The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Family of a Vourdalak" (1884)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Family of a Vourdalak” (original: “La famille du Vourdalak”) was written by Aleksei Tolstoy and first appeared in Russkii vestnik 1 (1884). Count Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875) was an elder cousin of Leo Tolstoy. Count Tolstoy is best-known for his lyric and satiric poetry, for his historical romance Prince Serebriany (1862), and for his trilogy of historical dramas about Boris Gudonov. Count Tolstoy also wrote some horror stories, including “The Family of a Vourdalak.”
In 1769 the Marquis d’Urfé is madly in love with the Duchess de Gramont, who leads him on and “played the coquette”1 but does not reciprocate his feelings. Much agitated, the Marquis accepts a diplomatic mission to Moldavia. On his trip to Moldovia the Marquis stays in a rural village with some Serbian peasants. But when the Marquis arrives in the village the family he is to stay with is upset. Ten days earlier their grandfather, Gorcha, had declared that he was going up to the mountains to help hunt down the Turkish bandit Ali Beg. Gorcha told the family to wait ten days and then have a funeral Mass said for him. Gorcha added that if he returned after those ten days, “for your own sakes do not let me in. If this happens, I command you to forget that I was your father, no matter what I say or do, and to impale my heart with an aspen stake, because I will be a cursed Vourdalak returning to suck your blood.”2 The Marquis briefly explains that among the Slavic nations entire villages have been depopulated and are composed of vourdalaks (vampires).The day the Marquis arrives is the eleventh day after Gorcha’s departure, and his whole family is tense. The Marquis notices that the daughter, Zdenka, greatly resembles the Duchess de Gramont, and the Marquis is very attracted to her. Gorcha eventually arrives. His left side is drenched with blood, and George, the eldest of Gorcha’s two sons, sees that Gorcha is wounded in the heart, but Gorcha commands George not to touch him. The family’s dogs howl at Gorcha, and he acts strangely and is curt to his family. But despite Gorcha’s original command to the family, they do not kill him, even though George smells dead flesh when Gorcha is around. Gorcha carries George’s son off into the forest and returns with him a few minutes later; the boy is faint and weak. Gorcha refuses to eat any food and refuses to say grace. Gorcha spies on Zdenka at night. And yet the family does nothing, in large part because the boy claims that his grandfather did not hurt him when they went into the forest. The Marquis meanwhile passionately woos Zdenka, who is attracted to the Marquis but does not yield to him.
Eventually matters come to a head. George’s eldest son flies through the air, riding a stake, and George’s youngest son attacks George. The Marquis, who had been confined to the village by a frozen river, is told by George that the river is clear and that he can now leave. George, who is aware of the Marquis’ intentions toward Zdenka, does not allow the Marquis to see Zdenka before he leaves, which saddens the Marquis. His mission in Yassa takes him six months, during which time he is popular with the Moldavian women and he forgets about Zdenka. When the time comes to return home he travels by the same road and returns to Zdenka’s village. Before he arrives there he meets a monk who tells him that Gorcha was killed, but that Gorcha’s grandson turned George’s wife into a vourdalak, and she then killed the rest of the family. The monk is coy about Zdenka’s fate, saying only that she went mad from sorrow. The Marquis goes to see Zdenka, and although she is happy to see him she reproaches him for not having come sooner and saved her. The Marquis does not understand, and Zdenka begins acting oddly, telling the Marquis he should flee but then inviting him to stay the night. Through the night she acts more invitingly and coquettishly, and when the Marquis is at last alone in her bedroom with her, she is clad only in light clothing and wears her hair unbraided. He embraces her, but as he does so the cross around his neck pokes into his flesh, and he becomes aware that Zdenka’s features “though still beautiful, were as stiff as death,”3 that her smile has agony in it, and that the room smells like a half-opened tomb. He manages to make his excuses and retire to his room. He then runs to his horse and flees the village. The vourdalaks in the house are not aware of his departure until the sound of his horse’s hoofs reaches their ears. A chase ensues. The vourdalaks pursue him, some making enormous leaps through the air and others riding enormous stakes. Zdenka calls to the Marquis and then jumps on to the back of his Marquis’ horse, but he manages to throw her off and make good his escape.
