Monthly Archives: February 2017

After Ninety Years: A Newly Translated 1880 Serbian Vampire Novella

After Ninety Years: The Story of Serbian Vampire Sava Savanovic is a Serbian novella by Milovan Glisic, first published in 1880. Glisic was a Serbian translator, author, and dramaturg; he translated many authors into Serbian, including Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, who both wrote about Gothic themes themselves. It’s noteworthy that this novel was published seventeen years before Dracula, not because it influenced Stoker, since it wasn’t translated into English until 2015, but because it depicts vampire elements that are not the conventional ones Stoker popularized; rather, Glisic’s novella draws on folklore and is more true to the original vampire tradition as a result. After Ninety Years has now been translated into English for the first time by James Lyon, himself the author of the vampire novel Kiss of the Butterfly, which is set in the Balkans and explores Vlad Tepes’ time there.

afterninetyyearsThe book contains both a note from the translator that talks about the translation and Serbian vampire literature and an introduction by Andrew Boylan that discusses the novella, how it differs from Dracula, and also how it compares to the film based on it—Leptirica by Đorđe Kadijević, made in 1973.

Spoiler alert: I will describe the full plot because it’s necessary to understand the vampire elements used in the work. (I will not attempt to reproduce Serbian accents and other marks.)

The story is not long and fairly simple. There is a village in Serbia in which a wealthy man, Zivan, who is the kmet (mayor or leader) of the village has a beautiful daughter named Radojka. A young man, Strahinja, is in love with Radojka, but Zivan refuses to let Strahinja marry her. Zivan’s anger causes Strahinja to leave the village. He ends up going to the neighboring town where the villagers are having a serious problem. They have no miller and whenever they get one, he is found dead in the mill the next day, usually with a red mark around his throat as if he had been hung. (At this point, the villagers do not realize they are up against a vampire. It’s significant that there is no mention of bite marks on the victim’s neck. Instead, the vampire seems to suck out his victims’ blood simply by touching them; unfortunately, the novel is not gruesome enough to show us the vampire preying on his victim, so it’s left somewhat unclear how he satisfies his bloodthirst). Strahinja decides he will play miller to solve this mystery. He hides up on the mill’s loft with two pistols to see what might threaten him.

Enter the vampire. He comes into the mill and Strahinja can see he is a tall man with a face as red as blood and over his shoulder he carries a shroud which stretches down to his heels. (A footnote here explains that in Serbian tradition, the vampire lies in his death shroud and if he loses it, he loses his power. One wonders whether this is why vampires are often depicted with capes in English literature—perhaps a misunderstanding of the death shroud.) The vampire then says out loud to himself, “Oh, Sava Savanović! For 90 years you’ve been a vampire, and you’ve never gone without supper as you have this evening!” This statement explains the novel’s title. Strahinja needs no more information than to know his enemy is a vampire before he decides to shoot him. When the smoke from the pistols clears, the vampire is gone.

Strahinja goes to the other villagers, who are amazed he is alive, and tells them his story. They have never heard of anyone named Sava Savanovic, but they decide an old woman in the village, Mirjana, might know of him because she is older than ninety. (A footnote here reminds us that this novella is based on folklore and that Mirjana was a real person said to have lived to be 110-120 years old. I should note here also that the translator went to Serbia to visit all the places associated with this vampire legend and found that how Glisic relates the story has some variation in the folklore, so it’s not known what he changed or embellished or if he wrote down an accurate version of what he heard.) Mirjana says she remembers Sava from her youth and that he was an evil man. She then tells the villagers where he was buried.

Of course, the villagers are now determined to find Sava’s grave and destroy him. To do so, they need three items: a black and ungelded horse who will be able to locate the grave, holy water, and hawthorn stakes. (The footnotes clarify that hawthorn was symbolic because it is what Christ’s crown of thorns was said to be made from. More relevant to vampires, it lets out trimethylene which is attractive to butterflies so they will often cluster on hawthorn branches. Butterflies are important here because corpses also release trimethylene, which causes butterflies to be attracted to decaying bodies. As a result, butterflies are often seen in cemeteries. The other important thing here is that butterflies were associated with the soul, and it was believed a butterfly (the soul) would fly out of the mouth when a person dies.)

