Wednesday, 24 December 2008


* I can't say I care much for Xmas, with its merry supermarket queues and festively snarled-up traffic. But the season is as hard to get away from as an avalanche, and I'm afraid I won't have time to blog too much until the start of '09. So I thought I'd put an article here to keep you going until then ... something decidedly unseasonal, for the benefit of those who feel the same way at this time of year. And what could be more unseasonal than vampires? We all love vampires a good deal more than dumb old Santa, don't we? So, if the sleigh bells have started to slay you, here's my contribution to the "holiday" season:


Contrary to popular belief, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was not the first English-language literary incarnation of the Eastern European ‘vampire’ legend. That honour goes -- back in 1819 -- to a story called The Vampyre, originally attributed to Byron but actually the work of his physician, John Polidori.
There were plenty of others in between -- the penny-dreadful Varney, le Fanu’s Carmilla, even Baudelaire had a go. But Polidori had already defined the male of the species at the beginning of the century. He was of noble title. He was pallid. He was moody and magnificent. And he was a seducer.
He was in fact the image of the good doctor’s most famous patient, Lord Byron himself.
None of which could have prepared the world for what Stoker would unleash on it some eighty years further on.
"He is brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not; he can ... appear at will when, and where, and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direct the elements ... he can command all meaner things ... and he can at times vanish and come unknown."
No club-footed Lothario this. More like a dark, prehistoric god.
The censorious Irish Protestant Stoker seems originally to have begun writing Dracula as a form of therapy -- he was ‘plagued’ by a rather mild erotic dream. Too much has already been penned about the sexual imagery of his creation, most of it made instantly redundant by the one line: "It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion."
It’s the ambivalence of Stoker’s attitude to the great vampire that fascinates the reader rather more. Dracula is utterly evil; we are left in no doubt as to that. Yet even this Victorian tub-thumper has to struggle hard to hide a touch of admiration for the Count, and mostly fails. A brute he may be, and yet Dracula is portrayed more often than not throughout the novel as a proud, majestic brute.
And an ambivalent attitude can swing, pendulum-like, in either direction -- as the passing of time was to reveal.
Numerous imitations followed, but the next time that the vampire made a real impact on Western culture it was not in book form but on film.
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) -- and the same is true of the Hertzog re-make -- have no place in this discussion; his vampire is a pathetic, loathsome parasite. The same could never be said of Bela Lugosi in the classic 1931 movie version of the Stoker novel. Here he is at last, made eight feet tall and of monochrome flesh. The flashing eyes. The purring voice. The sensual lips. Just watch those hands, how masterfully they caress the very air. And yet, true to the book, Lugosi remains wholly the villain. Fascinating he may be. But worthy of sympathy? Admirable, even? Victorian morals hadn’t been eroded that far. Yet.
By 1958, they were starting to be abandoned. Writers like Kerouac and actors like James Dean had already laid the groundwork for the fast-approaching culture of the Sixties. And 1958 gave us another faithful adaptation of Dracula, the Hammer version this time.
Watch Christopher Lee at work and marvel. He is utter elegance in motion, perfectly turned-out, charming but aloof. With his unflinching stare and small tight smile, he might well be a relative of that other Fifties-through-to-Sixties icon, James Bond.
And it’s already getting rather hard to totally dislike him.
The popular novelist’s perception of the vampire remained pretty much unchanged, meanwhile. As late as 1975, Stephen King in Salem’s Lot was giving us a sucker with no obvious redeeming features.
Then, the very next year, the blood hit the fan when Anne Rice actually dared to ask a vampire not only what he was thinking, but what he was feeling.
Louis is at very least the anti-hero of Interview with the Vampire, but is a pallid figure compared with his feisty mentor, Lestat. And in Lestat, Anne Rice captured the spirit of an age so new it would have appalled Stoker to the core. Sex and drugs and rock-and-roll? Well, in vampires we have beings who are innately sexual, who sink needle-like fangs into slavishly willing veins ... and as for rock-and-roll? If that means ‘youth culture’, then what template could be more perfect? Vampires stay forever young.
It is no co-incidence that, in later Vampire Chronicles, Lestat actually becomes a rock star. He may be a brute, but he is a successful and a wholly honest brute.
There is no absolute rejection of conventional morality here, however. Rather, there is moral panic. Because interestingly, both in the novel and in Anne Rice’s script for the screen adaptation, the more romantic Louis is never shown actually killing a human, though we are told he does it all the time after experiencing some initial qualms. Rice simply cannot bring herself to show it.
