Monday, March 14, 2016

Vampires are not genre exclusive

Vampires are classic and popular monster type which have figured in works of fiction for at least two hundred years and in myths and legends world-wide for thousands of years. The vampire has come in a number of flavors. Even within the limits of the four Gothic vampire classics you have the reluctant vampire who hates his condition and seeks to save himself (Varney the Vampire, 1845), the vampire that uses an innocent seeming appearance to lure victims into vulnerability rather than being terribly powerful themselves (Carmilla, 1872), the seductive and mysterious nobleman of great power (The Vampyre, 1816), and the sadistic and monstrous arrogance of a war-lord who abandoned God in favor of power (Dracula, 1897). It makes it hard to determine what precisely is a true vampire.

The debate picks up again whenever a story like Twilight comes along and garners a significant amount of interest and success. There are a number of people that feel that the sympathetic vampire is an aberration of a vampire story. This rather ignores the fact that Varney the Vampire was bemoaning his curse two years before Bram Stoker was even born.  I can’t speak too much about the quality of Twilight since I have not read it, but from what I’ve heard second hand it would seem to me that the flaw in the story has little to do with Edward’s attitude or in the design of the vampires. What I have heard about how vampires work in that story is fairly horrific, actually. Given what is apparent about the denominations who are fans of the series, I’d expect the trouble for people who enjoy other vampire stories lies in the fact that Twilight is not horror and not intended to be horror.

Daywalking is another trait that people complain about as being something that a true vampire doesn’t do. Apparently, one of the firmest beliefs of some people is that dying in the sun is almost as much a defining characteristic as the drinking of blood. This one absolutely boggles my mind since of the four classic Gothic novels I’ve already listed exactly none of the vampires felt pain in sunlight. Carmilla was lethargic during the day and Dracula was vulnerable to mortal death, but Lord Ruthven and Varney the Vampire experienced no problems whatsoever with daylight. 

Other people seem to think that a vampire has to be seductive and well-spoken. They are inordinately beautiful or handsome with supernatural powers of attraction and persuasion. While this certainly seems true for Lord Ruthven and Carmilla, as well as Varney to some degree, the most well-known vampire, Dracula is a creature monstrous in manner who smells of rotten earth and does not even make attempts at seduction but rather bulls his way through as a cunning but brutish conqueror who revels in his inhumanity. The most conversation Dracula has with anyone over the course of the book is with Harker in the beginning chapters and at the time he could not maintain an attitude of civility for much longer than a few hours, just enough to lure Harker into the castle where he had him as a prisoner. Likewise, neither Lucy nor the vampire women in the castle were alluring but rather filled onlookers with revulsion. Modern interpretations of Dracula replace a lot of the bestial natures of Stoker’s vampires with the more seductive natures of Ruthven and Carmilla.

The origin and nature of vampires also changes from story to story. You have the Leanansidhe, which is a blood drinking creature of the fae who would offer artists tremendous vision in exchange for their blood, usually resulting in the eventual death or madness of the artist. These creatures are faerie beings who were never human. In other cases you have the mortals who made a pact with dark powers such as is implied with Stoker’s Dracula and the mention of the school of dark magic that character supposedly attended. In still other stories you have vampires as demonic creatures that take possession of corpses after the souls who owned those corpses move on. As modern times have come, aliens and genetic mutations have been added to the list of possible origins of vampire kind.

There is also the complaint of the existence of heroic vampires as being a modern thing. They especially point to the idea of a dhampir or half-vampire as a ridiculous and modern concept. However, it certain parts of Eastern Europe there have been people claiming to be dhampir for centuries and using that status as a way to bilk money out of the villages they travel to. Their claim is that their parentage allow them to see things that normal people can’t see. Of course, these claims are false and I have been told in the past when I bring this up that “con artists aren’t heroes”, but that comment misses the point. Yes, the people going around claiming to be dhampir are con artists (let’s hope) but they are preying on a pre-existing belief that the child of a vampire and a living person has special powers with which to fight the undead. The fact that this is a con that has been practiced for hundreds of years means that stories of heroic half-vampires have existed for hundreds of years. 

