Southern Gothic
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Faulkner Bares His Fangs: Vampirism in ‘Sanctuary’

William Faulkner’s unproduced film script, ‘Dreadful Hollow’, was not his only foray into the fantastical, as 1931’s Sanctuary tells its twisted form of vampirism.

William Faulkner
Vintage International
November 1985
Bram Stoker
November 1993

As Jill Faulkner sifted through a cache of her famous father’s documents shortly after his death in 1962, she uncovered a veritable holy grail of literary proportions. Among the dusty collection of notes and letters was a 159-page manuscript written by William Faulkner that had lain dormant for nearly two decades. The manuscript was an unproduced screenplay based on a 1942 horror novel by Irina Karlova entitled Dreadful Hollow about a young heroine assailed by bloodthirsty vampires.

Although Faulkner’s adaptation of Dreadful Hollow never saw the light of day, its discovery was significant because it opened a new chapter in the modernist author’s repertoire. By delving into the supernatural, Faulkner took his predilection for gothic storytelling to a new level. However, Dreadful Hollow didn’t mark the only time Faulkner experimented with the vampire motif. As filmgoers flocked to the cinemas to see Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula to take their minds off the country’s draconian economic turmoil, readers were introduced to Sanctuary that same year.

Although Faulkner’s controversial “potboiler” does not feature undead Eastern European expatriates morphing into bats or nipping the necks of helpless maidens, the novel is nonetheless saturated with vampiric conventions popularized in Bram Stoker’s seminal work over three decades earlier. Faulkner’s 1931 novel ostensibly represents the author’s foray into detective fiction, but the hardboiled tale also contains many of the horror and gothic tropes that have become synonymous with vampire lore, such as good vs. evil, sexual predation, corruption of innocence, graphic violence, and ubiquitous death. In essence, Sanctuary is William Faulkner’s first completed vampire story.

Believed to have been penned in early 1946, Faulkner’s forgotten screenplay was most likely commissioned by film director Howard Hawks, who purchased the rights to adapt Karlova’s novel in 1944. The unproduced script is still largely shrouded in mystery. Karlova had written a letter to Hawks in October 1945, inquiring why Faulkner’s screenplay never ascended from “development hell, but Hawks never replied. Several Faulkner biographies, including the 1974 Joseph Blotner biography, don’t even acknowledge the screenplay’s existence. According to Professor Michelle E. Moore, one copy of the manuscript is in the possession of author Bruce Kawin, who received his coveted copy from Hawks. Another copy exists in the Howard Hawks Collection at the Brigham Young University Library’s Special Collections. 

Dreadful Hollow chronicles the exploits of a 19-year-old young woman named Jillian Dare, who becomes a companion to the Countess Ana Czerner, a bloodthirsty nosferatu. After arriving at the Countess’ mansion, Jillian encounters strange and bizarre characters including an eccentric housekeeper named Sari, who harbors dark secrets about her undead mistress. Jillian also experiences a series of surreal events lifted from the pages of gothic mythology, such as a bat swooping down upon her and the countess vanishing, only to reappear later as a younger woman inexplicably. As the dark tale culminates in a desperate struggle to escape the countess’ macabre web of terror, Jillian is saved by a neighbor named Dr. Clyde.

Although William Faulkner dismissed his forgotten screenplay as a “lark” for his “drinking buddy”, the manuscript’s content is said to reflect elements of his more serious literary endeavors. The script’s existence is also relevant because it illustrates that Faulkner was aware of the pop cultural vampire conventions established by John William Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” (1819), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. “That he drew on such material,” writes Moore, “demonstrates […] that high modernism drinks up the icons and images of mass culture.”

Vampire conventions were used in the early 20th century to convey the themes of inheritance, violence, sexuality, and pestilence, and Faulkner’s narratives are no exception. The modernist scribe “uses the vampire and vampiric conventions as a master narrative in his work”. The vampire is “a monster created to explain what happens when the body becomes consumed by disease and feverish nightmares”. The vampire may also be described as a “metaphor that explains a particular relationship of the past to the present and how the dead can come to consume the living, feasting on their blood and causing the living to languish and finally die”. 

