Me and the Fangs – A loose history of Vampires
The vampire — monster, metaphor, lifestyle choice, high school crush. Love ‘em or not, their persistence as a cultural meme seems as immortal as the wacky critters themselves. Be it coincidence or a desperate attempt to cash in before the craze dissipates in the rays of the rising sun, I’ve recently penned not one, but three vampire tales, ranging from the paranormal thriller, Blood Prophecy, to Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer, and last but not least, BREAKING DOWN, a graphic novel parodying the popular Twilight saga.
But where do these creatures of the night come from? Why are they here? Will they loan me some money? Through all this writing, I couldn’t help but ponder the question. What follows is one man’s admittedly narrow view of a phenomena that will no doubt outlive us all.
Though variations appear in ancient Rome, China, and (dubiously), Native American mythos, the undead we know and love began in the Balkans (yep, Transylvania) as a plague metaphor, enjoying spates of popularity in Europe and colonial New England. Short version – someone dies from disease, returns by night, and infects the rest of their family until staked, decapitated, or both. They were dead, they wanted to kill you, they had to be destroyed — the ethical equivalent of Uncle-as-zombie, sans flesh-eating.
It was a start. More interesting is the 1845 penny dreadful, Varney the Vampire, generally credited to James Malcolm Rymer, though sometimes to Thomas Preskett Prest (your guess is as good as mine as to why). Penny dreadfuls, btw, were the British comic book of their day, fast, cheap and out of control, featuring oft-serialized tales that were as sure to corrupt the youth as today’s video games.
Varney, a precursor to Barnabas Collins, actually tries to get out of his curse. He even commits suicide. In a scene out of the Frankenstein movies, Varney’s brought back to life via galvanic energies (electricity to you) by a Dr. … wait for it… Chillingworth.
The two elephant-corpses in the room remain Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). I’ve tried reading Dracula, I think I finished, and, yeah, it’s a seminal horror text and all, but the story, in any form, bores me to tears — with two exceptions. Browning’s 1931 Universal film version has Dwight Frye’s unforgettable portrayal of the Count’s genuinely creepy assistant, Renfield. I also enjoyed a little-known BBC adaption starring Louis Jourdan, but mostly because of Frank Finlay’s totally whack Van Helsing. Beyond that, though, I just don’t really care about anyone in the story, least of all Dracula, be he Lugosi, Lee, Langella, Oldman, or my own fetid imagination. He’s kind of just this great idea without flesh and blood. (Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?)
For my money, the female vampire Carmilla, steeped in plague imagery, is much more intriguing. Yeah, sure, there’s the barely concealed lesbianism, which I love as much as the next guy, but really, the relationship between the titular vampire and Laura, her lonely victim, is genuinely touching. After the forces of goody-goodness win, Laura is forced to see Carmilla as a lifeless predator, yet she still misses her, and this is clearly not the effect of a curse, but a genuine emotion.
But Dracula got the sales, the stage play, the movie franchise, and it’s his name that’s all but synonymous with the beast itself. Something of course must be said for sheer survival. So, hooray.
Acquiring a kind of Marvel-superhero sheen in the later Universal films, (the rib-tickling mash-ups House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula), Dracula went from dull to cliché faster than it takes to charge an electric car (originally available at the time the novel was written!). As a character, he was most interesting in the spoof, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where at least he had a magic ring, some surgical skill, and a quest – to transplant Costello’s brain into the creature. Why? Supposedly to make him a better servant, but really, I think it was just for yucks.
Skipping a few decades, the thickest nosferatu-root, for me, remains the 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows. As a writer, I’ve been fortunate to work with several iconic characters, from man-made monsters to the world’s first girl detective, but the main reason vampires own a special place in my heart is that moment when I was eight and first glimpsed Barnabas Collins baring his fangs – an affection I blog about at length here.
Yes, it was cheaply made. Sets wobbled, actors blew their lines and the blooper reel is nearly as long as the series. Yet Barnabas, a tortured Byronic hero, owes as much to Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff as he does to Varney or Dracula. Laugh if you will, but without him, the works of Anne Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Twilight, would not be possible.
