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  • TITLE: The Vampire Tapestry
  • AUTHOR: Suzy McKee Charnas
  • AWARDS: shortlisted Nebula, World Fantasy


    In 1976, Anne Rice published her first novel, Interview with the Vampire. Three years later, the first installment of The Vampire Tapestry, “The Ancient Mind at Work” by Suzy McKee Charnas was seen in Omni Magazine. Also in 1979, Frank Langella established Count Dracula as a bona-fide romantic matinee idol in yet another re-make of Dracula. And, in 1985 the blood-sucker on everybody's lips was The Vampire Lestat.*

    After that, a twittering madness seemed to take hold of the vampire franchise.

    This malaise was first spied in 1967 when 175-year old vampire Barnabas Collins appeared on the year-old and failing daytime soap opera Dark Shadows. Barnabas was chewing through humanity for an appealingly romantic cause: to hook back up with his long-lost yet now-resurrected lover. Although it had pre-stardom fans like Madonna, Tim Burton, and Johnny Depp, it was rightly ignored at the time and considered mawkish and histrionic. The show closed in 1971 and is a true anomaly. It has some interest as nostalgia or a fulmination, but only attempted today by either old ladies in rest homes or balding stoners permanently couch surfing.

    Another odd bump along this trail of modern vampire humanism is Whitley Strieber's The Hunger of 1981, adapted into Tony Scott's first film in 1983. Its main concern--the loneliness of the immortal—almost upstages the vampire's need for food as its driving force for intimate contact with people. Again, the sole vampire—this time an ancient Egyptian female named Miriam Blaylock—is questing a new companion in a historically-long series of paramours that can't keep up with her youthful beauty or stamina. The drippings of her sentimental—or phenomenally perverse--notions are revealed in the end when she can't seem to summon the beastliness to kill her past lovers. The film version contains a whopping example of exploitative vampire sexuality in the nude scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

    Of course, the crowning achievement of this New Age Vampirism was Rice's The Vampire Chronicles ranging from 1976 to 2003. Any notions that vampires are chiefly Satan's minions are dispelled as early as The Vampire Lestat. But, more importantly, it declares that the current indulgences of society are decadent enough to welcome the vampire by making him a celebrity, thereby glossing over his anti-social behavior as artful passion. Rock star and glamorama novelist indeed.

    Out of this freshly tilled acreage sprouted a mandrake root for the juvenile audience in the form of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)** and its hunkthrob spin-off, Angel (1999-2004). By tapping the juices of the youth, the vampire could now double for adolescent concerns ranging from pimples to popularity, demonized fathers to soul-sucking mothers, and even bad beddings to abortions. Tweens could plan for their upcoming high school days in Hades with cross-your-heart-bras and garlic lipgloss.

    That the 21st Century vampire would live in a world of acknowledgement and even admiration was inevitable. In 1993, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, hit the boards with Laurell Hamilton's first novel, Guilty Pleasures. Into the new millennium with her 10th outing, Narcissus in Chains, Anita acquired the ardeur, essentially a Mexican Fly psychic cocktail that induces nymphomania into all sexual encounters, and, in the beginning, Anita forces sex multiple times a day to keep her new abilities intact. Coincidentally, the series ignited with the mainstream and drove sales into the millions. Throughout the 16 novels and counting—Skin Trade is due mid-2009—these and other deus ex machina moments occur so frequently, scorecards are available here and there.

    As if in response to the wagging finger of shame directed at Hamilton for her Vampirella having lots of sex for all the wrong reasons, a new and more prissy vampire/human contact was developing in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, started in 2005. Here the tension between the young lovers is written in saliva not blood. Since plasmasucking has always been historically euphemistic for copulation--or, at the very least, the desire for forbidden fondlings--the message is to love with abstinence. Apparently, sexual refrain is more important than entering a relationship with a boyfriend who is saddled with a blood-addictive misfortune ranking above crystal meth or heroin. Stephen King, in an interview with USA Weekend in December of 2008, said “Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” But with 40 million copies in print worldwide, his criticism begs the question, “who's noticing?”

    The Vampire Tapestry is so good because it does not follow these trendy dance steps. Now admittedly, even in the earliest novelistic interpretations of the vampire legend exampled by Le Fanu's Carmilla in 1872 and Stoker's Dracula 25 years later, eroticism was associated with the “vampire's kiss.” Author Charnas acknowledges the fancy in the victim's role, but her vampire is too much of a realist to give the notion any warrant. “You are mixing up dinner with sex” (Tor PB, ISBN 0812532937, c.1980, p.28), instructs anthropology professor Edward Lewis Weyland. “Predators in nature do not indulge in the sort of romantic mooning that humans impute to them (p.29). . . Would you mate with your livestock?” (p.138)

    Dr. Weyland is a deductive, Scientific Method kinda vampire. There is no supernatural origin. He is simply a different species, and, unfortunately for humans, the greatest, most sophisticated hunter on the planet. That is also the reason why he does not usually kill his victims, but simply sucks enough for sustenance through a tiny tube on the underside of this tongue. He has no fangs. Daylight doesn't bother him. He is not immortal, yet he can hibernate for decades. He is the only vampire he knows, and his bite is not infectious. A jaguar in alpaca fleece, he is a survivalist. And the ultimate outlaw.

    Author Charnas is not un-sympathetic to her vampire, just rational. He is “a sort of leftover saber-tooth tiger prowling the pavements, a truly endangered species” (p.31). If there is any envy for his longevity—Charnas uses this brilliantly to illustrate the way humanity abstracts death by disregarding the past—it is certainly balanced by our uneasiness with the vampire's endless loneliness. There is respect, even admiration, but it is the kind associated with competence, professionalism, authority.

    But there can be a further relationship beyond predator to prey. Through all his chilly posturings, Weyland discovers buried, human-like emotions in himself through Art. A performance of Puccini's Tosca triggers a hunting frenzy that blurs the line between appetite and passion, causing him to question his entrusted animal instincts. Weyland realizes he does care, but that it is also his demise. “I am not the monster who falls in love and is destroyed by his human feelings,” he says. “I am the monster who stays true” (p.293). Thus, Charnas' vampire becomes the unsettled but consummate romantic—and tragic--hero by acknowledging emotional attachment through sacrifice. This is the difference between swooning from the vapors of callow allure and the maturity of true concern.

    That vampires belong in the Horror genre seems self-evident. They have always been the legendary, archetypal terrors in humanity's nightmares. Horror is created to frighten you, or, at the least, add some uneasy thoughts into the banality of your world. New Age Vampirism seems bent on breaking out of the genre's confines and establishing a new role for the modern vampire as the exiled outsider, that bad boy/girl/it sexy renegade who, beneath the scary reputation, is really worth the emotional effort.

    But in a day when even your bankers and brokers join the mistrusted list along with lawyers and politicians, it seems maladjusted to propagate intimate, reliant relationships with things dependent if not determined to consume your lifeforce. Is this the captive tarsier, bludgeoning himself to death against the bars of his cage, or merely the whimsy of a society so insulated in denial it can't tell the difference between titillating and terminal?

    You decide, Timothy Treadwell.



    * I am not including the Count Saint-Germain series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro which encompasses 20 novels written between 1978 and 2006 because they are historical excursions and not set in present time.

    ** Forget the 1992 precursor film. Even its creator says Buffy's real mettle lies within the TV screen.


    © copyright 03/09/2009 by Larry Crawford

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