The Family of a Vourdalak

I had hoped to get this one out before Christmas, but I didn’t quite make it. It still makes a great winter tale, though…

Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875), Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin: poet, novelist, playwright, and diplomat. He is best known for his historical dramas, in particular the trilogy The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1866), Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870).

He wrote several vampire-related novellas, most notably The Family of a Vourdalak (originally in French) and The Vampire (or Oupyr — originally in Russian) while in the diplomatic service in the late 1830s and early 1840s; he left diplomatic service in the 1860s to pursue his literary career full time. He seems to have been an opinionated, iconoclastic man, politically controversial, impatient with both the Left and the Right. He died in 1875 from an overdose of morphine.

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La Famille du Vourdalak was written about 1839 on a trip to France, while Tolstoy was with the Russian Embassy in Frankfurt. It is the story of a womanizing French diplomat, the Marquis d’Urfé, who encounters a Serbian family (with a beautiful daughter, naturally), whose patriarch disappears into the mountains to hunt down a bandit who has been terrorizing the countryside. Before leaving, he warns his family not to let him back into the fold if he is gone more than ten days, because by that time he may have been turned into a vourdalak (vampire). Luckily, he returns home just in the nick of time — or did he?

The story is told in flashback, during an evening round of ghost stories (a traditional winter tale format, which is one of the reasons I picked this story).

A vourdalak, by the way, is a made-up beastie. Tolstoy probably based the name on the Serbian term for the werewolf, vlkoslak, though Sabine Baring-Gould claimed that the same term also refers to vampires:

The Serbs connect the vampire and the were-wolf together, and call them by one name vlkoslak. These rage chiefly in the depths of winter: they hold their annual gatherings, and at them divest themselves of their wolf-skins, which they hang on the trees around them. If any one succeeds in obtaining the skin and burning it, the vlkoslak is thenceforth disenchanted. [The Book of Were-Wolves, 1865]

Tolstoy’s description of the vourdalak is a bit different:

I should explain to you, mesdames, that vourdalaks, as the Slavic peoples call vampires, are believed in those countries to be dead bodies that come out of their graves to suck the blood of the living. Their habits are similar to those of all vampires, from any country, but they have one characteristic that makes them even more dreadful. The vourdalaks, mesdames, prefer to suck the blood of their closest relatives and dearest friends who, once dead, become vampires in turn. They claim that in Bosnia and Hungary entire villages have become vourdalaks.

You can see where this might be a problem.

The first publication of Vourdalak was a posthumous Russian translation (by the writer Boleslav Markovich) in 1884, in the magazine The Russian Messenger. It was not published in French until 1950, in a French journal of Slavic studies. Apparently, when Tolstoy published his earlier novel The Vampire (under a pen name) in 1841, it was received so poorly that Tolstoy was too discouraged to publish his other vampire-related works. It’s too bad, because Vourdalak is the best of the bunch.

For a long time (as far as I know) the only available English translation was a 1969 translation by Fedor Nikanov (which I suspect was from the Russian, not the French). The translation is one of the four vampire works by Tolstoy included in the collection Vampires: Stories of the Supernatural, published by Hawthorn Press. It includes both the The Family of a Vourdalak and The Vampire, as well as Vourdalak‘s “companion piece” The Reunion after Three Hundred Years (and another one, Amena, which I’m not too crazy about).

The book is very very hard to find. I happen to have a copy that I picked up in a used-book shop several years ago, not realizing what it was. It’s a paperback, with a glued binding rather than stitched signatures; when I reread it earlier this year, the entire thing began to fall apart. Now it’s entirely held together by scotch-tape and my love. Fortunately, The Family of a Vourdalak is available in English translation again, in the 2006 anthology Vampires: Encounters with the Undead, edited by Michael Skal, and in the 2010 anthology Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories, edited by Michael Sims.

But I didn’t know that when I began to compile this season’s round of winter tales — clearly, I’m a very poor vampire nerd. And even if I did, it wouldn’t have helped, because even though both the French source and the Russian translation are in the public domain, I’m not sure that any of the English translations are. Soooooo… I did it myself, from the French source.

