“This is exactly the Vampire who with his sharp white teeth bites the neck of his victim and sucks the blood from the wounds he has made, gorging himself, like some great human leech, until he is replete and full, when he retires to his grave to repose, lethargic and inert until such time as he shall again sally forth to quench his lust at the veins of some sleek and sanguine juvenal.”
You would be forgiven for guessing the above to be a quotation from Dracula. Remarkably, though, it is from the early 20th century, and it is not fiction, but an expression of the author’s professed belief. This lurid depiction of vampiric feeding was written in 1928 by Montague Summers (The Vampire, His Kith and Kin 136), one of the strangest authors in the Burns Library’s British Catholic Authors collection. In 1928, when transatlantic flight was a reality, the world’s tallest building (the Woolworth Building) rose 792 feet above the New York skyline, and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was well-established, Montague Summers worked to alert the public to the dangers of the hungry undead.
Summers (1880-1948) cultivated an air of colorful eccentricity. A Roman Catholic convert at age 29, he claimed to be a clergyman, although no verifiable records of his ordination have ever been found. (He was, however, permitted to say Mass at churches on the Continent while travelling.) Summers had an interest in the theater, particularly regarding Restoration drama, and made a mark on Restoration studies by editing numerous works by authors including Dryden and Aphra Behn. But it is for his works on European folklore and the occult that Summers achieved notoriety, for when he wrote about supernatural horrors, he insisted that he did, in fact, believe in them wholeheartedly:
The vampire is believed to be one who has devoted himself during his life to the practice of Black Magic, and it is hardly to be supposed that such persons would rest undisturbed, while it is easy to believe that their malevolence had set in action forces which might prove powerful for terror and destruction even when they were in their graves. (The Vampire, His kith and Kin 78; emphasis added)
It is amply evident from the etymological history of the word ‘werewolf’… that the tradition is not only most anciently and universally diffused throughout the whole of this great continent… Nor is it merely a grim superstition; it is a terrible and dangerous truth, and one, moreover, which is by no means confined to Europe alone. (The Werewolf 20; emphasis added)
Witchcraft does not belong to the antiquarian past; it lives and energizes, a monstrous and fearful menace to-day, and it is perhaps only by a clear and understanding view of the history of black magic that we can be aware of the immanent dangers that surround us. (A Popular History of Witchcraft 104; emphasis added)
Summers produced the first English translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich
Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s infamous fifteenth century witch-hunting manual. Like his predecessors, Summers grounded his beliefs regarding the occult in Catholic doctrine and a somewhat scholastic manner of thought. (The fact that the Church officially repudiated the Malleus Maleficarum almost immediately following its publication does not seem to have caused Summers any particular second thoughts.) He also translated and edited a number of other, less famous, sixteenth and seventeenth century texts on demonology, witchcraft, and ghosts. But his most peculiar legacy remains those works of his own in which his extensive erudition intersects with giddily purple prose to create a sense of Summers as a latter-day Van Helsing. As nothing I can say could possibly add to their lurid effect, I shall allow a few examples to speak for themselves:
A Vampire is generally described as being exceedingly gaunt and lean with a hideous countenance and eyes wherein are glinting the red fire of perdition. When, however, he has satiated his lust for warm human blood his body becomes horribly puffed and bloated, as though he were some great leech gorged and replete to bursting. (The Vampire, His Kith and Kin 179)
When the stake has pierced the Vampire he will utter the most terrible shrieks and blood will jet forth in every direction from his convulsed and writhing limbs as he impotently thrashes the air with his quivering hands. There is a tradition that when he has been dead for many years and his mysterious life in death is thus ended the corpse has been known immediately to crumble into dust. (The Vampire, His Kith and Kin 205)
In order then to satisfy his lust for blood, his desire to hurt, harm, and kill, to terrify and amaze, the witch, the bond-slave of Satan, by his master’s evil power and hellish craft transforms or seems to transform into the shape of some ravening beast of prey… (The Werewolf 21-22)
Summer’s apparent credulity appears to recognize no bounds, and treats as authoritative any source, ancient or modern, pagan or Christian, which supports his image of a world crawling with Satan’s minions. Thus a single obscure reference leads Summers to assert unequivocally that “In the year 1542 Constantinople was so plagued by werewolves that Solyman II, ‘the Magnificent,’ at the head of his Janizaries, lead an attack against them and destroyed no less than 150 of these monsters who were prowling the streets and lanes of the city” (The Werewolf 146). A more skeptical author might note that the Great Ottoman-Werewolf Battle of 1542 seems conspicuously absent from most standard histories. Not Summers.
By now it may be Summers’s seeming credulity itself that taxes belief. Is it actually, sincerely, legitimately possible that an educated adult writing in the 1920s and 30s really believed in supernatural monsters? While ultimately unprovable, it seems unlikely. Summers seems to have lived in a kind of roleplaying game. Near the end of The Werewolf, he gives the reader a hint as to why that might be:
It is undoubtedly far more difficult for those living to-day to imagine the old England of peace and prosperity, than it is for those of us who remember our country before the dawning of the twentieth century…From one end of our island to another the roads are packed and ploughed by mechanical conveyances of the ugliest and most vicious pattern, swift engines of death and destruction, goaded to a manic speed amid stench unutterable and the din of devils… we see London, despoiled of all her beauty, her nakedness uncovered, throwing out hideous suburban tentacles for mile after mile on all sides… (The Werewolf)
The modern world – frantic and messy and ugly – is what truly scares Summers. Conservative in morals and aesthetics alike, Summers seems to find in his self-fashioning as a real-life vampire hunter a kind of cognitive refuge from modernity, a continuity with an earlier era in which folktales were received facts… and even political comfort. Communism advances because of diabolism: “Who can doubt that the revolution of Russia, the persecution in Mexico, the anarchy and atrocities of Spain, have been fomented, energized, and directed by Satanic agency?” (A Popular History of Witchcraft 15). It is perhaps for this reason that the insistences of the truth of the matter come far more frequently and forcefully in A Popular History of Witchcraft than in Summers’s other books. One gets the sense that if Summers can just convince himself that there is a witch behind every bush, a vampire around every corner, and a werewolf hiding in every cupboard, then the chaotic, dangerous modern world, with its filthy machines and Godless Reds, will finally make sense.
If you’d like to retreat into Montague Summers’s world of monsters this Halloween season, please contact the Burns Library at email@example.com or call (617) 552-4861.
- Eric Pencek, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & PhD Candidate in the English Department
Summers, Montague. A Popular History of Witchcraft. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 1937.
—. The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 1928.
—. The Werewolf. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 1933.