Monday, May 21, 2012

Spilling Ink by Susan Mesler Evans: Vampire Lit, A History

by Susan Mesler-Evans

Ah, vampires. Unholy. Terrifying. Disgusting. Horrifying. Creepy. Abominations.

Or, do I mean...?

Ah, vampires. Sexy. Amazing. Intriguing. Mysterious. Sympathetic. Perfect.

Whichever version you prefer, vampires have taken the literary world by storm. Dracula, Edward, Carmilla, Lestat, Garrid... so many famous literary vamps are out there! (Well, okay, Garrid is a vampire from a tragically underrated children’s book series, but I could write a whole column just about that, so I’ll refrain from talking too much about him, at least for now.) What I find interesting is how much the portrayal of vampires can vary. Not only do I find it interesting, there’s also enough information out there for me to write an entire column about it! So let’s get started.

(And since I won’t be able to avoid talking about it, I’ll just say up front: I’ll try to keep the Twilight-bashing to a minimum, but I make no promises.)

First of all, for the three of you who don’t know what a vampire is, I’ll clear it up. A vampire is a mythological (depending on your POV) creature that feeds on the blood of others, preferably humans. Legends of vampires go all the way back to Ancient Greece, which I think is at least partially why it’s so hard to find a truly unique vampire story these days. Vampires come in many, many, many forms, but for the most part, all versions agree:

- Vampires drink blood.
- Vampires have abilities that humans do not (super speed, levitation, mind control,         etc.).
- Vampires have weaknesses that humans do not (crosses, garlic, sunlight, etc.).
- Vampires feed on blood by biting their victim.
- Vampires can turn humans into vampires (methods tend to vary).

When most people hear the word “vampire,” they picture a tall, dark, and handsome man with a sweeping cape or a really hot girl with pale skin and fangs, possibly with a bit of blood dripping. This is the classic vampire. They’re rich, good-looking, elegant, and maybe even approachable, but there’s something about them...

However, earlier depictions of vampires weren’t like this. In the earlier vampire stories, vampires are portrayed as ugly, or even horrifying, and irredeemably evil. But later works, such as Dracula and The Vampyre, would show the creatures in a more elegant way. Lord Ruthven of The Vampyre is a nobleman, and Dracula is also a nobleman. And later works, such as Night World and... ugh... Twilight, would portray vampires as being extremely desirable--more so than the average human, anyway.

I’m not exactly sure why the portrayal of vampires has changed so much, but I’m willing to bet it’s at least in part because authors got bored and wanted to change things up a bit and also because we now know that horrible people can still be attractive.  But way back when, it was hard for artists and authors to make any money if they portrayed evil as being attractive.

The physical appearance of vampires isn’t the only thing that has changed throughout history. The way they’re portrayed morally has changed quite a bit, too. In the earliest origins of vampire lit, vampires were portrayed almost exclusively as evil monsters trying to feed on the blood of innocent humans. Vampire hunters were shown as heroes, a force of good. Vampires were often used to symbolize darkness and evil (I’ll get to symbolism later).

However, this portrayal wasn’t here to stay. Authors began to give the vampire a sympathetic edge. After all, living forever and watching all your human friends grow old and die, having to kill to survive, and constantly having all the neighborhood vampire hunters slipping garlic into your food can’t exactly be fun. In Dracula, the titular vampire is portrayed sympathetically, even if he is the villain. Other authors would do the same thing, and sympathetic vampires would become immensely popular, especially after Anne Rice’s vampire novels started coming out.

In today’s vampire lit, such as Twilight and Extraordinary*, vampires are often shown as heroes that you feel extremely sorry for. Hell, in Extraordinary*, Fred (the vampire) all but says that becoming a vampire basically ruined his life (or post-life. Whatever). Some vampires are shown as heroes, with no qualms about what they are, such as Garrid from Tales of the Frog Princess, the aforementioned tragically underrated children’s series.

Garrid is a hero, through and through, and he never angsts over the fact that he has to drink blood (incidentally, he’s only ever seen drinking the blood of animals). If anything, he’s distressed over the fact that his daughter isn’t on board with the whole drinking blood thing (but then again, we hear about this from the daughter, so it could just be her imagination... wait. Sorry, I know I promised not to talk about this guy too much).

And now on to... (cue fanfare)... SYMBOLISM!

Like I said before, vampires were often used to symbolize evil and sin. Vampires were demons of Satan that plagued the innocent Christians and stole their virgins. Or something like that. And being symbolic of sin goes hand in hand with being symbolic of lust. Vampires are often shown as being attractive, and even hypnotizing, but still extremely dangerous. To give into them is to give into sin and evil, which never ends well. A young virgin (usually a woman) sleeping with a vampire tended to end in her death and/or transformation into a vampire. Vampire stories such as Carmilla portrayed vampires as being tempting, but not something you should get yourself mixed up in.

Then some authors took the idea of vampires being attractive and ran with it. And boom, we have a new genre. Supernatural romance. No, I am not joking. It is an actual section in Barnes and Noble in the young adult section. I checked. The most famous example of supernatural romance is, say it with me now, Twilight. This caused romances involving mythological creatures (not just vampires) to take off and become ridiculously popular, which isn’t always a bad thing, as some of these supernatural romances, such as Shiver and I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It (it makes sense in context) are pretty good.

If it gets teens reading, I guess I’m all for it. Some people say that vampires are cliche and boring now, and avoid vampire lit like the plague, but I say we should just roll with it. It’s not like we’ll be able to stop the craze, so why not just have fun and enjoy it? I myself love reading books with vampires in them.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll write one myself.