In truth, the myths and legends of blood drinking spirits, demons and dead spirits are so many and varied across the world that there is no one true definition. There are things that we recognize as vampires and that’s about it. But it does come to a question as to what makes vampires into good monsters and do they even have to be monsters to be vampires?

Assume a natural evolution that resulted in the creation of a set of humanity that subsists on a diet of blood and has perhaps even adapted fangs for the drawing of blood. This not too terribly far-fetched as real-life evolution has resulted in several creatures that live off blood almost exclusively. Of course, all of those are very small animals for the most part, with things like vampire bats being the largest, but it comes within the realm of acceptable possibility. Such hominids would be little different from us and had they developed, they would likely have turned to getting blood from livestock in the same way we get meat in that manner. Having to drink blood to live is not an immediate sign of being a monster. After all, while many people do live vegetarian and vegan life-styles, humanity is evolved to eat and digest meat. Despite this, we are not normally filled with an unbearable urge to eat our fellow man. A naturally evolved blood-drinking hominid would likely react with as much disgust at the idea of draining another person as a normal and healthy person does to the idea of eating another person.

A disease cuts nearer to the nature of what most people would consider a “real” vampire. There are a number of communicable diseases that can produce modifications to behavior due to causing damage to the brain. Syphilis is certainly one example of such a disease which causes intense changes as the brain falls apart under the disease’s assault. We have even seen parasites and diseases which create rather bizarrely consistent altered behavior in animals designed to further the spread of the infection. The majority of these diseases and infections occur within very simple animals such as insects, but it is still within the realm of possibility for such a disease to afflict humans.

Leaving the realm of possible nature and into the supernatural gives you all manner of possibilities. In Dresden Files, most vampires are the soulless undead husks of people that were victimized by other vampires. In the Good Intentions book and its sequel a successful vampire transformation can only occur if the subject has already become so thoroughly corrupt and evil that their soul has essentially abandoned ship, otherwise a drained person just dies. In Dracula, the titular character is implied to have gained his power via dark studies and a willing transformation while he enslaves others to his same nature. In Varney the Vampire, the protagonist claims that he was cursed for some sins committed and unlike Dracula, who exults in his nature, simply wishes his existence to end. In a bit of fanfiction for a series unconnected to vampires called The Clan the author created a group of vampires that seem to be an evolutionary response to the occasional invasion by a type of demon that can only die by suicide (the vampires would deal with demons using their mental powers in exchange for blood and then move on to the next). The World of Darkness posits vampires as suffering from one of a couple of curses, including the curse of Caine (standard Vampire) and the curse of a failed group of spirits (Kindred of the East). Rifts and the Palladium Multiverse in general has vampires as extensions of a Cthulhuian entity called a vampire intelligence which will manifest physically if it has spread its influence through enough bodies. The variety goes on and on.

I think the main contention is similar to the issue with Cthulhu in that there are some people who believe that a vampire is only acceptable when portrayed as a monster from a horror genre. The complaint “superheroes with fangs” as many have used in criticisms of World of Darkness or Chronicles of Darkness underscores the truth of this. That phrase is used as a criticism because the people that use it do not believe that “superheroes with fangs” is a valid genre of storytelling. They want vampires to be horror and horror only. This is very much the same as the people who want Cthulhu to only exist in settings of cosmic horror and will protest mightily if you put said entity in a situation where he might be defeated, such as a thirty-minute episode of a kid’s cartoon. There are a lot of character concepts that face this sort of genre-exclusivity attitude.

