Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vampires Suck*


I'm not going to say that vampires don't work in superhero comics. Superheroes themselves are an extremely flexible genre that can enthusiastically accommodate grafts from just about any other extant form, from mystery and romance to humor and high fantasy. Given that, it's no surprise that there's a similarly deep vein of the macabre in the major superhero universes. Dracula is, after all, one of the best supervillains in the Marvel Universe (just as Crucifer for DC), and when used sparingly his encounters with the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer have been among those characters most memorable match-ups. But the key here is "sparingly:" if you have the X-Men fight Dracula once in a blue moon, it's unusual and therefore interesting. If, on the other hand, you devote a half-year to the X-Men throwing down with thousands upon thousands of vampires, then you've successfully sucked everything interesting and unique out of the vampire in exchange for rendering him just another brand of multitudinous faceless cannon-fodder villain - like HYDRA or the Acolytes with fangs and about as much transparent motivation.

With monsters, the old rule of thumb is still almost always true: the less seen and less understood, the better. The obvious exception would appear to be the zombie genre, which usually entails thousands of identical shambling monsters walking about in broad daylight. They're not scary for the same reason that Dracula or Cthulhu is - they have no personal magnetism. One zombie, in this context, is usually no threat, easily dispatched. (That is the logic behind the first zombie encounter in Shawn of the Dead after all - a single mindless zombie is really just target practice.) Two, however, is problematic. Three gets dangerous. And then when they come out of the woodwork you're swarmed. But they don't operate according to the same rules that govern most other monsters: their facelessness and lack of personality is the key to their appeal. They lose nothing from being exposed in the light of day, in fact, one could argue that zombies are only truly scary in broad daylight, when the details of their decay can best be seen in all its banal glory.

(I should mention that it is still important to distinguish between what we consider "zombie" stories now and what zombie movies & fiction were before George Romero. The idea of the "zombie plague" is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to imagine a time when "zombie" wasn't synonymous with "plague." I contend that there is still a great deal of potential in the idea of a zombie, singular - a corpse risen from the grave to wreak havoc and / or carry out the orders of a sinister sorcerer, shorn of the standard conventions of the plague subgenre. Zombies en masse are slightly absurd statistics, but if you saw just one person in isolation called back from death to commit evil deeds, you'd probably be quite legitimately scared. You could probably make an argument for Jason Vorhees as a contemporary zombie if you really cared to follow the argument to its logical terminus.)

Vampires are one of our most familiar metaphorical vehicles. Because of their ubiquity, their conventions are easily understood and variations easily assimilated. The way in which the genre tags are jumbled in any given vampire narrative are a symptom of each vampire story's central metaphor: vampires in Twilight are averse to sunlight because they sparkle because of their transcendent physical beauty, not because they are creatures of darkness and decay who wither and burn in daylight. Vampires in Twilight are metaphors for sex written from an inherently conservative perspective that explicitly demonizes any intimation of sensuality outside the realm of monogamy and marriage. Vampires as sex is not a new idea, but the twist of vampires as the symbol of a strictly reactionary and self-abnegating puritanism does represent a new, particularly insipid wrinkle in the mythos.

The ur-text, Stoker's Dracula, isn't a particularly good novel but it has achieved greatness by virtue of its unique hold on the popular imagination. Stoker, an Irish national, wrote about an invasion of an alien Eastern European demon into the quiet English countryside. Dracula struck at the soft underbelly of English society by assaulting its most (ostensibly) powerless inhabitants: women, specifically virgins. Stoker's Dracula lacks most of the charm of the film and comic versions, often described with explicitly parasitic imagery likening the creature to a tick.

Vampires are disgusting, immoral predators by definition, and while the idea of a pacifist / "vegetarian" vampire is a fun twist on the mythos, at their core vampires exist to kill, to invade, to - literally - rape. The idea of a consensual vampire is missing the point quite spectacularly. That is not to say that the metaphor isn't extremely flexible, merely that at a certain point the central metaphor behind any concept can be so diluted as to render it almost unrecognizable. Stephen King got in a lot of trouble in certain circles recently when he took a not-so-subtle swipe at the Twilight phenomenon:
"Here's what vampires shouldn't be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and work only at night; lovelorn southern gentlemen; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes. What should they be? Killers, honey. Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A. Bad boys and girls. Hunters."
I concur with King entirely. Vampires are monsters. That makes them terrific villains for just about any kind of heroic fiction.

I used to love Anne RIce's vampire novels - I'm not afraid to admit it! The first three were pretty fantastic, the fourth was so-so but already crossing over into the realm of softcore porn, while the fifth went entirely off the rails by making Lestat a born-again Christian (or something like that, I gave up on Rice the moment I finished Memnoch). They were all about style, yes, and that style when pulled from the realm of the printed page and into the "real world" became obnoxious affectation real fast. (There is more than a little Rice in Neil Gaiman's syncretic approach to mythology and recontextualization of horror imagery throughout The Sandman - whether the debt is conscious or not.) The Rice books worked so well because they made a very modern spectacle of the vampire - what was Louis but a post-human flaneur, juxtaposed against the dangerous and capital-R Romantic Byronic id of Lestat? In bifurcating Baudelaire so deftly in conceptualizing her hero and anti-hero, Rice very cannily positioned the vampire as a kind of crux upon which history could be retold and reinterpreted - narrative doorway to worlds of ancient premodern ritual as well as a sleekly modern urban environment.

But at their cold hearts, her vampires remain killers. They are sexual but their sex is - as per Freud - intimately entwined with death. Vampires were the perfect monster for the age of AIDS.

Marvel's Dracula is perhaps the greatest Dracula because it grafts the refined, ultra-debonair dignity of Bela Legosi and Christopher Lee's filmic interpretations to the power and dynamism of a classic Marvel supervillain. if you encounter Tomb of Dracula before reading Stoker's original, the literary Dracula can't help but pale (pun intended) in comparison. Is that heresy? Stoker's Dracula is disgusting and definitely despicable, but he's just not very interesting as anything more than a symbol of alienness and sexual predation. Does it subtract from Dracula for him to be a more imposing, dynamic figure? if it is true that "the less seen and less understood, the better," how do we accept a vampire as a protagonist, a Dracula with schemes and plans and history and loves, or a Lestat with his petty ego and convoluted history? At some point the monster steps out from the anonymity of fear and becomes a character in their own right - a villain, yes, but no longer a monster in the strictest sense. But a vampire who is neither a monster nor a villain is merely an empty hanger, a set of instantly-recognizable semiotic cues enwrapping an empty core.

It's a paradox that lies at the heart of the horror genre: we are fascinated by monsters even though our very fascination renders them less threatening than they would otherwise appear. We want to see more of them, to know more about them and to understand their motivations and secret origins - even though the act of exposing their secrets to the harsh light of day almost always robs them of their mysterious allure. One of the reasons why the Aliens (from the Ridley Scott film) remain such effective horror icons (despite their ostensibly sci-fi context) is that, unlike Freddy, Jason, Pinhead or Michael Myers, they are still almost completely a blank slate. We don't know what they are or what they were doing on that alien ship when they first encountered the crew of the Nostromo. They don't speak, and their shining black carapaces betray no secrets. A villain can still be terrifying, but a monster with no secrets has lost his greatest advantage - furthermore, a monster with no secrets to tell is no longer truly a monster.

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