Evening Standard cartoon by Matthew Sandford circa 1925


Anyone curious about the legendary background of vampires is soon bound to stumble across Montague Summers, whose writings in the 1920s established him as the foremost authority of the time and, as it happens, ever since. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929) investigated the subject and all its ramifications in fantastic detail, presenting a record of folk beliefs about death and vampires that is unlikely to be equalled for sheer scope and depth.

Even Summers' greatest fans, however, must admit that his style is often dense and bewildering. His habit of piling up examples of any passing point often obscures the drift of his argument, however fascinating the examples and anecdotes are in themselves. Summers was a clear writer on other themes and a very effective editor of other people's work, but when it came to vampires he tended just to follow the prompting of his own boundless curiosity. In tackling his books it also helps to be multilingual. Often for pages on end it is not at all clear what tongue the book is supposed to be written in, and for the more risqué passages a more than working knowledge of French is vital.

All this is part of Summers' charm of course, but for the purposes of this edition something more accessible was required. Also something briefer to allow for illustrations.

The text for this book has been abridged from The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, published by Kegan Paul in New York in 1928. The aim was to change neither the style nor tone of the original but simply to prune it back to the basics. And very rewarding work it proved to be too. The thread of Summers' argument is far more coherent than a first reading suggests; and his Gothic style lends itself perfectly to the subject. What you have here are Montague Summers' own words and ideas stripped of digressions, footnotes, superfluous examples and his very detailed source references (plus commas, which he tended to sprinkle almost randomly like salt through his sentences). Occasionally a few words were supplied to link passages but mostly the editing consisted of simply dropping words, phrases and chunks from the original text.

Sometimes the choice of what to keep was unavoidably subjective. Many juicy items kept popping in and out of the revision, but on the whole the decisions were fairly straightforward. The complete original, for those whose appetites are whetted by this version, is available in the UK as a reprint from Senate Books under the title The Vampire. There is also an edition published by Dover.

Although he was writing in the twentieth century, Summers' outlook belonged to a much earlier age, something which astonished and even shocked many reviewers at the time. In everyday life he felt himself to be a refugee from the eighteenth century but many of his views would have seemed antiquated even then. Like some Medieval scholar he believed that in chronicling vampires he was studying a terrifying reality, not just some fiction or quaint superstition belonging to exotic and distant cultures.

To the sceptic he may seem over-trusting of his sources, particularly ecclesiastical ones. If a Church dignitary speaks of vampires and quotes witnesses he believes reliable, Summers appears to take the testimony at face value. But this is no great handicap. Summers may have lacked the detachment expected of modern scholars, but what he succeeds in conveying powerfully is what it feels like to believe in such things as vampires, as most people have throughout history. And still do in many parts of the world, as shown by the bizarre outbreak of vampire hysteria in Central America and Malaysia during the 1990s.

Montague Summers

Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers (1880-1948) was a fascinating character in himself. Throughout his life he was described by acquaintances as kind, courteous, generous and outrageously witty; but those who knew him well sensed an underlying discomfort and mystery. In appearance he was plump, round cheeked and generally smiling. His dress resembled that of an eighteenth century cleric, with a few added flourishes such as a silver-topped cane depicting Leda being ravished by Zeus in the form of a swan. He wore sweeping black capes crowned by a curious hairstyle of his own devising which led many to assume he wore a wig. His voice was high pitched, comical and often in complete contrast to the macabre tales he was in the habit of spouting. Throughout his life he astonished people with his knowledge of esoteric and unsettling occult lore. Many people later described him as the most extraordinary person they had known in their lives.

Despite his cherubic demeanour and affability some people found him sinister, a view he delighted in encouraging. It was always hard to tell how much Summers was putting on a show when in company, particularly in his early life, but he does appear to have been driven by demons, not least of them being those arising from having homosexual tendencies in an intolerant age. And although in everyday life he was kind and considerate, when engaged in academic debate he was furiously intolerant. There were also rumours that in his youth Summers had dabbled in black magic. If true, the only effect seems to have been to turn him completely against such meddling later. He may have been fascinated, even obsessed by witches, vampires and the like but the tone of his writings is consistently hostile towards them.

