Vampires: No Longer “The Ultimate Zipless Fuck?”
As Twihards throng the multiplexes for the release of Breaking Dawn Part 1, it’s time to reassess Stephen King’s 1981 hypothesis (in Danse Macabre) that the oral penetration promised by vampires constitutes “the ultimate zipless fuck”. Today’s vampires penetrate both ends simultaneously – at least they do in the stories aimed at grown-ups – and are looking for long-term commitment. When a vampire says “I’ll love you forever”, he really means it.
There are a lot of Horror aficionados who turn their nose up at paranormal romance or urban fantasy, preferring the Kingly bulk of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, or the dry bones of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and their traditionally carnivorous vamps. However, beyond the bland teen pap (“written” by the likes of Hilary Duff) there are plenty of guilty pleasures to be had with the children of the night. Why should gangs of teens in “Team Edward” t-shirts get all the thrills?
The idea of welcoming a vampire into your home and bed might seem repellent, even downright warped to anyone who read ‘Salem’s Lot or Interview With The Vampire in the 70s and 80s, but somewhere in the 90s, between Anita Blake finally letting Jean-Claude have his wicked way and Buffy giving it up to Angel, vampires stopped being scary and started to embody the Ideal Boyfriend. Did the vampires change, or did we?
Vampires are a nineteenth century creation: the first post-industrial monster was invariably represented as an aristocrat of the old school, perpetuating feudal hierarchies by treating the serfs as a free food supply. The first literary vampire, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven (in The Vampyre) appeared in 1819 and was a caricature of Lord Byron and his cavalier view of women as playthings, to be used for dark pleasures then tossed aside. Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula are ghouls in this mold, bloodsuckers exercising their inviolable right to drain the weak and the needy, the 99%. In the 1970s, Rice’s Louis was a landowner, her Lestat a rockstar. King's Barlow was a wealthy immigrant who buys up expensive chunks of property in ‘Salem’s Lot. Vampires have always been our overlords. And what use are fancy piles in the country and bank vaults groaning with centuries of accumulated lucre if you can’t use them to grease a little tail?
Money attracts sex. And vampires have never been above flashing their cash: it’s what usually puts the “willing” into “victim”. For the first century and a half of vampire writing, the two-fanged bite was all about sex. Those who found themselves at the wrong end of a blood-sucker’s teeth had somehow transgressed, given in to forbidden sexual desires and unbridled lust, and were paying the ultimate price. Unless a Van Helsing-type looked lively and staked the master vampire within a three-day window, the victim would be going straight to Hell. The message was clear to generations of titillated readers - Tall Dark Handsome Stranger = Beware.
It would perhaps surprise Stoker and Polidori that we continue to devour vampire stories in these sexually enlightened, irreligious times, but they’re still the best pop culture metaphor we have for the discussion of oral fixation, Eros-Thanatos complexes, Transubstantiation, and even homosexuality. As our attitudes towards sexuality have fluctuated, so have our attitudes to vamps. The current popularity of the leather-trousered, Fabio-haired, benevolent vampire is a sign of our sexually schizophrenic age. Penetration needs to be wreathed in fantasy as much as it did in the 1820s.
By the mid-1970s, post-Pill, post sexual revolution, pre-AIDS, the tradition of the vampiric rapist seemed somewhat crude and barbaric, irrelevant to enlightened times. A trio of vampire novels – Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, and Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot – reinvented the vampire as celibate, ascetic, and eremitic. A far cry from the veniality of the past. Their vampires are aged beings who contemplate human peccadilloes with the barest of amusement, so wrapped up in eternity that they’ve moved beyond desire.
King says “When I wrote my own vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, I decided largely to jettison the sexual angle, feeling that in a society where homosexuality, group sex, oral sex, and even, God save us, water sports have become a matter of public discussion… the sexual engine that powered much of Stoker’s book might have run out of gas.” His creation, Kurt Barlow, is never though of in terms of attraction, he’s a “middle aged man with a black mustache and deep, bright eyes… [his] cheekbones were high and Slavic, his forehead pale and bony, his dark hair swept straight back.” Barlow is an antiques dealer, as asexual as they come, interested only in murder and money. He’s undoubtedly fearsome, but his firmly zippered pants now seem as quaint as Count Dracula’s opera cloak.
Anne Rice was more prescient about the way the vampire tide was turning. In Interview With The Vampire, Louis articulates his loneliness.
“… all things change except the vampire himself; everything except the vampire is subject to constant corruption and distortion. Soon, with an inflexible mind, and often even with the most flexible mind, this immortality becomes a penitential sentence in a madhouse of figures and forms that are hopelessly unintelligible and without value. One evening a vampire rises and realizes what he has feared perhaps for decades, that he simply wants no more of life at any cost. That whatever style or fashion or shape of existence made immortality attractive to him has been swept off the face of the earth.”
