Twilight's Early LightThe Vampire Stories of Charles Nodier
By Miles DoyleEach generation has its favorite vampire. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, first captivated audiences in the late 19th century, while Nosferatu, Anne Rice’s Lestat and, to a lesser extent, Sesame Street’s Count von Count all duked it out for cultural supremacy in the latter part of the 20th century. In the new millennium, Edward Cullen, the moody protagonist of author Stephanie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight series, is the undisputed king of vampires.
|Credited with introducing gothic literature and vampire folklore to a younger generation of writers, Charles Nodier helped bring the vampire legend to a popular audience.|
“People have been fascinated with the vampire story and its theme since the Middle Ages, when people were occasionally buried prematurely,” said Sister Clare Therese Brandon, GSAS ’75 and ’80, an expert on vampire literature. “They’d wake up in the grave and try to escape. As a result, the legend of the living dead grew among the peasant class.
“In many ways, the popularity of vampires still has to do with people’s continued curiosity about the hereafter.”
Sister Brandon, a sister of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, wrote her doctoral thesis on Charles Nodier, a 19th-century writer who helped introduce the vampire legend to a popular audience.
Nodier (1780-1844) is also credited with introducing gothic literature and vampire folklore to a younger generation of writers and storytellers, including Lord Byron and his personal physician, John Polidori, who would go on to write The Vampyre in 1819. Polidori’s story featured a vampire named Lord Ruthven, loosely based on Lord Byron, and was the first vampire story ever written in English. The following year, Nodier turned Polidori’s book into a play, Le Vampire. It was an immediate success, sparking a vampire craze throughout Europe.
“After Nodier, there was a definite change in the thrust that had previously been connected to vampires,” said Sister Brandon.
In fact, Bram Stoker drew heavily from Polidori’s and Nodier’s works in shaping his own eponymous vampire, she noted. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, for instance, was the first vampire to come from nobility, while Nodier, a devout Catholic, introduced the cross and blood to the vampire tale, Sister Brandon said.
In many ways, Nodier was the perfect man to usher in a new generation of vampire stories. His father, a schoolteacher, authorized executions during the Reign of Terror. Later, Nodier was sent to work for a gentleman in Europe’s so-called “vampire country,” where he first heard stories about the living dead. Death and mortality were an obsession of his.
“One thing he always had were doubts about life after death,” said Sister Brandon. “He had a lifelong fear of becoming nothing. Some of his interest in the vampire theme was due to his quest for certainty on the question of life after death.”
Sister Brandon, who took her vows 61 years ago, currently resides at the Rocky Creek Retirement Village in Kentucky. As both an academic and researcher, she has traveled to France nine times, including a trip to the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal, where Nodier worked as a librarian. At the library, she found most of his papers and came across a biography of Nodier, written by A. Richard Oliver. Coincidentally, Oliver's house was located near Sister Brandon’s convent in Wheeling, W.Va., where she was then residing. Oliver had since passed away, but Sister Bradon met with his wife.
“I hadn’t zeroed in on vampires yet for my dissertation,” she said, “but after I spoke with Oliver’s wife, she gave me a slew of Oliver’s notes about Nodier. And I was off and running.”
Sister Brandon plans on donating to Fordham University a 12-volume set of Nodier’s main works. The set includes Nodier’s vampire plays and stories about the occult, as well as a selection of original fairy tales, which Nodier produced later in his career.
—Miles Doyle, FCRH ’01, is the associate editor of FORDHAM magazine.