The pendulum had swung partly, not wholly, the other way therefore. Sympathy for the Devil? Not quite -- more a case of sympathy for the unVictorian impulses in all of us, which a new legion of gurus was encouraging us to embrace.
The floodgates had been opened for a whole new breed of vampire, both in print and on celluloid. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania gave us ‘vampire as romantic lead’ and spawned an entire sub-genre of imitators. Whitley Strieber in The Hunger even presented us with a vamp with a good excuse; his Miriam Blaylock is driven not by evil, but by loneliness and an all-too-human need for companionship, m’ lud.
On film we had ‘vampire as good guy’. In John Landis’s Innocent Blood, Marie is depicted unquestioningly as the heroine of the piece, while in Jim McBride’s Blood Ties the vampires are a peace-loving minority persecuted by Christian fanatics -- the word ‘pogrom’ is actually used. Both films get around the moral problem of their heroes’ dietary tastes in interesting ways. The Blood Ties clan have opted to feed solely on each other, while Marie only preys on very bad people, in this case Robert Loggia’s pugnacious Mafioso and his gang.
1992, though, gave us the most simpatico bloodsucker of them all in the shape of Gary Oldman in Francis Coppola’s so-called 'Bram Stoker’s Dracula'. It is anything but. "The heart of him is not"? Oldman’s Count is nothing but heart, a magnificently melancholic, tragic and romantic figure, driven down the centuries by one thing alone: love. Which, we had already known since the Sixties, is all you need. And which generally provides its own morality. Van Helsing has become a crackpot, a curmudgeon, and a spoilsport. Oldman’s death-scene, at the climax of the film, is more Romeo and Juliet than The Beast Must Die.
But could this trend last forever? Pendulums swing both ways. By the Nineties, drugs were enslaving whole communities, strangers with dark flashing eyes were putting bombs on planes -- and eventually doing worse things with commercial aircraft -- and the connection between sex and blood had become an unhappy one.
In the same year as the Coppola movie, Poppy Z. Brite finally saw in print the ground-breaking debut novel she had been working on since her late teens. Zillah of Lost Souls is as engrossing and as beautiful a creature as Lestat, but infinitely more corrupt. Where Lestat simply tries to be the best vampire he can be, relative words like ‘best’ do not feature at all in Zillah’s vocabulary. He is a creature purely of appetites, will do anything to appease them, and feels not the slightest twinge of conscience since he has none. What Stoker’s vampire does to Lucy Westenra is awful, but he does it to survive. What Brite’s Zillah does to Ann Bransby-Smith, on the most vulnerable night of her young life, is done purely for the fun of it, and is unforgivable.
The attitude in movies started changing too. Disquiet had already been expressed as early as 1987 in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, where her nomadic vampires were depicted both as an enviably happy band and as utterly sadistic killers. By 1995, Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction was making comparisons between vampiristic appetites and the sociopathic urges of war-criminals. By 1996, From Dusk Till Dawn was stripping away the tawdry allure of a Mexican bordello to reveal the horrors beneath. And by 1998, Blade was in action against a lethal foe.
Ambivalence remains in all these movies though. John Carpenter with Vampires (1998) seemed rather more sure. "Have you ever seen a vampire? Well first of all, they’re not romantic, all right?" snarls James Woods’ leather-clad slayer. And in this film they definitely aren’t, since they bear more resemblance to George Romero’ s zombies than to Oldman in a topper.
And so we end the century rather less in love with vampires -- and ourselves? -- than we once were. But still not wholly certain. Who among us can’t identify with interviewer Slater when he begs of interviewee Pitt "make me like you"? Forever young. Forever beautiful. It’s a dream hundreds of thousands of us take out second mortgages and risk disfigurement for, every single year.
Of the current century? Wes Craven’s Dracula 2001 takes us almost back to the beginning, with a traditional Count possessed of all the darkness and chilly attraction of Stoker’s original.
But it is perhaps in the warm tv embraces of the cult phenomenon Buffy that we find ourselves most comfortable. Most of the vampires that she fights are monsters, yet she finds romance with Angel and even an unlikely friend in Spike.
We are prepared to embrace our own darker side, it seems. But only sometimes. And even then, only ever conditionally. Do we see ourselves -- at the end of the day -- as brutes yes, but as brutes with hearts? That’s where the real ambivalence lies, and the pendulum keeps on swinging.

This article first appeared in Prism: The Journal of the British Fantasy Society, copyright (c) Tony Richards 2003

No comments: