Vampires, Body Horror, Food, and Mrs. Personne

Lisa West
Drake University

I taught “The Black Vampyre” in a senior capstone seminar on “More Witches”; the capstone consisted primarily of seniors who had taken my “Salem Witch Trials” class and wanted to spend more time on “witches,” witchcraft, and accusations of witchcraft in more contemporary contexts. This was the only pre-1830 text we read and the only one on vampires rather than witches.  Other texts included two young adult novels (A Break with Charity and These Witches Don’t Burn), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and other Sabrina adaptations, and some critical texts on affect and new materialism, including work by Stacy Alaimo and Jane Bennett.

The initial response by most was how the text exposed their association of vampires with whiteness. They felt that the cultural association of vampires was profoundly connected with whiteness – and not only with whiteness but with a particularly eerie or nonhuman sort of whiteness (lack of blood, undead, etc.).  As a result, they were fascinated by the intent to write about a “black” vampire and the possibility of using the vampire motif as a way to criticize slavery and/or racial categorizations. One student commented how the early pages seem a checklist of what they consider vampire traits – “grace and agility,” an iris of “flame colour,” connection with moonlight, a sort of lack of affect (16) – but combined with a body whose blackness is stressed, from the “jet black”  limbs to the “dead black” complexion or the use of “ebony” as an epithet.  Students felt the opening pages showed potential for a radical rethinking of otherness in slavery, with the childlike but superhuman body (which the reader does not yet understand to be a vampire) contrasted with the dumbfounded Personne who cannot believe his acts of violence fail to make the other disappear – or even reveal itself as “human.”  (Students also felt that the text did not fulfill the possibilities of linking slavery to vampirism and were confused about the ultimate message – if any – about slavery, slave revolt, racial politics, or related issues.)

Perhaps the most interesting conversations revolved around Mrs. Personne.  As the only female character, she stood out, especially since we had been reading about witches, which tend to place women in the center of discussion.  We had a lot of discussion about her role (peripheral or central?).  Students noted her appetite – and that the text did not judge her for her turning with glee to her husbands’ graves after becoming a vampire NOR for having had multiple husbands (another form of metaphoric vampirism – either in her multiple marriages or the deaths of multiple partners?) prior to her transformation.  Appetite and consent were constant issues.  What was she forced to do and what did she want to do according to the narrative? One student pointed out that the descriptions of her husband and child as food are presented from her point of view – whether because as a woman her framework was entirely domestic or because she herself always had an appetite. The narrator enters her world when it comments how (“poor woman!”) her “husband had been… served up like a broiled and peppered chicken” and her son “precociously sucked, like an unripe orange” (19).  (I am reminded of Ichabod Crane here.).  The domestic connection with Mrs. Personne continues: she is the one who seizes the restorative potion, which in her hands  becomes a drink or cordial in a “phial” that she stealthily places in her “ridicule”  or handbag (37), whereas the concoction in the goblet held by the vampire himself in the graveyard was blood-water-dirt combined, something foreign and mysterious and far from domestic.  The potions, references to food, etc. linked with class reading on Alaimo’s trans-corporeality and a sense of the way bodies and environments leak into each other. They also led us to other moments of “body horror,” and the way certain moments are pleasurably horrific, like the description of Personne’s body as “one continual sore and blister” (18), whereas others are uncomfortably violent (like the initial scene and the massacre near the end). And all these are contrasted with the lack of graphic encounters with violence on slave bodies. 

Another student felt that Zembo was the central character and seems to have a connection to the narrative voice.  Students saw Zembo as a betrayer, telling the army how to kill the vampires after, as one student noted, the vampires had accepted him as one of them.  Zembo also creates or recreates the colonial white family – with himself at the center – which seems to erase the events as easily as the potions do. There is more to do with his role and the notion of dual allegiance, loyalty, etc.  Lastly, I should note that my students found the text hilarious at moments – especially the body horror and food moments.  While they could grasp the significance of questions of blackness, colonial presence, and power, they were more drawn to the absurd – and were interested in figuring out tone.  Was this supposed to be funny? they often asked.  They also queried each other about certain passages that they thought were intended to be funny – or to have clever allusions – that they could not discern. Their interest in tone generated engaged discussion and careful reading.

I definitely would be interested in teaching this text again – but in a different context.  I think the text would work well with texts like Edgar Huntly where I feel sometimes I have to nudge my students not to read narrative at face value – or with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I also think the text could be powerful to teach with the Makandal account from Just Teach One and with other texts that represent slavery and especially revolt or dissent.