VLS, June, 1982
Vampires don’t know what they look like. Dracula says so himself, speaking through Fred Saberhagen in The Dracula Tape. They don’t show in mirrors, you see, so unless they ask someone they have no way of knowing whether their ties are straight, or their hair’s gone gray. Luckily, or so the count says, they don’t need to shave.
Vampires get gray hair? Yes, if they don’t drink blood often enough — and that’s just one question I never asked that was answered by these books. Did you know that a vampire weighs 20 pounds more than a human of the same height and build? That’s what Jan Jennings says in Vampyr, and though she doesn’t explain the reasons for this physiological quirk, she does suggest that it accounts for the myth about vampires and running water. They can’t swim, so when they’re chased to a river bank they have to stand and fight. Old-time vampire hunters didn’t understand, and got the idea that the vampires were afraid of water.
And get this: vampires have erectile tissue under their fangs. That too is from Dracula via Saberhagen, and while it’s obviously convenient for vampires to tuck their teeth away when they’re not in use, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that drinking blood arouses them. That’s just what I’d expect, of course. You don’t have to watch women scream for Frank Langella to know that vampires are supposed to be sexy, and that their real horror — also their forbidden delight — is that they make their victims sexy too. If Dracula did nothing but drink blood, what would he be? Just a killer with an especially messy MO. What makes him horrid is that he drinks young girls’ blood; he taps their most blushing feelings, and then uses his legendary vampire power to turn them into lascivious creatures of the night.
Whoever does that has to be evil, right? Bram Stoker certainly thought so, and installed three wanton vampire tarts in Dracula’s castle, as if to demonstrate where the vampire life leads. When he shows us one of Dracula’s victims, his writing almost trembles with disgust. Lucy’s virgin sweetness, he insists, “was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and her purity to voluptuous wantonness.” Her eyes were “Lucy’s eyes in form and color, but Lucy’s eyes unclear and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.” She was a good girl once, in other words, but now she’s bad. Under the kiss of her vampire Don Juan, she’s suffered, in the never so apt old phrase, a fate worse than death.
But that was years ago, in another country. Maybe sex is ghastly still — you’d get that idea from recent horror fiction — but on the other hand virginity is not exactly fashionable. Being sexy by itself isn’t enough to make modern vampires bad: they have to prove themselves, in effect, by being monstrously evil. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot they take over a town; in Robert McCamoon’s They Thirst (New York Post award for the most garish cover of the year) they take over Los Angeles. It helps, of course, if they’re vicious and corrupt. Daughters of Darkness is an unsettling film that ought to be shown much more often; in it, the languorous Delphine Seyrig dooms three poor souls with manipulations of straight and lesbian sex so unscrupulous that being a vampire is the least of her crimes. In Salem’s Lot, King carries on (with all the subtlety of a villain twirling his moustache) about why the town deserves its doom. “The town knew about darkness,” he begins. “It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.” Well. The town has its open secrets, but behind them are really secret secrets. People know that Albie Crane’s wife disappeared, and they think she ran off with a salesman from New York; what they don’t know is that “Albie cracked her skull open after the traveling man had left her cold … and tumbled her down the old well.” Everyone knows that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, “but they don’t know what he made her do first.” What, Stephen, what? In a Mexican film I came across on TV at some nameless hour of the night, the vampire is a family’s aged mother, kept locked in a crypt like a secret shame. When the horrors surface, it’s the innocent who are most horribly menaced. Both Count Yorga movies end with lovers doomed as they’re about to escape. One, bitten earlier, becomes a vampire and attacks the other. Whom can you trust? I can’t recall the name of the inept but astounding film about the vampire’s son who consumes raw meat instead of blood and fights his vampire heritage — literally, with a stake through his father’s heart. But his bloodlust breaks its bounds when his father dies, and with bared fangs he chomps his girlfriend, whom a few moments earlier he’d saved from being his father’s prey. There’s nastiness inside everyone, these stories seem to say, and vampires bring it out. That explains the power of my favorite bit of fangy lore, the old story that vampires can’t come through your door uninvited: the corruption they spread is really your own. Or as Lemora, the Lady Dracula, puts it in the movie that bears her name, “I only show people what they are.”
