rosa_acicularis: (abed as vampyr)
rosa_acicularis ([personal profile] rosa_acicularis) wrote2011-08-17 01:01 pm

Thoughts on the Undead: A Critical Response, Personal Essay, and Audio-Visual Extravaganza

Vampire by Munch

When I was still working at Borders, I had a co-worker who was virulently anti-vampire. 

He wasn’t the sort of booknerd to be shy about his opinions. “There has never been anything good that had vampires in it,” he would say. “Not a movie, not a TV show, not a book. Not ever, no exceptions.”

The rest of the break room usually had the good sense to ignore this. I’ve never been known for my good sense.

I’d bring up Buffy, Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu. Let the Right One In, Dark Shadows, and Love at First Bite. What about Christopher Lee in the Hammer Horror films, I’d say. What about Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire? What about the Count from Sesame Street?

And what about Ann Rice? he’d answer. What about the cult of Edward Cullen? What about a quarter of the romance section, half the sci-fi shelves, and pretty much the entirety of Young Adult?

I really hated losing that argument.

The thing was, at the time I wasn’t really a vampire fan myself. I’m not sure I’d call myself one now – my fascination with the fictional undead is a reluctant one at best. I grew up on Buffy and Angel, but those shows are about so many things – so many kinds of monsters, and the everyday, human fears they represent – that vampires seem sort of beside the point.

I read authors like Laurel K. Hamilton and Charlene Harris when I was a teen and in college, but I’m pretty sure my interest lay more in the humor and the gore and the entertainingly deep psychological scarring they often provided. (Harris’ books are pretty tame compared to their adaptation in True Blood; Hamilton’s stuff makes True Blood look like Forever Knight.) I was in a production of Dracula in high school that was so outrageously bad that it circled back around to awesome, and like a lot of 19th Brit Lit geeks, I’ve written more than a few papers on Bram Stoker’s novel and Victorian sexuality. I indulged in a lot of vampire related media during my formative years without ever being particularly aware of the genre itself.

I didn’t read Twilight until I started working at Borders. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of the series until that point. (That seems unlikely, though, given my involvement in fandom at the time. Maybe I’d heard of the books and just didn’t care enough to remember?) I read the first book in the series in two days, in the break room at work. I hated it.

Oh, I saw the appeal of Edward to a certain degree. He had a dry sense of humor and a touch of the casual world-weariness often found in immortal characters, both of which I tend to enjoy. (Damn you, Highlander.) There were a few minor characters I liked well enough, but the list of things I found outright infuriating far outweighed any small enjoyment I took in them. I don’t need to go into these complaints here – you either have the same complaints yourself, or have heard them repeated ad nauseam by every feminist bookworm with a keyboard. When I say I hated myself a little more every time I put a Stephanie Meyer book in a teenage girl’s hand, you know what I mean.

Not that I or any other bookseller could stop people reading The Twilight Saga. Even when asked for my opinion, when mothers wanted to know what I thought of the series before buying the books for themselves or their daughters, and I’d break every rule in the Borders bookselling handbook and say, “I don’t recommend them, actually. What about something by Paul Zindel instead?” What about Tamora Pierce? What about Dianna Wynne Jones? What about Francesca Lia Block?

“But she wants something with vampires,” the mother would say. “Something with vampire romance."

And I was stumped.

Clearly there was something about the vampire phenomenon that I just wasn’t getting. I’d enjoyed books about vampires before, sure, but what exactly was behind the mass appeal of Edward Cullen? Or for that matter, of the older members of this undead sex symbol brotherhood – Lestat de Lioncourt, Barnabas Collins, and the great Count Dracula himself? I just didn’t see it.  

Which meant it was time for some research.

One of the first things I learnt in my studies of the undead was the considerable difference between the literary vampire and folkloric. Almost from its inception, the literary vampire was, in its way, Cullen-esque. Wealthy, aristocratic, intelligent, sexual. Dr. John Polidori – whose 1819 The Vampyre was the first major prose work about a bloodsucker – based his suave, murdering undead sexpot Lord Ruthven on his one-time employer Lord Byron. And if you think about the literary vampires to follow – the Count, Lestat, Angelus, Damon Salvatore – that makes a disturbing sort of sense.
    
It didn’t take long for the other half of the literary vampire yin yang to appear. Varney the Vampire was a hugely popular serialized horror story in Britain in the 1840s. In addition to being completely badass, Varney first introduced a lot of the standard mythology surrounding the literary vampire – fangs, puncture wounds to the neck, hypnotism, super-strength. He was also one of the first vampires to bitch and moan about how much he hated killing people – oh, I’m a monster, oh, how I suffer, yadda yadda yadda. If Byron was the mold for Lestat and Damon, Varney is the ancestor of Louis, Stefan, Nick Knight, and all the other broody vampire hunks of their type.

