed at gay men, called The Lair, aired from 2007-2009 and is still popular on DVD. This series left almost nothing to the imagination in its portrayal of vampire/human male relations, as an openly gay reporter attempts to infiltrate a modern vampire nightclub and gets involved with several of its patrons. A quick Internet search will also turn up many websites and actual porn films devoted to man-loving vampires. The popularity of e-books featuring this same theme will also be obvious to anyone reading this article.
In some ways, it might be said that modern films and e-books go where Byron and Polidori couldn’t, owing to the censorship and laws that existed in their own time. If either of them could see into the future, they would be amazed and probably delighted to see how their long-ago idea of a strong attraction between a human man and a male vampire has developed and become acceptable in mainstream entertainment. After two hundred years, vampire stories have returned to their origins—more plentiful and sexier than ever!