Urban Fantasy and the Vamps

“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.

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Urban Fantasy and the Vamps — 24 Comments

  1. I hate pretty vampires, because all too often in making them pretty writers forget to make them monsters. For all his annoying tics, one of the things Brian Lumley got right in his Necroscope novels was making the vampires monsters. John Steakley’s Vampire$ — yay for monstrous vampires! The euro-aristo thing I can take or leave, but for god’s sake (Coppola!), let’s not have Dracula crying, please.

    I was watching Daybreakers a few days ago. Not a bad movie, but the vampires seemed exactly like humans, except they needed blood to live and couldn’t go out in the sun (but the shade of a tree was sufficient to protect them on a sunny day — if you’re going to cheat like that, just go the Dracula route and let them walk in the sun). Their personalities weren’t affected by the change (unless they were deprived of blood); physically and emotionally they seemed no different to humans. So what’s the point? In Twilight, where they sparkle in the sun and don’t drink human blood and aren’t in any monstrous — what’s the point of them even being vampires?

    I’m okay with a pretty vampire if that vampire is still a vampire. But when it’s just an exotic human, there’s no longer a point to its being a vampire. Catherynne Valente wrote recently about some vampire show on TV in which the vampires are playing high schoolers, and are just as socially inept as the humans around them, and justly lambasted the idiocy. Please, let’s make vampires monsters again!

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  3. Mastadge: What’s interesting to me about Meyer and that unknown TV show and others like that is the urge to tame the monster, and make it civilized. Kinda like having your cake and eating it too . . . it might make for comfortable reading, but that little voices whispers in the subconscious, “This is not the real vampire.”

  4. I’ve never been able to understand the appeal of vampire novels, especially Meyer’s, so this was a good post for me to read.

    (Well, I did enjoy The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks, but it’s hardly typical of the genre.)

    BTW, I love the topics you choose for your posts here on BVC.

  5. Catholic Bibliophagist: Thanks! (Coming soon: Jane Austen’s advice to writers, as culled from her letters.)

    I need to read that Catherine Jinks book.

  6. When the First Big Romance Wave Hit in the early eighties, my personal theory (as one who was writing romances and did not much care for the Love’s Towering Avocado sort) was that the sweeping soft-core (and increasingly harder-core) rape fantasy books were, not a reaction against Feminism but a response to it–that many of the same women who were out trying to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, were also human enough to want not to have to be in charge all the time. “Oh, look, I was swept off my feet! It’s not my fault that I’m not out being a captain of industry right now…”

    I wonder if some of the current vampire thing is simply the old pirate king romance figure moved to the present and duded up with fangs. “It’s not my fault! I was swept off my feet by his compelling blood lust!” Vampire societies also tend to be written as highly codified; they’re sort of fantasy of manners, which is a very soothing genre to readers who feel that the real world doesn’t have enough rules to keep them safe.

    I think in Buffy, the vampires (and werewolves and other Evil Bad Things) were metaphors for all sorts of pitfalls of growing up that are shiny and intriguing and scary. It worked brilliantly.

    This is a great topic. There’s so much to chew on!

  7. Madeleine: I agree; that first wave of ravishing bodice rippers was read by women older than myself (at least in my corner of the world), who had been raised on the notion that women who liked “it” were bad people and not Ladies. Ladies were pure. They fell in love with the right man, after which they lived only to make his home comfortable, and to raise his children. That lusty duke or pirate or sheik who swept the innocent maiden off her feet was just too powerful, so it wasn’t her fault!

  8. A lot of first-wave feminists were able to shed most of the Lady programming except the prohibition against enjoying “it.” “It” was no longer unladylike, in fact, you were supposed to be the aggressor, which went against early training. So the bodice rippers permitted them to drop the aggressiveness and just be ravished, by Gum.

  9. High-schooler vamps: CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.”

    “Buffy” did have skeevy, non-aristo vamps, and made them ugly in an Uncanny-Valley sort of way when they were in heat, so to speak. That’s part of why it worked for me. The subtext of “Twilight” is so creepy I can’t stand it, and I don’t find the actor who plays the sparklepire in any way attractive. (Versus, say, James Marsters. Umm yeah.) It’s disturbing that so many young women are gaga over this. It’s beyond retro in what it says about women’s relationships with men.

  10. Judith: when I first read Twilight (before it went viral) I thought, wow, if I’d read this at thirteen, I would have been hooked like a hooky thing. The book seemed to mainline early adolescent emotions with uncanny accuracy, including the unformed desire to be admired by all, especially a reely cute boy, but not possessed.

    I couldn’t understand why anyone older got into it, until I found fans who demonstrated how different perceptive lenses read the book differently. Like the two librarians from an inner city school who talked about older teenage girls (and early twenty-somethings who would go to college if they could, but can’t) who love the book because Bella takes care of her house, her dad, and still gets a good life. Most of these are caretakers of broken homes, crack parents, missing parents, bringing up younger brothers and sisters, and for them, Twilight wasn’t about hapless and helpless Bella, it was about Bella the anchor of the home.

