Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Other Mormon Vampire Book

The one thing even the best of recordings on the best of sound systems lacked—all that movement. The weave of the baton, the stroke of the bow, fingers blurring on glittering brass. A symphony was a life lived in exaltation and killed with triumph. Eternity made the best of music monotonous, the best of lives meaningless. The performance was made wondrous by the fact that it would end. Dramatically. She lived in that moment and died with the last, fading notes, in the vanishing echoes before the applause.

Eugene Woodbury's Angel Falling Softly (available online here) is a vampire novel written by a Mormon. Twilight it is not.

Rachel Forsythe is the wife of a respected Mormon bishop in an affluent Salt Lake City suburb. She had the perfect LDS family-centered life until her youngest daughter, Jennifer, developed leukemia and subsequently fell into a coma following a bone marrow transplant gone wrong. Meanwhile, Milada Daranyi, chief investment officer at Daranyi Enterprises International, has arrived in Utah to oversee her company's takeover of a medical technology manufacturer. She looks no more than twenty, and yet she is sophisticated and highly accomplished, with the world-weary aura of one who has lived too long and seen too much. Particularly unusual is her strikingly pale coloring, white-blonde hair, and aversion to direct sun exposure. Milada is a vampire, originally from Romania, born in the sixteenth century. Upon learning of this, Rachel asks for the impossible: make my daughter into one of you - it's the only way for me to save her now.

As expected, Angel Falling Softly is deeply concerned with faith, the power of belief, and the willingness to take risks. "You could say I have faith in other people's faith," Milada tells Troy. "A disciplined passion is an admirable thing. It is good to have believers in the world to keep alive the possibilities of transcendence." A suspension of the laws of nature is what Rachel waits for as she continues, like Job, to beg and plead with a God who seems bent on leading her family to tragedy; it's also what allows Milada to exist, bearing a double-edged gift: Jennifer's life in exchange for what? In many respects, Angel Falling Softly is a meditation on the powers of faith and fantasy and the thin line separating the two. Jennifer is dying and God seems absent. Milada is a flesh-and-blood creature of legend who is clearly, undeniably real - Rachel can reach out and touch her. So upon which supernatural being should Rachel rely for her daughter's life? God and Satan waged battle over Job's soul, with Satan taunting God and edging Him on, constantly predicting Job's inevitable denunciation of his Creator. The question, then, is whether or not Rachel will go outside the religion in which she was raised and turn to another, darker source of salvation.

Unlike Twilight, which centers on superficiality (sexydudes!fastcars!
fashion!wealth!), Angel Falling Softly takes today's popular image of the glamorous vampire and, like the novels of Anne Rice, goes beneath the surface and explores the moral and spiritual drawbacks of earthly immortality. A particular focus in Woodbury's book is Milada's neverending engagement with humanity and humanity's follies, and how this experience of centuries is ultimately corrosive to her ability to hope, believe, and entertain the notion that there is something beyond and bigger than this material world. (Her immersion in the ruthless realm of business is a reflection of this jaded mindset.) As she says to Troy:
"I believe people can be bad, can be cruel. Perhaps can be clever enough to be evil. But even the clever ones eventually end up against the wall like the Ceausescus. Or erased from history like the Gang of Four. Evil accumulates. It eats away at the core. It destroys its host. For evil to survive, it must find some good that justifies its existence. Some higher purpose—if nothing else, making the trains run on time—or else it collapses almost as soon as it begins. So kingdoms rise and fall. In the meanwhile, a well-run corporation outlasts any government. And most nations."

"Which means you do or don't believe in the devil?"

"I believe there is evil enough in ourselves. I've never met the creature myself. I have met a few of his foot soldiers. And in their time most were thought to be—and thought themselves to be—good and decent men."
Milada herself isn't a "bad" person per se. Still, as the blood-drinking preternatural entity standing opposite God in Rachel's wager (where Satan stood in the Book of Job), she is at the very least amoral. One popular interpretation of Dracula is as an allegory for the perils of unrestricted immigration: a sexualized foreign predator enters the heart of Victorian England and threatens the (racial) purity of its young women. Angel Falling Softly likewise perpetuates this image, sending sexy, exotic-looking, European Milada to a conservative cookie-cutter Mormon neighborhood in Utah, where non-Mormon newcomers are immediately assessed for their conversion potential, preferably at one of the Forsythes' famous backyard barbecues. (Though obstensibly aimed at an LDS audience, reading this book as an outsider definitely adds another layer, allowing one to experience and empathize with Milada's mild culture shock.) She is the worldly, cynical, educated, foreign-born New Yorker who engages in transgressive behavior such as lesbian sex, first-date seduction, overall secular lifestyle, and simply being an unmarried professional.

In other words, even if Milada is not inherently evil, for Jennifer to become like her means Jennifer must leave the LDS Church, which also means leaving her family.

But at least she doesn't have to die in order to live. I didn't understand much of the medical terminology used, but it was obvious that Woodbury's vampires are not undead, but are instead living hosts of a virus. Symptoms include albino coloring, chronic anemia, extreme sensitivity to UV light, and virtual, but not literal, immortality: the infected (vampires) only age one year per century. Furthermore, the vampires do not kill their victims (in fact, the "attacks" are depicted as sexually pleasurable for both predator and prey) and can subsist on regular food. In short, Woodbury is quite good at presenting vampirism as somewhat plausible and I found his virus idea very creative and well-researched. But I also initially felt that presenting the vampire as a non-lethal living being diluted the moral catch-22 faced by Rachel and Milada. Anne Rice's Louis de Pointe du Lac, the angst-ridden protagonist of Interview with the Vampire, was tormented by his undead state and need to consume human life, seeing himself as torn from God and given wholly to the Devil. Reexamining my thoughts in relation to the ideas discussed above, however, I came to the conclusion that going with the traditional undead killer vampire may have been too literal an interpretation of the Book of Job (God v. Satan). It is precisely because Milada is not some demonic entity that Rachel's dilemma is as pressing as it is. It's too easy to be repulsed by evil, especially for the religious individual.

Of course, evil itself cannot exist without good. It is actually defined in relation to good; it is the absence of good. Many people who did immoral things still felt the need to morally justify themselves. "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." So maybe evil is not always so obvious? Do you really have to be Dracula killing without remorse and violating innocent young women? Isn't evil often subtle, understated, presented in small doses, and even attractive? Is Milada too sympathetic to be evil or is Woodbury asking a trick question?

Hmmm. I guess you'll just have to read it yourself.

Note: Angel Falling Softly may have been written by a Mormon and published by a Mormon press (Zarahemla Books), but, as you may have gathered, it has been a highly controversial addition to the world of LDS literature. Here and here are some negative reviews. This one in probably sums up the feelings of many.


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