Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Still More Vampires
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The continuing popularity of Anne Rice’s vampire writings (even though, in the past twenty years, she has expanded her scope well beyond the Vampire Chronicles and returned only intermittently to that series) has caused the vampire motif to become a virtual subgenre of its own within the realm of supernatural fiction—and it itself has fragmented into numerous sub-subgenres, most notably vampire romance. Relatively few writers have made any noteworthy changes or advances in the vampire topos, and the continuing popularity of this manifestly stale and impoverished theme speaks volumes for the fundamental lack of originality demanded of writers by a popular readership. People read vampire novels in the same way they go to McDonald’s or watch a well-loved sitcom: the product may be mediocre, but it is a known quantity and therefore provides the comfort of familiarity.
One writer who consciously worked in Anne Rice’s footsteps is Poppy Z. Brite (b. 1967), who wrote several popular novels in the 1990s. But there are major structural and conceptual flaws in her work. Her first novel, Lost Souls (1992), is beset by confusion, verbosity, and lack of focus. We are here concerned with two intersecting tales. One involves the efforts of a trio of vampires, Zillah, Molochai, and Twig, to carry out their bloodthirsty activities as they drive somewhat aimlessly in a van across the southern United States. The other is the story of Steve and Ghost, two-bit rock stars who lead equally aimless lives until they finally become enmeshed with the vampires. The connecting link is a boy named Nothing, who turns out to be the son of Zillah and a sixteen-year-old New Orleans girl and who is fascinated with the music of Steve and Ghost’s band, called Lost Souls.
Aside from the fact that Lost Souls relies upon numerous implausible coincidences to keep its plot moving, there is a problem with Brite’s entire conception of vampires. She has dispensed with numerous facets of the vampire myth and declares that her vampires are, although of a different species from humans, begotten by the union of a male vampire with a human woman, and each vampire kills its mother by eating its way out of the womb. This is a picturesque conception, but it creates more questions than answers: If vampires are a different race, how did they become so uncannily similar to human beings? Where did they come from? Brite presents no “origin of species” for vampires here, as Anne Rice does in The Vampire Lestat. Also, Brite’s vampires can live for hundreds of years unless they die by violence; but when do they stop “growing” outwardly?
Brite’s second novel, Drawing Blood (1993), is not quite as bad as Lost Souls, but it is no great improvement. We here return to Missing Mile, where in 1972 a troubled comic-book artist, Robert McGee, kills his wife, one infant son, and himself one night; his five-year-old son Trevor survives, and twenty years later returns to his hometown to see if by some means he can ascertain why his father left him alive when by all rights he should be dead. Trevor has himself evolved into an accomplished comic artist, and he seems to use his art both as self-expression and as a means for investigating his own psyche.
Aside from the fact that this promising premise is confounded by the introduction of another character, Zachary Bosch, a young computer hacker who falls in love with Trevor, a supernatural element is suddenly and clumsily introduced. The house in which Trevor and Zachary are staying suddenly gains the power to induce hallucinations, possibly thrusting the two characters into some nebulous fantasy realm that may or may not be a creation of Robert McGee. Why or how the house should gain this miraculous property is never accounted for.
Drawing Blood is, in spite of its title, not a vampire novel, nor is its successor, Exquisite Corpse (1996), about a dead serial killer brought back to life. Shortly thereafter Brite gave up horror writing, and has now apparently retired from writing altogether.
A very different writer is British novelist Kim Newman (b. 1959), whose multifaceted work is noteworthy for spanning the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Although he has written novels and tales of many different kinds, he has gained the greatest celebrity for a series of vampire novels beginning with Anno Dracula (1992). Here we have entered an alternate world where, in the late nineteenth century, vampires have largely gained control of the English throne: Vlad Tepes has become Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, Lord Ruthven (from Polidori’s “The Vampyre”) is prime minister, and vampires are in control of many phases of the government and the police force. The work focuses alternately on Jack Seward (from Stoker’s Dracula) and one Charles Beauregard, who teams up with a sympathetic vampire, the 500-year-old Geneviève Dieudonné, to overthrow the vampires.
It appears, however, that Newman is more intent on name-dropping, including as many references to real and fictional characters from late Victorian England as he can cram in, than on developing a plausible or aesthetically significant plot. It is not at all clear what the overall message of the book is, aside from the platitude that ruthless people in power should be overthrown. At one point Vlad’s Carpathian Guards wage a campaign against “inverts” (homosexuals) and other perceived degenerates. But even this trite political message is not systematically worked out in the novel, even though it is stated at the end that “The Empire Dracula had usurped would rise against him” (396).
