Graham Holderness’s Black and Deep Desires

SQ: Tell us what drew you to write Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare, Vampire Hunter (2015) and what is its relation to your book Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (2011)?

GH: It would be true to say that Black and Deep Desires grew out of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare though I wouldn’t have anticipated that Shakespeare’s tenth life would be that of a vampire-slayer! I found writing about Shakespeare the Catholic in Nine Lives an interesting exercise, being drawn toward the idea of Shakespeare as a political and religious dissident, so much more satisfying than the image of him as a quietist liberal Anglican, or even the orthodox Lutheran and Calvinist I’ve portrayed in The Faith of William Shakespeare (2016). When Stephen Greenblatt in his Will in the World (2004) imagined the young Shakespeare meeting Edmund Campion, and flirting with the dark and dangerous world of Catholic conspiracy and terrorism, he opened the door to creative speculations. It’s noteworthy that Greenblatt’s speculation has prompted people to creative, as well as to scholarly and critical, work in this area.

Margreta de Grazia, reviewing my Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions (2014), described its method as “creative criticism.” I see “Creative Criticism” as a two-way street. It’s about more than enthusiastic readers becoming writers, prompted by their admiration of great writing to imitate and emulate. It’s also about using creative writing as a form of criticism. In Nine Lives of William Shakespeare, the fictions are also critical arguments advanced in another form; Ewan Fernie called Black and Deep Desires “literary criticism off the leash.”


SQ: You have called Black and Deep Desires a “serious alternative history.” Can you  explain what you mean by that phrase? What kind of histories does it alter or subvert?

GH: “Alternate history” can be a kind of quasi-historiographical fiction based on “what if” scenarios. Suppose Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg? Suppose Napoleon had conquered Russia? Suppose the Nazis had occupied Britain? But it’s also of course fantasy, and tends to merge with more fantastic genres such as science fiction, where people time-travel and encounter different histories.

Black and Deep Desires is indebted to Anthony Burgess, taking its starting point from the short story “Will and Testament” that begins Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984), in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson associate with the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. My novel begins like Burgess’s story with the hatching of the Plot, and follows that narrative line through to the digging of the tunnel beneath the Parliament House, the smuggling of the powder into the vault, and the ultimate arrest and execution of the conspirators. But I don’t stick with quasi history, but rather create a fantasy world in which analogies can be drawn between history, poetry, and terrorism.

Jacobean Catholics are forced to exist in a metaphorical underground, symbolized by the hiding places and priest holes built into sixteenth-century Catholic houses: they are sleepers, dwelling in darkness, barely living, undead. This subterranean culture is compared by Shakespeare to the space under the stage in the Elizabethan theater, from which ghosts and demons emerge to haunt the living. These liminal spaces are worlds beyond history, experiential and imaginative realms open for population by the supernatural. It is Shakespeare’s idea that the conspirators should embrace this subterranean identity and plot to strike at their enemy from below. The language subsequently used to describe and define the Gunpowder Plot was of course precisely such a language of hell, diabolism, the demonic—Guy Fawkes became “the Devil of the vault”—and I’ve freely drawn on this vocabulary of counter terror. The tunnel excavated beneath the Parliament House is an extension of the Catholics’ descent into an oppositional underground. When the plotters meet an irresistible obstacle in the form of a massive wall, Fawkes goes abroad to seek help and brings home creatures that naturally inhabit this underground darkness: vampires. The Catholic terrorist and the vampire occupy a common world, and the poet is possessed by an unconfessable complicity with both.


SQ:  Can you tell us the differences for you between the intellectual pleasures of writing literary scholarship and historical fiction?

GH:  It’s all pleasurable, at least for the writer! I’ve always written poetry and fictional prose, but kept it very much in the background. Literary training and professional obligation require different ways of writing about the kind of writing I always wanted to emulate. But I was also continually aware of the ironies entailed in keeping creative writing, and critical writing about creative writing, in two parallel universes, and so I occasionally tried to bridge them. In the 1980s I suddenly found myself writing and publishing poetry and fiction. But I didn’t have any illusion that I would be the next Stieg Larsson, so I didn’t give up the day job!