It’s in him the notion of vampire as someone trapped reaches fruition. Barnabas had a soul, and thanks to it, whined constantly. He even planned to turn his betrothed, Josette, into a vampire like himself, but she threw herself off a cliff, setting in motion our hero’s long-lasting obsession.
Does he ever get on with his un-life? No. The fiend finds one chick after another whom he believes to be Josette’s reincarnation. Eventually, he didn’t even care if the woman looked like Josette. He was just fine finding someone he could dress up in that musty old wedding gown.
And that concept neatly fulfills an essential trope of the old-style vampire – being completely, hopelessly, eternally stuck. Old school Vampires do not change. They do not progress. They do not grow, not emotionally, not spiritually. They do not let it go. They keep checking Facebook even if they have no friends. That’s because they’re dead. Static. Their hunger for blood is a clear symbolic yearning for lost life.
Blood Prophecy, which on the one hand harkens back to the notion of vampire as plague, embodied by the evil Skog, but also to the Dark Shadows idea of salvation, through the protagonist, Jeremiah Fall. Rather than a rich Collins, though, Jeremiah is a simple farmer, a pious Puritan.
Puritanism crystallized a lot about vampires that I wanted to say. They had an intense distrust of not only their own hungers, but of the physical world itself (it is the Devil’s, after all), yet they knew they had to live in it. Their quest for salvation drove them stiff and twitching to wonderful innovations (the idea that each person had to read for themselves, for instance) as well as horrific cruelties like the Salem Witch Trials.
Speaking of the real world, 1972’s Night Stalker TV-movie, produced by Dark Shadow’s Dan Curtis, remains one of my favorite vampire films, and not so much because of the vampire. The baddie, Janos Skorzeny, at least so far as we get to know him, is a sheer predatory monster, characterized by feats of strength more in keeping with the Frankenstein monster than a sly seductor.
The film works for different reasons, primarily because of a 16mm, grainy, noir-ish, holy crap it’s real feel. That zeitgeist giddily takes us giddily all the way into The X-Files and its cagey and equally delightful bastard-child, Fringe. Moonstone Books has since kept Carl alive with a series of graphic novels. (I was happy to have contributed The Devil in the Details, which was nominated for a Stoker Award.)
Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and its sequels certainly earned their following, but for me, steeped in Dark Shadows, it all had a been-there-done-that feel. I did enjoy Claudia, in both book and film, but the whole vampire-coven thing never did much for me. It always seems to dilute the sense of a more personal hell. One demon is terrifying, a bunch of them is, well… kind of a party.
Stepping up to more recent times, there is the oft-brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Joss Whedon is on his game he is a master. Now, as co-author of the popular Nancy Drew graphic novel series (along with Sarah Kinney and artist Sho Murase) I’d like to say the Buffster’s a direct descendant of the girl detective, but that’s not completely true.
As intellectuals have discussed to death, Buffy’s a reversal of the vampire’s victim, the historically abused female taking control. The popular image of the vampire leering over the sleeping blonde virgin takes a huge turn when the sleeping blonde has a stake in her hand and knows how to use it. And Joss, bless him, plays around with the whole reluctant-vampire thing. While most of his vamps are generic monsters, some are “cursed” with souls (another reversal), drawing a neat line from Angel to Barnabas and back to Varney.
Buffy certainly has Drew in her blood though. Nancy, first published in 1930, is the original mass media girl power figure. Like Buffy, she doesn’t accept a passive role. She speaks truth to power. She has abilities far beyond the norm (in her case, brain-power). She goes after baddies, no matter the risk, a role she seems born to, and her personal life suffers because of it. Sound familiar?
When the first series of graphic novels from Papercutz came to a close after 22 books, Sarah and I were asked to help re-launch Nancy. That meant thinking about what made the character tick in the first place, taking a look at the history and pondering wither she’s wandered since.