That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. We might call it the pessimistic modern view: horror, horror everywhere. In the most recent crop of vampire books it finds its strongest expression in The Hunger, Whitley Strieber’s nasty follow-up to the much better Wolfen. Deathless vampire husks locked forever in their coffins are baleful tokens of Strieber’s apparent belief that horror allows no escape. But there’s also an optimistic modern view, according to which we can study, catalogue, understand, and even live with the turbulent emotional soup we’ve got inside. Most vampire tales I’ve read lately seem to be saying something of the sort, which must be why they read like little Kinsey reports, full of tasty trivia about vampire life, a subject that used to be shrouded in mystery and fear, like sex. Are you ready to open the forbidden curtain? Vampires have a body temperature of 68 degrees and a pulse rate of 35; they have internal guidance systems like missiles or migrating geese; as they get older their fangs grow and they get less tolerant of light; they can starve to death but can’t catch cold; they can’t see well when they take the form of a mist. Fred Saberhagen even wants us to believe that they can become human again if their hearts are pure (it’d help, I guess, if we clapped for them as we did for Tinker Bell). Can these domesticated, near-sighted creatures really be vampires?
Vampyr begins with a vampire’s medical exam. Police in They Thirst stumble on dozens of vampires in their daytime sleep and cart them off to a hospital, to baffle the doctors (they wake up too soon, though: good-bye doctors, before they’ve learned anything). Even in The Hunger there’s a subplot about medical research that may reveal the secret of a vampire’s eternal life. Early in Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry there’s a fundamental reexamination of vampirism in a lecture we assume is authoritative because the lecturer is the vampire himself, addressing people who think he’s speaking hypothetically. “The corporeal vampire,” he tells us, “would be by definition the greatest of all predators, living as he would off the top of the food chain … He would learn to live on as little as he could … since he could hardly leave a trail of drained corpses and remain unnoticed … Fangs are too noticeable and not efficient for bloodsucking … Polish versions of the vampire legend might be closer to the mark: they tell of some sort of puncturing device, perhaps a needle in the tongue like a sting that would secrete an anticlotting substance.” If you think a vampire who needs an anticlotting substance is a little short on supernatural force, read on: Charnas turns the usual vampire tale on its head. It’s not the humans who are fatally attracted to the vampire, but the vampire (against his better judgment) who’s fatally attracted to humans. Our world begins to sap his strength. Ballet traps him with its seductive form, opera traps him with its passion, and psychotherapy traps him with its honesty, the most fatal snare of all. How did you feel about last night’s victim? the therapist asks: “She was food,” the bloodsucker answers, with deep feeling, and later admits that the straightforwardness of therapy is “healthy in a life so dependent on deception as mine.” Not so, however: if any vampires reading this are in therapy, they’d better tell their doctors good-bye. Charnas’s hero gets his feelings muddled, loses the detachment a predator needs, and has to retreat into hibernation. It’s good pop psychology, I guess, but is it really a vampire tale? What kind of vampire sucks confusion from his victims instead of strength?
And then there’s the ultimate excess of vampire revisionism, vampires who’ve been misunderstood and may even be virtuous. I’ll forgive Fred Saberhagen for making Dracula a loyal — if for hundreds of years lapsed — Catholic because, routine plotting aside, The Dracula Tape and The Holmes-Dracula File are lots of fun. (An Old Friend of the Family isn’t much more than a routine thriller, with Dracula a kindly old vampire man bemused by American life.) Through selected quotations, The Dracula Tape allows Stoker to convict both himself and his hero van Helsing as intolerant prigs. Dracula made Lucy a vampire, if the truth be known, only to save her from the fatal effects of blood transfusions administered in an age when nobody knew about blood types. “You have done it before, butcher,” thunders the count in what we can almost believe is a long overdue reversal of roles. “Has any victim of your blood-exchanging surgery yet lived?” Animal blood is his usual food, of course, and when you think of it, why not? As he himself says, we humans eat meat, but does that mean we eat human flesh? In The Holmes-Dracula File Dracula’s vampire dignity is badly shaken by an attack of amnesia, and if Dracula and Sherlock Holmes look alike (as passages from Stoker and Conan Doyle do suggest) it’s no coincidence: Holmes had a vampire twin brother. Not only that, he’s Dracula’s nephew, but the count spares him this knowledge. I’ll buy all this because Saberhagen’s just kidding around.
Jan Jennings, on the other band, thinks she’s serious. Valan, her vampire heroine — “slender, beautiful, rich, cosmopolitan,” according to the jacket blurb — loves the all too human Theo, a “tall, handsome, brilliant” medical scientist with incurable leukemia. Get the point? These vampires are like Jane, the girl next door who puts on too much eyeliner one day and respells her name Jayne. “We are not Vampires, horrid nightstalkers who drink your blood,” they might say: “We are vampyr!” They feed from the willingly proffered necks of dumb beasts, who adore them because they’re so close to nature. (My fingers nearly refused to type that.) We humans, of course, are “only partly awake, partly alive.” At least Jennings understands vampires well enough to give each vampyr a fearful inner Beast, which it’s her life’s work to confront, but in spite of vampire murders and a ritual vampire beheading, these creatures don’t live the lives of “violence, lust, and strange bedfellows” they say they do, or at least no more than humans might. In the end, these vampyr are just, well, slender, beautiful, etc., and above all rich as hell (thanks to interest compounded over centuries) — a secret, glamorous, immortal, pretentious jet set.