Many academics have also practiced creative writing, and some have gone on to prioritize the latter over the former. What I’ve been doing in Nine Lives, in Tales from Shakespeare, and now in Black and Deep Desires is rather different, in that the creative writing primarily remains a vehicle for exploring and articulating critical and theoretical ideas. I think we’ll find this kind of method catching on, with more Shakespeareans attempting in their research and teaching to mix critical and creative writing. It’s also interesting to consider how much of the work showcased at the 2016 World Shakespeare Congress—under the title “Creating and Re-Creating Shakespeare”—risked genuine personal creativity, rather than playing safe by continuing to talk about creativity in others. The need to understand the work of creative practitioners like Shakespeare via criticism and theory is inseparable from the enthusiasm that provokes me to emulate and imitate them. Their creativity generates ideas and insights that criticism can examine; and my creativity can inject those ideas and insights back into the creative process. It’s what you might call a circulation of creative energy.


SQ: Who is your imagined audience for this novel?

GH: Not so much who as where! The risk entailed in writing this kind of book was of course that it would prove too Shakespearean for fiction readers, and too fictional for Shakespeareans. Where does it go? My local Waterstones’s displays it under “Horror,” a shelf I have the honor to share, by alphabetical proximity, with Stephen King. But that’s not really where it belongs. There are writers who successfully find an audience for a sophisticated kind of “literary fiction,” enjoyed by English graduates who know literature and enjoy playing with it. I’d like to help Shakespeareans get more exposure to this kind of fiction.


SQ: How will reading this novel change anyone’s understanding of Macbeth?

GH: I’ve written critically about Macbeth in Tales from Shakespeare. The critical essay reexamines Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot in relation to 9/11, reading the psychology of modern terrorism back into the Jacobean play. The novel’s action consists of a psychological study of terrorism which draws parallels between 1605 and 2001. Shakespeare becomes involved in the Gunpowder Plot out of personal and cultural sympathy with the Plotters. But his motivation consists largely of the instinctive empathy, or what Jean Baudrillard called “complicity,” between terror and the apocalyptic imagination. Initially it seems to him possible to remake the world, in the same way as he can create a new world in art. The novel treats the Catholic culture of early modern England with respect and affection. But the novel shows that the terrorism of the Gunpowder Plot was as much a perversion of Catholic belief as fundamentalist terrorism is a perversion of Islam. The end can never justify the means, when the means involve the casual slaughters of innocents. Shakespeare is brought to realization of this truth in his vision of Hell. When the seed of the Gunpowder Plot blossoms into a plague of vampires, the real inhuman atrocity of terrorism is revealed, and Shakespeare is recruited into the battle against it. The real deep structure of Catholic belief shows its true colors when its spiritual resources are mined to oppose terror and violence with peace and love. In this way what starts out as a historical novel becomes a much deeper and riskier penetration into the spiritual and psychological maelstrom of terror.


SQ: Is there another novel we can look forward to reading?

GH:  I tried to make Black and Deep Desires more inventive, riskier, and capable of appealing to a broader readership. One aspect of the book that tends not to come out in descriptive explanations is the comedy. It’s funny, as well as tragic and historical, like one of Shakespeare’s own generically hybrid plays. Shakespeare and Simon Forman are a comedy duo, as well as a vampire-slaying team.

What next? Black and Deep Desires grew out of a fascination with Macbeth, and I don’t feel I’ve as yet finished with Hamlet. In Tales from Shakespeare I wrote a story about the 1607 performance of Richard II on the East India Company ship the Red Dragon off the coast of Africa, and would like to take this further with William Keeling’s shipboard production of Hamlet. I’d hope to find some potentiality for comedy here as well.

A recent review of Tales from Shakespeare begins by comparing the author with Tennyson’s Ulysses (“a part of all that I have met”), who “cannot rest from travel,” and ends by suggesting that the kind of experimentation at work here is a kind of buccaneering, “endless, profitable and adventurous, like a pirate story that promises to end with the discovery of a treasure.” Well, the ship is fitted out and ready to sail. “There gloom the dark, broad seas.” I’ve got map and compass. All I need now is a crew.


Below, read an excerpt from Holderness’s Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare, Vampire Hunter.