I don’t like romance novels. I like romance in novels, but I don’t like romance novels. I tend to find that they are full of unfortunate implications that make my skin crawl and are as far from what I think of as romantic as possible. This is why I will likely never read Twilight or its sequels: they’re romance novels. People that enjoy it, fine, that’s their taste and it is no less valid than my taste in novels or fiction in general. I will state that the small bits of writing I’ve seen in Twilight quotes is rather unimpressive, but again, it is unfair of me to make a judgment since even if I read the whole thing the fact that it is a romance novel would likely make me biased against them. I’m not going to say that supernatural romance is a bad idea, hell there is tons of good potential storylines in that premise but the general stories of that nature which are published are usually not to my taste. For that matter the reverse is also true as there are a number of chilling books about abusive or stalker relationships which are only not referred to as horror because they don’t have anything supernatural going on.

A superhero story where the main character has a vampiric flavor would be condemned by a lot of people as not being truly a vampire story for the same reason that a lot of people condemn Twilight: because it is not horror. You could hit every point of what defines a vampire from sunlight to blood drinking and they would complain because the character of the writing would be hyping the action, making the vampire a hero and downplaying the horror of the situation to the level of a superhero’s origin angst. It is still a vampire story, in some ways, because it is a story with a vampire, but people will complain that it’s not at all because of X, Y and Z vague reasons probably related to the character and personality of the vampire in question.

As to my own stories, I tend toward the attitude that a soul is a soul is a soul and that evil is a choice. As such, the idea that something is evil by nature is never something I will accept. Plus, as I have stated, the potential evolution of a blood-drinking hominid is not far-fetched to me, nor is a non-evil supernatural vampire due to the vast number of pacts that are maintained by a symbolic exchange of blood. For me, it is all a matter of the circumstances and specifics of the general vampire. When the vampire in question is a broad group or species, they tend to be good or evil on a case by case basis and most of them are just people. When the vampiric nature is a result of some supernatural ability but does not necessitate much if any harm in other people I again consider there good or evil nature to be defined on their actions though such an ability is likely to be largely lean toward one end of the hero or villain spectrum. The true monsters I have are the ones that entered their vampiric nature with full knowledge that it would necessitate the deaths of multitudes of other people over time to sustain themselves. Another sort of vampire I use are soulless entities that are essentially operating on sheer programming or instinct and only manage an imitation of actual sentience like a computer virus with a very complex AI possibly based on the collected memories of a past victim.

Stability seems key to me. Vampires like those in Shiki show that they are still capable of making morale decisions but they unfortunately die when they don’t feed, their feeding almost always results in death within a few days and they reproduce far too quickly in comparison to their prey, humanity. Allowing them to live would result in the death of the humans. This is similar to the situation seen in the movie Daybreakers where an easily communicable form of vampirism spread through most of the human population and resulted in essentially an apocalypse as it became almost impossible for them to get their needed food and devolved into mindless bat monsters. Vampires like this, which take more from the environment than they add to it, are monsters that have to be destroyed. If they remain capable of morale choice they become a tragic monsters but still remain a monster. By comparison, vampires such as the exorcist vampires in The Clan and non-supernatural vampires that represent a biological evolution do not suffer from the same sort of self or environmental instability and don’t cause trouble by their mere existence.

There is also another thing, that I’ve sort of hinted at. There is no reason a vampire would need to be more powerful than a human. For that matter, depending on how you look at it, Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel is actually significantly weaker than humans due to the large number of weaknesses and limitations he suffers from. Given that most of the second half of the novel is spent with Dracula trying to flee his pursuers, it shows the overall superiority of the living human in that setting. Carmilla herself was killed fairly easily once she was exposed. Lord Ruthven and Varney proved rather resilient to death, both recovering from death and Varney eventually committing suicide by volcano, but still the idea of vampires as this overpowering predator, while a valid approach, is unnecessary. When I have a type of vampire that is represented in the form of a specific species, they rarely are any more dangerous than a human and I rarely make them truly ageless.

What it all comes down is what do you want to portray your vampires like and what sort of vampires you like in your stories. I like the spectrum of vampires from innocent bystanders that drink blood-like protein/nutrient drinks to slice-of-life protagonists experiencing crazy hijinks to superheroes with fangs to the eldritch abominations and their slaves and victims. What sort of vampire I create depends on what I desire at the moment and what the scenario calls for.

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