Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A PREPOSITION MAKES! If you take the “with” out of “Nice to eat with you,” it begins to mean something quite different. Less wholesome. More creepy. It just goes to show that not all eating that happens in literature is friendly. Not only that, it doesn’t even always look like eating. Beyond here there be monsters.

Vampires in literature, you say. Big deal. I’ve read Dracula. And Anne Rice.

Good for you. Everyone deserves a good scare. But actual vampires are only the beginning; not only that, they’re not even necessarily the most alarming type. After all, you can at least recognize them. Let’s start with Dracula himself, and we’ll eventually see why this is true. You know how in all those Dracula movies, or almost all, the count always has this weird attractiveness to him? Sometimes he’s downright sexy. Always, he’s alluring, dangerous, mysterious, and he tends to focus on beautiful, unmarried (which in the social vision of nineteenth-century England meant virginal) women. And when he gets them, he grows younger, more alive (if we can say this of the undead), more virile even. Meanwhile, his victims become like him and begin to seek out their own victims. Van Helsing, the count’s ultimate nemesis, and his lot, then, are really protecting young people, and especially young women, from this menace when they hunt him down. Most of this, in one form or another, can be found in Bram Stoker’s novel (1897), although it gets more hysterical in the movie versions. Now let’s think about this for a moment. A nasty old man, attractive but evil, violates young women, leaves his mark on them, steals their innocence—and coincidentally their “usefulness” (if you think “marriageability,” you’ll be about right) to young men—and leaves them helpless followers in his sin. I think we’d be reasonable to conclude that the whole Count Dracula saga has an agenda to it beyond merely scaring us out of our wits, although scaring readers out of their wits is a noble enterprise and one that Stoker’s novel accomplishes very nicely. In fact, we might conclude it has something to do with sex.

Well, of course it has to do with sex. Evil has had to do with sex since the serpent seduced Eve. What was the upshot there? Body shame and unwholesome lust, seduction, temptation, danger, among other ills.

So vampirism isn’t about vampires?

Oh, it is. It is. But it’s also about things other than literal vampirism: selfishness, exploitation, a refusal to respect the autonomy of other people, just for starters. We’ll return to this list a bit later on.

This principle also applies to other scary favorites, such as ghosts and doppelgängers (ghost doubles or evil twins). We can take it almost as an act of faith that ghosts are about something besides themselves. That may not be true in naive ghost stories, but most literary ghosts—the kind that occur in stories of lasting interest—have to do with things beyond themselves. Think of the ghost of Hamlet’s father when he takes to appearing on the castle ramparts at midnight. He’s not there simply to haunt his son; he’s there to point out something drastically wrong in Denmark’s royal household. Or consider Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol (1843), who is really a walking, clanking, moaning lesson in ethics for Scrooge. In fact, Dickens’s ghosts are always up to something besides scaring the audience. Or take Dr. Jekyll’s other half. The hideous Edward Hyde exists to demonstrate to readers that even a respectable man has a dark side; like many Victorians, Robert Louis Stevenson believed in the dual nature of humans, and in more than one work he finds ways of showing that duality quite literally. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) he has Dr. J. drink a potion and become his evil half, while in his now largely ignored short novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889), he uses twins locked in fatal conflict to convey the same sense. You’ll notice, by the way, that many of these examples come from Victorian writers: Stevenson, Dickens, Stoker, J. S. Le Fanu, Henry James. Why? Because there was so much the Victorians couldn’t write about directly, chiefly sex and sexuality, they found ways of transforming those taboo subjects and issues into other forms. The Victorians were masters of sublimation. But even today, when there are no limits on subject matter or treatment, writers still use ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and all manner of scary things to symbolize various aspects of our more common reality.

The last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade (and counting) of the twenty-first could be dubbed the teen vampire era. The phenomenon can likely be traced to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) and its successors in the Vampire Chronicles series (1976—2003). For a number of years Rice was a one-woman industry, but slowly other names came forward. Vampires even made it to weekly television with the unlikely hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which debuted in 1997. Things really took off with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2005) and the series of teen-and-vampire tales it spawned. Meyer’s great innovation is to center the stories on a nonvampire teenage girl and young (these things are relative, I guess) vampire who loves her but must fight his bloodlust. Much has been made of the element of the bloodsucking (and therefore sexual) restraint of the novels, notable in a genre where traditionally the main figures have had no self-control at all. What turned out to be unrestrained was the reading appetite of teenagers; Meyer was the top-selling American author in 2008 and 2009. Critics generally cringed, but, clearly, adolescents don’t read book reviews.

Try this for a dictum: ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky, though: the ghosts and vampires don’t always have to appear in visible forms. Sometimes the really scary bloodsuckers are entirely human. Let’s look at another Victorian with experience in ghost and nonghost genres, Henry James. James is known, of course, as a master, perhaps the master, of psychological realism; if you want massive novels with sentences as long and convoluted as the Missouri River, James is your man. At the same time, though, he has some shorter works that feature ghosts and demonic possession, and those are fun in their own way, as well as a good deal more accessible. His novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) is about a governess who tries, without success, to protect the two children in her care from a particularly nasty ghost who seeks to take possession of them. Either that or it’s about an insane governess who fantasizes that a ghost is taking over the children in her care, and in her delusion literally smothers them with protectiveness. Or just possibly it’s about an insane governess who is dealing with a particularly nasty ghost who tries to take possession of her wards. Or possibly . . . well, let’s just say that the plot calculus is tricky and that much depends on the perspective of the reader. So we have a story in which a ghost features prominently even if we’re never sure whether he’s really there or not, in which the psychological state of the governess matters greatly, and in which the life of a child, a little boy, is consumed. Between the two of them, the governess and the “specter” destroy him. One might say that the story is about fatherly neglect (the stand-in for the father simply abandons the children to the governess’s care) and smothering maternal concern. Those two thematic elements are encoded into the plot of the novella. The particulars of the encoding are carried by the details of the ghost story. It just so happens that James has another famous story, “Daisy Miller” (1878), in which there are no ghosts, no demonic possession, and nothing more mysterious than a midnight trip to the Colosseum in Rome. Daisy is a young American woman who does as she pleases, thus upsetting the rigid social customs of the European society she desperately wants to approve of her. Winterbourne, the man whose attention she desires, while both attracted to and repulsed by her, ultimately proves too fearful of the disapproval of his established expatriate American community to pursue her further. After numerous misadventures, Daisy dies, ostensibly by contracting malaria on her midnight jaunt. But you know what really kills her? Vampires.

