Tag Archives: Slavic vampires

A Pre-Dracula Vampire Novel—The Pobratim: A Slav Novel

The Pobratim: A Slav Novel was published in 1895. When I first heard of it, I thought it was a translation of an original Slav novel, but it was actually written by “Prof. P. Jones,” which makes me think he was British, Jones being a Welsh name. I have been unable to learn anything about Professor P. Jones beyond the few clues the book offers. The novel was published by H.S. Nichols, a printer in Soho Square in London, and dedicated to Prince Nicholas of Montenegro. This would be Nicholas I of Montenegro (1841-1921), who was prince of that land from 1860-1910 and king from 1910-1918. The date and place given in the dedication is Trieste and June 17, 1895, which suggests the author lived abroad at the time. Clearly, Professor Jones knew a great deal about the Balkans and traveled through them. After all, Trieste is in modern Italy near Slovenia. In this article, I will provide a plot summary of the novel since almost nothing about it can be found online. I hope this article will create greater interest in it among readers and scholars.

Of course, the only reason most people would be interested in The Pobratim is that it contains a vampire and was published two years before Dracula. I only discovered it myself because it was mentioned by Andrew Boylan in his introduction to James Lyons’ translation of After Ninety Years, a Serbian vampire novella from 1880. Although The Pobratim is a pre-Dracula novel, I do not believe it influenced Stoker. I still think it interesting, though I would not regard it as a vampire novel but a novel about the Slavs that has a vampire in it.

“Pobratim” is the Slavic word for “blood brothers.” The novel’s focus is on the friendship of two young Slavic men, Milenko and Uros. Set in the nineteenth century, it appears to be written primarily to depict Slavic folklore and customs. One custom, common to the Balkans, is that of blood brothers. The novel begins with the two friends becoming blood brothers. In the United States, we might equate this with slitting the wrists of two friends and comingling their blood, but in the Balkans, it is a more formal ceremony. The two men actually swear to be lifelong blood brothers in a church ceremony. This ceremony includes a “best man” for each brother and is described as being like a “marriage.” It is a lifelong bond that is created that must never be rent asunder, and during the ceremony, the two friends even hold hands and kiss each other. Twenty-first century readers would raise their eyes at all this and think of same-sex wedding ceremonies, but our two heroes are strictly heterosexual here.

Prior to the pobratim ceremony, Uros and Milenko have been friends from childhood, but an old woman predicts that tragedy will part them. That tragedy is set in motion when Uros falls in love with Milena, a married woman. Uros and Milenko decide to become sailors and leave their home, which seems largely to be to get Uros away from Milena. Milena is married to Radonic, a violent and unlikeable man. Radonic is friends with Vranic, who has the second sight and is rather disliked in the community. Uros and Vranic are both aware that the other is interested in Milena, although Radonic is not yet suspicious of either.

The pobratim now sail off. Eventually they are involved in rescuing a shipwrecked family, including a young woman named Ivanka. They learn Ivanka’s father was good friends with Uros’ father many years before. The two fathers had once sworn that Uros and Ivanka would marry. However, Ivanka’s father confuses Milenko with Uros, and Milenko has fallen in love with Ivanka. Uros, as a result, acts obnoxious to get Ivanka’s father to dislike him and agree to marry Ivanka to Milenko instead. Besides, Uros is not interested in marrying anyone except Milena, whom he cannot have.

When the pobratim return home, Uros again begins seeing Milena. One day, when Radonic goes on a journey, Milena goes to visit Uros’ mother. Vranic, thinking he will catch Milena home alone and have his way with her, goes to Radonic’s house. However, Radonic, suspecting his wife of adultery, returns home and finds Vranic there. He claims he is there to protect Milena from Uros, but Radonic knows Vranic is after his wife and murders him.