There’s one revisionist vampire book that’s deservedly become a kind of classic — for reasons rooted in traditional vampire fiction. Anybody with a vampire obsession who hasn’t read Interview with a Vampire has a vampire obsession that’s sadly incomplete. Anne Rice is not afraid of blood: her vampires are killers. They swoon in blood, and find their senses sharpened but their sensibilities dulled. Nothing in any vampire writing I know can match the sleepy luxury and final cruel shock of the vampire narrator’s first kill, accomplished under the guidance of his mentor:
The sucking mesmerized me; the warm struggling of the man was soothing to the tension of my hands; and there came the beating of the drum again, which was the drumbeat of his heart — only this time it beat in perfect rhythm with the drumbeat of my own heart, the two resounding in every fiber of my being, until the beat began to grow slower and slower, so that each was a soft rumble that threatened to go on without end. I was drowning, falling into weightlessness; and then Lestat pulled me back. “He’s dead, you idiot!” he said with his characteristic charm and tact. “You don’t drink after they’re dead! Understand that!”
Maybe you’re not impressed — one sensitive reader I know calls the book a soap opera — but compared to most vampire writing, this might as well be Proust. Lestat’s “Understand that!” is a cruel joke because, in Rice’s world of shadows, understanding — scientific or emotional — is just what vampires lack. They’re too self-absorbed, too callous, and too routinely cruel to deserve their immortality and their sharp sensual delight — but if they had the human feeling to drink in the heightened excitement only a vampire can know, they’d be guilty, reluctant, ineffective killers (cf. Suzy McKee Charnas), cut off from the soothing and searing experience that makes them what they are. They’re cold, in a word, frozen in their deathless lives just as, in the book’s most chilling metaphor, the immortal adult mind of a child vampire lies frozen in her five-year-old body. These vampires disappear in silence to die after a few hundred years, as Rice’s narrator perhaps does at the end, leaving his mortal interviewer/victim weak from excitement and loss of blood, searching through his tapes for the address of a vampire he may be able to trace, another lost soul seduced by the false hope that his vampire life would be better than his human one. Nobody but Anne Rice has penetrated a vampire’s heart like this, not with a stake but with pitiless clarity.
The point, of course, is that she can look at vampires with the unswerving gaze of a revisionist, and still doesn’t forget what vampires are. Michael Talbot, on the other hand, so blindly ignores his vampires’ nature that I’ve almost forgotten to mention his book. Ignore the enticing blood-on-burnished-gold cover; The Delicate Dependency is incompetent nonsense, in which Victorians say “sort of” and “forget it,” use “virus” to name a kind of organism years before the word meant that, and refer to what anyone in their time would have called a deerstalker as a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” The plot, such as it is, dissolves into bursts of incoherent action — attempts to create suspense while the truth about vampires is revealed a little bit at a time. And what is that truth? That the vampires are a secret society of illuminati, the source of all human knowledge. For this I read nearly 400 pages? Talbot could have told the same story without making his heroes vampires, and, despite a nice gruesome bit about servants who wear scarves around their necks to hide their bites, actually seems to forget for tens of pages at a time that his illuminati drink blood, or in fact that there’s anything unusual about them except a bit of superhuman brains and brawn. This is sublimation with a vengeance. Romantic fanged jet-setters are bad enough, but vampires who turn their bloodlust into intellect have forgotten who they are. They probably even have reflections; instead of checking to see if their ties are straight (I’ll bet they are), they should turn from their mirrors in shame. Vampires without blood on their teeth aren’t vampires to me. ■
THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY By Suzy McKee Charnas, Pocket, $2.75
VAMPYR By Jan Jennings, Pinnacle, $2.95
THEY THIRST By Robert R. McCamoon, Avon, $2.95
THE HUNGER By Whitley Strieber, Pocket, $2.95
THE DRACULA TAPE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.25
THE HOLMES-DRACULA FILE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $1.95
AN OLD FRIEND OF THE FAMILY By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.50
INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE By Anne Rice, Ballantine, $2.75
THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY — A Novel of the Vampire Life By Michael Talbot, Avon, $2.95
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2020