Many critics suggest that American gothic literature such as Sanctuary traces its 18th-century origins back to authors Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, and Matthew Gregory Lewis through the usage of themes of flight, quest, wandering, persecution, and entrapment with stock characters such as the maiden in distress or the fiendish villain. The moribund seeds Faulkner plants in Sanctuary provide fertile ground for this vampiric metaphor, particularly in the character of Popeye, who is essentially a diseased parasite who wreaks havoc and destroys all who are unfortunate enough to encounter him.

Associating vampiric themes with Faulkner’s prose is not entirely a new concept. In her article entitled “The Unsleeping Cabal: Faulkner’s Fevered Vampires and the Other South”, Moore uses vampire tropes to analyze Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom!, arguing that Quentin Compson contracts a vampire-like fever through his exposure to the gothic oral histories chronicling Thomas Sutpen’s tragic legacy. “The vampire narrative and its connotations of ancestral disease suggest a source for Quentin’s feverish jerks,” Moore posits. “Because he himself now carries the stories of his region’s history, they have been transmitted to him through contact with other vampires who passed along their infection through miasmic, contagious, and unhygienic means.” 

Moore underscores two forms of vampiric infection: contagion and miasm. Contagion theory states that infectious diseases are transmitted from person to person through physical contact, but miasm suggests pestilence is passed from the environment to the host. Because Dracula bites the necks of his victims to spread his vampiristic virus for the dual purpose of procreation and sustenance, his disease can be considered a form of contagion. Faulkner subjects his Sanctuary characters to both contagious and miasmic modes of vampirism. As author Leonard Ashley remarks, the vampire is a “soulless creature who must always be mean and lowly, debased and subhuman”.

Popeye, who fits this description perfectly, is the chief avatar of a contagious brand of vampirism because he personally heralds physical and psychological damage to his victims. He himself is a product of contagious disease through the syphilis he carries in his polluted genes. Like a traditional vampire, Popeye is rendered infertile due to his inherent malady and seeks alternate means to reproduce. Vampires propagate their species by biting the necks and draining the blood of their victims; Popeye replenishes his ranks by “penetrating” Temple with a corncob. Both of these alternate forms of penetration result in the corruption of innocence. Mina and Lucy evolve into bloodsucking vampires, and Temple becomes a lascivious harlot. 

The novel’s ultimate source of vampirism, however, is the corrupted environment which serves as the unholy mother that spawns all of Sanctuary’s villains, including the selfish and aptly named Narcissa, the nefarious Popeye, the crooked Senator Snopes, the inebriated Miss Reba, the corrupt prosecutor, the lecherous Gowan, and the shady Memphis attorney who brings about the swift guilty verdict for Lee Goodwin. The lineage of the novel’s vampires can be traced to the “filthy physical environment and the unclean people who inhabit the environment”. The environment infected Popeye’s parents; they, in turn, passed the vampiric gene on to Popeye, and Popeye spread the contagion to Temple.

As scholar Lee Anne Fennell suggests, Faulkner’s novels are permeated with “doom and determinism”. His characters “appear as pawns moved by a cosmic player, debtors called to account by a ruthless creditor, or helpless subjects waiting for their destinies to be tumbled out by an indifferent diceman”. After all, Popeye inherits his own corruption from his syphilitic transient father, mentally unstable mother, and pyromaniac grandmother. Unlike Temple, he was born into corruption. The vampiric environment infects Popeye before he is even conceived, and Popeye disseminates it. 

After receiving her savage initiation into the criminal underworld, Temple virally inherits Popeye’s evil and becomes corrupted enough to provide the shocking courtroom testimony that catapults an innocent man to his doom. In his essay “A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula”, Professor John Allen Stevenson argues that a vampire sates two basic needs when it reproduces – nourishment and procreation. Stoker’s novel “shows us Dracula’s attempts to reproduce and the struggle of the band of young men under Van Helsing to stop him. The tale is horrifying because the vampire’s manner of reproduction appears radically different and because it requires the women who already belong to those men.”

