Vampires and More Vampires - The Boom: The Blockbusters - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Vampires and More Vampires
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

One of the most curious phenomena of the horror “boom” of the 1970s and 1980s is the recrudescence of fiction about vampires—a trend that, inexplicably, continues to this day. One would have thought that the vampire trope had been pretty well played out by midcentury; Richard Matheson in I Am Legend (1954) and Theodore Sturgeon in Some of Your Blood (1961) had been compelled to resort to science fiction and psychological horror to lend a semblance of new life into the motif. But with the publication of Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot (1975), vampirism of a surprisingly conventional sort returned to the bestseller lists. The very next year saw the publication of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.

Rice (b. 1941) was perhaps not the most likely person to have written a vampire novel. She had hitherto only published only a few mainstream short stories, so it is not surprising that the hardcover edition of Interview with the Vampire sold only modestly; it became a bestseller only when Ballantine, the paperback publisher, marketed it extensively. Only nine years later did Rice publish a second vampire novel, The Vampire Lestat (1985), but by the 1990s these and other novels had established her as the most popular author of vampire novels of her time, and perhaps of all time.

Perhaps because Rice did not emerge out of the horror community, her initial view of the phenomenon of (literary) vampirism is refreshingly iconoclastic. Indeed, it is not at all clear how much previous vampire literature aside from Stoker’s Dracula Rice had even read when she wrote her early novels. But in Interview with the Vampire she seems keen on establishing the precise nature and function of her vampires. The process by which one becomes a vampire—as Louis, a Frenchman who moved to Louisiana and, in 1791 at the age of twenty-five, became a vampire at the hands of one Lestat, tells a modern-day reporter in San Francisco—is that one’s blood is drained almost entirely out of the body, whereupon the victim is forced to drink the vampire’s blood from his wrist. Beyond this, the “rules” governing the life (if one can call it that) of the vampire are surprisingly scant: they cannot move about in daylight, but they are not affected by the cross, cannot change shape into smoke, and cannot be killed by having a stake driven through their hearts. They are also able to sustain themselves on animal blood just as well as human.

What is striking about Interview with the Vampire—and it is indeed a striking novel—is that it brings to the surface the sexual symbolism of the vampire that had been latent since Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” and which had been scarcely beneath the surface in Dracula. In this instance, the vampirisation of Louis by Lestat is a transparent metaphor for homosexual sex. And yet, one of the most striking tableaux in the novel is the scene where a little girl, Claudia, is turned into a vampire—a scene whose fusion of pathos and eroticism is nearly unrivalled in modern horror literature.

Throughout Interview Rice engages in interesting reflections on the relationship of vampires to conventional religion. The dispensing of the cross as a weapon against the creatures is only one phase of the matter; it becomes increasingly obvious that Lestat is close to being an atheist. In this sense, the novel is a kind of template for the relevance of vampirism in the contemporary age of scepticism. Rice herself renounced her Catholic upbringing in 1972, after the death of her daughter, although in recent years she has to some degree gone back to the faith.

But the true virtue of Interview with the Vampire is not so much its philosophical disquisitions as its richly sensual and evocative prose and its probing of the complex metaphysical and emotional issues dealing with the vampiric state. Where it fails is in its portrayal of the historic backdrop against which the action is set—a failing even more pronounced in The Vampire Lestat, an overblown and verbose novel that only redeems itself at the end, where we are given a kind of origin of species of vampires. We come upon the mother and father of all vampires in Egypt, Akasha and Enkil; their continued existence is intimately tied to the fate of all the vampires on earth.

Rice took a further step backward with The Queen of the Damned (1988), a painfully verbose and unfocused novel in which various vampires spin angst-ridden maunderings about their fate. She recovered to some extent with The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), a reasonably compact novel that focuses on body-swapping: Lestat yearns to become human again and persuades a colleague to switch bodies with him, but then remembers that the human body comes with numerous attendant inconveniences, such as eating, sleeping, and eliminating waste. Rice wrote other novels in the first two decades of her literary career—including three perfectly unreadable novels in the 1990s about the Mayfair Witches—but they have not had the influence of her vampire tales.

The exact degree of Rice’s influence on the popular vampire novels of the 1980s is unclear; at any rate, any number of other writers sought to leap onto the bestseller lists with tales about the undead. Whether by accident or design, these writers chose to focus on one or the other of the two chief foci of Rice’s own work—the historical vampire and the vampire as sexual predator.

In the first category are such works as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hôtel Transylvania (1978), George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream (1982), and, to a lesser extent, Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry (1980). There is some merit in all these authors and works, but in general they occupy a lesser rank to the literati whom I will treat in the next chapter.

