Friday, December 10, 2010

Why Vampires Suck

Perhaps, and I say this guardedly and with the utmost trepidation, perhaps, dear reader, the vampire craze that has seized book publishing by the throat shows signs of subsiding. Never would I make such a claim for vampires on film, for there the undead are always with us. But the vampire craze of the last few years has stricken publishing with a particular vehemence. There are no doubt several reasons for this. Before analyzing them, it may be worth taking a look at the origins of the genre.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, reports of disturbed graves and of living corpses emanated from Eastern Europe. This according to Michael Sims, whose recently published anthology of nineteenth century vampire tales, Dracula’s Guest, is the source for much of my information.

The first vampire fiction in English appears to have been “The Vampyre,” by John Polidori, first published in 1819 and initially attributed to Lord Byron. Throughout the eighteenth century, the English reader’s taste for tales of the sinister and macabre had already been whetted by The Castle of Otranto and the works of Ann Radcliffe.

Coleridge wrote what is generally interpreted to be a lesbian vampire narrative poem, Christabel (1797-1800), which, overripe as it is, still causes something of a sensation. Then came the stormy summer of 1816, when several English travelers of note—Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Byron’s physician John Polidori—saw fit to entertain each other with stories of the supernatural. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most famous. Byron contributed a fragmentary tale, “The End of my Journey,” which appears to refer to the demise of a vampire. But it was Polidori who wrote a story that we would recognize as being very much part of the genre. Deadpan as it is, there is a certain sly humor in the telling—the vampire, Lord Ruthven, a pale seducer and ruiner of a series of young women, is patterned after Byron himself. The poet wasn’t pleased—he broke off relations with Polidori soon afterwards.

With these early examples, it’s easy to see the genre is fairly dripping with sex—the deflowering of naive young women, their complete enthrallment to their seducer, the traces of blood on their necks—it’s all there. The vampire is the ultimate outsider, the epitome of forbidden sexuality. Throughout the nineteenth century, novelists would convey this through the heaviness of their prose, the layering of adjective upon adjective, as is often seen in latter day romance fiction. Bram Stoker merely codified a style. 

When literary vampirism made a comeback in the 1980s, it coincided with the emergence of AIDS. Ann Rice’s books have always had a significant gay as well as general readership. Kathe Koja and others have expanded on the more outrĂ© aspects of the genre. At the lower end of the scale, we have vampire porn, a series of highly lubricated yet still bloody descriptions. Beyond this lies parody.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a reader of vampire fiction. Not that I’m immune to the theme, merely that films and television have provided as much vampirism as I’ve wanted. My favorite vamp, not surprisingly, is Barnabas Collins, though I was also much amused by the more recent character Angel, portrayed by David Boreanaz on the show of that name. Then there’s the film The Hunger, with Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie, all much younger than they are now.

The problem with most vampire fiction is that it’s relatively boring, even when well written. There are only so many variations on the theme. I may be perfectly willing to spend two hours watching a film, but I simply do not have the level of interest to devote to a novel, particularly one that is entirely predictable.

Clearly this is not the case with the millions of readers worldwide who have purchased the Twilight books of Stephanie Meyer. I was intrigued to read in Michael Sims’ introduction to his anthology that Meyer came up with the idea for Twilight as a result of a dream. This is as it should be. And it makes perfect sense that teenagers should be the target audience for such dreamy sensuality and violence. After all, adolescence is a time of seething hormones, thwarted desire, and the tomblike imprisonment known as high school. Escape is a necessity.

There is of course a parallel between the vampire and the heroin addict, but only a specific type of addict—William Burroughs or a young and dissipated rock and roller, not the street-level junkie. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron.

Rumor has it that the conglomerate Hachette is forecasting doom and gloom in its earnings reports due to a leveling off of sales from the Twilight series. After all, if the entire world is undead, who will want to read such things?            

Now far be it from me to draw a parallel between book publishing and vampirism. Who after all would be sucking whose blood? It would be entirely inappropriate, not to mention inaccurate, to suggest that publishing has any sort of parasitic or predatory relationship to literature. Wouldn’t it?


  1. Erudite, informative, well-crafted but not likely to get you published by the establishment, may I say?

    Would have liked a link to the Coleridge poem, me being a member of the lazy e-readers club.


  2. For the most part, people in book publishing understand that The Recalcitrant Scrivener functions as an attack on the industry as a whole, not on individuals.

    Many people who work in the editorial departments of the major publishers are frustrated with the way things work, frustrated with the books they have to publish, and not at all pleased with having their work relegated to a minor subdivision of a media conglomerate. This was true 30 years ago and it is even more the case now. Anything resembling serious literature is distinctly unwelcome.

    And so, The Recalcitrant Scrivener attempts to shed a satirical light on the situation. Investigating the history of publishing—how things got this way—is one of my concerns.