Dracula’s biggest threat then, Stevenson suggests, is that his victims will invariably betray their own families or husbands to collude with the count. Just as Lucy Westenra loses her innocence (virginity) after receiving the count’s toxic bite and transforms into a bloodsucking creature of the night, Temple’s purity and schoolgirl-like naïvety are eradicated after she is penetrated by Popeye’s vicarious phallus – the corncob. The corncob also conjures images of food and sustenance, just as Dracula’s bite equates to eating and sex. Popeye, like Dracula, transforms his prey into his accomplices. “Dracula penetrates, but he receives the ‘vital fluid’; after Lucy becomes a vampire, she acts as a ‘penetrator’ (and becomes sexually aggressive), but she now receives fluid from those she attacks.”

Another common theme that connects Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Sanctuary is the discovery of evil, which plays a part in a human being’s initiation into the nature of reality. As Mina realizes, “The world seems full of good men – even if there are monsters in it.”  The count succeeds in robbing three characters of their innocence – Harker, Mina, and Lucy. In Sanctuary, William Faulkner’s collection of vampires destroys the innocence of Temple and Horace Benbow, who is introduced as a naïve idealist who champions truth and justice.

Among the horde of malevolence, corruption, virulence, and avarice, Benbow arguably has the purest heart of all the characters in the novel (although he isn’t without his fair share of flaws, including anti-Semitism). Benbow serves as the novel’s surrogate, Van Helsing and John Harker. Benbow is initially an optimistic champion of the law, believing that the virtuous will triumph in the end; following the heroic footsteps of Van Helsing, Benbow embarks on a crusade to expunge the evil plaguing his environment. Instead of arming himself with Christian iconography, such as crucifixes and holy water, to battle his vampiric foes, Benbow turns to the legal system as his primary weapon of choice.

During his heated exchanges with his conceited sister, Benbow defends the rights of Ruby and her illegitimate infant while most of the Jefferson denizens consider them pariahs and turn them out into the streets. He later verbally duels with Miss Reba about testifying against Popeye in court, stubbornly believing that the law will ameliorate Benbow’s crises. But Miss Reba, who has long been “bitten” by the vampire of corruption, knows better. “They ain’t gonna catch Popeye, honey,” she remarks coldly. “Smart as he is. You don’t know his name, noway, and if you have to go and tell them in the court, I’ll send him word after you leave and he’ll go somewhere and send for you.”

However, as the accumulating corruption he battles becomes insurmountable, Benbow comes to a sobering realization that evil is “rooted in the very nature of things” and cannot be simply eradicated with the banging of a judge’s gavel. The presence of the shifty Memphis lawyer and the corrupt Jefferson prosecutor indicates that the forces of darkness have infiltrated and poisoned the halls of justice. There is no sanctuary or refuge from the brutalities of the environment and its sinister agents, even in a court of law. The law has essentially become infected by the same vampiric contagion that runs through the veins of Popeye, Temple, and Narcissa.

Unlike the intrepid band of heroes in Dracula, Benbow fails in his quest to stake the vampire and returns to his loveless marriage in virtual exile. Goodwin is convicted and lynched, Temple remains corrupted, and Popeye eludes prosecution. In a scene reminiscent of the climax in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein film, mobs of angry villagers bearing torches take “justice” into their own hands and set fire to Goodwin, and Benbow fails to stop the raging conflagration in time to save his condemned client. In an ironic twist, Popeye is finally captured in another town for a crime he didn’t commit, but the death and destruction Popeye wrought has been done, and his demise is a hollow victory. The master vampire itself – the corrupted society – is still very much at large. “Perhaps it is upon the instant that we realize, admit, that there is a logical pattern to evil,” Benbow concedes bitterly.