Yarbro (b. 1942) focuses on the real-life figure of the Comte de Saint-Germain (1712?—1784?), an aristocrat and alchemist who in his time was believed by some to be immortal. In Hôtel Transylvania Yarbro begins the long process of laying out his history: he was born in Transylvania (18) and states at one point: “I was old when Caesar ruled in Rome” (64). But this novel is merely a windy costume drama that features almost nothing of the supernatural; ultimately it descends into a conventional chase scenario where Saint-Germain predictably rescues a woman from the clutches of an evil aristocrat who wishes to make her a virgin sacrifice. But Yarbro became fascinated by the figure of Saint-Germain and included him in a score of other novels, placing him in such variegated historical epochs as ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy, and even the China of Genghis Khan. Yarbro’s historical research is impeccable, but it is frequently overdone, seeming at times merely a disgorging of historical information out of an encyclopaedia. And she does not appear to have made any particularly novel use of the vampire trope itself.

Martin (b. 1948) sets Fevre Dream in the antebellum South—specifically, the year 1857. The root of the conflict in the novel is the battle between a “good” vampire, Joshua Yorke, and an “evil” one, Damon Julian. Joshua has discovered a formula that allows vampires to refrain from killing human beings, but Damon seems to enjoy the power that he and his cohorts have over humans, whom he deems “cattle.” Damon often sounds like a dumbed-down Nietzsche (“there is no good or evil, only strength and weakness, masters and slaves” [206]), and of course, as could have been predicted, Joshua—in conjunction with a human, the riverboat captain Abner Marsh—dispatches Damon in the end.

The problem with Fevre Dream, aside from its intolerable length and its fatuous Huck-Finn-meets-vampires atmosphere, is Martin’s serious confusion over the origin of vampires. Joshua declares that “We are … another race” (154). Whether or not Martin derived this element from Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (for which see below), the matter is as confused here as there. How is it possible for two such similar species to have evolved independently? Martin descends further into fatuity by having Joshua revise Genesis by stating that Cain’s wife (otherwise unaccounted for in the Bible) was a vampire (173), thereby initiating the race. But since he later remarks that vampires and humans cannot interbreed (176), the matter of the vampires’ origins becomes a trifle confused. Mercifully, Martin has rarely returned to the vampire theme in subsequent works.

Charnas (b. 1939) is a somewhat more capable writer than others we have so far treated, but there is similar difficulty in accounting for the origin of her vampire, Dr. Edward Weyland, who as The Vampire Tapestry opens is a cultural anthropologist in a small college. The historical element is not at the forefront of this novel, but when Weyland begins consulting a psychiatrist about his condition (it is not that he is in any way regretful that he is a vampire; he merely wishes to secure a clean bill of mental health so that he can return to the college after some untoward incidents had caused him to flee it), he states that he does not know of any other vampires in existence. Later he slightly qualifies the comment, but his very existence as a vampire is still never accounted for. Still later Weyland vaguely conjectures whether he might be an extraterrestrial, but we are apparently not meant to take this seriously. Charnas is a gifted writer, with a fine lilt to her prose and an impressive ability at drawing character; but The Vampire Tapestry remains a deliberately fragmented novel where the whole does not add up to more than the sum of its various parts.

The focus on the sexual aspects of the vampire comes to the fore in several novels of this period, notably Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (1981), Ray Garton’s Live Girls (1987), and Nancy A. Collins’s Sunglasses After Dark (1987).

The Hunger—not in any sense to be judged by the very loose and pretentious film of 1983—seems to have attracted some kind of cult following, although on what basis is not clear. Strieber (b. 1945) focuses on a vampire named only Miriam (later she pretends to be the husband of a man, John Blaylock, whom she turned into a vampire and thereafter takes his last name), who has been in existence since at least Roman times and probably much earlier. Various flashbacks take us to ancient Rome, the mediaeval era, and the early nineteenth century as Miriam adopts certain human lovers—male and female alternately—and grants them a lengthy, but not eternal, term of life by turning them into vampires; but they become unusually bloodthirsty as their bodies begin, after centuries, to deteriorate. Thrown into this mix is a gerontologist, Sarah Roberts, who is working on pioneering research on the connexion between ageing and the composition of blood.

