The vampire is such a compelling figure of literary representation for Irish writers like Le Fanu and Stoker because the medium of the vampire could be used to express ideas and convey thoughts about the authors’ lives and society that could not be expressed before. Le Fanu and Stoker were both upper class Anglo-Irish Protestants who lived in a country where the majority lower class Catholic population would not affiliate with them either by choice or through reason. This makes both Carmilla by Le Fanu and Dracula by Stoker such compelling literary presentations of both authors. As Milly Williamson puts it:
The vampire offers a way of inhabiting difference with pride, for embracing defiantly an identity that the world at large sees as other. To embrace the vampire is also to embrace pain; a painful awareness of outsiderdom, a life at least partly lived on the edges.
Stoker and Le Fanu were writers entangled in a cultural identity crisis, a crisis that gave rise to the perfect conditions to create the image of the vampire, who epitomized the outsider, living life ‘partly on the edges’ of society.
One major commonality between both literary representations is the position of the vampire as an obscure detached entity straddling the realms of human existence and the supernatural. An entity that is struggling to remain normal and abide by cultural conventions may very well have paralleled the feelings of Le Fanu as he was writing Carmilla. In the novella we see Carmilla’s unorthodox behaviour and ghostly antics being called into question as Laura struggles to correlate the natural and supernatural:
It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church. – Carmilla
In this instance Carmilla broke societal and cultural norms by advancing on Laura in a homoerotic way. She challenged contemporary sexual norms and perhaps the very nature of societal order by instigating something so taboo for Le Fanu’s time, even if she is not completely of the mortal world. The fact that Carmilla was not fully mortal allowed Le Fanu to push the moral limits of popular fiction at the time. Williamson dissects this same theme in Dracula by denoting that ‘the sexual desires dramatised in the novel take the symbolic form of vampires because of the sexual repression of the Victorian age’.
By being able to convert such relatable repression of any nature, including sexual, into the symbolic nature of the vampire, it allowed authors like Le Fanu and Stoker to finally convey ideas that would’ve been so out of place and unpopular previously. Having the ability or indeed the very option to write in a way that allowed greater freedom of expression was a big step forward for popular fiction in this period. Le Fanu, Stoker and Maturin relished this period to explore the occult and the taboo and open it up to the people who were now reading such fiction. Gothic literature in Ireland can thusly be seen as indulgent escapist literature. An example of this is Stoker’s use of Catholic imagery throughout Dracula. It later transpires that an immense level of comfort is attained through bearing the Catholic crucifix as Harker exclaims ‘bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck! For it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it’. Stoker would have been acutely aware of Catholic tradition and rituality by living in Ireland and through the gothic setting of Dracula he can indulge what must have been an inner curiosity.
Stoker’s vampire Count Dracula perpetuates the prototypical image of the vampire that has remained steadfast in popular culture right up to the present day. Le Fanu on the other hand makes it obvious that vampires do not always follow such conventions. The image of the vampire is forever evolving but it serves the same function today as it did for these Irish gothic writers. Vampires blur the lines between the natural and supernatural realms, indulge inner fantasies and often romanticise the occult. Through embracing the vampire both authors embraced outsiderdom, which they must have felt themselves living such an intricately complicated lifestyle in Ireland at the time.