Montague Summers grew up in a wealthy family living in Clifton, near Bristol. Religion always played a large part in his life. He was raised as an evangelical Anglican but his love of ceremonial and sacraments drew him to the High Church. After graduating in Theology at Oxford he took the first steps towards holy orders at Lichfield Theological College and entered his apprenticeship as a curate in the diocese of Bitton near Bristol. This ended in a cloud of unproven scandal involving choirboys that was to dog him for the rest of his life. A year or so later he converted to Catholicism and was soon claiming to have been ordained a Catholic priest, adopting the title of Reverend. There was some doubt about the legitimacy of his orders though. He was in the habit of celebrating the Mass publicly when travelling abroad, so must have been able to produce some kind of evidence, but at home in England he only performed the sacraments in private. The truth is probably that he was ordained technically but outside the regular procedures of the Church. He therefore appeared on no clergy list in the United Kingdom, was under the authority of no bishop and could not practise publicly without first submitting to such authority.

None of his close friends doubted the sincerity of his religious faith, however, no matter how blasphemous his conversation often seemed. Dame Sybil Thorndike wrote of him: 'I think that because of his profound belief in the tenets of orthodox Catholic Christianity he was able to be in a way almost frivolous in his approach to certain macabre heterodoxies. His humour, his "wicked humour" as some people called it, was most refreshing, so different from the tiresome sentimentalism of so many convinced believers.'

For a living, Summers was able to draw on a modest legacy from his father, supplemented by spells of teaching at various schools, including Hertford Grammar, the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn, and Brockley School in south London where he was senior English and Classics Master. He described teaching as: 'One of the most difficult and depressing of trades, and so in some measure it must have been even well-nigh three hundred years ago when boys were not nearly so stupid as they are today.' In practice though, he was both entertaining and effective as a teacher once he had overcome initial problems with discipline, and was popular with both pupils and colleagues despite making it plain his real interests lay elsewhere.

From 1926, when he was in his mid-forties, Summers' writings and editing earned him the freedom to pursue full time his many enthusiasms and love of travel, particularly in Italy. The bulk of his activity then was related to English Restoration drama of the seventeenth century. Beginning in 1914 with the Shakespeare Head Press, Summers edited a large number of Restoration plays for various publishers, accompanied by lengthy critical introductions which were highly praised in their own right, and did much to rescue that period of literature from oblivion.

Not content with editing and introducing these plays, Summers helped in 1919 to found the Phoenix Society whose aim was to present them on stage in London. The venture was an immediate success and Summers threw himself wholeheartedly and popularly into all aspects of the productions, which were staged at various theatres. This brought him a measure of fame in London society and invitations to the most select salons, which he dazzled with his wit and erudition. By 1926 he was recognized as the greatest living authority on Restoration drama. Some ten years later he crystallized his knowledge in The Restoration Theatre and The Playhouse of Pepys which examined almost every possible aspect of the London stage between 1660 and 1710.

Summers' involvement with the theatre presents a curious parallel with his near contemporary Bram Stoker, who for most of his working life was business manager to Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London. There is even a suggestion of some jealousy in the grudging praise Summers gives Bram Stoker's Dracula at the end of this volume, leading to his conclusion that he felt the novel's success owed more to Stokerís choice of subject than any authorial skill. One can't help suspecting Summers felt that if only he had been born some twenty years earlier he might have written the definitive vampire novel himself, only better.

Summersí fame as an expert on the occult began in 1926 with the publication of his History of Demonology and Witchcraft followed by other studies of witches, vampires and werewolves. As an editor he also introduced to the public, along with many other works, a reprint of The Discovery of Witches by the infamous Matthew Hopkins and the first English translation of the classic fifteenth century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum. In later life he also wrote influential studies of the Gothic novel, another lifelong enthusiasm; notably The Gothic Quest: a History of the Gothic Novel (Fortune Press 1938) and A Gothic Bibliography (Fortune Press 1940).

In his introduction to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto Summers articulated the appeal of Gothic novels, and perhaps also the appeal of all the dark mysteries which fascinated him: 'There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.'

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