It’s that time of year again. The days grow shorter, the nights grow colder, and Halloween is on the way. For the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have libraries ask for me to talk about vampires and this year I’ll be speaking at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Schaumburg Township District Library, and at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Lake Villa District Library in Lindenhurst.
When Potomac Publishers approached me to do another book in their Most Wanted series (My book Chicago’s Most Wanted was published in 2005), it seemed perfect timing. I’d just finished the fourth book in my vampire series (what would later be called The Chicago Vampire Series) and was looking for a home for the series. I had a vampire vibe going on and vampires seemed like it might be perfect for the Most Wanted series. I wasn’t aware just how perfect the subject was until I started researching Vampires’ Most Wanted: The Top Ten Book of Bloodthirsty Biters, Stake-wielding Slayers, and Other Undead Oddities (2011). Researching that book opened my eyes to just how varied the legends are when it comes to these terrifying parasites.
When To Touch the Sun, the first vampire book in The Chicago Vampire Series, was published, someone put up a review for it on Amazon that, while incredibly impressed by the ending, they none the less began it with, “vamps have a heart?????? Not in any other vampire stories that i have read.”
(My vampires are not technically dead, the cause for vampirism being biologically-based).
It reminded me of one of the questions I was often asked while publicizing Vampires' Most Wanted: “Should vampires sparkle?” Stephenie Meyer’s curious device to keep her vampires in a dark and gloomy place in her Twilight series had caused a slight controversy with some vampire purists (in Meyer’s series the vampires are not hurt by the sun but rather sparkle when the sun hits them which draws attention to them)
My reply to the question remains that vampires should do whatever the story calls for. There is no one true vampire. The notion of vampirism has appeared in cultures around the world as long as we could tell stories and recognized the power of blood.
At the core of the vampire is the need for the creature to take a life essence from another to survive. Sometimes this essence is given freely. Sometimes it’s stolen. But other elements that make up the story: The causes, the abilities, the weaknesses, differ per culture and time. I believe that it’s this variety that has given the vampire legend a resilience that other legends just don’t have. As I say in the Forward of my book, the vampire has the ability to become what we need when we need it. From god to ghoul to innocent bystander, it’s run the gamut. It has evolved as we have, becoming more complex as our own questions of life and death have grown deeper.
The popularity of the vampire has ebbed and flowed but writers usually come along to reinvigorate the genre. For example, the vampire was at one time considered little more than a walking corpse. They were monstrous, terrifying. The legend was essentially a cautionary tale to convince people not to break a societal taboo (or they’d return as a vampire, or be attacked by a vampire, or lead to others becoming vampires) and while certain ideas differed from culture to culture, there was nothing sexy or sparkly about the vampire.
When gothic writers began exploring the darker side of life, they created vampires with motivations beyond the obtaining of blood. Polidori’s “The Vampyre” presents us with a creature that could be mistaken for an average man whose motivation seems to center more around revenge than it does the seeking of blood as if his true craving is for psychological pain. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” seems to fall in love with each victim she chooses. These vampires were attractive, alluring.
Stoker’s Dracula kept his vampire nebulous but hinted at a history filled with power and cruelty. Dracula wasn’t just an animated corpse; he had been a noble and somehow had retained the vestige of the power that he possessed centuries before.
Still the was description of the vampire in the novel Dracula does not exactly scream "sexy." He's an old man, tall, with dense white hair, a bushy white mustache and massive eyebrows. And this was close to how he was portrayed in the plays. It was Bela Lugosi, with his piercing gaze and imperious demeanor who brought a mysterious allure to the role, first on the stage and then on the screen. He only played the character twice on film, but his portrayal would provide the iconic image for Dracula and vampires for decades to come.
The interest in vampires seemed to wane in the 1950s, despite the Hammer Studios’ successful take on the Dracula legend. After all, the atomic age showed us the destruction that science can cause. How frightening was a vampire in the face of that? Richard Matheson was one of the first to use science to reclaim the vampire in his 1954 novel I Am Legend. By using a disease to describe the vampiric affliction affecting his friends and neighbors, he made the notion of the vampire more plausible to a culture less inclined toward fantasy.
In the late 1960s, Dan Curtis created the first Gothic soap opera when he presented Dark Shadows. A character that was meant to be used only a few episodes, ended up sticking around after the popularity of vampire character Barnabas Collins helped ratings soar through the roof (and saved the show from cancellation).
For his part, Frid had intended to do the short acting gig and go back to his native Canada, using the money earned to open an acting studio. He ended up becoming a teen idol.
When Anne Rice took the focus off the vampire hunters and put it on the vampires themselves the next great resurgence in popularity occurred. By giving the vampire a chance to present his autobiography she reminded us of something that had been lost all this time. No matter how they were created, magic or science, vampires were at one time humans. Is it possible that they did not automatically give up their humanity after turning into vampires? It's what haunted the character of Louis long after Lestat offered him the choice to live forever.
This theme has opened up the story telling dramatically. Where at one time the human history of “the monster,” the origin story if you will, generally remained unexplained, it is now an integral element to the vampire story. We want to know what led to the conversion. That’s half the fun.
I found it enjoyable to puzzle out the origin stories for my novels in which I wanted to present characters dealing with a strange, sometimes deadly disease. In my series, the morality of the vampires, good or evil, is what it was before they became vampires. Narain Khan is a good man going through the decades trying to retain his sense of morality despite the strangeness of his condition and the difficulties of the situations that arise from it. The person he was before his conversion often wars with the person he must sometimes now be to survive. As his nemesis Reg Jameson tells him, “I must say, Khan, I don’t envy you your life. You always seem as though you’re placed in situations where, no matter what you do, you stand to lose something.”
Remembering the vampire’s humanity has made it easier to take the creature from monster to romantic hero, super hero or teen dream. Even Dracula was given a romantic facelift in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of the novel. Love was Dracula’s motivation for going to England. He was intent on tracking down Mina Harker, who he believed to be the reincarnation of his wife.
Now novels, TV and films use this sympathy for the vampire to draw people into the universe they create.
Though that’s not to say that the idea of the vampire as deadly feeding machines is gone. Graphic novels like 30 Days of Night and the film based on it, films like Daybreakers and Fright Night (the remake a better film than the box office made it out to be) still feature the vampire as a dangerous threat.
Which is great. The fact is there is room for all variations on the tale. And in this piece, I’ve only touched upon a fraction of the characters and stories that have come before. One reason I like giving talks on this subject is because I can discuss the well-known as well introduce the obscure.
So, while I think the idea of vampires sparkling in the sun as some sort of threat to them is a weak concept (I prefer the notion that the sun is a true danger to them because I believe the character, good or bad, needs a definite vulnerability to help with the dramatic tension of the story), Meyer is simply doing what countless story tellers have done before her. What I did with my vampires whose origins are more scientific than supernatural (and thus their beating hearts). She reinvented the creature to fit the universe she created and this universe has found fans. Fans who may create their own universe that will help keep interest in the vampire alive. As long as we don’t forget the sheer variety that came before, this is a good thing.