A Deep Bite
I’m not exactly a fan of vampire literature. But, heck, so many people are these days that it’s up there as a major cultural phenomenon. The bookstore I visit most frequently has a whole flank that houses vampire books (of course, Stephanie Meyer has her own glimmering niche); people write down their name and number on pads, waiting to be called when the books they’re craving get in. Writers have been commenting on this in the papers (like so). Short blog posts have ignited involved discussions on vampire popularity, with some people saying it’s nothing new, and others claiming it is. On top of all this, someone in my family has joined the ranks of authors writing vampire novels—with enough success to prompt sequels.
So I wonder what’s behind the immense popularity of vampire literature. Industry reports must have very detailed answers, but I had a hazy, makeshift explanation of my own. My guess was that it had something to do with blood, and that it had something to do with materialism. There must be a cyclical fad element to it, too, but I’ll leave that aside for now.
First, there’s blood. Many cultures have turned blood into all sorts of lasting, profound symbols. Take the Bible, for instance. In the Bible, blood is deeply tied up with the very idea of life. When Cain killed Abel, it was Abel’s blood that cried out from the ground. Also, spilling human blood is understood as a sin so heinous that it cannot be compensated with money. Blood must be let out of dead animals in order to eat them the biblical way. And it’s not just in the Bible. Margaret Atwood, in chapter 6 of Negotiating with the Dead, musters quite a bit of evidence that points to blood as the quintessence of that which the dead seek, and thus finds in it a point of connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
So eating blood, particularly human blood, is an especially charged symbolic act. That is appealing in itself, but transgression, generally considered provocative, makes it more so.
Second, there’s materialism. Vampires are perfectly attuned to our deeply materialistic age. They live forever, they can stay beautiful, they can hoard riches and have passionate relationships. People can relate to that; they can even crave that and want to become that. One can see why someone would want to identify with Lestat, but, really, who would want to swap places with zombies or with Frankenstein? Vampire literature seems to resonate quite well with teen readers, and no wonder, in an age group anxiously concerned with looks and belonging and attaining. Imagine that, having youthful beauty forever—and all sorts of power (over your elders, say) and status symbols, too. It’s a way to beat death and stay fleshful—even if one person’s success is paid for with other people’s blood. It starts to sound like a warped and savage form of capitalism. Bottom line: sadly enough, we can relate.
That’s my half-baked theory. Maybe it holds water. Having said that, a couple of days ago I discovered a book that I’d have to read if I wanted to pursue this further. It’s called The Vampire Archive, edited by Otto Penzler, and it was published this year. It holds over a thousand pages of vampire stories, from classics like LeFanu and Stoker to modern masters of the genre like Stephen King. I was surprised to find some names in there I would’ve never associated with vampires, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, Ambrose Bierce, and John Keats. The anthology really deserves a closer look.
Plus, the opening pages (courtesy of Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman, and Otto Penzler) were revealing. For instance, Newman shows that, despite a millenarian history of blood-drinkers, our modern notions of vampires come from a single man: John Polidori. Polidori wrote up Lord Ruthven in his 1819 novel The Vampyre, and thus spawned the now familiar “coldhearted, sophisticated, aristocratic fashion plate who indulges in a style of melodramatic villainy.” (By the way, Polidori’s novel came out of the same bet that goaded Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein; Penzler calls that night “perhaps the most significant single moment in the history of supernatural literature.”) Of course, Bram Stoker, propped on LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” made Polidori's icon more long lasting through Dracula, which was not as wildly popular when it first came out as it became later. Newman traces how vampire literature strayed from horror literature in general and became its single most successful offspring. Few significant vampire novels were written in the mid-twentieth century, but vampire literature flared up again in the 70s, with Stephen King’s Salem Lot, Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. All of this is worth looking into. And The Vampire Archives seems like a great place to look first.