Wednesday, August 19, 2009

VAMPIRES! (Some Thoughts on Them)

A little essay - just some general musing that occurred to me upon finishing Dracula.

Reading Dracula was a bit like my experience reading Treasure Island years and years ago. You're so familiar with the tropes of the genre (vampires, pirates) that encountering them in the original source feels ridiculous. It's like a joke I once read in Reader's Digest: "I don't get why Shakespeare is considered this great writer. His stuff is full of clichés!" What you need to keep reminding yourself is that this is where it all started. Of course, in the case of vampires, the cultural mythos has undergone so many revisions that probably the best thing any aspiring vampire author can do right now is go back to the source. I mean, maybe it's time we ditched the werewolf wars (Twilight, Underworld), the teenyboppers (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Bite Me, the Blue Bloods series, the Den of Shadows series, the House of Night series, and it goes on. . .), the "woe is me I'm so damned" angst, all that urban fantasy/paranormal romance crap, the vampires-are-legal-citizens-and-everyone-knows-they-exist (True Blood, the Anita Blake series), and the general cherry-picking of what aspects of the fantasy to accept (fangs, nocturnalism, super strength) and what to ignore (aversion to crucifixes and/or garlic, no reflection).

Actually, let's cool it with the whole freaking vampire mania that's going on right now. I love Anne Rice, but the multitudes of sensitive, sexy, angst-ridden, fashionable, century-old vampire dudes (usually French, unless you're reading Twilight) is really starting to get old. I think what was so neat about I Am Legend (the original book) is that - looking back on it in light of George Romero's films and their subsequent influence - it implicitly links vampires and zombies. Matheson chose to write about vampires but, until the very end, his vampires act more like Romero zombies: feral undeads who pursue lone human survivors en masse with the intent of consumption and/or recruiting. (One bite and you're one of them! BRAAINS!) Yet for the most part, vampires are the beautiful people of the night while zombies are mindlessly shambling corpses leaving chunks of rotting flesh behind.

When asked who was sexier, vampires or werewolves, Carrie Vaughn, author if the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, made the point that the choice between the two is really a choice between necrophilia and bestiality. (Nice.) There's a moment in the Twilight film (I watched about half of it on when Bella accidentally sees the forearm of a dead body fall out from under the sheet as it was borne away on a stretcher. The pale, ashen flesh immediately reminds her of Edward's complexion. (It's called "pallor mortis.") Naturally, the fangirls eat this up and beg for more. But really, both zombies and vampires are reanimated corpses.

And yet vampires have also, since Dracula, been a metaphor for sex. In his intro to the Signet edition of Dracula, Leonard Wolf observes that lurking behind the narrative, subliminal in a way that Bram Stoker himself may not have fully understood, are the sexual undertones of the biting and sucking of the neck, and the exchange of bodily fluid: "In Dracula we see how that force transforms Lucy Westenra, a beautiful nineteen-year-old virgin, into a shameless slut." I wouldn't say she's a "slut," since all she actually does is non-fatally drink some children's blood, but in the moment right before her death and transformation, she does behave in an uncharacteristically seductive manner towards her fiancé Arthur. However, there is in her overall manner and appearance a sense of decadence and moral corruption that was definitely not there before:
Again he lifted the lid of Lucy's coffin and we all looked . . . and saw that the body lay there in all its death-beauty. But there was no love in my heart for the foul Thing which had taken Lucy's shape without her soul. . .

She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there; the pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth - which it made one shudder to see - the whole carnal and unsprititual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy's sweet purity.
Equally explicit are Jonathan Harker's feelings of temptation when faced with the "Brides of Dracula" and the scene in which Mina Harker is seen drinking blood from a wound in Dracula's breast. But unlike practically every modern vampire tale (*cough* Twilight *cough*), Stoker constantly reminds us that vampires are inherently demonic. It makes far more sense than our current fixation on vampires as objects of human desire (Julie Plec, a writer and producer for The Vampire Diaries, describes them as "erotic predators" who are "the new James Dean"). Sex with a dead body is a vile, unholy act. Ergo: vampires, as sexually attractive corpses that feed on the living (semi-cannibalism), are intrinsically and unavoidably monstrous.

