Hideous Repasts: from Varney the Vampyre to Hannibal the Cannibal

You have probably heard of Dracula, but perhaps not of Varney the vampire. In this podcast, recorded at the Late Summer Lecture Series, Lauren Owen introduces this nineteenth-century character who appeared in a series of nineteenth-century “penny dreadfuls.” She suggests that a modern equivalent to Varney can be found in Thomas Harris’s compelling serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.

Lauren starts by examining the importance of Varney, the Vampyre as a piece of vampire literature, and suggests that Varney, despite his self-pity, ineffectiveness, and dubious supernatural status, is a vampire worthy of attention.

Varney is a vulgar tale: unlike earlier vampire tales, like John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), Varney does not pretend to high art. Instead it is funny, preposterous, repetitive, and quite evidently written to entertain. Varney himself is a lover of adventure and romance – this is the only thing that keeps him tied to humanity.

The author of Varney adapted the literary vampire to its own purposes, combining the earlier Byronic hero with conventions of the contemporary “penny dreadful” (thus there are similarities between Varney and Sweeney Todd, antihero of The String of Pearls). Varney is therefore significant because it illustrates how old certain tropes of fictional villainy really are, and demonstrates why they are so effective. Indeed, similar versions of the vampire as a “folk villain” can be found in culture today, particularly in the guise of Hannibal Lecter, a figure whose popularity shows no signs of abating.

Some have argued that serial killers have succeeded vampires in the popular consciousness. However, vampires are by no means defunct or exhausted, but instead have made connections with the serial killer, especially the cannibal. Whilst the serial killer has no supernatural powers at his or her disposal, the appeal of this figure is similar to that of the vampire. The fictional serial killer can be situated at the same intersection of “high” and “low” culture.

Late Summer Lectures is a series of lectures given by PhD students, bringing new research to a public audience. Over the next few weeks, the remaining lectures will explore 1960s counter-culture in Newcastle, HP Lovecraft, and mediaeval monkeys. Lectures take place on Tuesdays at 19.30 in the Percy Building, Newcastle University and are repeated Wednesdays at 19.30 in Alington House, Durham. For more details, view the full programme. Podcasts of previous lectures can be downloaded here.

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