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Olalla's legacy: twentieth century vampire fiction and genetic previvorship

Wasson, Sara-Patricia


Sara-Patricia Wasson


Although Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘Olalla’ does not use the word ‘vampire’ at any point, it contains a cluster of motifs that have led critics to identify it as a vampire tale: specifically, a character addicted to drinking human blood and an ancient family fallen into decline. ‘Olalla’ is unusual, however, in that it features a very different conception of vampirism than that popularised by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and which has become canonical to vampire literature since. This article differentiates between the Dracula and the ‘Olalla’ models of vampiric reproduction, and argues that although the Dracula framework dominated the twentieth century, the ‘Olalla’ model has re-emerged in intriguing ways in recent decades. This paper identifies the tale’s literary legacy, suggesting that the ‘Olalla’ model foreshadows a recent trend in vampire story: vampirism as genetic inheritance.
To date, literary criticism of ‘Olalla’ tends to use the tale to throw light on more famous Stevenson texts: Irving Massey, for example, reads ‘Olalla’ as illuminating The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in its depiction of human duality and the need to resist base animal desire, and Hilary Beattie makes a similar move, arguing, ‘Olalla’ can be read as ‘itself the double of Jekyll and Hyde’. Given that it is one of Stevenson’s relatively few works to foreground a woman’s experience, the tale has also inspired critics to examine its engagement with gender. Ellen Rees argues that ‘at the heart of … Stevenson’s [story]… lie[s] patriarchal terror in the face of female sexuality’, and Massey notes that the mother is described in terms which emphasise her base, animal nature. Beattie notes that ‘Olalla’ ‘falls within the general romantic tradition of the vampire woman and the femme fatale’, and argues that the tale can be read in terms of profound, archaic repression of experience of the maternal body, ‘a monstrous and overwhelming female presence’. Common to all these approaches is interest in the story’s depiction of atavistic subhuman or pre-human states, and this preoccupation is no accident: Linda Dryden and Ed Block go to the heart of this atavism when they suggest that the story is symptomatic of late nineteenth-century anxieties over evolutionary degeneration. Valuable though all these approaches are, the story can also be read as a prescient commentary on late twentieth- twenty-first century concerns, specifically the emergence of what has been called genetic ‘previvorship’. First, I will summarise the way in which ‘Olalla’ exemplifies the evolutionary anxieties of the moment in which it appeared, and then I will show the lacunae of such a reading, instead connecting the story to trends in twentieth-century vampire fiction and culture.


Wasson, S. (2010). Olalla's legacy: twentieth century vampire fiction and genetic previvorship. Journal of Stevenson Studies, 7, 55-81

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date 2010
Deposit Date Sep 3, 2010
Print ISSN 1744-3857
Publisher University of Stirling, Stirling Centre for Scottish Studies
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 7
Pages 55-81
Keywords Robert Louis Stevenson; Olalla; vampire; genetic inheritance; femme fatale; previvorship;
Public URL