Friday 7 June 2013

Cry, little sister: a brief geneaology of vampire fiction

Some time ago I was talking about the evolution of our popular concepts of vampires. Since then, no one is yet to stop me and say, "Hey, you there! What about The Lost Boys?" This is a valid point, even though I had to make it myself. In response I could just go back and add a section to the original post about the film and it's impact on the contemporary pop-c blood-sucker, or I could knock out fifteen hundred words on the subject, and seeing as you're here now anyway.

I freely admit that there are a great many gaps in the previous brief history I gave, but it wasn't so much about vampires as it was about being brief, and illustrating a point about the nature of mythology and storytelling. In reality Dracula was far less groundbreaking in the popular idea of the vampire as I made it out to be. I'm not trying to suggest that Bram Stoker's book isn't important or original, but only that there is a whole preamble leading up to it that I didn't really go into. For my money, Stoker's book is more interesting in terms of structure and the importance of suggestion over blunt illustration.

When talking about the popular ideas of vampires it is easy to go back to Poe (Ligeia), or Polidori (The Vampyre) or even Coleridge (Christabel), which are all influential works. You could even go all the way back to the folklore and it's roots in mental illness, illegitimate births, disease and class wars. There is a whole other discussion lurking in those murky waters, which for for the most part amounts to disputing the "accepted authorities on the subject". Anyway, we're looking for the first real off shoots that would lead to creatures (and characters) like the ones with which we are familiar.

In 1847 two books were published which are hands down the most relevant books to what I am talking about. Two books that are the common ancestors of the modern vampire. The first is Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood by Malcolm Rymer, which had been serialised over the three years previous, and the second is Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

Varney is the first literary work to really introduce the sympathetic vampire. You know the one. Tragic romantic who bemoans his existence while being slave to his needs. I know it sounds familiar. Wuthering Heights isn't quite so clear cut, but it runs a little something like this: Varney was the first sympathetic vampire, but Heathcliff is the true template for the character type. He wasn't the first, but he is the archetype of the alluring yet obsessive tragic romantic who is ultimately the major destructive force in both his own life, and the lives of those around him. Between these two characters you are presented with the clear and specific origin of modern vampires, and the the archetype that they would be molded to for the next one hundred and sixty-five years.

As the nineteenth century rolled on, vampires grew in popularity and began to appear more often in fiction. While stories like Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla in 1872 contributied to this in fits and starts, the biggest impact didn't come until Dracula was published in 1897.

I'm going to skip some other stuff here, most of which can be summed up by suggesting that you watch a lot of vampire movies starting from Nosferatu, moving through the Universal Studios vampire movies in the thirties and forties, Hammer Studio films with Christoper Lee in the late fifties and sixties and finally ending with the increasingly sexualised films of the sixties and seventies.

The late sixties and early seventies were also important for the vampires of the poppy-c, because two major audiences who wouldn't necessarily be going to see the increasingly violent and sexualised vampire films were exposed to the creatures. During the late sixties, the (up until that point) fairly straight forward soap opera, Dark Shadows introduced a vampire to its cast of characters in an attempt to boost ratings. Then only a couple of years later the Comics Code Authority, who had established a number of bizarre and inconsistent rules and guidelines around the content of comics in the US, eased up on those regarding horror comics making room for Blade and The Tomb of Dracula. 

Vampires were growing in popularity, and they were changing to accommodate their diverse audience. Enter Interview with the Vampire. Anne Rice took a single aspect of Stoker's Dracula, namely that of the 'lonely immortal', and made it the main focus of her book. Most of the characters are cribbed pretty heavily from a great many sources starting with recent depictions and going back past Varney. This acts as a method to reference the changing concepts of vampires, and allows her to explore this from the point of view of the vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac who she uses to explore not only the feelings he has about himself, but also other vampires who represent a wide variety of the other archetypes established over the centuries. I'm not sure that this was the first really in depth look a the vampire's point of view, but it is definitely the most prominent exploration of the different tropes of vampire stories in a single work.

Moving into the eighties vampires were still monsters, but distinctly human monsters. Monsters that were capable of sympathy and humanity. Monsters who could be heroes. They were increasingly varied in the way they were depicted, and vampirism was depicted much more as something that came with both strengths and weaknesses. Increasingly it was becoming something that people could relate to as stories began to illustrate more and more the parallels between vampirism and the ills of society, which is how we get to the inspiration for this post.

The Lost Boys came out in 1987 and went straight for the jugular on all of these topics as they related to youth and youth culture. It uses vampires to talk about drugs, popularity, peer pressure, teenage delusions of invulnerability, dissociation from family and 'mainstream society' and concepts of constructed families and gang mentalities. I often recommend this film, but will freely admit that I still see it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I still think it is important to imbibe, because you can see bits and pieces of it in nearly every vampire film, book, comic or TV series that has come out since. 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer film is so consistent in tone and theme that it bares a closer resemblance to The Lost Boys than it does to the series that followed.

It could be argued that after The Lost Boys vampires went through a strange metamorphosis where they became less important to the actual plot and were employed more as seasoning. Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't really about vampires, and they weren't even really necessary to the plot. Something that Joss Whedon illustrated himself by more or less removing them as a substantial element of the series after season three. The Blade films are superhero movies in false fangs. The Twilight Saga is teen romance/drama fiction with vampires subbing in for the cool kids. Even in The Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) which seemed to set out to explore the concept of racism and religion through vampires ends up getting sidetracked repeatedly from its mission statement. As much as I belly ache from time to time about this stuff I'm not really opposed to this treatment of the subject matter as long as it isn't blatant trend whoring. Vampires may attract people to these stories, but they make their own fans for different reasons.

This trend is also coupled with another trend to defang vampires by removing a great many of their more supernatural powers. These days you don't see a whole lot of the animal transformation, turning into mist, flying or the handful of other powers traditionally associated with vampires. In a similar trend many of their weaknesses have also been removed over the years. A lot this started in the films I mentioned earlier. Some have argued that this has balanced them out over all, but they have ended up much less psychologically frightening. I assume that wrapped up in all of this there is something about making them easier to write, and therefore relate to, when they are less supernatural. They seem a lot more like superheroes now. Edward and Angel would probably have a much harder time relating to human teenage girls if they could change forms at will on top of everything else.

This is the most defining aspect of the modern vampire. Where classically vampires were viewed fully as something else that could take a human form while existing on the fringe of society, and the romantic vampires that followed were tragic creatures of obsession clinging desperately to elements of their human lives ultimately acting as a destructive force, the most recent of modern vampires are far less exotic monstrous whose yardstick for tragedy seems in desperate need of adjustment.

There is a load of stuff I haven't covered here, a lot of which I probably don't know about. There is also a load of stuff that went a long way to establishing "The Rules", especially in comics and film, that I just rushed through. Really-really, I think that if you like some of the modern vampire stories there is a lot to get from some of the books and films that brought us to this point. I also think that some of y'all should read a couple of the earlier works I mentioned regardless of your interest in vampires, especially Wuthering HeightsCarmilla and Dracula.

The title? Well, I got that from here.

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