Carmilla was written in 1871, the first in a long tradition of lesbian vampire erotica. The title character turns out to be a fairly sympathetic vampire lady, very much tortured by her appetite. But everyone knows that dudes are supposed to be the bloodthirsty beasts and girlfolk are only there to be gnawed upon like sexy, waifish steaks, so whatever. Keep it in the porn, guys.

Speaking of porn. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and the world of vampires was never the same. Dracula had it all – repressed homosexual lust, repressed heterosexual lust, unrepressed bug lust. (Oh, Renfield. You crazy diamond.)

The Count owes a lot to the literary vampires who came before him, and he’s hardly limited to Stoker’s novel or Bela Lugosi’s iconic 1931 portrayal. Personally, my favorite Dracula is Fred Saberhagen’s, from his book The Dracula Tapes and the series that followed. (Including at least two books in which Vlad chills with distant cousin Sherlock, solving crimes and generally being awesome.) Saberhagen’s Dracula is definitely sympathetic, with a complex, evolving morality and a distinctly Holmesian sense of humor. And like so many vampires, his greatest weakness – the one thing that makes him feel human after all these centuries of blood and war – is love.

As a general rule, literary vampires are suckers for romance. (Ha.) Of course, sometimes what they call romance we’d describe as mutilation, mind control, rape, and murder, but most vamps would claim, I think, that their unbeating hearts are in the right place. This is one of the most fascinating things about the Edward Cullen phenomenon – Edward is just as death/sex hungry as dear old granddaddy Drac, but he refuses to indulge. This sounds noble enough, but then Meyer has Bella demand that Edward kill her. As far as Bella is concerned, if Edward loves her he will fuck/consume her – just as Dracula seduced and fed on his angelic one true love Mina Harker. Love is sex is death; and then, if you’re lucky, comes immortality and physical perfection.

++



++

A year or so ago I took a novel writing class at my local community college, and one of my classmates was, inevitably, working on a vampire romance novel. He was a retired gentleman in his late sixties, ex-Navy, husband and father of three grown children. He was hopelessly obsessed with Twilight.

He also adored me, possibly because I was so openly horrified by every other word out of his mouth. I probably reminded him of one of his kids; after all, my protests were more or less the writing workshop equivalent of, “Oh my God, Dad, you can’t just say stuff like that.” He thought it was hilarious, and I became very fond of him, in a you are the antithesis of everything stand for sort of way. We should have had our own sitcom.

His book was awful. It might actually be the worst thing I have ever read. Part of the problem was that, after all this research, I was pretty familiar with most vampire pop culture (apparently, sometimes ignorance is bliss) and he wasn’t exactly subtle about the characters, plots, and dialogue he stole. Twilight and True Blood were his standbys, but he occasionally spiced things up with bits from Blade, Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Diaries, Hugh Jackman’s triumph Van Helsing, and, on one memorable occasion, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

But whatever, right? I’m a fan fic writer, people in glass houses should buy Windex in bulk, etc. There are no new stories; it’s what you do with the old ones that matter.

What my classmate did with them terrified me.

The plot of Robert’s novel was pretty straightforward. Boy meets girl. Boy attacks girl and drinks her blood. Boy wipes girl’s memory. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy kills girl, makes girl his vampire love slave, and knocks girl up with messianic vampire baby – in that order. Then vampires take over the world and everyone dies.

I was actually sort of impressed by the book’s apocalyptic ending, and I told him so. “It genuinely freaked me out,” I told him. “Just thinking about it makes me feel a little sick to my stomach.”

He looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. “I guess it would be upsetting,” he said, “if you thought the vampires were the bad guys.”

The rest of the class had the good sense to keep their mouths shut. I’ve never been known for my good sense.

“Of course the vampires are bad guys,” I said. “They took over the world!”

“They’re superior beings, sweetheart. They’ll run it better than we ever could.”

“Robert,” I said, pointing to the binder that held the 150 page manuscript, “they kill off half the population and turn the rest into slaves.”

“Half the human population,” Robert said, and that’s when I understood.

Robert’s vampires – like Charlene Harris’, like Laurel K. Hamilton’s, like Stephanie Meyer’s and L.J. Smith’s – these vampires will be young and powerful and perfect forever. They will never have bad knees or take heart medication or bury children. They will never die, and Robert will.