Now, I’m not a professional translator, and I needed some help from Google Translate, because my French isn’t exactly strong (don’t worry, I didn’t give you the machine translation straight. Whoosh).  I won’t be getting the Nobel Prize for Literary Translation any time soon, but I think it’s readable, and I hope that I’ve managed to convey the character of the protagonist, because that’s a key detail.

All this would have been much more dramatic (and useful) if the 1969 translation were the only one (as I believed when I started this project); but at least I can post my translation free and clear. If you enjoy the story, then please do check out one of the no-doubt-professionally-translated versions in Sims’ or Skal’s anthologies, and hopefully you will enjoy the story even more.

So here you go: a freely-available English translation of The Family of a Vourdalak:

  • As PDF (1.8 MB — it’s long)
  • As EPUB (520 KB)

I will also post the links to my Winter Tales page.

Enjoy.


  • The French original can be found on French Wikisource, here.
  • A Russian translation can be found here. I don’t know for sure that this is Markovich’s translation.
  • BBC Radio did a broadcast of The Family of a Vourdalak for Halloween this year, read by David Tennant. Unfortunately, it’s only available in the UK (or at least, it’s not available in the United States). But I know I have UK readers, so all of you, please do enjoy it. Your enjoyment will be enhanced by the knowledge that I am terribly, terribly jealous.
  • The story has been brought to the screen twice: once as a segment in Mario Bava’s anthology film Black Sabbath (starring Boris Karloff as Gorcha, the patriarch of the Serbian family), and again as a full length feature called Night of the Devils, directed by Giorgio Ferroni. I’m not an aficionado of Italian horror cinema, but based on the reviews I’ve linked to (from the blog Taliesin meets the Vampires), Bava’s version is much more faithful to the original.
  • The Russian version of The Vampire is here. I don’t know of any English translation, beyond Nikanov’s 1969 rendition (though of course, given my track record with vampire stories…). It’s not as good as Vourdalak, in my opinion, but it is a classic Gothic novella: mouldering castles, sinister monks, beautiful damsels in distress, the works. So if you are into that kind of thing, it might interest you. If anyone knows of an available English translation (or is willing to make one!), please let me know in the comments.
  • The image above is The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones (1897). Sourced from Wikipedia.

13 thoughts on “The Family of a Vourdalak

  1. “The vourdalaks, mesdames, prefer to suck the blood of their closest relatives and dearest friends who, once dead, become vampires in turn.” This is what keeps most therapists in business! Thanks for the interesting post and your translation, Nina!

    • Oddly, for how much I like ghost stories and weird fiction, I’ve never been much of a vampire fan (though I also like older folklore inspired tales). I did really enjoy this one, though, and I recently stumbled across a little essay by Michael Sims, the editor of Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories

      http://chronicle.com/article/All-the-Dead-Are-Vampires/65829

      I’m intrigued enough now that I might pick it up (though I see that I’ve read the four most modern of the stories already….).

      • Thanks for the essay. It interesting to see how the editor selected his stories. Thanks, also, for putting your translation (I have never studied French; I would be lost). I’m curious to look at the rest of the collection to see what he included; I’m sure Polidori.

        You would probably like Gogol’s story ‘Viy.’ It has a vampiric element along with other Ukrainian folklore thrown in. I’m pretty sure you can get a copy at Project Gutenberg.

          • Forgot to mention — I did check out ‘Viy’, from PG. Great story! Though being a typical American I was bummed at no happy ending…

            I think the translation I read was a tiny bit sanitized (the scene where the old lady confronts the protagonist in the barn), which made it read a little incoherently. But I’ve found a Gogol collection in a used book store that has a different translation.

            They say Gogol’s Ukranian stories aren’t as good as his later stories, but given I like folklore, they look interesting to me. Looking forward to checking it out.

  2. I am not fan of these modern vampire tales, but there is some wonderful stuff in 19th century and I love old vampire movies by Hammer. This story was filmed pretty well in the 1963 Italian anthology film I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear). Boris Karloff stars in this segment and apparently the band Black Sabbath took their name from the British title.

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