The only way for a vampire to get his kicks is via human contact. It seems vampires need us more than we need them:
“She gasped as I broke the flesh, the warm current coming into me, her breasts crushed against me, her body arching up, helpless, from the couch. And I could see her eyes, even as I shut my own, see that taunting, provocative mouth. I was drawing on her, hard, lifting her, and I could feel her weakening, her hands dropping limp at her side. ‘Tight, tight,’ I whispered over the hot stream of her blood, her heart thundering in my ears, her blood swelling my satiated veins.”
Vampire communion as the ultimate in female ejaculation; no wonder this seductive paradigm has endured. And the vampire as romantic hero does seem to be enduring. He’s been around since Barnabas Collins in the original Dark Shadows TV show (1966-1971, about to be brought to the big screen by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton), evolved into the time-travelling Count St. Germain in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s novels, and exploded into hundreds of serialized incarnations in the paranormal romance section of a bookstore near you.
Vampire romance is harder to get right than it might look. Genuine skill is required to balance the Eros and Thanatos elements with a rollicking good yarn. Vampire books live or die (or undie) on the strength of the world building within their pages. It’s usually fun for the first four or five entries in the series, then tropes start repeating. Positioning the vamps as the good guys begs the question “who’s the villain?” The answer is usually “another vampire”, which starts to make the human characters extraneous to the plot. And it’s easy to get repetitive, particularly when it comes to the human/vampire/werewolf triangle. The success of key franchises has created a lot of dull copycats, bringing to mind Louis’ reaction to the coven he discovers in the Parisian Théâtre (“those vampires above had made of immortality a club of fads and cheap conformity”).
The Twilight Saga takes a lot of flak, deservedly. So badly written it’s difficult to describe them even as a guilty pleasure, Stephenie Meyer’s books have a weird unput-downable quality because none of the things we’re conditioned to expect from vampires ever happen. Edward hangs out in high school, plays piano like a pro, never goes past first base, sparkles in bright sunlight, and objects to Bella’s werewolf friend. Just like a regular boy, only nice. It’s impossible not to believe he’s a psychopath underneath the surface, and that Bella is half a page at most from discovering the truth. There is some inevitably icky stuff surrounding his undead status, but that usually revolves around other vampires, not the nice Dr. Cullen and his family. When the shit hits the fan, Bella usually just closes her eyes and lets Edward and Co deal with it. When she opens them, it’s all over. She’s the ultimate passive protagonist, a constantly distressed damsel. Nonetheless, Twilight is a page-turner in that the reader keeps turning the pages eager for something gory to happen. The possibilities are there. Meyer populates the periphery of narrative with intriguing details – the past history of the Volturi, Victoria’s jealousy, the Native American werewolves’ hatred of the European vampires – but nothing much of horrific significance occurs at the center of her storytelling. It’s the literary equivalent of a stripper who won’t even take her pasties off.
Twilight woulda coulda shoulda been a trilogy. Eclipse ends as Jacob receives his invite to Bella and Edward’s wedding and realizes it’s all over for him. Bella gets her HEA, Jacob runs out into the woods in wolf form, never to return, his humanity and his love eclipsed by Edward. So far, so Wuthering Heights. In what almost seems like an afterthought, Breaking Dawn introduces some sex and gore and rock and roll into Meyer’s previously insipid equation. After thousands of pages of repressed desire, Edward and Bella finally get to have sex. Coy, married, missionary sex that takes place in the white space between paragraphs, but they smash the bed and Bella’s covered in bruises by the end of it. Then there’s the vampire baby (because that’s the only consequence and purpose of sex within marriage) straight out of Peter Jackson’s 1992 splatterfest Dead Alive that threatens to eat Bella from the inside unless she receives a life-saving transfusion of vampire blood (anything’s better than considering an abortion, right?). When she’s born the baby gets a stupid name, eternal devotion from Jacob, and almost triggers an apocalyptic vampire war. Plus there’s a lot of detail about Bella’s transformation and how she makes a world-class vampire who is going to be young and beautiful forever, nixing all her fears about being nineteen and suffering from crow’s feet. Breaking Dawn is a rewarding read, but it’s not necessarily worth plowing through the other volumes to get to it.
Like it or not, the Twilight Saga has shaped a generation of readers. Teens have to learn about sex from somewhere, and Meyer’s highly coded fantasies (oral pleasures, bestiality, female desire) are probably more subversive than many of her detractors give her credit for. They also create an insatiable lust for more vampire stories. Despite her noble intent to promote abstinence, Meyer may only have succeeded in turning her young readers on to the exciting possibilities of monster sex. Once they’ve outgrown Twilight, there are literally hundreds of Bad Books on offer for the adventurous reader eager to follow up on those first stirrings of blood-tinged libido. Sookie Stackhouse isn’t the only other lover of the undead out there, and Bon Temps isn’t the only place you can party down with bloodsuckers, shapeshifters, and the fae.
Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter
Laurell K. Hamilton started churning out her Anita Blake books in 1993. Anita is an animator who raises the dead on a pay-per-corpse basis, usually to ask them about a disputed will or an unsolved crime. She’s also a battle-scarred, bad-ass, officially sanctioned vampire executioner, a half-Mexican incarnation of Buffy’s Faith relocated to St. Louis, on-call to the local cops when they have to investigate a supernatural crime (in later books she’s a Federal Marshal). In Hamilton’s elaborate universe, vampires are out and legit, which means that they’re protected by and subject to human laws. Anita investigates dead vampires and arrests bloodsucking suspects. Each book in the series is structured as a thriller; there’s always a new supernatural serial killer in town. This brings Anita into repeated contact with Jean-Claude, the delectably handsome Master of the St. Louis vampires. He’s smitten by her charms from the start, but for Anita it’s all about power play (“There’s nothing like ruining the calm of a hundred-year-old vampire to boost a girl’s morale” Guilty Pleasures p.15). She’s Bella Swan’s polar opposite, although she does have a similar vampire/werewolf lover dilemma once Richard Zeeman, the local werewolf king, smiles seductively at her in Circus of the Damned. Unlike Bella, the aggressively flawed Anita goes all the way with a whole variety of supernatural lovers, often with several at once. Her epic fucks are far from zipless, bringing a whole range of emotional entanglements and dilemmas that have so far propelled her through 21 volumes. Hamilton’s not the greatest of wordsmiths, and there’s a definite downturn in quality by the time the series hits its teens, but the intersecting hierarchies of vampires, shape-shifters, zombies, cops, Wiccans, and Vaudun priests make for some riveting reads. Although Anita is hot-tempered, hypocritical, stuck with some appalling 90s fashion choices, and inordinately proud – like Buffy – of her beeper, she makes an engaging anti-hero, flaws and all.
The Black Dagger Brotherhood
J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series also mixes up sex, violence and an elaborately constructed supernatural world. Ward is the urban fantasy nom-de-plume of Jessica Bird, erstwhile Silhouette romance writer of titles like Leaping Hearts and An Irresistible Bachelor. Bird has always confessed to a fascination with alpha males, and with the priapic vampire Brotherhood she certainly gets her pheromonal overload on, as well as revealing a delicious dark side. The blind vampire king, Wrath, is “six feet, six inches of pure terror dressed in leather”, and along with his brothers, Tohrment, Phury, Rhage, Vishous, and Zsadist (they’re later joined by Dhestroyer, Tehrror, and Qhuinn – naming isn’t Ward’s strong point) is sworn to protect regular, comparatively weak vampires from the Lessening Society. Lessers begin as human beings, usually weaselly, molesting types, and are recruited by the sinister Mr. X via a process that involves de-soulment (a Lesser’s soul ends up in a jar). Once initiated into the Lessening Society, Lessers are immortal, and over time their natural human coloring fades to albino. They take orders from The Omega, a non-temporal being whose dirty tricks arsenal makes Voldemort look like a UN delegate. Ward’s bad boy vampires are, inevitably, pussycats when it comes to females, and all have their vulnerable side. Beneath the warrior exterior they’re all looking for a shellan, an eternal soulmate (the very thought of a zipless fuck would violate their chivalric code) and romance is always a focus. However, in between bouts of mind-blowing sex (everything about these men is huge), there’s plenty of bloody meat to the stories. Over nine volumes to date, Ward has introduced a vampire pantheon (headed up by the Scribe Virgin), a fallen angel, human-vampire half-breeds, mating rituals, centuries-old curses, Sympaths, as well as the ever-present threat of the Lessening Society. There’s always something to keep the Brotherhood’s throwing stars at the ready.
Hamilton and Ward are just two of many authors writing within this sub-genre. Suggest your favorites below. The vampire bandwagon shows no sign of losing momentum. Just check out the size of the “teenage paranormal romance” section in your local bookstore; these Bad Books are flying off the shelves. No matter how many weak copycats flood the market, readers will always have a fascination with the power of sex to overcome death, and with proving Andrew Marvell wrong (“The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace”). Any text that explores Eros-Thanatos is guaranteed to thrill, especially if it grabs at your groin and your gut with equal vigor, and manages to tickle your brain as well.
Don’t feel guilty – I won’t tell anyone. Go on, have a bite.
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