Vampires, in other words, are damned and outcast from the natural order. In some fictional universes, they themselves recognize this. Anne Rice reflects on her earlier works:
Interview with the Vampire, the novel that brought me to public attention, is about the near despair of an alienated being who searches the world for some hope that his existence can have meaning. His vampire nature is clearly a metaphor for human consciousness or moral awareness. The major theme of the novel is the misery of this character because he cannot find redemption and does not have the strength to end the evil of which he knows himself to be a part. . . It is an expression of grief for a lost religious heritage that seemed at that time beyond recovery.

. . .Much could be said, and has been said, about all of my works. I would like to say that the one thing which unites them is the theme of the moral and spiritual quest. A second theme, key to most of them, is the quest of the outcast for a context of meaning, whether that outcast is an 18th century castrato opera singer, or a young boy of mixed blood coming of age in ante-bellum New Orleans, or a person forced into a monstrous predatory existence like the young vampire, Lestat. For me, these themes are inherently significant and noble themes. They are worthy of exploration; they are evocative; they can and do reflect the deepest questions that humans face.

To Rice, the vampire is a metaphor for the human condition: adrift in a world where God seems to be absent, always searching for some transcendental Truth that will bring meaning and order and purpose to a short, contingent life. "Faith is an instinctive response to aspects of existence that we cannot explain by any other means, be it the moral void we perceive in the universe, the certainty of death. . ." says Andreas Corelli in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game. "In this case, the problem is that man is a moral animal abandoned in an amoral universe and condemned to a finite existence with no other purpose than to perpetuate the natural cycle of the species." Similar analyses have been made of Shelley's Frankenstein (loneliness, isolation, abandonment, the search for the Creator).

But if vampires may be thought of as a fictional philosophical device, so too can they come to represent the opposite end of the spectrum of human nature. Says Rob Pattinson, who played Edward in the Twilight film:
"When I read it I was convinced Stephenie was convinced she was Bella and it was like it was a book that wasn't supposed to be published. It was like reading her sexual fantasy, especially when she said it was based on a dream and it was like, 'Oh I've had this dream about this really sexy guy,' and she just writes this book about it. Like some things about Edward are so specific, I was just convinced, like, 'This woman is mad. She's completely mad and she's in love with her own fictional creation.' And sometimes you would feel uncomfortable reading this thing."
Gaimangirl, a poster on an Amazon thread addressing Twilight's anti-feminist criticism, agrees: "[I]t's like her id wrote the book." She then goes on to compare the "nothingness" of Bella's character (astute readers will realize that she has zero depth or personality) to the role of the male actor in porn. Most porn films aimed at a male audience, she argues, are designed so that the male viewer can imagine himself as the guy onscreen. Similarly, Twilight basically functions as "emotional porn" for women, enabling the female reader to insert herself into the tabula rasa that is Bella and fantasize about herself as the object of the sexy vampire's affection.

Stephenie Meyer claims to be a faithful, conservative Mormon housewife. Ironically, however, her books seem to strike a dark cord with their audience, one which she may not be fully cognizant of, just as Bram Stoker was probably unaware of the full sexual force of his creation. The allure of the vampire, says fashion designer Rick Owens, is "all about the titillation of imagining the monsters we could be if we just let ourselves go. . . We’re all fascinated with corruption, the more glamorous the better . . . and with devouring, consuming, possessing someone we desire." Similarly, I've often thought of zombies, in the current pop culture imagination, as guilt-free objects of violence. They're already dead. They're mindless, so there's no danger of empathizing with them. They sure don't have good intentions toward you. So why not just bust out the weapons and go completely berserker? (One of my favorite Facebook groups: The Hardest Part of a Zombie Apocalypse Will be Pretending I'm Not Excited. Look at all those NRA-happy gun photos people have posted.) Sure, re-killing an undead friend or family member may be rough, but it's not really them you're blasting with an Uzi. It's just their body, hellishly resurrected for nefarious purposes, and they would probably have wanted you to do it.

