Wednesday, October 27, 2004

No love for the bloodsuckers

Dorian Wright runs down his list of grievances against vampires or, more specifically, writers of vampire fiction:
Let's start with the basics here, and look at the vampire figure in Eastern European myth. It's a bloated corpse, it's mouth flecked with blood, that spreads corruption and death throughout the community. It's a breakdown of the natural order, the stubborn refusal of the unwanted to leave people alone. It's not a pleasant thing. It's a disease metaphor, in fact. We'll get back to that later, but come on! What the heck is so romantic and tragic about a blood-bloated corpse.

Clearly, the vampire was in need of some serious renovation in order to make it a figure palatable to the masses. Luckily, Bram Stoker and his Victorian-era sexual fetishes came along and provided just the right refurbishments. Gone is the dead, fat peasant, and along comes the elegant nobleman. And he's not here to infect everyone with disease, no, he's just looking for love. Love that requires him to sneak into women's rooms at night and take them by force. What a bold and terrific improvement! Let's take a symbol of corruption and disease and turn it into a symbol for rape and sexual violence! Brilliant! And just for good measure, let's make it damn clear that the women being violated by the handsome stranger derive pleasure from it. Sheesh...
He goes on to rail against Anne Rice and other authors who've done little more than run the vampire-as-effete-sexual-predator characterization deep into the ground. I really can't argue with him. I still love Stoker's Dracula, and re-read it every so often. It's a -- dare I say it? -- brilliant work of fiction that says more about late-Victorian society than it does about vampire folklore. And I think that's the problem with so many of the numberless derivative works that have formed the bloated sub-genre, particularly in the past 30 years.

Stoker's novel drips with allegory, much of which means little to the casual late 20th-century/early 21st-century reader. It's filled to overflowing with Victorian concerns about social decline, class boundaries, immigrants, the supposed lower-class disregard for motherhood, the "sexual purity" of women, disease and how it's spread (miasma), and much more. Those Victorians apparently fretted a lot.

A century removed from Dracula, the metaphors have decayed in the minds of most writers so that only the carnal aspects remain. After all, sexual desire is timeless, isn't it? Rice and her imitators recognized the bankability of the erotic wraith that lingered, added a little velvet and lace, and -- voilĂ ! -- an industry was born. Unfortunately, as Dorian points out, vampire fiction hasn't progressed much beyond that.

Still, perhaps we should be thankful for that metaphor, hackneyed or not. Too often in his recent appearances, the vampire represents nothing more than the generic Other, a vaguely supernatural object of dread for our heroes to defeat. He's an interchangeable antagonist whose replacement by werewolf, zombie or killer robot would do little to affect the plot.

Me? Like Dorian, I'm more of a werewolf fan. But if I'm going to read, or write, about a vampire, give me the Greek vrykolakas, with his skin "swollen and distended all over, so that the joints can barely be bent," or the tuberculosis-linked undead of 18th-century New England. Now those are monsters.

On a related note, National Public Radio posts an audio file of an interview with David Skal, author of Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. I haven't listened to it yet, but it should be good.