Thursday 22 September 2011

V is for Vampires

Vampires: possibly one of the most well-known and well-rehearsed narrative metaphors. Constantly reboot-able, vampires are high-profile candidates as tools of speculative fiction. Speculative writing, as the creator of this alphabetical series tells us, “can cast light on our own world […] it should show us how we need to improve [it].” Originally vampires were the monster in the dark; ‘Them’. They stood for everything nasty and undesirable, infectious and unspeakable and not ‘Us.’ Modern re-readings of older narratives have attributed this more specifically to colonialism, fear of the exotic, bigotry and sexism. As a palliative to the monster, there would be a thread of obvious or implied morality: the pure and sinless characters or repudiation of temptation.

Modern vampires are concerned with modern preoccupations of deviancy. Having been allowed right into the human circle, forming relationships with the human world, they stand for the ‘monster within.’ The part of human psyche most especially represented has been the ‘monster’ of fleshy delights and darkness, proving that they remain a figure for moral diatribes. But now the message is that we cannot blame an external, demonic force for evil, but must look to ourselves and what we are capable of.

The mainstreaming of vampires into romances and adventures has seen them become somewhat domesticated into objects of human sexuality; symbolic of desirability precisely because they are not ‘Us’. Instead of being abhorred, we are invited to identify and desire these creatures, to be titillated by their ‘wickedness’. Modern ‘dark romances,’ repeating the same formula over and over are effectively whoring out that ‘allowed’ naughtiness; stretching the Mr Rochester I shouldn’t-but-he’s-gorgeous myth to breaking point. At the same time, though, this rubbishes the isolating power of the Other the vampire once had. This being the one motivating power for the vampire metaphor, enabling discussion through the presentation of the vampire’s among us/ not us figure.

Are vampires still ‘speculative’? Perhaps it is worth asking, were they ever speculative? If truly speculative writing is all about holding a slightly differential mirror up to the now, to facilitate discussion of current social issues, then can vampires fulfil this function?

Vampires are an interesting sideline. They are a part of the wider monstrous genre, becoming extremely popular in their own right to the point of becoming a high-profile genre of their own. The monster stands for whatever we want it to against whom heroes rise and fight. Speculatively, this is not so much a debate or dialectic on what the monster may stand for but it is a dramatically presented purgative action where evil can be ritually expunged.

For example, the fleshier, nastier bodily horror of zombies and werewolves are seeing a new rise in popularity. Social theorists could attribute this to the current political gestalt being one based on bodily horror: the horror of perceived threat against the body politic and the body public by explosive, poisonous, it-is-among-us terrorism.

The suavity and humanity of the vampire’s presentation means he has become a monster very much of ‘Us’, rather than the repugnance of ‘Them’. This is where the vampire could become more powerfully speculative. Modern society has turned inward, seeking answers for horrific actions from the ‘monster within;’ precisely where the vampire metaphor now resides. The desire to rationalise means that the vampire is now in a position to be wide open to use as discursive tool: a seeming-human monster upon whom such narratives could be layered. There are some vampire stories out there that achieve this, keeping the validity of narrative vampirism alive. It will struggle, however, as these are a relatively few narratives fighting against the disproportionately oversized stream of current fashion in vampirism. This is the mainstream and the mass expropriation of vampire figures as objects of spectacle, comprising shows of sexuality and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action. This is the vampire as its own genre; no longer open to standing back and commenting on the action, the vampire, in becoming the action, has had their rhetorical fangs drawn.

Vampires stand on a balance of the intellectual and the fleshy; the innovative and the hormonal. Both have their merits for entertainment and enlightenment, and between them the vampire metaphor still just about dances the metaphorical jig that shakes off a definitive description. He remains something of a speculative free-lancer, available for consultation but not restricted to one employ.


Djibril said...

Vampire stories can also be speculative in the social-political direction by addressing the very prejudices inherent in the classic texts: even Polidori used his Vampyre as a symbol of the decadence and danger of certain young noblemen. Stoker's Dracula is full of racial stereotypes, phony psychology, passive/voiceless/nameless women; a story like Silvia Moreno-Garcia's 'A Handful of Earth' gives voice to the near-invisible women of the story.

Most contemporary vampire stories are paranormal romance, with ancient, pale, aristocratic vampires of tortured soul and libidinous comportment; this naïve idealization of the nobility often goes unexamined, but a novel such as Octavia Butler's Fledgling uses this very vampire mythology to examine classism, élitism and racism, and to show what it is to live as a person whose very existence is enough to make some want to kill you.

The very power and antiquity of the vampire character-type, which we all recognize and feel someone comfortably familiar with, makes it a great tool for playing with expectations and shaking up lazy stereotypes.

Mini Lee said...

I think when it comes to vampires in romance a lot of people are missing the point. It's not about domesticating them. Vampire become the symbol of trust and the danger of that trust in romance. It's dangerous to trust and depend on others, and even more so when those others are in fact "Other". It's not about taking their power, it's about the triumph of trust conquering their blood thirsty nature and even if the lead vampire is a good guy the inherent danger of the vampire culture/empowerment.

Djibril said...

@Michele Lee: so the vampire lover as "bad boy" and the mortal as romantic risk-taker? Is there a social-political story in that?