This appears to have taken place in The Bloody Red Baron (1995), where Vlad has gone over to the German side and become chief adviser to Kaiser Wilhelm during World War I. More real and fictional characters get dragged in, including the German ace Baron von Richthofen (now a vampire) and even Edgar Allan Poe. In Judgment of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959 (1998; titled Dracula Cha Cha Cha in the UK) Newman, surprisingly skipping over any extensive discussion of Nazism and World War II, takes us to postwar Rome, where a serial killer called the Crimson Executioner is on the loose, killing vampires and humans alike. Amidst the inevitable references to literature and film (the work is largely structured on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita), some more serious issues at last emerge. It becomes plain that vampires, for all their power and immortality, are both more and less than humans: their self-absorption and inability to love ultimately dooms them to a meagre, unsatisfying existence; and those creative artists who have become vampires find that their loss of humanity also results in a loss of the creative spark that produces viable art.
A very different type of alternate world is found in the popular novels of American writers Laurell K. Hamilton and P. N. Elrod. Hamilton (b. 1963) has written nearly a score of novels in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. Anita, who has the power to raise the dead, has already, as announced in the first novel in which she appears, Guilty Pleasures (1993), killed fourteen vampires. It appears, however, that “Vampirism was legal in the good ol’ U. S. of A.” (3), although it is not entirely clear what that means. It is later stated that “It’s illegal to kill a vampire without a court order of execution” (122). Blake is pressured to investigate a series of vampire killings, but ultimately her focus becomes the killing of a “master vampire,” Nikolaos, a female in the form of a teenage girl. In a shoot-’em-up scene at the end of the book, she succeeds in the task.
It would be fruitless to pursue Anita’s adventures in subsequent novels, which involve everything from a werewolf lover, Richard Zeeman, for Anita (he makes his debut in The Lunatic Café, 1996) to weretigers and wereleopards to a fearsome entity, the Harlequin, that even vampires are afraid of. The problem with all this is multifold: Exactly what is the message, if any, that Hamilton is telling? Is she merely writing supernatural action-adventure novels that are the literary equivalent of popcorn and candy? Her melding of supernaturalism with the hard-boiled detective novel is occasionally effective, but grows wearisome through overuse. Blake, who narrates all the novels in the first person, is a lively and engaging character known for her tight-lipped toughness, and Hamilton’s prose is similarly brisk and at times pungent, but there is an overriding dilemma in her work: too much supernaturalism. The presence of vampires, werewolves, and other mythical entities becomes so ubiquitous as to appear commonplace; they just become another in the varying cast of characters Hamilton puts on stage. Most of her vampires are cardboard villains that are meant to do little but excite the reader’s hatred and loathing, and Hamilton never clarifies the legal status of her vampires in the nation they inhabit.
P. N. Elrod (b. 1954) also fuses hard-boiled detection with vampirism, but adds an historical element. Many of her twenty-odd novels divide into three separate series, the first of which was The Vampire Files (ten books, 1990—2003), focusing around the detective Jack Fleming, beginning in the year 1936. In the first novel, Bloodlist (1990), Fleming wakes up in Chicago with partial amnesia. He realises he has become a vampire, but does not know when or by whom. Eventually he remembers that he had fallen in love with a female vampire in New York who had then disappeared. In the course of the novel, Fleming learns that it was a gangster, Frank Paco, who had killed him, and the novel deals with other unsavoury crime figures who end up slaughtering one another.
The Gentleman Vampire series (four novels, 1993—96) revolves around Jonathan Barrett, a colonial landowner’s son in the late eighteenth century who becomes a vampire and takes part in the American Revolution, among other historical events. More historical fiction than hard-boiled crime stories, these novels nonetheless portray Barrett as a darker figure than Jack Fleming. The Richard Dun series, cowritten with Nigel Bennett (three novels, 1997—2004), revolve around Richard d’Orleans and are set in the contemporary world and deal with such issues as the IRA, drug smuggling, and so forth.
Elrod’s work avoids the central failing of Hamilton’s—too much supernaturalism—by limiting the number of supernatural entities involved. In the Vampire Chronicles, it is stated that most human beings are immune to becoming vampires, so that only a few unfortunate individuals will be “turned.” Elrod’s prose is not quite as crisp or vivid as Hamilton’s, but it gets the job done. But it suffers from the same aesthetic emptiness as Hamilton’s, and she fundamentally has nothing to say as a novelist.