The villagers, with the help of the horse, find the grave. The horse seems to sense where the vampire lies and starts digging in the appropriate place. Once the grave is dug up, the villagers open the coffin and find Sava lying there, his corpse undecayed and looking bloated from drinking blood. They plan to pour holy water down his throat, but they spill it, which awakens him. They have warned each other not to let a butterfly escape from his throat—apparently they would have drowned it with the holy water, but the butterfly does escape. Regardless, they stab the body with the hawthorn stakes to kill the vampire, and they tell themselves it’s no matter that the butterfly escaped because it can’t hurt “grown people.”

The villagers then decide that because of Strahinja’s bravery, he deserves to marry Radojka. They make a plan to kidnap her, which Strahinja argues against but finely gives into, and so Radojka is abducted. Her father comes after them and tries to shoot the abductors, but in the end, he comes to his senses and Radojka and Strahinja are married.

As for the butterfly, it’s said that it killed several children before finally disappearing from the region. (Apparently only “grown people” matter to the villagers.)

I admit I was a bit disappointed by the simplicity of the story—though, it is well told and has a marriage plot and happy ending with its Gothic tale at the center. It is more like a fairy tale, however, than a Gothic story—in the tradition of the young man who must do a fabulous deed to be worthy of the king’s daughter, kind of story, although the royal trappings are gone.

That said, it is worth reading. The translator’s note and introduction make several good points about the significance of the story. They explain how vampires were part of the pagan Slavic people’s mythology, but most of it was erased by Christianity so we can’t really understand the vampires’ place in that mythology today. There was a long history, however, of vampire stories in this culture. The concept of the vampire dates to ancient times, but the word vampire itself first appeared in Serbian in 1725 and then was translated into English and other languages in 1732. Because the vampire is based in folklore, it comes from a long oral tradition and is not the invention of fiction writers. While After Ninety Years could not have influenced Bram Stoker, the vampire folklore tradition from this period may have. Boylan notes that The Pobratim: A Slav Novel contained numerous Slavic folktales in it, including mention of vampires, and it was translated into English in 1895 by Professor P. Jones. I wonder whether Stoker read The Pobratim and it influenced his creation of Dracula. (I’m sure I’ll be reading and blogging about The Pobratim in the near future.)

Glisic’s novel, although not a direct influence on the vampire of Western literature and film today, regardless is an interesting part of the history of the vampire’s development. While not a major work, it is an entertaining and very readable story with plenty of humor and an overall theme of good, or at least love, overcoming prejudice and evil.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, which is a study of the Gothic tradition from 1794 to the present. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula

Anne Rice’s New Novel More Science-Fiction Than Gothic

With Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis, Anne Rice has made her vampire novel comeback a firm success. While this novel, like most of the novels that preceded it, is not as engrossing and magical as the first three vampire novels, Rice continues to explore her vampire world and discover new sources of meaning and new secrets in it that make it worth continuing to read.

princelestatandtherealmsofatlantisIn the last novel, Prince Lestat, Rice allowed Amel, who seems to be the source of the vampires’ existence and powers, to take up new residence in Lestat. Lestat was then hailed as the prince of the vampires and a court was designed for all the vampires, a court that meant organization and laws and civilization for the vampires. This novel shows how that court is now being maintained, and more importantly, it delves into Amel’s origin story.

The rest of this blog will give away key points of the plot so be forewarned if you have not yet read the novel. I’ll also add here that Rice’s series has become so complex over the course of her fourteen vampire novels that readers who have not read them all (and even readers like myself who have been following her for years but tend to forget things when a few years separate the publication of each book) may be a bit lost and confused. To help readers, there is a summary of all the novels in the back of the book as well as a glossary of all the characters to remind people who is who in the vampire world.

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis begins with a sort of wandering about and wordiness typical of Rice’s more recent vampire books and the reader may ask, “What is the point?” for a while, only the magic of “Atlantis” in the title keeps the reader reading, and while I wish the vampires did not talk so much or at least for such long paragraphs, part of their charm is their eloquence. There is a strong story in this book once you get a hundred or so pages into it, and the middle is the very heart of the novel with the promised tale of Atlantis.

I consider this novel more science fiction than horror because it plays on the recent popularity of ancient alien theories—the idea that aliens created or at least intervened in the development of the earth and the human race. What is most striking about the fact that Rice uses this idea is that it brushes aside any Judeo-Christian concept of God as creator as being the historical truth for mankind.

