Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Wales, Land of the Living Dead III: Welsh Vampire Lore & Vampire Lit (1940s-1997)


The vampires of Wales are few and far between, and Aaron only looks at novels featuring vampires set in the Welsh borders.

In this post, I start by looking at some of the vampire/vampiric lore in Wales, from Arawn’s doomed men of the Hunt to seriously weird tales of vampiric furniture, and then at the texts that Aaron considers. There will be some spoilers, but to be honest the spoilers in Aaron’s discussions just make me want to read them more.

Vampires in Welsh Folklore

There are hardly any vampire legends of ancient or medieval date in Wales, but they do exist. Some proto-vampire tales exist, such as the tale told by an English knight c.1149 of a “Welsh wizard”, deceased, who returned by night to call the names of his former neighbours, who instantly fell sick and died within three days.

In terms of mythology and folktales, it was said that dead men doomed to join Arawn and his Hounds would visit earth to drink the blood of the living and the dead (that is, the blood of corpses). Arawn hunted the avaricious and sinful, but you did not have to be doomed to join the Hunt in order to return as a vampire.

An old story attached to a Carmarthenshire yeoman was very curious. The family had lived for generations in the same house, situated in a lonely spot. The old yeoman in question was very grasping, and in his generation they said he would “suck blood out of a stone.” He died, leaving his money and possessions to his eldest son. When that man died, he was duly laid out, and the death-chamber was shut for the night. In the morning they found marks on the body, which everybody said had been made by a vampire. The family came to the conclusion that the old yeoman had been sucking the corpse to see if he “could get something out of it.” In later generations, if any marks were found upon the body of a dead member of the family, they said the “Old wretch had been at work again”.

Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, p. 58. 

That said, one of the weirdest vampire tales I have ever heard comes from Llantwit Major, South East Wales, and the tale of the vampire chairs. This is a little misleading: the tale is apparently from the 16thC and tells of the spirits of the dead residing in their old furniture, who will bite anyone who sits in the chairs if the spirits are displeased. One armchair in Glamorgan especially dislikes ministers, and one such guest in its room was plagued with bites.

The story goes that a minister came to stay in a farmstead which used to be a dower-house, and spent the night peacefully in the best bedroom which was kitted out with antique furniture from its old dower-house days. All was fine until the next morning, when he sat in an old armchair by the window to read his Bible. When he got up to get breakfast, he found the back of his hand was bleeding from what looked like a bite mark. He washed and bound his hand, and his host said that yes, there must be a nail in the chair, as several guests had complained of scratches on their palms when they sat there. The minister thought this was odd – his marks were not on his palm, after all – but thought little more about it. He went to bed the next night and this time woke up in great discomfort, feeling a pain in his left side ‘like the gnawing of a dog’. He got up with difficulty and struck a light, and found marks across his ribs, just like on the back of his hand, which were bleeding. It took him a while to staunch the blood, but he managed it, and sat up for the rest of the night reading his Bible.

He went to fetch his grey mare from the stables the next day, and found that the mare had bleeding bite marks on her neck that looked the same as the ones on his hand and side. He deduced that the chair was ‘a vampire chair’, that is, it contained a vampiric spirit who disliked men of God.

Ministers were called to lay the vampire and it was thought this had been achieved (in 1850), but afterwards people still complained of scratches, so perhaps not.

Other vampire furniture is also reported in Glamorganshire, including a vampire bed in Cardiff. This bed claimed the life of a baby, and the doctor examining the infant said that something had sucked its blood from a hole in its neck “like sucking an egg”. When a second baby was born to the family, this time the husband slept in the best bedroom in the four-poster which was the cause of all the trouble, and he too experienced a suffocating weight upon him in the night and saw that he had the same mark on his neck. His friend wanted to stay in the bed to see if this was true, and also confirmed the same experience. No one used that Elizabethan bed after that.

These stories appear in Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, pp. 54-8.

Baron Hill, Beaumaris, Anglesey, certainly looks like it contains the undead. Built in 1612, it underwent various stages of development, but was fire damaged in the Second World War and abandoned. There are some reports of vampiric activity connected with the mansion, but … these are modern in origin, and it’s probably not a vampire.

Vampirism in Welsh Gothic literature is also more of a modern phenomenon. References to the folklore surrounding Arawn and his association with vampires are more the preserve of Speculative Fiction. There are modern takes on it like historical fantasy The Arawn Prophecy, C. David Belt, (Bentley Enterprises, 2018), erotic Fae/paranormal fantasy Steal the SunLexi Blake, (DLZ Entertainment, 2014), but even in Spec Fic, Arawn’s connection with blood-drinking undead is not a commonly explored motif compared with other vampire legends and lore.


Border Vampires

Aaron only looks at a couple of texts here, and these are all Border fictions. The Borders (what are now known as the March, but not to be confused with the medieval definition of the Welsh Marches), have a complicated relationship with Welsh/English identities. Wales can be seen as the blood-sucking entity draining resources over the border, while from the Welsh side, the view is the same, but of the English.