No, really. Vampires. I know I told you there weren’t any supernatural forces at work here. But you don’t need fangs and a cape to be a vampire. The essentials of the vampire story, as we discussed earlier: an older figure representing corrupt, outworn values; a young, preferably virginal female; a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue; a continuance of the life force of the old male; the death or destruction of the young woman. Okay, let’s see now. Winterbourne and Daisy carry associations of winter—death, cold—and spring—life, flowers, renewal—that ultimately come into conflict (we’ll talk about seasonal implications in a later chapter), with winter’s frost destroying the delicate young flower. He is considerably older than she, closely associated with the stifling Euro-Anglo-American society. She is fresh and innocent—and here is James’s brilliance—so innocent as to appear to be a wanton. He and his aunt and her circle watch Daisy and disapprove, but because of a hunger to disapprove of someone, they never cut her loose entirely. They play with her yearning to become one of them, taxing her energies until she begins to wane. Winterbourne mixes voyeurism, vicarious thrills, and stiff-necked disapproval, all of which culminate when he finds her with a (male) friend at the Colosseum and chooses to ignore her. Daisy says of his behavior, “He cuts me dead!” That should be clear enough for anyone. His, and his clique’s, consuming of Daisy is complete; having used up everything that is fresh and vital in her, he leaves her to waste away. Even then she asks after him. But having destroyed and consumed her, he moves on, not sufficiently touched, it seems to me, by the pathetic spectacle he has caused.

So how does all this tie in with vampires? Is James a believer in ghosts and spooks? Does “Daisy Miller” mean he thinks we’re all vampires? Probably not. I believe what happens here and in other stories and novels (The Sacred Fount [1901] comes to mind) is that he deems the figure of the consuming spirit or vampiric personality a useful narrative vehicle. We find this figure appearing in different guises, even under nearly opposite circumstances, from one story to another. On the one hand, in The Turn of the Screw, he uses the literal vampire or the possessing spook to examine a certain sort of psychosocial imbalance. These days we’d give it a label, a dysfunctional something or other, but James probably only saw it as a problem in our approach to child rearing or a psychic neediness in young women whom society disregards and discards. On the other hand, in “Daisy Miller,” he employs the figure of the vampire as an emblem of the way society—polite, ostensibly normal society—battens on and consumes its victims.

Nor is James the only one. The nineteenth century was filled with writers showing the thin line between the ordinary and the monstrous. Edgar Allan Poe. J. S. Le Fanu, whose ghost stories made him the Stephen King of his day. Thomas Hardy, whose poor heroine in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) provides table fare for the disparate hungers of the men in her life. Or virtually any novel of the naturalistic movement of the late nineteenth century, where the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest reign. Of course, the twentieth century also provided plenty of instances of social vampirism and cannibalism. Franz Kafka, a latter-day Poe, uses the dynamic in stories like “The Metamorphosis” (1915) and “A Hunger Artist” (1924), where, in a nifty reversal of the traditional vampire narrative, crowds of onlookers watch as the artist’s fasting consumes him. Gabriel García Márquez’s heroine Innocent Eréndira, in the tale bearing her name (1972), is exploited and put out to prostitution by her heartless grandmother. D. H. Lawrence gave us any number of short stories where characters devour and destroy one another in life-and-death contests of will, novellas like “The Fox” (1923) and even novels like Women in Love (1920), in which Gudrun Brangwen and Gerald Crich, although ostensibly in love with one another, each realize that only one of them can survive and so engage in mutually destructive behavior. Iris Murdoch—pick a novel, any novel. Not for nothing did she call one of her books A Severed Head (1961), although The Unicorn (1963) would work splendidly here, with its wealth of faux gothic creepiness. There are works, of course, where the ghost or vampire is merely a gothic cheap thrill without any particular thematic or symbolic significance, but such works tend to be short-term commodities without much staying power in readers’ minds or the public arena. We’re haunted only while we’re reading. In those works that continue to haunt us, however, the figure of the cannibal, the vampire, the succubus, the spook announces itself again and again where someone grows in strength by weakening someone else.

That’s what this figure really comes down to, whether in Elizabethan, Victorian, or more modern incarnations: exploitation in its many forms. Using other people to get what we want. Denying someone else’s right to live in the face of our overwhelming demands. Placing our desires, particularly our uglier ones, above the needs of another. That’s pretty much what the vampire does, after all. He wakes up in the morning—actually the evening, now that I think about it—and says something like, “In order to remain undead, I must steal the life force of someone whose fate matters less to me than my own.” I’ve always supposed that Wall Street traders utter essentially the same sentence. My guess is that as long as people act toward their fellows in exploitative and selfish ways, the vampire will be with us.