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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pretend it's still Halloween . . .

So perhaps you have heard of vampires? And how there is a book or two out there about them? Even though I've always liked vampires (from a mythological standpoint), I've avoided almost entirely the current crop of books and movies about them, because I really don't like how creators have taken scary monsters that represent true evil and turned them into sooper-speshul, hawt, emo whiners (or invincible, kewl, I-wish-I-could-be-one-that'll-show-my-meanie-classmates superior beings -- White Wolf, I'm looking at you).

I guess we could blame Anne Rice, but Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were actually quite good, albeit completely different in tone from each other. Unfortunately, Rice got too caught up in the mythology and turned it into a incomprehensible mess, while also focusing too much on the sexiness and decadence of being a vampire and not the tragic or disturbing consequences. When you have the vampire matriarch explain over and over why her tribe's ritual cannibalization was really ok and not at all icky, and how it was totally not her fault she became a vampire, it was evil patriarchal men (the bastards), well, in my opinion you've totally lost sight of what it means to be a vampire.

But that's what a lot of these series do. They take the sensual appeal that Bela Lugosi brought to Dracula, and transform vampire stories into melodramatic romances. Of course, that means having vampire heroes who just hate having to leech off innocent humans, and so they drink animal blood or steal from blood banks or only victimize criminals, all the while whining about how tortured they are. Or writers get caught up in the special strengths of vampires, and end up making them ridiculously powerful and superior to humans, practically Mary Sues and Marty Stus. That's one of the main reasons I could never get past the first couple of chapters of an Anita Blake story, not even as a melodramatic teenager. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, Anita Blake has garnered a laughable amount of specialness and super powers by now.

Which isn't to say all pop culture vampires are bad. I've heard the Sookie Stackhouse series is lots of fun, and I can't say enough good things about Kostova's Historian -- it was fascinating and scary, and a great update of and homage to the original Dracula. And of course I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That show did a fabulous job portraying monsters and monster-fighting as a dead-on metaphor for adolescence. And Angel was was pretty good character, even if he was arguably the proto-emo vampire boyfriend. My favorite part, however, was when Spike went out and got himself a soul (uh . . . spoiler!). I was fascinated by the fact that Angel, the first "good" vampire, had his soul thrust upon him as a punishment, whereas Spike, who had been trying to be good for a while, acquired a soul to make himself a being worthy of love. I wanted an exploration of what it means to be good, and what role free will has, but unfortunately it was not that kind of show.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas that could be explored with vampires, and the nature of good and evil, agency and free will is just the beginning. Watching Coppola's version of Dracula over the weekend, particularly with Renfield wailing on about how "the blood is the life," I was struck with how vampirism could be seen as a total perversion of the Mass. Although maybe it's for the best that no popular writers (that I know of) have really latched on to this -- in the hands of Dan Brown, we'd probably end up with a book about how Jesus' followers were the first vampires and sucked His blood, and ever since the Church has been behind a murderous vampire conspiracy. That's why I find most current vampire books disappointing: they don't explore the issues I find interesting.

So as a reaction to the over-saturation of contemporary vampire books, and because it was the week before Halloween, I decided to read the original -- Bram Stoker's Dracula. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was a little afraid it might be too gothic (I don't like gothic, at all, at least not the overwrought style of Ann Radcliffe) but it wasn't, and I liked Stoker's technique of telling the narrative through diaries, journals, and newspaper articles. I also liked that Stoker gave the vampires a mesmerizing appeal without allowing the characters (or us) to completely lose sight of what they really were. It is a product of its time, and so the theology was a bit suspect, the characters tended to use ten words when two would suffice, and the constant statements about how Mina was so much stronger and smarter than the typical flighty, faint-hearted woman caused a lot of eye-rolling. Over all, though, I liked it quite a bit.

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