Nancy Kilpatrick (b. 1946) has also made a cottage industry of literary vampirism. The four-volume Power of the Blood series (1994—2000) is not actually united by recurring characters, scenes, or motifs, but they are all lively fusions of vampirism, sex, romance, adventure, and even comedy. In Near Death (1994), the focus is on a tormented love affair between a human woman, Kathleen Stevens (nicknamed Zero), and a British vampire born in 1863, David Lyle Hardwick, whom Zero was instructed to kill. The convoluted storyline has the two fall in love and then battle another group of vampires, led by Ariel, who had been David’s previous lover. Kilpatrick has also written much more explicit sex-vampire novels under the pseudonym Amarantha Knight. Her writing is vibrant, edgy, and compelling, but one would like to see her expand her supernatural range beyond the bloodsuckers she writes so compulsively about.
And now we come to Stephenie Meyer (b. 1973). The immense popularity of her four Twilight novels (2005—08), along with the blockbuster films made of them, make it difficult to discuss her work from a purely aesthetic perspective; but the effort should be made, for these novels, although intended for young adults, are surprisingly able pieces of work. They are not high literature by any stretch of the imagination, but the writing is surprisingly competent. Her prose is fluent and refined, largely lacking the solecisms that cripple the prose of most best-selling writers. Ironically, these very qualities create a bit of a conceptual difficulty; for the novels purport to be the first-person accounts of Bella Swan, a seventeen-year-old girl who has come to live with her father in the town of Forks, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State; and, in all honesty, Meyer’s prose is far too elevated to be credible as the product of a not notably bright teenager.
The Twilight novels focus on a clan of vampires, led by an older man, Dr. Carlisle Cullen, and including his attractive son Edward, with whom Bella promptly falls in love. The vampires have come to Forks because, of all the towns in the United States, this one has the smallest amount of sunlight, being under a nearly perpetual cloud cover. Over the four books, the romance proceeds until it culminates in the long-delayed transformation of Bella herself into a vampire.
There is, however, an immense plot flaw that cripples the entire framework of these novels. Given that Edward and his “siblings” (they are in fact not related to Dr. Cullen at all, having merely been turned by him into vampires at various times) look like teenagers of various ages, how will their obvious absence of ageing over the decades not have been noticed? In one of the books Meyer states that the clan moves about every five years or so, but this does not obviate the problem: Edward, who looks seventeen, is not likely to look like a twelve- or thirteen-year-old in some other locale.
But if this whopper can be swallowed, the novels are engaging enough. They are manifestly told from the perspective, and for the delectation, of teenage girls, and the overriding emphasis is the appealing notion of a girl engaging in a “dangerous” relationship with a boy who has his dubious elements but is fundamentally a good person at heart. Edward even laments at one point: “I don’t want to be a monster” (187). Meyer casually dispenses with several elements of the vampire myth. Even the issue of being able to move about in daylight—presumably the reason the clan came to Forks—is said to be misconstrued: it is not that vampires will die or suffer when going about in daylight; rather, they will “sparkle,” creating a disturbance that might threaten their status as (approximately) normal members of the community.
The various obstacles that are put in the path of Edward’s and Bella’s true love are a trifle artificial. In Twilight (2005) a sinister vampire named James captures Bella, but he is defeated far too easily. In other novels, Edward and Bella are parted for a time but always manage to reunite; at times a Native American named Jacob Black, who has fallen in love with Bella (and who proves to be a werewolf), emerges as a major character. But the end that we were all expecting—Bella turned into a vampire by Edward—is the culmination of the saga in Breaking Dawn (2008). Much has been made of the fact that Meyer, a Mormon, does not allow her chief characters to engage in drinking or premarital sex. Indeed, even when they finally marry and come to the marriage bed, things do not turn out well for Bella: Edward, unable to control his immense strength, ends up bruising Bella; what is worse, she becomes pregnant with a half-human, half-vampire baby that bites its way out of her womb (a detail that Meyer appears to have borrowed from Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls); it is at this point that Edward is compelled to turn Bella into a vampire, to save her life.
The Twilight saga is the pinnacle of the growing subgenre of vampire romance, promoted by such writers as Lori Herter, Amanda Ashley, L. J. Smith, and many others. Its popularity, especially among teenagers, is patent, but its aesthetic value is far more doubtful.