Radonic now goes into hiding. The novel, in its interest in depicting Slavic life, goes into detail about what happens next. A “Karvarina” ensues—this is rather like the weregild of Anglo-Saxon culture—where a murderer is forgiven after paying a price for the dead man’s life. Radonic’s friends go to Vranic’s two brothers and manage finally to convince them to forgive Radonic in exchange for payment. The scene is one of the best in the novel as they go through the formalities of this process, the brothers claiming their brother is worth a great deal, even though the narrator tells us they hated him, and in the end, because everyone hated Vranic, the brothers receive very little.

Vranic’s spirit, however, is not happy. He returns in the form of a vampire and begins to torment one of his brothers—the novel gets confusing here since the brother is also referred to as Vranic (I’ll call him Vranic 2). The townspeople come to realize Vranic has become a vampire so they go through a ceremony where they dig up the corpse, say prayers over it, and then require Vranic 2 to stab his brother. However, it is dark and the clouds make it hard to see. He is supposed to stab his brother’s corpse in the neck, but he bungles it and only gets his cheek. As a result, the villagers are angry with him and he’s told his brother will now have eternal life as a vampire.

Vranic continues to torment Vranic 2, telling him he will soon be a vampire too and enjoy it. Vranic 2 is now urged on by Vranic to kill Bellenic, Uros’ father, which results in Vranic 2, in the scuffle, stabbing Uros, who tries to defend his father. Vranic flees the scene, horrified that he has committed murder. He finds it even more scary because he didn’t want to kill anyone but found that the vampire forced him to act against his will.

Meanwhile, Milenko comes to Uros’ aid, carrying his friend to a nearby convent to be nursed. Believing Uros is dying, his parents visit him and they manage to sneak Milena into the convent, disguised as a boy. By this point, Milena has learned that Radonic has died, and she has also given birth to his dead child. Uros’ dying request is that he and Milena may be married, which the monks finally agree to. Uros then dies, and Milenko returns to sea.

Vranic 2 has also fled to sea and now works on various ships. Eventually, Vranic 2 and Milenko’s paths cross again when Milenko’s ship comes to the aid of Vranic 2’s ship during a storm. Vranic 2 is in the water about to drown when he realizes Milenko is rescuing him. He then cuts the rope he has tied around himself in an attempt to rescue him because he fears Milenko’s retribution. He is never seen again, presumably drowning.

Milenko now receives a letter from Uros that he has not died. He fell into a state of unconsciousness and was about to be buried when he was able to waken and be restored to life.

The novel ends with joy as the characters celebrate Milenko and Ivanka’s novel.

The author, unfortunately, seems to forget that Vranic, the vampire, is still on the loose. However, in Slavic culture, vampires tend to torment their relatives, and so with Vranic 2’s death—nothing is ever said of what became of the other brother—apparently Vranic is no longer a threat to the community.

I have summarized the main plot here, but the novel is filled with interrupting stories and poems of Slavic folklore and myth that the characters are continually telling to one another. In some cases, these stories appear to be commentary upon the main plot or the novel’s themes. At other times, the stories seem to be included simply to delay the action or provide a break from the emotion and suspense. One such story is a narrative poem about St. George. The other stories would not be recognizable to English readers, but they are all entertaining. I do not know if P. Jones drew upon actual Slavic stories or made up the stories he included. Since the tale of St. George is included, I suspect many, if not all, of the other stories have some origins in Slavic folklore. Most contain supernatural elements, including a bargain with the devil, and some are love stories.

Oddly, the book ends with a list of “transcriber” corrections, which mostly are things like missing periods the “transcriber” added.

While Vranic is far from as effective a vampire as Dracula, or even earlier vampires in British literature like James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire or John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the novel itself is very interesting because it reflects an interest in the Balkans in Britain that predates Stoker, although is after LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872) which is also set in the Balkans. Overall, The Pobratim is very readable and interesting, which makes me surprised it is not more generally known, especially among Dracula scholars and vampire enthusiasts. I hope someone will do further work to reveal more about who P. Jones was and his reasons for writing the novel.

The Pobratim can be purchased in paperback and ebook formats at Amazon.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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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 published in 1895 by Professor P. Jones. I wonder whether Stoker read The Pobratim and it influenced his creation of Dracula.

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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