Anne Rice’s phenomenally popular 1976 tale of bloodlust and bloodshed, Interview with a Vampire, transferred to the small screen recently – but with some significant deviations that include shifting the principal character’s story to the narrative of a black man.
In the novel (and the more faithful 1994 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise) Louis de Pointe du Lac owns enslaved African people and a plantation in the antebellum south in the 18th century. The 2022 version sets the storyline in the 1910s, where Louis is a black Creole man made rich by the brothels of New Orleans’ red light district.
While this is a big change, this opens up the story to further explore the relationship between vampirism, race and power. Questions of race and vampirism did not arise with Rice’s novel but vampire narratives have long taken on the bloody discourses of race and prejudice.
There is a long tradition of black vampires that goes back centuries. These stories subvert the vampire mythos traditionally dominated by white men of high social status. The vampire narrative, concerned as it is with dominance, submission, power and exploitation, is the perfect conduit for investigating racial politics over 200 years of literary and cultural history. Here are three groundbreaking tales which explore those politics.
1.The Black Vampyre: A Legend of St Domingo (1819)
Around 200 years before the latest TV adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, the first black vampire story was published.
The Black Vampyre: A Legend of St Domingo was written under the pseudonym Uriah Derick D'Arcy. It is considered “the first black vampire story, the first comedic vampire story, the first story to include a mulatto vampire, the first vampire story by an American author, and perhaps the first anti-slavery short story.”
The story is told by Anthony Gibbons who recalls his descendants being transported on a slave ship. They are sold into slavery but just one boy survives, only to be killed by his captor, Mr Personne.
Personne throws the boy’s body into the sea but it washes ashore and is reanimated by moonlight. Personne tries to kill him again but the boy retaliates and escapes, killing Personne’s son. Many years later he returns to kill Personne and marry his wife. The story’s narrator, Gibbons, is their joint descendent. He may also have inherited the terrible cravings of the vampire.
The story sought to shock and challenge the prevailing ideas and mores of contemporary readers. It makes multiple references to the “mixing” of blood, as Gibbons is both mixed race and part vampire – the descendent from a black vampire and the white widow of the master he killed.
The exchange of blood involved in vampires feeding from humans and in the creation of new vampires (by a human drinking a vampire’s blood) was used to reflect on contemporary racist ideas that emphasised the importance of racial purity. The Black Vampyre exposes the racial prejudices at the heart of these inquiries by using the vampire to articulate the horror of the transatlantic slave trade.
2. The Blood of the Vampire (1897)
Later in the century, Victorian writer Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire introduced readers to Harriet Brandt, a psychic vampire born of a white “mad scientist” and an enslaved Creole woman. The novel was published in the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula sails from Transylvania to England, Harriet sails from Jamaica to England. Unlike Dracula, Harriet is frightened and confused by her powers. She also drains people of energy rather than blood. She is not aware of her feeding, unlike Dracula who chooses his victims.
Marryat’s book, like The Black Vampyre, is concerned with eugenics and inheritance. Eugenicists believe in the racist and scientifically erroneous idea that desired traits can be selected through breeding to eliminate social ills and create a perfect society.
These ideas were gaining traction in the 19th century and, in the book, Harriet is accused by the mother of one of her accidental victims of being cursed with “vampire blood” and “black blood” – it is her genetics that are to blame.
Monstrosity in literature has frequently been used to explore the ways marginalised people are excluded from society. For example, the 1994 adaptation of Interview with a Vampire has been read as using vampirism as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. Victorian readers would have mapped racist views about people of colour on to the traits of the vampire.
However, Marryat portrays the vampire as a sympathetic figure, showing how upset and confused she is by her powers, challenging the preconceptions of the Victorian audience.
Octavia E Butler’s Fledgling follows Shori, a girl who appears to be an African-American child but is actually a 53-year-old Ina – a vampire species that have seemingly always coexisted with humans.
In typical vampire fashion, the Ina need to feed on human blood to survive, but instead of killing their victims, the venom they produce hugely extends the human lifespan. So the relationship between vampires and humans is symbiotic rather than parasitic.
Shori can’t remember her life before the story begins. This means she also doesn’t remember why she is different. As the story progresses, she gradually and violently becomes aware that society is hostile to her. The Ina are a species of vampire with white skin. Shori learns that she is black because she was experimented upon and mutated in the quest to help the Ina survive the sun – vampires are killed by sunlight.
This is a metaphor for the erasure of black histories. It is also an allegory for the “forgetting” of colonising powers, the slave trade, eugenics and the historical horrors of science where black people were used for experimentation.
Butler uses speciesism (the idea of treating one species as inherently more important than another) as a way of talking about racism allegorically. Shori’s black skin is a sought-after evolutionary advantage, which could protect her species from the sun, which runs counter to racist constructions of white superiority. Like D'Arcy and Marryat, Butler successfully employs the physicality and blood of the vampire to explore and dismantle the historical and “biological” justifications for racial prejudice.
Joan Passey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.