“The Family of a Vourdalak” was written in the early 1840s, but due to the disregard with which horror stories were held by the Russian intelligentsia the story was not published until the 1880s, and then only in French. The modern reader likely has more catholic tastes with regard to genre stories than the Russian intelligentsia of Tolstoy’s day, but “The Family of a Vourdalak,” though critically acclaimed, is not likely to rank highly in most modern readers’ lists of the best horror stories of the nineteenth century. The story is actually an interesting case in shifting audience sensitivities. With the exception of the story’s ending, most of the rest of “The Family of a Vourdalak” reads as if it is the fact of a vourdalak’s existence, so close to the family, that is supposed to be frightening, rather than the implicit threat of the vourdalak or his actions toward his family. In the more religiously conscious environment of the nineteenth century, especially nineteenth-century Russia, Gorcha’s refusal to say grace would be meaningful and ominous. To more jaded modern audiences, it is a minor moment. The scenario of the undead grandfather lying in the bosom of the family has potential to be frightening, but Tolstoy’s execution of the premise mitigates against the modern reader being frightened. It is obvious to the reader from the beginning that Gorcha is a vampire. It should be obvious to George and his family, but they are aggravatingly slow in realizing this. Most exasperating of all, Gorcha himself told them what was going to happen, and the family still let themselves be gulled by him. This is the basic storytelling mistake of “stupid people doing stupid things,” and it is a large impediment to the enjoyment of the story. And Tolstoy tells the story in a flat way which the turgid dialogue of the Marquis can’t alter. Tolstoy wrote “The Family of a Vourdalak” in 1839, when Russia was still going through a craze of Hoffmann-mania, but Tolstoy apparently took the wrong lessons from Hoffmann.
But the story is not entirely without interest. The portrayal of the vourdalak has the feel of genuine folklore–as it should, being based on Slavic folklore–and the story’s ending is cinematic and thrilling. The pursuit of the Marquis, with the vourdalaks chasing after him and Gorcha’s daughter-in-law throwing her child at the Marquis, is far superior to the similar final chase in Dracula. The story’s finale, at least, deviates from Tolstoy’s idea of Hoffmann and becomes Tolstoyan, and excellent.
After a century of being ignored in the world of English-language academia, “The Family of a Vourdalak” has become the subject of a growing number of academic studies. Eliza Olga Krucon notes that “The Family of a Vourdalak” shares several things in common with Dracula, including “unwomanly woman...polluted femininity,” “unmanly men,” and threat of invasion by a foreign element, which in the case of “Vourdalak” is the French Marquis d’Urfé, a potential threat to Russian women, who are protected by the vampirism of the vourdalaks.4 Neil Cornwell points out the various Gothic qualities of “Vourdalak” and notes the influence of Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Hoffmann, Gogol, Goethe, and Odoevsky (see: “The Cosmorama”), while seeing “Vourdalak” as a less-than-serious attempt by Tolstoy: “the final existence of vampires within this plausibly parodic imbroglio remains in some doubt...while the revelation of an underlying family curse brings the tale closer both to what we have termed classical and society Gothic.”5 Andrew Dalton argues that Tolstoy, and other authors of early nineteenth century vampire literature, used Enlightenment vampire metaphors to reject Enlightenment rationalism (esp. Enlightenment’s rejection of contemporary reports about vampires), and that “Vourdalak” began the theme in vampire stories of religion being the main focus and weapon against vampires.6
“The Family of a Vourdalak” is generally seen as primus inter pares of Russian vampire stories, but non-Russian audiences are likely to be left cold by most of it.
Print: Michael Sims, ed., Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
1 Aleksei Tolstoy, “The Family of a Vourdalak,” Americanliterature.com, accessed Jan. 25, 2019, https://americanliterature.com/author/alexei-tolstoy/short-story/the-family-of-the-vourdalak
2 Tolstoy, “The Family of a Vourdalak.”
3 Tolstoy, “The Family of a Vourdalak.”
4 Eliza Olga Krucon, “Unwomanly Women, Unmanly Men and Disintegrating Nations in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Stefan Grabiński's In Sarah's House and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy's The Family of the Vourdalak” (Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2014).
5 Neil Cornwell, “European Gothic and Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature,” in Avril Horner, ed., European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960 (Manchester, UK: 2002), 119.
6 Andrew Bruce John Dalton, “Early Nineteenth-Century Vampire Literature and the Rejection of Enlightenment Rationalism” (Thesis, University of Alberta, 2012), 63.