 In Sanctuary, Temple is introduced as a coquettish yet naïve schoolgirl who initially exhibits trepidation about approaching Goodwin’s rat-infested house of horrors while accompanying her intoxicated date on a liquor run. “‘I don’t want to go there,’ she said. ‘You go on and get the car,’ she told the old man. ‘We’ll wait here.'” Like Dracula voyeuristically staring at Lucy or Mina through their bedroom windows, Temple shivers as she spots Popeye watching her from a distance as she approaches the veritable Castle Dracula. She later pleads with Gowan to flee. “Gowan, I’m scared. [Ruby] says for us to go away from here.” Unfortunately, Temple’s pleas fall on deaf ears, much to the chagrin of Ruby, who warned Temple to leave “while it was daylight”.  By chapter 13 (an appropriate chapter number), it is too late. “Something is happening to me!” Temple screams as Popeye savagely rapes her. Popeye’s metaphorical phallus penetrates her, and she consequently contracts his vampiric contagion.

Following her bloody initiation, Temple begins to inherit Popeye’s corpse-like physical attributes. “Her face looked like a sleep-walker’s as she swayed limply to the lurching of the car.” After Dracula bites Mina, she famously bemoans, “Unclean! Unclean!” She feels defiled and contaminated by the count’s assault. Temple also exhibits the same sentiments following her own attack. After being ensconced into a Memphis brothel, Temple rejects Miss Reba’s offer to wash her soiled garments. “I can’t wear it again. I can’t.” Temple also can’t see her reflection when she looks into a clock’s glass-covered face, just a “warped turmoil of faint light and shadow in geometric miniature swinging across it”. Traditional vampires typically don’t cast reflections.

Days later, her macabre transformation is complete. The innocent “daddy’s girl” we were introduced to in the beginning of Sanctuary is supplanted by a socially deviant vixen, a metaphorical vampiress who is lascivious, commiserates with the Memphis criminal underground, and commits perjury to protect her vampire master. Temple no longer innocently flirts with men; she begs them for sex. “Give it to me,” she whispers seductively to Red.

“Evil for Faulkner involves the violation of the natural and the denial of the human,” Brooks writes. Popeye is depicted as an unnatural, inhuman automaton animated only by the corrupted elements that dwell within him. As we are reading Dracula, Stoker describes his famous vampire as having “a waxen face; the high aquiline nose, on which the light fell in a thin, white line; the parted red lips, with the sharp white teeth showing between; and the red eyes […]”. Dracula’s zombie-like countenance is a manifestation of his innate savagery.

When we are introduced to Popeye, Faulkner gives his monster a similar physical description: “His face had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light; against the sunny silence, in his slanted straw hat and his slightly akimbo arms, he had that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin […] His skin had a dead, dark pallor. His nose was faintly aquiline, and he had no chin at all.” Popeye’s presence at the spring is an offensive contrast to the ambient natural wildlife. Faulkner underscores this contrast when he depicts his criminal spitting into the spring in defiance of the natural resources surrounding him. Popeye rejects the nature that has abandoned him.

Indeed, many similarities exist between Dracula and Popeye. For example, both Dracula and Popeye are associated with smoke. Stoker allows his count to transform into a smoky mist to elude detection, and Popeye is a compulsive chain smoker. However, differences exist as well. In contrast to Dracula, Faulkner gives his chief monster a backstory, albeit a brief one. The source of the count’s vampirism is left to the reader’s imagination, but we do learn the source of Popeye’s. Toward the end of Sanctuary, we learn that Popeye was ironically born into a broken home on Christ’s birthday. An anemic and sickly child, Popeye was thought first to be blind, “though he did not learn to walk and talk until he was about four years old”. After his transient father abandoned his mother (not without draining her bank account first), Popeye was placed into the care of his pyromaniac grandmother.