++



++

Before Doc Polidori turned his eccentric bully of a boss into the first gentleman monster, vampires were creatures of folklore. Like his shaggier shapeshifting cousin the werewolf, the vampire has appeared in many forms in many cultures throughout history. In many, he originated as an explanation for the contortions and distentions of the human body as it decays. The folkloric vampire is grotesque, mindless, hungry. It sleeps in its grave during the daylight hours and feeds on the living as they rest in their beds at night – most often targeting loved ones and neighbors. Folkloric vampires drink blood, breath, urine, semen, and bile. They crush the life from their prey and then return to their earth, swollen and putrid and seeping blood from their noses and mouths.

The literary vampire will live forever, even if his heart does not beat, but the folkloric vampire is death itself – physical death, and all that comes after.

Robert read Twilight, and he wanted the Cullens’ perfection for himself. He wanted to be untouchable like his vampire hero, wanted to have power and beauty and a family who would live forever. When his protagonist killed and turned his girlfriend, he was giving her eternal life. Salvation.

Yeah, well, duh, you’re probably thinking. What else did you think was going on?

If I was slow on the uptake, I’m blaming Joss Whedon. As I’ve said, I grew up watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and despite emotionally and morally complex characters like Angel, Spike, Drusilla, and Darla, that show was heavily influenced by traditional European folklore in its portrayal of vampires. I’ve not done the math, but I imagine that about 88% of Buffy’s life was spent in a graveyard, breathing gravedirt, killing gravethings. Dracula hauled enormous boxes of homeland earth along with him when he left his castle for civilization; he didn’t do it on a whim. If vampires are truly dead, and not simply sparkly pseudo-angels who dig baseball and Debussy, they will be unable to fully share in the world of the living. They will rise from the grave. They will burn in the sun. They will be turned away, again and again, from those things that bring the living comfort. Like faith, and fire, and garlic.

(Yeah, I’m not sure what’s up with the garlic thing. I know it keeps away mosquitoes? My research never really hit on that.)

I don’t mean to dictate what a literary vampire should and shouldn’t be – I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There are as many variations of the literary vampire (or media vampire, I should say) as there are vampires in folklore, and that’s fantastic. Damon and Stefan in The Vampire Diaries television show are plenty vampy despite the fact that they rarely hang out in crypts. The vampires of the Southern Vampire Mysteries and True Blood basically turn to corpses during the day (and the more stylish among them own their own light-tight coffins) but they also have psychedelic blood and an elaborate, highly-mannered social and political system.

But in both of these universes it’s clear that to turn someone is to kill them. To change them fundamentally, and not for the better.

In a season one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the citizens of Sunnydale watch as their worst nightmares come true. In the third act, Buffy digs her way out of her own grave, her face twisted and fanged. I was twelve when I watched that episode for the first time, and that’s what a vampire is to me – the hero becoming the monster. The worst of all dreams.

Even if I lived in Robert’s world of glamorous vampire overlords, I think I’d still rather be soft and slow and human. But maybe I only say that because I’m young. My body has yet to betray me in any significant, irrevocable ways, and while I understand intellectually that I will die, I’ve rarely been confronted with the idea with any real force. Robert has fought in wars. He’s aged and weakened. Lost his hair, and gained a stomach. He wants a fantasy world where none of that has ever, or could ever, happen.

If I don’t understand that now, I’m sure I will soon enough.

++



++

The first time I wrote a story about vampires, it was Bruce Springsteen’s fault.

I was working in the music department at Borders, and we had this demo CD playing on repeat. It wasn’t a Springsteen collection, I don’t think, and it definitely wasn’t Nebraska, but for whatever reason it had his Atlantic City as the first track.

I knew the song, but I’d never listened to it twenty times a day, every day for weeks. It’s a song about desolation, and violence. About the hope for something new, and about mortality. It’s also about the mafia and the economic rejuvenation of America’s former Playground, but I didn’t really care about that, because I was bored out of my mind and when I stood at the customer service desk I was staring right at the horror section, and a box set of Hammer Horror Dracula DVDs.

And if I turned my head just slightly to the left, I was looking at the BBC box sets in the locked case, and the faced out copy of the second series of Doctor Who.

“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” the Boss tells us. “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

Everything dies. The Ninth Doctor told us that too, at the very beginning. Rose Tyler asks for mercy for someone she despises – the last of her species – and Doctor refuses her. Everything dies, Rose. Everything has its time, and everything dies.

But Cassandra comes back, and her story isn’t properly over until she accepts death and dies in the arms of the one person she ever cared for – herself. The Doctor sees a day when no one dies, and then he dies himself. For Rose, because she became something that could decide who lived and who died, and in the end it was too much for her to bear. The Doctor died, and then he came back.

