“Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?” Jane Eyre asked Mr. Rochester. “You may,” he replied, to which she answered, “Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre.”
A few days ago, I asked over on my blog why people who read urban fantasy liked it—what they were looking for.
The discussion ranged from those who liked vampires to those who are sick of them (and sick of fae, sick of this or that other thing, which is usual in any similar topic). Some of the side-discussions of supernatural beings reminded me of a couple related discussion on panels at cons, specifically about creatures—other—monsters, and why do we keep coming back to the vamps?
I’ve spoken with young teenagers who are surprised that Stephenie Meyer didn’t invent the vampire; ten years ago, when I was teaching high school, some kids confidently assumed that Joss Whedon invented vampires with the Buffy TV show. Well, when I was in high school, I thought Barnabas the Vampire in Dark Shadows was a new invention, so it’s not like I blame anyone for their ignorance. It’s easy to assume that one’s initial encounter with any trope is its first appearance.
Anyway, I’ve heard people saying that they are sick of vampires, wish they’d go away. When I question them further, it turns out quite frequently that they’re really sick of a specific storyline about vampires—the vampire boyfriend (or the Bad Faerie vampire-like boyfriend)—they’re sick of the vampire detective—or they’re sick of the little blond vampire hunter who romps through sketchy European history staking vamps, a la Buffy. Yet those vamps are still hoovering dollars out of readers’ wallets as fast as their fangs slurp up the corpuscles.
I think the vampire as a concept still has a lure, an uneasy one, for readers. In fact, the uneasiness is a part of the appeal. When I look at the most successful references to vampires going back to early nineteenth century stories, certain traits show up.
Vampires are toffs, that is, aristocrats, often hanging around picturesque ruins attesting to fallen glory; the blood-sucking aristocrat is a pet hate of Revolutionaries, but at the same time, no one denies that aristos sure knew how to dress, to move, and to live. Vampires represent “other” while mirroring human traits; could that function as a metaphor for attractions for those outside of our culturally mandated choices? The vamp is a different sort of monster than hairy, slavering weres (nobody talks about how cool they dress) or other monsters. Vampires are physically powerful, which means they can take what they want (rape fears and fantasies); they retain a semblance of eternal youth and sexual appeal (you don’t see old battle-axe or old geezer vamps in much-read stories).
That’s not to say that ugly, totally horrifying vampires don’t rip their way through horror novels—I remember Brian Stableford published a pulse-pounding thriller featuring horrifying vampires around the time Anne Rice was putting out her increasingly languishing paeans to her vampiric Marty Stu, Le Stat. Hmm, which one sold a gazillion copies?
There’s speculation that one of the manuscripts that Lord Byron’s executors burned was more overtly about a vampire (possibly a gay one) than “The Giaour.” There is also academic gossip about the fact that John Polidori, Byron’s sometime physician (who had an unfortunate obsession with his patient) borrowed that idea for his dark, weird tale “The Vampyre” published in 1819, which in turn inspired Le Fanu’s weird novel of transgressive sexual addiction and moral conflict, Carmilla, in 1872.
These, Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s references in their most famous novels, published in 1847, and the Bram Stoker’s Dracula make it clear that all across the long and supposedly staid Victorian era, the vampire was as compelling as it is now, delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.
As someone on a panel once said, if vampires aren’t hot, they are just another monster. The same could be said for the fae, or faeries; they can be cruel, they can be dangerous, they can kill humans as casually (and as easily as we swat a buzzing fly) but they’ve gotta be pretty.