When he was still a child, Popeye tortured small animals such as kittens and birds like a nascent serial killer. Faulkner reveals Popeye’s origins to underscore society’s role in creating its monsters. Popeye wasn’t born into a loving and healthy familial habitat. Even before he was conceived, his health was shaped by the syphilis that he inherited from his father, which rendered him infertile. The psychological trauma he endured as a child while at the mercy of his mentally unstable grandmother is unimaginable. It’s no wonder that Popeye scoffs at nature’s creations and caustically dismisses the preacher who wants to pray with him in the hours before his execution. 

Mirroring his fellow bloodsuckers who adhere to the canonical motifs of vampiric mythology, Popeye harbors his own list of phobias. Whereas traditional vampires fear sunlight, garlic, mirrors, crosses, wolf bane, and holy water, Popeye is ironically terrified of the dark and fearful of natural elements such as the low-swooping owl in the inaugural chapter. Popeye’s ailment also prohibits him from ingesting alcohol, and as mentioned above, he is sexually impotent. For all intents and purposes, Popeye has more in common with the dead than he does with the living. Brooks suggests, “We may say that Popeye is quite literally a monster, remembering that the Latin monstrum signifies something that lies outside of the ordinary course of nature.”

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula takes three vampiresses under his morbid influence; in Sanctuary, Popeye mirrors this pattern. His female vampire accomplices (either directly or indirectly) are Narcissa, Miss Reba, and Temple herself. The most sinister vampire next to Popeye is Benbow’s sister, the no-so-subtly named Narcissa. What Narcissa lacks in brutality, she makes up for in selfishness. For example, she refuses to provide room and board to Goodwin’s common-law wife and child because she feels they are below her in terms of social status (not to mention that Goodwin and Ruby dared to conceive a child out of wedlock). It doesn’t matter if an innocent man is facing the gallows; Narcissa doesn’t want her family associating with what she (and the town) deems as white trash. “Oh. So you think that, do you?” a horrified Benbow demands. “I don’t think anything about it,” Narcissa counters coldly. “I don’t care. That’s what people in town think. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not.”

Location also plays a significant role in both Dracula and Sanctuary. A setting is reflective of the characters who dwell within it. “The gothic landscape tends, even more so than in other fictions, to directly mirror the interior states,” Rose argues. “While isolated, dark, and desolate landscapes often indicate psychological terror and doubt, physically imprisoning spaces largely suggest the experience of emotional or psychological confinement.” At the beginning of Stoker’s novel, we are introduced to the macabre bucolic region of the Carpathian Mountains on the border of Transylvania, which is the nest of Count Dracula’s remote castle. The area is depicted as barren and bereft of fecundity, implying that Dracula has depleted the area of its natural resources. It is a region plagued by supernatural forces of darkness, and those brave enough to inhabit it never venture out at night.

Shortly after Harker visits him, Dracula absconds from his Transylvania castle and relocates to London to seek new prey and replenish his dwindling food supply. In Faulkner’s universe, Memphis is portrayed as a virtual hell. It is a city rife with violence, prostitution, scandal, corruption, gambling, poverty, ignorance, and death. When a Faulknerian character hails from or has business dealings in Memphis, it usually doesn’t indicate an exemplary degree of integrity. The unscrupulous attorney representing Temple during Goodwin’s trial hails from Memphis, and Miss Reba also bears a Memphis zip code. It is the city most associated with criminality and sin and serves as Popeye’s very own Transylvania.

Like Dracula, Popeye also depletes his resources while in the employ of Goodwin. He rapes Temple, murders Tommy, and frames Goodwin in the process, bringing the bootlegging business to a resounding end. Popeye’s destructive work is complete, and he leaves the Jefferson area (with his newly converted vampiress in tow) to forage for new sustenance in Memphis. Once secured in Faulkner’s sin city, Popeye resumes his killing streak with the murder of Red. 

Sometimes, William Faulkner concludes his narratives by casting a glimmer of hope over a dire situation. In 1929’s The Sound and the Fury, the reader is treated to the Easter Sunday sermon, which hints at the promise of rebirth and redemption. The birth of Lena Grove’s child in the end of 1932’s Light in August is emblematic of rejuvenation and hope for Byron Bunch and Gail Hightower. Even Stoker ends Dracula on an optimistic note with the birth of Mina and Harker’s child and the slaying of the count.

