American Culture

So long as we're talking vampires…

Let’s blame Anne Rice

Or, more specifically, if we’re going to start bitching about teenie-bopper bloodsuckers (which, I agree, are a true scourge), then really, we need to blame Lestat, Rice’s tortured antihero from Interview with a Vampire, published in 1976.

In 2009, Entertainment Weekly cited Lestat as the most influential vampire ever. “Foppishly charming, endearingly tortured, and always trendy no matter what the century, he became the template for all culturally relevant vampires since,” the article said.

Make no mistake: this most recent plague of brat-packish vampires is more about “commercial viability” than “cultural relevance.” A quick look at Barnes & Noble’s shelves tonight showed no less than five shelf-segments—fifty four-foot shelves—of “teen paranormal romance.” Good god.

I disagree with EW’s #1 ranking for Lestat. Dracula defined the landscape for all to follow, and Lagosi’s portrayal became iconic in ways matched only by Karloff’s Frankenstein and no other. I won’t deny, though, that Lestat was a huge game-changer.

Fortunately the game is centuries old, and despite the angsty-teen undead, it’s still changing—and in interesting ways.

Vampires have been around for centuries, with the first tales showing up in folklore in the 1620s. According to a beautifully illustrated new collection called In the Shadow of Dracula, edited by Leslie Klinger, the first story in print was John Polidori’s 1819 “The Vampyre,” a story that came out of the same ghost story-telling weekend that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Klinger’s book collects 22 vampire stories that form “the core cannon of classic vampire literature.” It’s a good look historical look at vampires in fiction. Robert Marrero’s Vampire Movies: An Illustrated Guide to 72 Years of Vampire Movies is a good resource for info on vampires on the silver screen and, specifically, David Skaal’s Hollywood Gothic remains an essential look at the Universal Pictures original production of Dracula.

It’s easy for modern audiences to forget how artful and disconcerting the Lagosi film was. It might look quaint by modern standards, but it’s masterful storytelling.

Plenty of memorable iterations have shown up since: Christopher Lee’s turn at the cape in the old Hammer films. Frank Langella. Gary Oldman. And those are just Draculas. Don’t forget Nosferatu, either (and the brilliant little Shadow of a Vampire, that offered a surrealistic behind-the-scenes look at the making of the original!). I’m sure you have your own favorites, too. I recommend Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires as a good overall look the myths, legends, and stories.

That vampires have lost their bite is old (albeit lamentable) news. Zombies are the new media darlings when it comes to bloody terror, rising to take the place vampires once held as our cultural boogeymen.

There’ve been several recent attempts to reappropriate vampires to the dark side. In doing so, they’ve presented some dramatically different interpretations of vampires.

The movie Priest, for example, offered up vampires as beastial, primal creatures humanoid in appearance but without any eastern European charm—or hunky teen charm—to speak of. They’re so averse to sunlight they have no eyes. (To be honest, though, I’m still not sure what to make of the movie, which tried too hard to be Matrix-hip.)

Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s Strain Trilogy, which just wrapped up with last month’s release of The Night Eternal, offers yet another dramatically different look at vampires. Similar to recent zombie tropes that pass on the disease via virus, Del Toro and Hogan’s vampirism gets transmitted via parasite. Much of the process has remained secret for the trilogy, although the origins of the plague finally get revealed in this final book.

The vampires are kick-ass and horrifying, and they have six-foot-long stingers that shoot out like evil frog tongues. I was, at first, leery, but it didn’t take long to convince me that it was scary shit. The evil vampire overload successfully brought about a vampire apocalypse at the end of book two, so I was skeptical about book three, but the trilogy came to a surprisingly fulfilling conclusion.

The vampires of 30 Days of Night probably remain the most disconcerting depiction in the last decade. While the film version came across as somewhat pedestrian, with lots of gore splattered in in place of visceral fear, the three-volume collection of comics the idea sprang from are freaky, freaky, freaky.

So, for those of us who can’t wait for this plague of angsty teen vamps to be over, there’s hope. Compelling, scary vampire literature still abounds, even if Twilight-esque sallow, sullen shades overshadow it—no mean feat since vampires aren’t supposed to cast shadows.

But make no mistake: Dracula’s shadow, whether there or not, remains long indeed.

5 replies »

  1. You missed the book series (that I can’t name right now) where the “vampires” were actually descendants of survivors of Atlantis and it was long lost nano-tech that made them live forever and they spent their time clubbing and hitting on 70 year old women who would turn young if they were bitten and selected as a mate. So remember, Atlantis, Nanotech, and Age Regression are now part of vampire lore along with sparkles.

    Gods save us.

  2. Sparkles!

    Actually, there’s a bunch of other stuff out there, too (the foremost of my omissions is probably “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” a bit of camp that starts out okay but gets old kind of quick). And I didn’t mention that Marvel Comics revamped (pardon the pun) its rendition of Dracula from dark shadowy boogeyman to noble warrior lord. There’s the Dracula reboot by Stoker’s great-grandnephew, Dacre, that might be worth noting, too.

    Of course, none of it has any iconic power, which is what’s kept the commercial appeal of any of it pretty limited.

  3. Great picture!

    Two great vampire books:

    John M. Ford–The Dragon Waiting
    George R.R. Martin–Fevre Dream

  4. There’s one that just came out called “All You Can Eat” that kind of mocks the whole genre. The vampire lives in a Spokane condo. It’s very realistic, and funny and dark. It’s by Richard Harlan Miller.