Aaron looks at the second book in the John Mayo series, written by British pulp-fiction author Guy N. Smith. The first John Mayo book, The Black Fedora, first published in 1991 and re-released as an eBook in 2012, is a kind of paranormal pulp noir set in Lichfield, Staffordshire, featuring, among other things, assassination threats against a descendant of Jack the Ripper, threats of vandalism and theft made against the priceless Lichfield Gospels, and the Antichrist. The second book in the series is The Knighton Vampires (1993), set in the Welsh town of Knighton on the border, where Mayo goes to recover from the events in Book One. Knighton, however, is also getting to grips with some recent trauma: the vandalism and terrorist activities of the Welsh National Activists, and mysterious deaths linked to vampirism.

The town’s oldest inhabitant, Sid Knowles, explains to Mayo,

‘”These Welsh loonies are trying to drive out the English. I’m Welsh,” he added, almost apologetically. “But Knighton’s multi-racial. Welsh and English. We mix, no bother. It’s these activators, or whatever you call them, stirring it all up.’

~The Knighton Vampires (1993), Guy N. Smith, p. 27

Knowles later describes the Welsh dead in the same way as the living terrorists, as waiting to rise out of their graves ‘like that Dracula chap’ and drive out the English. The vampires in this case may not actually be vampires at all, but this is up to Mayo to find out.

Aaron notes that the positioning of vampires in Border fiction reflects the inhabitants’ ability to Other both the Welsh and the English at the same time; neither ‘side’ is properly one or the other, but instead occupy the liminal space of a frontier society (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, pp. 131-2). Within this liminal space, the supernatural can embody a variety of positions and metaphors.

Originally published as Crybbe in 1993, Phil Rickman’s standalone novel published as Curfew in the U.S. (repr. 2013), is a clash of cultures and perspectives as a New Age forward-thinking protagonist struggles to understand the apparently backward-looking town of Crybbe, which falls into the Town With A Dark Secret Gothic trope. In this case, the local traditions turn out to be holding an old vampiric evil at bay, but the inhabitants won’t talk about what’s going on or admit that they have seen apparitions or spectres. It is their position as a border town historically caught between raids from the Welsh and English that have bred a people who survive by silence and keeping their heads down. These themes echo the critiques of Welsh society and culture by frustrated Welsh-language authors of the 1980s that we looked at in the previous post.

In Bridge Across Forever (1993) by Regan Forest, another pulp supernatural fiction, an outsider feels the divide more keenly, demonstrating the foreigner’s view of this borderland and a more simplistic contrast. The protagonist, Ellen Cole, is American, interested in her Welsh ancestry. While visiting the border village of Wrenn’s Oak, she stands on the medieval bridge connecting Wales to England, standing with one foot on each side, and is overcome with a deep sorrow. She is drawn in and wooed by the Welsh demonic figure of Brennig Cole, her own 17thC ancestor, cursed by a witch. She is rescued, of course, by her American boyfriend who unexpectedly turns up to find her. He appears on the English side of the bridge, and she tells him not to cross into Wales – she goes to him, instead, and thus escapes the malignant Welsh influence. On the surface, this novel is a straightforward Gothic romance, but when set in context of the main themes that characterise the Welsh Gothic, the Welsh past is again represented as a threat to modernity and to the new identities of the American Self. There is a danger in looking too deeply into the dark waters of Welsh history and ancestry; it will consume you, possess you, drag you down to the watery depths of its own grave, and you will drown with it.

Aaron puts it like this, drawing parallels between this type of ‘American discovery’ novel with the ‘first contact’ Gothic novels of the 1780s:

In texts such as these, Offa’s Dyke is a liminal zone between the natural and the supernatural, as well as between two countries; along its path the powers of the underworld are released. Such portrayals reflect the view of the Welsh as exotically ‘other’, as ‘strangers’; to cross the border and enter the Welsh ‘Reservation’ is to enter alien territory, and encounter exotic ‘others’, who harbour a repressed but perpetual resentment against their dispossessors, likely to manifest itself in a demonic manner particularly at the crucial barrier point of the borderlands.

~Jane Aaron, Welsh Gothic, pp. 133-4.

There is also, however, the chance that those crossing into this zone will ‘go native’, chasing nostalgia for a freer way of life and a means of escape from their own oppressive and repressive lives.

Fairy Tale (1996) by Alice Thomas Ellis (the pen-name of Anna Margaret Duckworth, 1932-2005) plays with this theme, but this is a Fae story not a vampire tale, although the fairy men do kill human males and mate with human females. Blood is used in a Brothers Grimm sort of a way to get the protagonist, Eloise, with magical Changeling child, but otherwise it doesn’t fit this post. Aaron discusses it last, as a springboard for Part II which covers ‘Things That Go Bump in the Celtic Twilight’.

My next set of posts, covering Welsh folklore and fairy lore, will continue to draw on Aaron’s chapters in the second part, but I have moved her Epilogue on Post-Devolution Gothic (1997-2013) to be the next post in this series just for the sake of chronological completeness.

Next time: Post-Devolution Gothic

The next post is the last one that looks at these texts by time period – this one has some personal reflections too, and after that it’s all about the Welsh folklore and fairy lore that has found its way as motifs into Welsh Gothic through the ages.

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