Dead Things is crack, mostly. It’s an experiment in tone and style and tempo, and when I started it I didn’t have any grand thematic plans. I just wanted to write a fast, weird fic about Rose as a vampire. My vampire research phase had already come and gone, and I didn’t really bother to incorporate any of it into the fic. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything.

And I guess it doesn’t. But I read it now and I do, I hear the song in it – the sadness of it, and the resignation. We’ll have this glorious night, but we know it’s hollow. We know what’s waiting for us. It’s treated fairly lightly in the fic, but Rose and Mickey and Jake do things they never would have when they were alive. When they were human. They kill people – for food, for entertainment, for revenge. There are moments in which they feel the loss of their humanity, but these moments are brief, and they change nothing. Rose wears the jacket her mother sent her; she does not see or speak to her. She does not go home. 

There’s humor in the strangeness of it, I think, and in the shock of seeing heroic characters become casually violent monsters. Rose kills Mickey, who loves her; Mickey kills Jake, who loves him. Then Jake dies at the hand of an actual hero, a man we see as a villain. Jake dies, and Mickey – the monster who had killed him in the first place – feels true grief.

I don’t know. Maybe Dead Things was meant to be two separate stories, one satirical and one tragic, and I weakened them both by forcing them into one. Maybe it’s a crueler, sadder story for the humor. Either way, it’s Springsteen’s fault.

++



++

When I was in fifth grade, I had the world’s coolest English teacher.

She set aside part of each class to read aloud to us, a practice most teachers had abandoned once we’d learned to read for ourselves. That’s practical enough, I suppose, but Ms. Lopez had a particular talent for taking the best of children’s lit – Where the Red Fern Grows, The Sword in the Stone, Charlotte’s Web – and bringing it vibrantly to life with nothing more than a dark classroom and the power of her voice. The books and short stories she read to us are precious to me to this day, and when I read them now I can still feel the polished wood of my desk, and hear the crackle of an open library bound book.

One of her favorite things to do was scare the shit out of us. She read us a lot of Poe (I still get a little woozy whenever I think of The Pit and the Pendulum) and what other classic horror stories she could find that weren’t too graphic for a group of ten years olds. Her favorite was The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs.

You’ve probably read it, even if you don’t remember; I think it was included in every short story collection I was assigned from sixth grade to senior year. Spoilerific summary: A old man and his wife are given a mummified monkey’s paw that supposedly has the power to grant any man three wishes. Not taking this at all seriously, the old man wishes for £200. The next day, his son dies in a factory accident and the factory compensates the old couple with a gift of £200. Mad with grief, the wife demands that the old man use his second wish to bring the son back.

This story was written 1902. Ms. Lopez was reading it to a classroom of twenty hyperactive ten-year-olds who were twenty minutes away from going home for the day, into a beautiful May afternoon. The blinds were closed, and the classroom was dark. I don’t think a single child in that room was breathing.

He sat until he was chilled with the cold, glancing occasionally at the figure of the old woman peering through the window. The candle end, which had burnt below the rim of the china candlestick, was throwing pulsating shadows on the ceiling and walls, until, with a flicker larger than the rest, it expired. The old man, with an unspeakable sense of relief at the failure of the talisman, crept back to his bed, and a minute or two afterward the old woman came silently and apathetically beside him.

Neither spoke, but both lay silently listening to the ticking of the clock. A stair creaked, and a squeaky mouse scurried noisily through the wall. The darkness was oppressive, and after lying for some time screwing up his courage, the husband took the box of matches, and striking one, went downstairs for a candle.

At the foot of the stairs the match went out, and he paused to strike another, and at the same moment a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.


I don’t know that I have ever been so wonderfully terrified. The knock sounded again and again, the old woman struggling to unbolt the door, the old man remembering his son’s mutilated face. Two weeks in the grave, and now his boy was returning to him. He was at the door, knocking.

The old man held the monkey’s paw and made his third wish just in time. His wife opened the door to an empty street, and wept.

I thought a lot about this story while I was writing Epitaph. Not because I was writing a horror story – I wasn’t – but because I’d always wondered about the old man’s son, dead and waiting on his father’s doorstep. The monkey’s paw always chose the cruelest way to fill every wish – maybe there had been something left of the son inside the corpse. Maybe he had known what an object of horror he had become, and yet, like a child, still wanted to come inside. To go home.

++

There was a heavy silence after Ms. Lopez read us the last sentence of The Monkey’s Paw. “Well,” she said, closing the book. “I hope you all learned that lesson.”

