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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.