Vampire Decks; Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

welcome

Why do I find most vampire decks so laughable? Maybe it’s just me. But it’s that time of year again and I feel myself wanting to dig out the best of the dark decks (picture me thrusting my hands into a large pile of rotting autumn leaves and grappling around feverishly) to carry me through into the darker months. Yet I always feel more than a bit disappointed, because most dark decks are vampire decks and I don’t think I can take them seriously. With one notable exception, I have abandoned all hope of vampires being done well in tarot. Furthermore, I don’t include the Bohemian Gothic in this equation – I should add at the outset –  because it is way too multi-layered to be a vampire deck, although the second edition did bring vampirism a bit more to the fore with the reworked Queen of Swords. I could have done without the fangs to be honest, but I still love the deck. Ask fellow tarotists to recommend a dark deck for Samhain and they’ll recommend a vampire deck yet I’m afraid they just don’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because vampirism, once genuinely sinister, has been hijacked and overdone by popular culture, and the true death blow or nail in the coffin  – or whatever metaphor you want to extend – was when it was given that sickly, mainstream teen and celebrity sheen from the Twilight series. How can something so airbrushed and waxily synthetic ever be scarey? But even before this, I remember always finding even the classic vampire films risible. I think the last time I saw a vampire film – vowing never again – was quite a while back now, when I was a student. I went to a midnight screening of a film (can’t remember the name) in a cinema which had the cachet of being the last cinema in England to still have fully functioning gas lighting (I know, bizarre). How appropriate for something spooky. Or it would have been if the film had been spooky. But it wasn’t. Just silly, as vampires now are. All a far cry from how it all started.

Varney the Vampire

If I try hard enough, I think I can muster up a sense that when vampires first began making an appearance in art they might have been genuinely unsettling, but it’s never enough to chill me as I like to be chilled and I find that I have to intellectualise it. I remember a book I had as a child which had illustrations from Varney the Vampire, the 1845-47 Penny Dreadful serialisation by James Malcolm Rymer. Now here was a proper vampire – mainstream in his own way I suppose – and the first of the truly great literary vampires, spread across a record-breaking 220 chapters. It wasn’t new then and I’m not sure it was new when Polidori created his fragment of a story in summer 1819 on Lake Geneva.

Art-Painting-Moonlight-on-lake-with-boaters

It was certainly a well-trodden path by the time Bram Stoker got there. But somehow it has lost its way between then and now. Whilst once it was curious, now it seems vaguely ridiculous. We have become less repressed and the vampire genre only really worked when we were very much in denial; maidens thrasing around on four poster beds while gossamer curtains billow, uptight reverends with meaty necks exposed, the window latch off – night sweats, delirium, something unearthly squatting on us in the dark (desire perhaps) like that fabulous image which inspired Fuseli and others, something making us yearn for unwholesome encounters. Usually at night.

Nachtmahr_(Abildgaard)

The roots of vampirism are fascinating, but to me they seem so irrelevant now – and yet you wouldn’t think so with all the vampire tarot decks to choose from, so somebody somewhere finds them relevant. The tone is hard to get right – you can feel how, as a tarot theme, it feels itself torn in wildly disparate directions, pulled by wild Fuselian horses; do you go for Japanese comic style? Video games? Gory? Literary (and hope it doesn’t feel fusty)? Or maybe just go the way of all popular culture and try to make it sexy, so lots of gyrating and leaping in black leggings. But it never really works for me, however you package it. Vampirism has to have an element of repression which we simply don’t have anymore. I always prefered werewolves myself but I remember one prominent deck designer saying that trying to stretch werewolves over 78 images is really hard work. However, vampire deck designers seem unfazed by doing the same with vampires so it must have something that helps keep momentum up. Maybe they think that since vampires are sexier there’s definitely more mileage, but it’s no good for me. It never seems to work. Except perhaps in one deck, the deck I automatically reached for last night when I started thinking about vampire decks; Robert Place’s Vampire Tarot.

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I quite like this one but then it has The Alchemical in its DNA (see The World card). It also has a cold, remote, asexual atmosphere and is the deck which gets nearest to the repressed and cerebral mood I think I want in my vampire decks. I think Robert Place’s artwork is perfect for a deck on this theme; so controlled, polished and urbane. I love how its images loom out of the blackness, like the vampire coming across the fens, the latch off. I love how the five-pointed flowers make it look almost pretty until you realise that they are garlic flowers and why they are there.  I love the stiff, glossy cardstock, the etched black lines. I love the architectural backs, like an art deco keystone. I love the suit of swords meticulously laid out with all their different blades. I love, of course, how Le Fanu makes an appearance as the Knight of Holy Water. I love how it doesn’t try to be sexy; it is the buttoned up, academic vampire deck par excellence, the vampire deck of Byron and Polidori.

