Today I’m happy to welcome the author of some of my favorite books, Freda Warrington! The first of her novels I read, Elfland, became one of my favorite books for its beautiful writing, memorable main characters, and sheer readability. I’ve wanted to read more of her previous books ever since discovering it, and I was thrilled when I learned her Blood Wine Sequence was being republished since I’d heard this vampire series was especially good. The first two of these novels, A Taste of Blood Wine and A Dance in Blood Velvet, are now available in both the US and the UK with the third book, The Dark Blood of Poppies, coming out in the UK on May 9 (and the US this fall). A brand new fourth book in the series, The Dark Arts of Blood, is coming out next year. Since I love A Taste of Blood Wine even more than Elfland—it’s currently my favorite of her books I’ve read—I am delighted she is here to talk about vampire fiction today!
Vampire Fiction – Where Next?
“Every age embraces the vampire it needs.” – Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves.
The mythology of the vampire has existed throughout human history and in every culture. Now that vampires have become a staple of romantic fiction, it’s interesting to reflect how utterly horrific the original folklore actually was: rooted in a fear that your dead relatives might claw their way out of the grave and come back to suck out your life force! In past ages when people died of plagues, when illness, infection and death were not properly understood, and “magical thinking” reigned – a failure to connect cause with effect – this fear must have had a ghastly hold on the imagination. All sorts of terrifying things may dwell in the darkness beyond the safety of our fireside, but vampires have proved singularly powerful and enduring. When your crops fail or your cows die, how much easier to blame this on a conscious, evil force – the witch, the vampire, the grumpy old woman who lives with her cat – than to accept your misfortune as the caprice of nature.
The Vampyre (1819, John Polidori) is acknowledged as the first piece of vampire fiction published, marking a shift from superstitious belief towards the vampire as a literary metaphor: the foreigner, the outsider who inveigles his or her way among humans and upsets the social order. There are earlier works of poetry from the eighteenth century, revealing how folklore found its way from oral storytelling into early modern literature. An example is the hypnotically sensual poem “Christabel” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), which seems likely to have inspired the story Carmilla by JS LeFanu. If only STC had finished that poem!
Carmilla is one of my favourite vampire tales. In turn, it was acknowledged by Bram Stoker as a major influence on Dracula. Rereading the story recently, I realised how flawed it is – the ending is rushed, leaving many loose threads – but the character of Carmilla remains compelling. As a beautiful, vulnerable, needy, very human-seeming girl who latches onto the narrator Laura like a best-friend-come-lover, Carmilla caught my imagination when I was young, and still holds a place there. It was only on rereading, however, that I realised what an incredibly creepy character she is. Her vulnerability is a sham. She is actually pretending to be human by mimicking Laura. I should have noticed first time round, right? But Carmilla took me in, as she did her prey. She is actually a kind of intelligent, calculating leech, doomed to kill the one she loves. Has any vampire since sent such a shiver down the spine? Like Laura, I still hear her soft footstep outside the drawing room door…
And that’s why I count Carmilla as a major inspiration of my own vampire novels.
We’re all familiar with Dracula, of course, and over the course of the twentieth century we’ve seen him morph from horrifying old man in the original novel, to dangerous foreigner (Bela Lugosi), to dark but disturbingly sexy villain in the Hammer Horror films (thank you, Christopher Lee!) to romantic idol in the 1979 Dracula film, starring Frank Langella – who, I must confess, remains my favourite Dracula. But – he’s more attractive than horrifying, no?
I’ve always found vampires more intriguing than monstrous. It drove me nuts that they must be hunted down and staked, and never allowed to explain, to put their own side of the story, to enjoy some plot and character development before the stake went in!
In the late 1970s, along came Anne Rice to change all that. Here were vampires as thinking, feeling creatures with their own stories to tell. They also had supernatural beauty and poetic souls that Ms Rice’s readers found utterly captivating.
Personally, though, I remained frustrated that relationships between humans and vampires were still shown to be impossible – that’s part of their tragedy, of course. But I kept wondering how it would be if you could break through the barriers and come to know this alluring creature, not as predator and prey, but as an equal? I couldn’t find that book, so guess what – I decided to write it myself! And that, in the early 1980s, inspired me to begin my own vampire series (A Taste of Blood Wine, A Dance in Blood Velvet, The Dark Blood of Poppies and (coming in 2015) The Dark Arts of Blood).
When Interview with the Vampire became huge in the late 1980s, I told my agent I’d got this novel that I’d written just to please myself… Only to be told that “Vampires are over!” I’ve been hearing that vampires are “over” for the last twenty years, yet they still keep rising from the grave!
Can this continue indefinitely?