1 July 1606. Hampton Court Palace


Roughly Abraham manhandled the boy’s head, gnarled old fingers clutched in the tight yellow curls, forcing him down onto the altar stone. In his right hand, sharp against his son’s vulnerable, offered throat, the keen sacrificial knife. Isaac lay athwart the stone, legs helplessly askew, extended wrists tightly bound in subjection. Cold the old man’s grey-bearded face, ruthless, undeterred. A springtime bloom of fair young beard flushed Isaac’s cheek with gold, gold never to grow to autumnal ripeness, never to know the natural rhythm of reaping. Cut off in the blossom of his youth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearers is dumb.

William Shakespeare stood before the great series of tapestries by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, commissioned by Henry VIII, that decorated the walls of the Great Hall at Hampton Court, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham. Here was the Departure of Abraham; the Return of Sarah; the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. There God appeared to Abraham; there was the Circumcision of Isaac and the Expulsion of Hagar; there Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well.

But it was the panel depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac that most of all compelled his imagination, and to which he returned, again and again. To slaughter one’s own son, as if he were no more than a sacrificial beast! To violate the highest commandment of your religion, and your race! To shed your own blood, the blood of the covenant; the blood that is the life, and is required by the Lord of every man. Once William had talked with a wise Mohammedan, who told him that in the holy book of Islam, the Quran, the same story is told, but with a difference. There the boy, whose name is Ishmael, is asked what he thinks Abraham should do, and gives his own judgement on the proposed massacre of innocence. “Oh my father,” he says, “do that which you are commanded. God willing, you shall find me obedient.”

William thought of all the sacrifices he had seen performed to appease the hunger of such a savage God, from the excommunication of Elizabeth I to the Gunpowder Plot. He thought of Regnans in Excelsis, of the Papacy releasing English Catholics from their allegiance to the English crown, provoking them to assassinate their queen, committing them inexorably to the altar stone. He thought of the Catholic aristocracy, encouraging the Gunpowder Plotters, while they remained aloof in their gated mansions, isolated like his own Mariana in her moated grange. He thought of Thomas Percy, calling on the Earl of Northumberland at Syon House on the eve of the Plot: of Northumberland’s disavowal and survival, and Percy’s violent death. Even his own father John, encouraging him to stand up for a faith that he knew had become indistinguishable from treason. All through the colossal wreckage of history, in the future as well as the past, grey-bearded old men obediently offering their sons for slaughter on the altar of some corrupt ideal, some perverse and wilful thwarting of God’s revealed, manifest will.

For there it was, in the tapestry, as in the scripture. The countermand. An angel appeared to stay Abraham’s hand. A wraith-like figure, slipped easily between the warp and weft of the embroidery, as through the lacuna between two worlds. An angel of history, the winds of futurity blowing back the locks of his hair. With an extended finger, touching the father’s head, bidding him cease.

Why thus? William asked himself. The artist might have done it in countless different ways. The angel could have seized the boy, and pulled him to safety. Or grabbed the wrist that held the knife. No: for the appetite for undesired sacrifice, the willingness to murder at a whim, lay not in the sacrificer’s hand, nor in the victim’s obedient subjection; but in the patriarchal mind, that labyrinth of murderous thoughts, curling and sprouting like the grizzled elder’s beard, tangled as the branches of the thicket where Abraham found the ram. Confusing love with blood, loyalty with murder, deference to the divine command with a reign of terror unleashed by men, under the banner of an unjust law. Behold, I give you a new covenant: that ye love one another, as I have loved you. This is the word of the Lord.

William heard laughter and noise in an adjacent corridor. The players began to file back into the hall, instinctively hushing their rowdiness as they entered and took their places on long benches behind the dais. It was the kind of room that compelled silence. The company was at Hampton Court to rehearse William’s newly-written “Powder Play,” the play commissioned by Robert Cecil after the collapse of the Gunpowder Plot, now become The Tragedy of Macbeth. Today was the dress rehearsal, and Robert Cecil himself was to be present to approve the production.

And there alongside him was William’s comrade-in-arms Dr Simon Forman, his notebook at the ready. William had not seen Forman since the burning of the Globe theatre had finally extinguished the last remnants of the Gunpowder Plot. But knowing that Forman was an avid playgoer, who wrote up detailed descriptions of the performances he witnessed, William had invited him along to observe and take notes.

Cecil was seated, surrounded by his entourage. The audience was gathered. Let the play commence.