Of course Buffy came to mind, and the two-part Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer was born. Having our girl appear on the cover with a cross-bow in hand and the devilish, handsome Gregor hanging upside behind her may seem like a wild departure, but it’s really tapping back into the myth that’d kept the character going all these years. Without giving away too much, of course we remain true to what Nancy Drew is, though she does share a kiss with the purported vampire, and seems to like it. The books are a lot of fun, a wild ride, and embrace that oxymoronic element the public insists on with beloved characters – exactly the same, only different.
As for vampires, like Nancy, in order to survive, they need more than just blood, they have to adapt. Sadly, of late, to my mind, they seem to be losing what made them monsters in the first place. Far from cursed souls or soul-less monsters, 21st century nosferatu are often played as having the same growth-potential as humans. They’re more like misunderstood mutant superheroes, blessed with powers, plagued with weaknesses. They’re not bad – just life-challenged. I suppose it can be an equally interesting trope, but it’s not particularly monstrous. Which brings us to… ahem… The Twilight saga.
Now, I certainly don’t intend to trash Twilight … no, wait, I do.
BREAKING DOWN does. The promo text for our fifty-page parody describes it as “for fans sick of glittery vampires and wonky werewolves,” and it’s all that, but it’s also not particularly mean-spirited or disrespectful… much.
But… how can I take the vampire so seriously on the one hand and mock it with the other? Putting aside the fact that I just love making fun of things, earlier I mentioned how Dracula ultimately became a self-satire in the later universal films. And many long-lived franchises have gone through the same – witness Star Trek IV or the introduction of Jaws in the James Bond films. Having taken something so seriously for so long, it seems almost natural that there comes a time to… well, poke it with a stick and see if it’s still alive. It’s a breath of fresh air, a chance to take a look at things from another angle, to see what’s working and what’s not.
It’s also an opportunity to analyze the darn thing. Humor, after all, at its best, reveals truth. One of the reasons parody is a protected form under copyright law is because it doesn’t present the further adventures of beloved popular characters, it expresses an opinion about them, in a narrative form. In that sense parody is the same as a book or movie review, only with pictures, and a lot, lot funnier.
As for the original books, I admire them, I really do. Though the writing strikes jaded old me as a poor man’s Buffy, I’ve actually defended Twilight on a number of occasions. That’s partly because I can’t help but think think anything that gets people reading (as long as it’s not preaching genocide) is a good thing. Across the globe, folks who generally might not otherwise pick up a book eagerly plow through thousands of pages of Bela (gee, wonder who she was named after…), Edward and Jacob (who really is the better choice for a lover since he’s not dead). If nothing else, it can be seen as a gateway drug to heavier literature.
And it’s more than that. The old vampire is still in there, lurking around. Edward, after all, is Heathcliff, sans Barnabas’ mean-streak, and some of the vampires are bad and kill people. Maybe, in an era of safe sex, it’s appropriate to have a romantic hero who doesn’t seem at all dangerous beyond a creepy stalker-thing.
The biggest objection many critics have is the flipping of Whedon’s wonderful innovation, the pro-active Buffy, back into Bela’s passive virgin. The girl not only doesn’t fight evil, or anything else, she wants to become a vampire herself, wants it bad, because, well, she never really fit in as a human anyway. If Buffy is the classic victim concealing a stake, Bela is opening the window and dragging the beast inside and toward her neck. Now there’s a role model! What if our daughters want to become like her? Gasp!
Thing is, maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think most reader see Bela as a role model. I suspect she’s more like she’s an escape from having to have a role model in the first place, a respite from real life. A little terror, sure, but not the big stuff, thank you, and can someone please take care of me? That aspect of literature, escapism, is certainly as valid as any other. And Stephanie Meyers fills the bill nicely.
As for the vampire itself, I have no worries. Dress him (or her) up as sweet as you like, they’re still lurking out there, just beyond the shadows, along with all that terror – just like death. Poke it with a stick. You’ll see.