    So many different ways of seeing that book made the spectrum of reaction to the book more interesting to me than the book itself ever had.

  11. The thing about Bella in particular is that she, or rather, the author, gets to have everything all the time. She gets to be tomboyish and not care much about clothes–but, hey! There’s a Vamp for That! Edward’s vampsib Alice delights in dressing Bella, taking care of interior design, etc. Bella has a baby, but already has a built-in babyminder in Rosalie, so any time wee Renesmee needs sitting…hey, There’s a Vamp for That! All the way through the books there’s this weird passive thing where she never has to do something that the Author thinks she should do but Bella’s character doesn’t want to–bring in the useful stunt vamps to take care of the problem.

  12. Yeah . . . I haven’t read but the first book; I guess one has to be really invested to get behind the (I’m told) increasingly odd story.

  13. I actually really liked the Whedon vampires because, yes, they were handsome, but, for the most part, they were evil. Angelus is a bastard no matter which way you cut him and, by the end, even Angel was kinduve an ass about moral things. Heck, Spike had a soul and he was still just as awful as he was when he was a vamp, but without the whole blood-sucking on humans thing.

    Recently, though, I think Robin McKinley’s take on vampires and “slayers” is the best of the best in “Sunshine”. With the “True Blood” vamps coming in at a distant second (the TV version, not so much the Charlaine Harris version). Again, it’s the complex, morally ambiguous creatures who have completely lost touch with their humanity, as if talking to humans is like us trying to talk to ants.

    I absolutely hate “Twilight”. I think they’re piss-poor vampires and create terrible ideas in young girls about what is acceptable treatment by a boyfriend and how a woman should behave and be treated. Bella is torn between an abusive, creepy, stalker boyfriend who emotionally manipulates her and a muscle-headed jerk who only seems to desire her so he can take something away from Edward. Bella never stands up for herself, never has an opinion of her own, never even thinks about anything. She just stands there while horrible men rule her world and then whinges about the results. If I had a child I would forbid them from reading the books and seeing the movies.

  14. Alex Cole: I agree about Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, and also the True Blood TV vamps (third season begins tonight, and no more Mary Anne! My kids and I have a TV date planned.)

    Re Bella, while I would not hold her up as an example of anything but wish fulfillment, I can’t but help think that potential harm to young girls less than people worry on their behalf. When I was a kid, TV was full of Donna Reed moms vacuuming in their pearls and high heels, existing as glorified maids for man and family, and at school “Home Ec” was semester-long propaganda lectures on how women had to be prepared for marriage unless they wanted to be spinsters stuck as secretaries, nurses, or teachers, but the sixties happened anyway.

  15. I think Terry Pratchett’s book “Carpe Jugulum” demonstrated and lampooned perfectly what happens when vampires stop being monsters. Vampires aren’t monsters, or villians, or any of that–they’re sex objects. They’re the new “bad boy,” except that most of them really aren’t that bad.

  16. I suspect that some women look for interesting paranormal books that show a man who is unpredictable — which can lend a certain excitement to courtship. I’d like to see one of these heroines draw the line in the dirt and say: “Violence has no place in my life. If you cannot give it up, then you have no place in my life.” Or at least keep it away from their life together. Which, if you believe in the existence of “bad vampires” at all, is impossible long-term, since a bad vampire would delight in screwing up any life a “good vampire” tried to build for him or herself.

    I’ve never understood the dead but still able to have sex business. No blood flow, no sex. A man who is cold to the touch would be appealing during menopause, perhaps, but otherwise, what happened to a nice warm man around the place?

    Hence, I’m toying with some other possibilities for paranormal stories.

  17. For what it’s worth, I like “The Vampire Diaries” (the show; haven’t read the books, not sure if I want to) in part because it gets right so many of the things Twilight sort of tries to do but gets wrong–there are definitely things about the show and its portrayal of vampires that don’t make sense, but Elena, the heroine in love with the pretty-but-angsty Good Vampire, isn’t remotely another Bella. She has angst, but she has good reasons: not long ago her parents died in a car accident she survived, and her brother’s mostly dealing with that by going rebellious and experimenting with drugs, so she has to take care of a lot of things with her family…and she actually does care deeply about her family, that’s the thing. She also has awesome friends she also cares for deeply, and she is sensible and smart and she actually has hobbies and career goals and interests that are completely outside of her vampire boyfriend…and actually when she first finds out he’s a vampire, her reaction is more “…okay, I’m really creeped out now, and I like you but I’m going to stay away from you because you’re not safe for me” rather than “shpff, vampire, I don’t care because you’re so pretty”.

    …anyway. The show does have its problems, but I can’t even really call it a guilty pleasure anymore. I also agree about Sunshine, which is awesome, and Barbara Hambly’s vampire books are my other favorites. Jim Butcher has some pretty good vampires in the Dresden Files too, and while I’ve just started Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series, I’m liking it a lot so far.

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