I won’t go into details of the plot, but ultimately, the vampires discover that there are four creatures on the earth known as Replimoids, and that Amel, now a spirit, was also once one of them. The heart of the novel lies in the tale of Kapetria, the only female Replimoid, who tells Lestat their story and that of Atlantis, which she says was actually called Atalantaya. Her story runs just over eighty pages, nearly 20 percent of the novel. Kapetria reveals how she and the Replimoids were created on the planet Bravenna by the Parents, powerful winged beings who apparently created the earth. However, the earth was damaged (she uses different terms but it sounds like it was hit by a meteor) which killed much of the reptilean life (dinosaurs) and allowed the mammals to become dominant on the planet, which was never intended. The Parents abducted Amel from the earth and genetically manipulated him to make him an enhanced human. He was then sent to earth to try to stem the human overpopulation, but instead he created the city of Atalantaya and a dome over it that meant the Parents, who have hidden some sort of cameras all over the planet, could not see what he was doing. To remedy this situation, the Parents then created Kapetria and three other Replimoids. They spent years educating the Replimoids about humans by showing them videos that largely focused on human suffering. The Replimoids were then sent to earth to destroy Amel and Atalantaya and, ultimately, the human race because of its evils that cause all the suffering. When the Replimoids arrive, however, they find that humans are also very capable of loving and caring for one another and when they enter Atalantaya, they are stunned by the beauty and ingenuity of humans, so ultimately, they decide not to destroy the city but rather disobey the parents. Then in a fluke, the planet Bravenna blows up and parts of it fall to earth and destroy Atalantaya. The Replimoids drown in the disaster that follows, although they are not human so they cannot die; they become frozen in the earth and then eventually reawaken thousands of years later. They do not know what became of Amel, but eventually they realize he is now residing inside Lestat. They wish to free him so he can have his own body again, but the vampires fear that to do so will kill Lestat and likely all of them since Amel has always resided in a vampire since the vampires were given power. The vampires now feel the Replimoids are their enemies, but eventually a compromise is reached and Amel is removed from Lestat without any issues. The result is that the vampires are now not dependent upon anything and Amel has his own body.

Rice’s novels, and indeed all of Gothic literature, have always been very tied to the Judeo-Christian religion/myth of good and evil, God the creator, sin and redemption, but this novel boldly reveals that none of this is the truth, at least in Rice’s vampire world. In her story, Kapetria reveals that the Parents were the ones obsessed with suffering and who made it such an important part of human life. It was repulsive to the Replimoids when they reawoke after centuries to find that an oppressive religion (Rice does not say Christianity, but I have no doubt it is what she means if not all of the Abrahamic religions) full of ideas of sin and sacrifice should have such power over so much of the human race. This novel shows that whole concept of the world and how it operates to be false.

One can’t help speculating how the philosophy or theology of this novel stems from Rice’s own experiences. Surely, her conversion back to Catholicism that was so highly celebrated, and then her rejection of it a few years later, was pivotal to her coming to a new understanding of how she viewed the world so she could write this novel. She seems to have freed herself now from the Christian belief in sin, suffering, and redemption, and so she has freed her characters from it as well.

The novel concludes with Lestat meeting with Amel, now in his new body, and their desire to remain friends despite their physical separation. Some of the final paragraphs of the novel are worth quoting. Here Lestat is speaking, beginning with his thoughts on Amel:

“He walks the earth with the power to destroy it. But then so does the human race. And so do we.

“But what endures is what has always mattered: love—that we love one another as surely as we are alive. And if there is any hope for us to ever really be good—that hope will be realized through love….

“To love any one person or thing truly is the beginning of the wisdom to love all things. This has to be so. It has to be. I believe it and I don’t really believe anything else.”

These final paragraphs show that even in the novel’s rejection of the Christian belief system, the greatest tenet of Christianity—love—remains the most powerful, and when you strip away all the trappings of Christianity and get to its essence, the truth it holds is about love, and that’s the same truth Rice ends on.

For me, this novel makes me feel as if the vampire series is complete, and if this is the last novel Rice writes about them, I will be content with it, but then again, Rice is full of surprises, so she may well have more vampire tricks yet up her sleeve.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Filed under Contemporary Gothic Novels