But Strieber never accounts for the origin of his vampires, although he engages in a fearsome amount of technical jargon about how variations in their blood have caused their condition. They are, it would seem, a separate species; but, as in Fevre Dream, how such a species could have evolved independently of human beings is never satisfactorily answered. But these questions are relegated to the background amidst the focus on the heterosexual and lesbian affairs of Miriam, where little is left to the imagination. At times Strieber’s prose descends to the sentimentality of women’s romance novels: “Their love had never seemed so frail, or so terribly important” (78). Sarah is converted against her will into vampirism by Miriam, but rebels at her loss of humanity and seeks to kill Miriam; she fails, and Miriam discards her and, at the end of the novel, looks forward to her next lover, whoever that might be.

The Hunger never comes to life, if you will pardon the pun; Strieber’s flaccid prose fails to invigorate any of the characters, and the development of the plot is similarly ponderous. Strieber’s subsequent career has been most unfortunate. In 1987 he published Communion, the first of four books in which he related, evidently with a straight face, his adventures as an alien abductee. These works destroyed whatever minimal reputation as a horror writer Strieber had, and although he published two lacklustre sequels to The Hunger in 2001 and 2002, his career has never recovered. The loss to literature is perhaps not extensive.

We descend even lower on the literary scale with Live Girls. Garton (b. 1962) has struck upon the ingenious idea of setting his vampires in the red light district of New York’s Times Square—and to the extent that the efforts of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have banished the porn shops from that district and scattered them far and wide, Live Girls becomes something of a period piece. But the premise that seductive vampire prostitutes perform oral sex on men and suck their blood in the process is as ludicrous as it is clumsily handled. While not descending to Laymonian (Laymonesque?) levels of illiteracy, Garton is heading rapidly in that direction. His various stick-figure characters all behave predictably and absurdly, and in the end the shop called Live Girls is blown to smithereens. Garton has returned to vampires in a few of his dreary plethora of novels, but neither they nor any of his other works, short or long, are worth a moment’s attention.

Sunglass After Dark is a somewhat more creditable work. Collins (b. 1959) presents us with the figure of Sonja Blue, a young vampire snatched as a teenager by an aristocrat named only Sir Morgan and turned into a vampire; but, in some senses like Sarah Roberts in The Hunger, she turns against her own kind and becomes a vampire killer. Sunglasses After Dark has no shortage of blood and grue, but Collins’s vivid prose enlivens both these scenes and the variegated characters in the book. Sonja has the convenient ability to heal from injuries in short order, so that she can absorb all manner of pummelings from hit men and others with insouciance. Collins also seeks to lend a sociological significance to her work by maintaining that many of the people on the fringes of human society—the whores, the bums, the drug pushers—are in reality not human at all but “Pretenders”: ogres, succubi, seraphim, and so on. But little is done to render this conception either plausible or philosophically profound, and the novel ultimately becomes little more than an extended chase sequence where Sonja seeks to kill as many vampires as possible in her hunt for Sir Morgan. That hunt continues in several later novels until she finally dispatches him in Paint It Black (1995).

A few popular vampire writers do not fit neatly into either of the two categories outlined above. Robert R. McCammon (b. 1952) chose to imitate the bloated blockbusters of Stephen King in They Thirst (1981) and other ponderous works. They Thirst presents the spectacle of an ancient vampire, Count Conrad Vulkan, leading an invasion of vampires in Los Angeles—which, conveniently, is suffering a sandstorm at the time, so that the deathly rays of the sun are unable to stop the vampires’ advances. McCammon has merely set up a tiresome action-adventure scenario where a valiant police officer, a female reporter, and other stereotypical characters battle the undead—to a predictable victory. McCammon has done almost nothing to distinguish his vampires from those of his predecessors, and his writing is simply not good enough to carry a novel longer than Dracula. But McCammon did not learn his lesson, for he went on to write other prolix novels that are similarly indebted to the work of his predecessors.

Then there is the sad case of Brian Lumley (b. 1937). This Englishman began his career writing unwittingly comical pastiches of H. P. Lovecraft—although, in the end, these works proved to be equally unwitting imitations of the perversion of Lovecraft’s myth-cycle engendered by August Derleth. Then he took it into his mind to write Necroscope (1986), the first of more than a dozen fat novels that present a ridiculous farrago of supernatural horror, espionage, fantasy, and science fiction, the basic premise of which is the attempts by one Harry Keogh, a necroscope (one who can communicate with the dead) who has become a British intelligence agent, to battle some Soviet agents who seek to bring in the “Wamphyri” into our world. Never has such a bad writer written so much that has been read by so many. But the inherent absurdity of this entire series, as with Lumley’s work as a whole, will cause posterity to deal with it in its usual fashion, and it will all end up in the maw of oblivion where it belongs.