Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- May 8, 2004

New blood for vampires

by Ian Garrick Mason

Hugh Jackman’s new movie, Van Helsing, shows the vampire-hunting professor as a busy man, pitted against not one, but three, of the great monsters of the 19th century: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and a werewolf. Of course, this being Hollywood, Jackman’s Van Helsing has evened the odds by arming himself with a rapid-fire, gas-powered crossbow, a shotgun and a set of throwable buzz-saws. Poor Dracula: in Bram Stoker’s original novel, he only had to cope with Van Helsing’s shovel, stake and mallet. But though we expect the movies to play fast and loose with classic characters, contemporary literature has been hardly more sensitive to Stoker’s children of the night – radically changing their attributes, even their very nature.

Perhaps "literature" is the wrong word for the genre: no one ever mistook Bram Stoker for Henry James. Yet the gothic novel was born of literary minds. In 1816, for example, Mary Shelley famously conceived the story of Frankenstein after a night of telling ghost stories with husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in a castle in the Swiss Alps. Lord Byron added to the mood by reading "Christabel," a haunting poem published by Samuel Taylor Coleridge earlier that year, which told the tale of a maiden enchanted and seduced by a serpent spirit which appeared to her in the form of an exotic woman.

Such was the power of the old wild woods where the spirit was encountered, a power summoned up by Coleridge to send a chill down the backs of enlightened 19th-century readers. And such was the nature of the gothic: set in brooding castles or monasteries, the gothic novel typically depicted a modern character (ideally a woman) being threatened by the hand of the past — an aristocratic past of arbitrary power and corruption.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula appeared in 1897, long after the first wave of gothic novels had come and gone. Yet it used the same themes — complete with brooding castle and sinister aristocrat. An isolated figure without servants or retinue, Count Dracula dwells on memories of glories past. "Here I am noble; I am boyar; the common people know me, and I am master," Dracula reflects. As a feudal overlord, he is the perfect counterpoint to Jonathan Harker, the bourgeois solicitor who has traveled from London to see him.

But even more than corrupt aristocrat, Stoker’s vampire is a primitive life-force, and he exhibits this vitality — this danger — physically. "His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth… [His hands] were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm."

To further unsettle his readers, Stoker exploited the gothic penchant for violating taboos. Harker’s midnight encounter with the three female vampires is freighted with both eroticism — "I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips …" — and thanatos, the Freudian death instinct: "I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart." Harker is saved only by the unexpected arrival of Dracula.

In telling this story of physical and psychological temptation at war with the demands of the will and the spirit, Dracula depends on a framework of Christian myth. The vampire legend is, in a sense, an unholy version of the blood-centred, life-after-death story of the Passion. By definition, vampires are on the side of evil, rightly despised as "the undead," "the damned," "the unholy." They are antagonists, not heroes.

One hundred years later, all this has changed. While Stoker’s heroes were the brave humans Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing, the heroes of modern vampire novels are the vampires themselves, with humans playing a far more humble role: as prey, mainly.

Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire, which can be given much of the credit for triggering the vampire vogue of the past two decades, is structured around the tape-recorded testimony of a vampire named Louis. "Vampires are killers," he says, reciting the words of the vampire who made him, the now-famous Lestat. "Predators. Whose all-seeing eyes were meant to give them detachment."

Rice’s vampires do not look bestial like Dracula, but artificial; super-human, rather than sub-human. "As you can see, my face is very white and has a smooth, highly reflective surface, rather like that of polished marble," Louis points out to his human interviewer. The vampires in Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (1981) have also shed their degenerate looks, but appear more human than Rice’s übermenschen. "Skin could not be so white or features so perfect, surely," thinks John Blaylock upon first meeting the vampire Miriam in 18th-century England. "Her eyes, as pale as delft, as pellucid as the sea, flickered to him." The only animal aspects Miriam retains are sour breath and a raspy tongue.

In turning vampires into predators, Rice threw away the divine framework within which they had been situated. No longer unholy, vampires are somehow part of a natural order instead. "Evil is a point of view," crows Lestat in an oddly Shakespearean soliloquy, "God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like Him as ourselves ..."

Accordingly, modern novels downplay the magical aspects of vampirism. Unlike Count Dracula, today’s vampires cannot turn into bats, wolves, or vapour. Instead, as in Poppy Z. Brite’s 1992 novel Lost Souls, vampires are exceedingly strong and fast, enjoy heightened perceptions -- “he could smell the dusky blood beneath the skin, hot and peppery, as exotic as all India” -- and are unfazed by holy symbols: “You are a fool,” says the vampire Christian to a man brandishing a crucifix, “and your myths are wrong. If you touched me with that, it would not burn me… I have nothing against your Christ. I am sure his blood tasted as sweet as anyone else’s.”

Yet for all their superhuman powers, they are tormented creatures. Rice’s Louis drives himself half-mad trying to cope with the morality of being a vampire: "Am I damned? Am I from the devil?" he asks himself. Strieber’s Miriam suffers from loneliness and melancholy. Reaching out psychically for a "touch" from another of her kind, she sadly reflects that "since the bloodbath of the Middle Ages the remaining members of her race lived solitary lives… an autumnal species too frightened of persecution to dare to foregather."

Frightened of persecution? Or frightened of mockery? As 19th-century taboos lost their force, our dread of temptation also weakened. And though fiction continues to focus on triggering our fear reflex, in other media we now feel free to laugh out loud at vampires. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, presents the bisexual libertine hero Dr. Frankenfurter (from "transsexual Transylvania," in case you’re wondering), who looks suitably emaciated and sexually ambiguous, but who has no wish to bite anyone. On weekly television, vampires are killed right and left by a high school student named Buffy. In the movies, vampires have been played by comic actors like George Hamilton (Love at First Bite) and Jim Carrey (Once Bitten). Even cartoonists are getting into the act: Nicolas Mahler devotes his new collection to the humorously banal world of the undead in Van Helsing’s Night Off (released in April by Top Shelf Productions). And with next year’s The Vampire Lestat comes the final indignity. Yes: they’re doing a musical.