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The personality court cards, depicting (mostly) real people who are related to the history of fictional vampires, remind you that it is very much a vampire deck with a foot in the romantic past, the vampires of the literary imagination. I can understand why some would find the court cards difficult. I think I do sometimes but if I relax, I sense I know these personalities such as Pamela Colman Smith and Samuel Taylor Coleridge well (“Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock, and the owls have awakened the crowing cock”…) The deck has very white borders which feel like a crisp vicar’s collar against the darkness of the images, as well as sharp-edged corners. I have two copies of the deck; one with the corners rounded and another one (the one I use; see images) which has had all traces of borders removed. There is something satisfying about the stubby chunkiness of my trimmed version and it is a deck I love using.

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The book of course is excellent – Robert Place’s books are always superbly written and informative and contain everything you could possibly need to understand the deck and much more besides. If you haven’t read Stoker’s Dracula, no need to worry as it is summarised step by step with all the major themes elucidated. It’s a fine line to tread; how best to honour something traditionally sinister while resisting or acknowledging our contemporary ironizing tendencies. I’m not sure which is the best approach. Because vampires are presumably supposed to scare us – even better excite us – and yet the pomposity inevitably makes them fall short. Place’s Vampire Tarot cuts out the humour; perhaps that’s why it works for me. It isn’t wry or knowing or computerised. It is rather sombre in fact, rather humourless and stark. And yes, cold. It really is the only one that has an element of vampirism as I want to experience it, and which the damp nights of autumn brings me back to. Like last year and (I think) the year before that.

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About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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17 Responses to Vampire Decks; Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

  1. Carla says:

    Vampires (as they are meant to be) do frighten me, and this is why 1) I dislike all the vampire decks you dismiss, because they do lack the cold scariness necessary and 2) why I don’t own the Place deck, because it does. Someone wisely suggested to me when I was thinking of buying it: Put the Renfield card on your pc as a screensaver and see if you can live with it. Well, i didn’t need to go that far. A few minutes of staring at the onscreen image totally gave me the willies. Looking through the rest of the deck thoroughly chilled me. It’s a great deck, but I’m too weak for it! :)

  2. Karen says:

    The Queen of Swords in The Bohemian Gothic has lost her fangs again. I think in the second edition we really took into account the various feedback we had had and made changes (partly) accordingly. This time we have just ignored everyone else and done what we wanted. It’s honestly worked out better! :)

  3. Karen says:

    Oh, and I meant to ask, have you seen Herzog’s Nosferatu? It’s far, far above any other vampire film I’ve ever seen. The right understanding of what “undead” might feel like. Chilling and beautiful.

  4. MLM says:

    Great deck! Like the author, I don’t want to always be using a vampire deck, but this one is SUPERB, Hard/impossible to find as of this date, I got lucky in a bookstore in England (I live in France). If you can find one, buy it!

  5. Sheila Pfeiffer says:

    Don’t do a thing for me in any direction….concept of Vampires is WAY disproportional to reality concerning “vampires” in my mind…ah well….

  6. knixie.net says:

    I’ve never heard of this deck by Robert Place but you have me a bit intrigued. I dislike modern vampires also and wouldn’t be caught with a vampire deck lol. I love using decks that remind me of the season. With fall coming I bought the Crystal Tarot (the one by Elisabetta Trevisan). For winter I have the Wild Unknown on it’s way in the mail.

  7. I’m totally with you on this one ..

    It’s funny, because as I began to read this post, I was thinking ‘but I do like Place’s deck’.

    I have a few Vampire decks. The Tarot of the Vampyres and the Natalie Hertz one. I don’t even know where the ‘Vampyre’ one is anymore. The colours and creatures made me feel a bit sick after some use (think it was the greens and syrupy faces). I quite like the artwork by Hertz, even if so many of the pictures in her decks seem to be lifted from Froud. But to be honest, neither is a deck I feel particularly comfortable using anymore.

    But I like your trimming of the Place set.

    I think I can safely say that I won’t buy another vampire deck.

    • Le Fanu says:

      We share so much in terms of taste Prince Lenormand, so it doesn’t surprise me that you too like the Place Vampire set. The Hertz one I can’t ever see myself buying and all those that I have bought tend to have disppointed me. Only the Robert Place one seems to have staying power. I think that the vampire wave may have passed now…

      • Yes, I have noticed this too, Le Fanu. I think we both have a sensitivity to the final details in our decks. I hate anything which is not consistent or is rushed or just plain faddy. You can tell when a deck is just playing at being ‘dark’. I really like some of Hertz’s vampire illustrations, but on a general level, it appears a bit daft.

        I hope you are right about the vampire wave. I think that Steampunk has had its day too.

  8. Carla says:

    I did it! I finally ordered Place’s Vampire Tarot. :)

    Prince Lenormand, I too have noticed Hertz’s artwork’s connection to Froud! Some of her cards in her Faery Tarot are straight out of Froud Faeries Oracle, such as the High Priestess card in particular. I was shocked! I didn’t know she’d done a vampire deck. Off to find images…

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