Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Those ain't love bites

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, vampires, history, legends, myths

It is with good reason that I eschew vampire stories and films. Rationalist I may be, and a Christian mystic as well, yet there is an irrational core in all of us; I find myself much too easily influenced by the sexual-occult realms of the undead.

Wayne Bartlett and Flavia Idriceanu, two researchers working in Romania, waded through a great mass of folklore, literature, and filmography to produce Legends of Blood: The Vampire in History and Myth, which chronicles he bloody archetype and its enduring allure. Vampire stories touch some of the deepest chords in our psyche. The idea of a vampire ignites images of the most intimate predation, something a huge step worse than mere rape.

Fairy tales and ghost stories all have archetypical messages: what would I do if I were the abused stepchild, or the damsel in distress, or a demon's prey; what would I do if I were a giant, a dragon, a stepmother, or a ghoul? Would I abuse power in the same way (probably); would I be as resourceful—or as lucky—as these victims (probably not)?

Every culture has its blood-sucking monster, from the Babylonian labartu to the ghoulish kasha of Japan and the seductive lamiae of the Romans. "The blood is the life" is not only a biblical pronouncement; it has its corollary in every language. For all animals, at least, from mosquitos to whales, when the blood is removed, the life ends. Whatever attacks our blood, by analogy, attacks our soul (this accounts for the particular resonance of AIDS, which gradually corrupts the blood within the body).

I read through the book as quickly as I could. I wished minimal influence, but to gain insight nonetheless. In thirteen (of course) chapters, the authors discuss the vampire history and its connections with other magical creatures, particularly the way a vampire combines aspects of the ghoul, the seducer, and the magus. We may have many folkloric monsters – the list of legendary creatures from any culture numbers a hundred or more – but the vampire brings elements of all the worst ones together, to become our most fearful adversary and predator.

While vampires appear in some ancient literature, it is just in the past 130 years that a vampire genre has appeared. The creature that Bram Stoker conjured with his novel Dracula partakes of the entire history of the European subconscious, mining psychogical depths common to us all, and either thrilling or terrifying us all. Nearly forty films (dramas, comedies, spoofs, deep horror, and a bit of porn) are based just on this one book; many, many more are based on about forty distinct vampiric traditions.

The second-largest vampire tradition after Stoker's is Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" books (12 to date) and films. Compared to Dracula, Rice's Lestat is even smoother, more cosmopolitan, and much more terrifyingly evil...and he is not the worst of them. In more modern stories, vampires don't inhabit gloomy castles in far-off forests. As Dracula felt he'd find better hunting in London, so more modern vampires flood to the cities, and in some story series, such as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, they are taking over the world.

The vampire is the ultimate bogeyman.

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