From Dr Simon Forman, his Bocke of Plaies


To Hampton Court on 1 July 1606 to see The Tragedy of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. There was to be observed first the 3 Vampyr sisters, terrifying but comely with their sharp teeth and bright red lips, seeming to hover invisibly through the air. “When shall we three meet again,” said one, “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” “When the hurlyburly’s done,” rejoined the second, “when the battle’s lost and won.” “That will be,” said the third, “at set of sun.” For the Vampyr may come abroad only in darkness. “Where the place?” “Upon the heath.” “There to meet with Macbeth.”

Next to be observed, Macbeth and Banquo, 2 noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them the 3 Vampyrs. And they saluted Macbeth, saying 3 times unto him “Hail Macbeth, king of Scotland shalt thou be hereafter.” Banquo cared nothing for them, and so rode on. Macbeth alone asked the sisters how he might chance to become king. They said that they could give him eternal life, and all the strength and power he would need to seize the crown, if he would submit to dwell in darkness, and feed on living blood. Macbeth said he would do so gladly, and so the Vampyrs fell upon him, bit his neck and drained his blood. And so they made Macbeth a Vampyr.

Macbeth returned at night to his own castle, and told his wife what the Vampyr sisters had said, that he should be king. Then Macbeth told her of the Vampyr’s power, and that they had granted it to him. She begged her husband to do the same for her. And so Macbeth fell upon his wife, and bit her throat, and tore at her breasts so the blood ran freely down, and stained her pure white dress. And so she too became a Vampyr.

That night Duncan the king came to visit them and stayed in their castle of Inverness. Macbeth and his lady saw this as their opportunity to murder the old king in his bed, and to seize the crown for themselves. And so they went to his bed at midnight, and stood on either side of the bed where the good old king lay sleeping, then fell upon him in the utmost savagery to bite at him, and drain his heart’s blood. “Ah,” said Lady Macbeth, her mouth all bloody, “I have given suck!” “Yet who would have thought,” said Macbeth, “the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Nonetheless they drank it all, and left the old king drained as dry as hay. Also they cut off his head, and stabbed him through the heart, so that he would not in turn become a Vampyr. And when Macbeth had murdered the king, the blood on his face and hands could not be washed off by any means. Nor from his wife’s hands, which had held the old man’s throat as she sucked his blood. Wash them as they may, the stain and spot of blood could never be removed. By which means they became both much amazed & affronted.

Macduff and the king’s son raised an army and came into Scotland and besieged Macbeth’s castle of Dunsinane. Next we saw Lady Macbeth walking, as it was thought, in her sleep, but her nocturnal wanderings were indeed the night-walking of the Vampyr. The Lady held a bundle before her, which seemed at first like some stuff, but then the bundle began to cry, so we knew it to be a baby. The Lady held the infant tight against her breast, as if to give it suck. But then to our amazement, she seized upon the child, and sank her sharp teeth into its throat to drink the blood. Thereafter in great anguish of spirit she cast herself from the castle walls into the river below, where she died. For the Vampyr cannot endure water any more than sunlight.

Hearing the news of his lady’s death, Macbeth resolved to sally from his castle and face his enemy. Then Macbeth fought with Macduff, and Macduff vanquished him, and unseamed him from the nave to the chaps, and tore out his heart, and cut off his head. And they took branches from the trees of Birnam Wood, and pierced his heart with the green wood, for this was the true way to kill a Vampyr. And Duncan’s son Malcolm was restored to the throne.


1 July 1606. Hampton Court Palace


Silence. William thought the play brilliant, masterful, awe-inspiring in its tragedy and terror. It had brought back to him all the horror and sublimity of his own recent encounters with the arch-assassin Guy Fawkes, with the Gunpowder Plot, and with the plague of the Undead; so much so that when Lady Macbeth leapt to her death, he shed a secret tear in memory of Ilona, his own late, lost, lamented Dark Lady. Forman sat in silence, staring at the page he had written, as if he too were seized with the overmastering power of the drama, or of the memories it released.

But only one opinion mattered, of course. Cecil’s. Was he pleased? Delighted? Indifferent? As usual nothing could be deciphered in the opaque liquidity of his eyes. He sat for a while in silence, looking at William.



Graham Holderness, “Interview and Excerpt from Black and Deep Desires,” Shakespeare Quarterly, June 2017,