“Don’t wish on mummy paws?” Sammy Klein asked.

“No,” she said. “Don’t open the door.”

Then, at the heavy blue door of the classroom, there was a single, echoing knock.

Our math teacher Mr. DeHart never did quite understand why that nutty Annie Lopez had asked him to knock on her door at precisely 3 PM that day, or why we all screamed bloody murder when he did. No one fainted, but a few of us were pretty close.

One kid did piss his pants, but no one made fun of him for it. If ever there was a good reason to need a fresh pair of pants at school, that story was it.

++



++

I never really came up with an argument that worked against my anti-vampire co-worker. In retrospect, I realize that part of his problem had to have been his hipster’s instinctual hatred of anything he saw as co-opted by the mainstream. Vampires, zombies, pirates, ninjas – in a bookstore, you can date the rise and fall of each “quirky” fad just by shifting through stacks of books on the bargain displays, like a geologist reads a history in layers of clay and rock. Fads fade, and then return again. I think we’re up for cowboys again soon, but that might just be wishful thinking.

But I don’t know that vampires are really as faddish as they might seem. Twilight and Twilight clones might be the big thing right now in YA, but as long as people have making movies, they’ve been making movies about vampires. Dracula alone has been a character in more than 170 films; according to Wikipedia, that makes him the most often portrayed character in any film genre, with only the equally immortal Sherlock Holmes even coming close to his numbers. While writing this entry, I tried to make a comprehensive list of vampire movies, TV, and books that I have loved or hated; even now, as I’m posting, I’m still adding to it. (Best vampire title ever? Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck.)

And though I made a hobby of it for a few months, my experience with the media vampire was far from comprehensive. I enjoyed a lot of what I read and watched, but it troubled me too. It’s part of the reason I now enjoy The Vampire Diaries so much, I think. (The show, not the books. You couldn’t pay me to read the books.) Vampire Diaries takes a basic story that’s been done about three million times before – half of those times on the 1960s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows – and uses it to both reinforce and subvert the conventions of its genre in surprising, brutal ways.

There are a lot of people who don’t like vampires at all, whether fangs are going through a period of intense popularity or not. My dear cousin resisted watching Buffy for years because she feels about vampires the way I feel about zombies – she is genuinely, instinctually terrified of them. That doesn’t make any more sense to me than people who love vampires, to be honest, but then I think about what happened to me last time I tried to read Max Brooks’ World War Z, and I get it.

Some people find vampires kind of stupid. Some think they’re sexy, or perverse, or lame. There seems to be a growing contingent who think they’d make great boyfriends. This last bothers me slightly (except when the vampire in question in Stefan Salvatore, the best bf on TV), but the incredible range of vampires in media means that pretty much everyone is right at one point or another. A vampire is a rapist and a murderer, and a tortured hero seeking redemption. He is a mindless, eating corpse and an aristocrat. He is often a man, but when he is a woman he is more terrifying still – beautiful, unrepentantly sexual, and cruel. A succubus dancing in a nightclub. Lilith with fangs.

My friend Robert’s vampires were superior beings, and that might be part of the fascination – if vampires were real, our species would be pretty effectively unseated at the top of the food chain. We would become prey in way we haven’t seen for tens of thousands of years. Maybe when we read or watch vampire media that’s part of the appeal – an opportunity to imagine ourselves as prey, or as the ultimate predator.

Love is sex is death is immortality. Most every vampire movie, book, or television show I’ve encountered is, at its core, about this continuity. You could probably use that to make sweeping statements about the American Puritanical obsession with sex and our modern terror of acknowledging, much less accepting, our own mortality. But the appeal of the vampire is hardly limited to the States, or even Western culture, and I don’t really feel qualified to make sweeping cultural statements – it’s bad enough that I’m pretending to be an expert in a genre just because I read a few books on Project Gutenberg and thoroughly creeped out any Netflix employees who happened to glance at my queue.

None of which, by the way, ever helped me in my debates with my anti-vampire co-worker. The last time he brought it up, before he quit and I left and Borders finally finished its decade-long collapse into liquidation, he was waving around a bottle of goopy red sugar water packaged as True Blood for the Sookie Stackhouse obsessed. “What’s wrong with people?” he said. “Don’t they realize that any book with a vampire in it is a fucking waste of time?”

I didn’t mention John Polidori, or Renfield, or the empowering transformation of Caroline Forbes. I didn’t argue for histories of the vampire hysteria of the 18th century, or for George Hamilton as a disco dancing Dracula kicked out of his castle by communists, or for von, two, tree peanut butter sandviches! I didn’t even bring up Buffy.

I just told him to bite me.

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