In Dracula, it is the same with vampires. As with I Am Legend (and 30 Days of Night, I believe), a retrospective look at Dracula reveals an intriguing (if anachronistic) connection between the vampire and the modern zombie. As the predatory undead, both represent an appalling, hellbound fate. If I feel myself beginning to transform into a vampire, intent on harming those I love, says Mina Harker, I will kill myself "if there were no friend who loved me, who would save me such pain, and so desperate an effort!" Like our zombies, in Stoker's universe the vampire cannot avoid bringing death and horror. It is an intrinsic part of the undead nature - to become undead is to become evil. Today, on the other hand, that diabolical aspect has been watered down to a mere "bad boy" or "femme fatale" portrayal. Today's vampires - as popularized in myriad YA fantasies and paranormal romances - are simply not monsters, no matter how often, in moments of self-pitying angst, they like to claim they are. For all her religious convictions, Stephenie Meyer never once addresses the fact that her beloved vampire protagonists are the bloodthirsty undead; therefore, they are likely damned in the eyes of God and all that is good. No, Bella simply gets to have her money, mansions, sports cars, private island, American Express Black Card, super-sexy husband, adorable and powerful daughter forever and ever and ever.

It's like a never-ending episode of VH1's The Fabulous Life.

As I said earlier, I really think someone out there needs to go just back to the beginning. Create a perverse, undead monster who can be repelled by crucifixes and garlic, lives in a ruined castle, sleeps in a coffin, is sociopathic and predatory in nature, and doesn't give a damn about fashion and certainly not high school drama.

A brief note: it seems that there is another Mormon author who did, in fact, address the moral questions posed by the myth of the vampire. Eugene Woodbury's Angel Falling Softly is about the wife of a Mormon bishop whose daughter is dying of leukemia. She struggles with the ethical dilemma of saving her child by having her made into a vampire. It's been slammed by some conservative Mormon reviewers for its alleged sexual content, but I think it sounds very promising. I'll probably read this some time.


Gavin said...

Very well thought out little rant, E.L. I felt I had to read Twilight because half the 6th grade girls were reading it. I couldn't get past page 40 or so. I haven't even tried to read any of the others. I'll stick with Dracula and Interview with a Vampire.

Emily said...

Such an good essay! It's interesting that vampires have become so desirable/sympathetic in modern literature, and zombies have become so disgusting and killable, since as far as I can tell, in the original folk traditions vampires were victimizers and zombis were largely just victims. A cynical part of me wonders whether there's any racist component to why vampires became all sexy and zombies didn't, since the popular version of vampire lore originated in Eastern Europe, whereas zombi-ism is originally an African and later a West Indian idea (zombis were originally living people reduced to a state of half-death, bewitched to do a sorcerer's bidding - which became a metaphor for the slavery in the Americas). Maybe the western psyche find the idea of being preyed upon by the white aristocracy strangely seductive, but the idea of a rebellion of the non-Caucasian slave class is just threatening?

Anonymous said...

Based on this I certainly recommend Let the Right One In. This is great!!!

E. L. Fay said...

Gavin: I actually got through the entire first book. The potential was obvious - I can actually see how it could've been a great story in the hands of a more talented writer, but there is just so much wrong with it in terms of its anti-feminist overtones and the abundance of purple prose describing how gorgeous Edward is.

Emily: Great comment! I started answering it here, but got long-winded so I'll do a follow-up post instead.

RR: Yep, I added that to my TBR list after I read your review!

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