I've been writing about demons in The Book of Whispers, but this put me in mind of an earlier literary fascination of mine... Vampires.
What monster does the word vampire conjure for you? A cloaked creature who hunts by night, with sharp fingernails and sharper teeth? Do you see eyes glittering with menace? Or do you imagine a sexy movie star with a perfect body, clear skin and a serious, soulful gaze?
While vampires might be condemned to walk eternally in the black of night, right now they are red hot. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series of books and movies have been viral hits. Young Adult book shelves groan under the weight of super-sized paperbacks from vampire series like Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries. (Do teenagers read anything else?)
Then there was the cult TV show True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. There’s even a rock band - Vampire Weekend. Vampires’ coffins have never been far from sight – but there are more of them than ever. What explains the popularity of our fanged friends?
1. vampires are naughty.
Let’s face it, vampires have never done what they’re told. They refuse to eat their veggies. They stay up much too late. They’re meticulous about not crossing thresholds until invited, but once in, they’re after a fix of blood. Our blood. Vampires frighten us.
The Australian author Mudrooroo wrote a trilogy of vampire stories beginning with Underground, where a white woman vampire acts like an invader. Bram Stoker’s Dracula brought the vampire firmly into English novels. But long before them, the figure had its hold on our imagination. When Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre met the madwoman escaped from Mr Rochester’s attic, she described her as “savage... the roll of the red eyes... the lips were swelled and dark… the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes... it reminded me... of the foul German spectre--the Vampyre."
But that was then. Nowadays…
2. vampires are charming.
Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen’s fiction but the writing of both seems to have eternal life. Recently, Elizabeth Bennet came close to meeting her sad end in book and film versions of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and now, one of Austen’s other heroines meets her match in Emma and the Vampires. But Emma’s Mr Knightly, of course, is modern and charming as well as being a blood-sucker.
These days, vampires are nurtured and desired. Women love them. A vampire partner might be asleep when you want to go shopping but at least he’ll never lose his hair - or get paunchy. Blood must be healthy – vampires seem able to control their food intake the way they control other impulses. Twilight’s Edward Cullen doesn’t just desire Bella sexually – he actually wants to eat her. But he doesn’t. Ah, for self control! That’s just another way that
3. vampires are strong.
Vampires don’t die. Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire while depressed after her child’s death – and the child who cannot die, the vampire Claudia (played beautifully by Kirsten Dunst in the otherwise dreary film) is one of her most memorable creations.
While we fear blood because of what it threatens – injury and death – vampires literally suck it up. Like bushfires and cyclones, like Hurricane Katrina which destroyed one of their favourite hunting grounds – New Orleans, Louisiana (Interview with a Vampire and the Sookie Stackhouse books) – they are a force of nature. But…
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single vampire in possession of eternal life must want a woman to protect. This is as true for the undead in New Orleans as it is for vampires in high school.
Yes – for all the adults who read it on trains on the way to work, Twilight was originally published for teenaged readers. It was one of the first assaults in the supernatural takeover of Young Adult shelves. A decade and a half ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that a girl can care about her formal dress and about saving the world. Then, The Vampire Diaries features a dark haired girl torn between two supernatural loves. It would seem like a Twilight rip-off were it not based on a trilogy published in 1991. Vampires spend a lot of time at school! It’s a good thing sunlight won’t destroy them, after all.
There has always been something sexual to vampire tales. Dracula was furious when Jonathan Harker killed one of his Brides – and seduced Harker’s fiancée to the dark side in revenge. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series creeps closer to erotica with each installment. The vampire still comes by night. Is enthralling and powerful. Entices his prey to something dark and illicit and at the same time absolves them of blame.
All of which brings me to the question; what do vampires mean? Fear or desire? The answer seems to be that they’re big, dark, inkblot tests. They can mean – and can be – anything we want. Perhaps that’s why we love them so much.
(An earlier version of this article appeared as "Bite me" in Good Reading Magazine, April 2011)