However, hope is nowhere to be found in the final pages of Sanctuary. A dejected and disillusioned Benbow returns home in disgrace despite his initial resolve. Temple embarks on her exile to Europe in her father’s company during a “gray day, a gray summer, a gray year”. Now that she has inherited Popeye’s vampirism, Temple is bored with the peaceful surroundings of the Luxembourg Gardens and craves the Memphis mayhem to which she was indoctrinated. She longs for the excitement, the danger, and the taboos of the criminal underworld. “Temple yawned behind her hand, then she took out a compact and opened it upon a face miniature and discontented and sad.” Under the watchful gaze of “dead tranquil queens in stained marble”, Temple contemplates her uncertain future in the “season of rain and death”.

“To read Faulkner’s Sanctuary is to risk going crazy,” Professor Gregory Forter asserted in his essay, “Faulkner’s Black Holes: Vision and Vomit in Sanctuary”. Indeed, filled with graphic violence, sexuality, corruption, despair, tragedy, and evil, William Faulkner’s controversial best seller isn’t for the timorous. The conflation of these disturbing elements has made Sanctuary a difficult read for some, but one must not forget that the novel is very much a product of the early 1930s, an era ravaged by economic turmoil and the rise of fascism in Europe. Popeye and Narcissa join Dracula and Frankenstein in the macabre cabal that dominated the 1930s to provide an escape from the real-life monsters plaguing the nation.

Decades after they debuted on bookstore shelves, gothic novels like Dracula and Frankenstein were garnering attention again thanks to the Great Depression, the destructive Dust Bowl, and the impending threat of war. Faulkner stated on several occasions that he wrote Sanctuary for commercial gain. “To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money.” If this were indeed the case, Faulkner would have used the literary conventions that were popular at the time to cater his book to the largest contingent of potential readers. Vampire themes were a hot commodity during the Depression, and Sanctuary exhibits Faulkner’s experimentation with vampiric tropes through its depiction of sexual predation, contagion, horrific violence, sinister locales, and the innocence being indoctrinated into corruption. The existence of the unproduced Dreadful Hollow film script, which had lain dormant in its tomb-like vault until Faulkner’s daughter resurrected it, indicates that the modernist author was aware of conventional vampire motifs popularized by Stoker’s Dracula decades earlier and that he wasn’t “above” writing within that genre.

During times of duress, we seek refuge in books and films because they provide solace from the all-too-real horrors, and many times, books and films are products of that environment. These projects inherit the “vampire’s bite” of society’s current events and become projections of cultural zeitgeists. It is no wonder William Faulkner’s Sanctuary is making a big comeback during these recent years of economic strife.

Works Cited 

Allen, Charles Albert. “William Faulkner’s Vision of Good and Evil“. Pacific Spectator 10 (236-241). Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective: 1907-1984 (H.W. Wilson). 1956.

Ashley, Leonard R.N. The Complete Book of Vampires. Barricade. 1998.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. 1931. Vintage International. 1985.

Fennell, Lee Anne. “Unquiet Ghosts: Memory and Determinism in Faulkner.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 31, no. 2. Spring 1999, p. 35. Gale Literature Resource Center.

Forter, Gregory. “Faulkner’s Black Holes: Vision And Vomit In Sanctuary”. Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture 49.3 (1996): 537-562. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 20 April 2012.

Moore, Michelle E. “‘The Unsleeping Cabal‘: Faulkner’s Fevered Vampires and the Other South”. Faulkner Journal 24.2 (2009): 55-76. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 16 April 2012.

Rose, Julie. “Faulkner’s Horror and the American Gothic Cultural Imagination (1930-1945)”. Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities And Social Sciences 60.1 (1999): 133. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 April 2012.

Stevenson, John Allen. “A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula”. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 103.2 (1988): 139-149. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 April 2012.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Signet. November, 1993.