To examine the lasting appeal of the vampire requires essays, theses, academic tomes – of which there are many. In short, I believe the answer lies in their paradoxical nature. They represent things we fear – death, blood, illness, the dead rising from the grave to suck out the life force of the living – and also things we may desire, such as immortality, eternal youth, and power over others. We love to be scared, and we love the erotic undercurrents of forbidden love. Put these together, and you can appreciate why vampires remain so eternally appealing.
Over the last thirty years or so, vampire fiction has spread like the plague that overtakes humankind in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Vampires branched out into new genres: science fiction, comedy, occult detective thrillers, romance, alternative history. In the Anno Dracula series, Kim Newman presents a post-modern twist in which Count Dracula – rather logically – is not defeated but goes on to conquer Great Britain and marry Queen Victoria. Why wouldn’t he? Authors like myself are faced with the dilemma of finding convincing reasons why vampires, if they’re so powerful, DON’T take over the world! Answers? Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they’re not as strong as they seem. Perhaps some external control puts a brake on them. Or they’re fighting among themselves too much… and so on.
From Anne Rice to Brian Lumley to Stephen King to Nancy Collins to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade to Charlaine Harris and authors too numerous to mention, the versatility of the undead has become overwhelming. A veritable vampire overdose, even before the phenomenon of Twilight hit us! A glance at Amazon’s new releases reveals a teetering avalanche of paranormal romance, mostly American, mostly aimed at the Young Adult market, and mostly (it seems to me) written in a similar tone of voice: street-smart, flippant, heavy on sexual content but short on emotional depth. And nearly always battling werewolves, witches, faeries, demons…
Do I sound a bit judgmental? I’m a fine one to talk, having authored three (nearly four) romantic gothic novels in which the vampires are elegant, sexy, and conflicted rather than black-and-white in their morality. In mitigation, I first wrote the books twenty-plus years ago, and I wrote them from a place of deep, dark daydreams and passions that owed nothing at all to the new wave. I had a lot to express about psychology and mythology and gender issues, and it all came out through the adventures of Karl, Charlotte and Violette.
They were the vampires I needed at the time.
I don’t think us “veterans” of the genre could have predicted, let alone understood, the mass appeal of Twilight. I did eventually read the first three, and although they were better than I’d been led to expect, they left me faintly nauseous, like too much candy floss. Every rule of good storytelling was broken, yet all that teenage angst struck a nerve with millions! Some commentators have fretted that Ms Meyer’s work has ruined vampires forever, turning them into the horror equivalent of My Little Pony.
No. We’ll get over it. All fads fade, and the good stuff, the atmospheric cobwebby classics, endure.
But has the genre been diluted too far by endless teen paranormal fantasies? Over the past few years we’ve seen the market grow and grow, like a balloon filling up with water until it’s wobbling dangerously on the verge of going *sploosh* over everything… and yet it keeps on getting bigger, swelling and wobbling away.
One problem with vampires no longer being the “bad guys” is that they have, in some portrayals, become (excuse the term) emasculated. We see vampires drinking blood from bottles, only preying on animals, or abstaining completely. Fine, if that’s what the writer wants to do – each to their own – but personally I like my vampires to be vampires! Yes, they can have moral struggles over how they live, but I don’t see the point of having a blood-drinker as a character, only to defang him.
So what does the future hold?
Well, I don’t think vampires will go away – the genre’s now as well-established as any other, be it romance, crime, historical, science fiction, epic fantasy et al. On the positive side, there has been a massive moral shift within society that is mirrored by what authors and their vampires are getting up to these days. From Victorian times, right up until the 1970s, the sensual element of vampirism was shown to be wrong, out of order, part of the Evil. Yes, titillating (in its hypocritical way), but still BAD. Women were (mostly) victims, and any female character acting on her sexuality – perhaps displaying a little too much cleavage, going out for a midnight tryst, or enjoying Dracula’s attentions – would be punished by death. The “good girl” who stuck to society’s norms would be rescued (by her heroic man) and saved.
That, thank heaven, has changed. In my novel, The Dark Blood of Poppies, Violette (who identifies with the demon-goddess Lilith) has been “brainwashed” in a sense by her deranged father to believe that All Women Are Evil. Her journey involves deconstructing the lies she’s been told, and part of that means coming to understand Lilith as an archetype who represents everything women are not “supposed” to be. When I wrote the book, those old patriarchal ideas were receiving an almighty challenge (from feminist scholars) that was long overdue. Although society still has a long way to go on the equality front, it’s finally okay for female characters to be equal, to be sexy, to take the lead, to slay the vampire, love the vampire or to BE the vampire, without being punished.
That’s a good direction to be heading. I can’t predict the next big revival – if only! – but what will keep the genre going, as ever, is good authors telling strong stories.
Modern vampire fiction has come to embrace all shades of fluid gender and sexuality, with the vampire as a sharp focus for questions of morality. Men are no longer just macho cardboard heroes or villains, women are no longer mere victims. All are free to be human.
Even the vampires.