The Monstrous World of True Blood

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True Blood offers a wealth of material for any study on vampires. The series comes up at every conference, and is usually approached with far more enthusiasm than other modern takes on vampires such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. Perhaps because the target audience isn’t 14 year old girls. And the series itself deals with a multitude of issues other than teen lust and just exactly how to survive the dreadful period of high school. Race rights and gay rights have been two of the most popular ways of looking at the series. It makes perfect sense: in the series, the vampires are the emergent minority group, struggling for legitimate recognition in a society that doesn’t know where to place them. They are marvelled at, shunned, publicly accepted but privately chastised. What I believe is the strongest element to the show (and of course I’d think this, given my PhD topic..) is the religious aspects of the vampire and the responses from the outsiders.

The vampires in True Blood are divided hierarchically, much like in the Church. There are sheriffs, queens, kings…all forming a chain of command. In series 3, we saw the leader of the AVL (American Vampire League), Russell Edgington, go live on TV and denounce humanity, and claim the superiority of the vampire race. His vitriolic speech was in a sense religious – the TV being the most apt place to reinforce the different between vampires and humans in this day and age, an age where the word of media is verbatim. His accompanying gruesome act of pulling out the spine of the news reader gave visceral proof of the fragile nature of humans. This outburst was in some ways a response to the antagonization from the religious groups in the series who sought to eliminate vampires because of their ungodly nature. The Fellowship of the Sun, which parodies the poisonously ‘happy clappy’ nature of many American churches, trains their recruits in killing vampires, and stages ritualistic sacrifices of vampires. It is also an interesting comment on the nature of extremist religions, and in an interesting twist, puts Christianity at the forefront rather than Islam.

Every episode yields so much material that is impossible to chart it in one blog post. The point being that religion is a strong theme in the series, and the one I find most interesting.

I was getting somewhat disturbed by the faerie storyline in the newest series (for those who haven’t seen…I’m sorry to spoil, but Sookie is a faerie. Faerie blood allows vampires to walk in sunlight for a time, so in short, it is like crack. Much like vampire blood is for humans.) but then I think the series has made a habit of embracing as many supernatural avenues as possible. There are werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, faeries, and vampires. Whilst vampires are the most interesting and still remain the main focus of the show, I do now believe it is somewhat necessary to incorporate all the different forms of supernatural ability. Something-other-than-human is what is the most intriguing aspect. These characters stand out, they provide a contrast from the humans in the show, despite the fact that outwardly, everyone appears human. It shows how easy it is to hide one’s true nature, and how there may be things we don’t yet understand about ourselves yet. The world of True Blood is one we can fully immerse ourselves in, which may explain its popularity. Monsters and variations on humanity are enduringly popular, and in the case of True Blood, the diversity gives us a chance to explore as many issues about humanity as we can.

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I Am Legend

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Today I read Matheson’s I am Legend. It didn’t take long, since it’s more of a novella than anything. Several interesting points came up.

1. I’d forgotten how much Hollywood seems to ruin everything. Whilst I know that the film is only based on the novel, it still gives people a false preconception of what the novel is about. Tell someone you’re reading it, and their immediate response is ‘I am Legend? Oh, like that film with Will Smith?’ It’s nothing like the film. AT ALL. The film spends the standard Hollywood hundred minutes revelling in post-apocalyptic shots of empty towns, and feral creatures fighting to survive. Also, there’s the crushing loneliness that Will Smith evidently feels, and the pathetically overwrought emotional attachment to the dog. Whereas the novel has far many more layers, despite its length. It is made quite clear that we are dealing with vampires. And these vampires are (as per) suited to the cultural needs of the time.

2. The vampires in IAL are created through infection (there seems to be a division in the ways authors choose to portray the creation of vampires. It’s either a choice/lifestyle, or an infection) and Matheson goes into some detail about how the disease takes over the body. He tries to scientifically reason through the many aspects of vampire mythology. In this case, the vampires struggle with sunlight, garlic, and sometimes sleep in soil. They do not turn into bats, and they have a reflection. A few interesting changes included the fact that the religious iconography had to be specific to what the pre-vampire human believed in (ie for Jews, only the Star of David would work…which I think is also touched upon in Being Human) and that a stake through the heart was not necessary. The body of a vampire need only be punctured to trigger a reaction causing the form to turn to dust.

3. The vampires seem to be some sort of cross between a feral pack and zombies. From the beginning, they wait outside the home of the protagonist in groups, howling and rattling doors. They are described as being “overtaken by a hunger for blood”, and not owning their body or brain posthumously. The vampires are mostly female, or at least, they are the ones which Neville notices. At the start of the novel he is tormented by sexual frustration and finds himself thinking about the forms of the female vamps, but desire soon wanes after a desire to survive overtakes it. Later on, we encounter the improved version of the vampire in Ruth, who can walk in daylight and counteract her brainless nature with a pill. Neville still treats her with some derision though, calling her “just a woman”. Still, her appearance provides the new vampire race with a figurehead, and humanises it, rather than the (to quote Mr Forss) faceless mass that we see at the beginning of the novella.

4. The whole story seems to be about the dominance of science in the culture of the time, particularly the idea of ‘germ warfare’ which Neville postulates as being the cause. Although he at first disputed the idea of science being the explanation for the vampires, he found himself warming to the idea and researched into it, finding a logical explanation for the supernatural. He cannot cure the disease, but others (as we later learn) find a way to manage it, and create a new society of semi-humans. As Neville simply puts it “bacteria mutate.” Society will always regenerate, and here we have the basest form of society – one that survives on death, that seeks it out. Society has come “full circle”.

All in all, an interesting take on the vampire myth. Vampires, like in so many modern fictions, have become the basis of society and it is the humans that are hunted and feared.

Let the Right One In

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Most people who know the title will associate it with the film. But Let The Right One In has come up in papers, conferences and deserves to be dealt with alongside other vampire fictions.

I have one issue with that though. I don’t think the book is about vampires. The main vampiric character, Eli, staunchly refuses the label. There is much talk throughout the novel about vampire mythology. Characters appear to fall into the badly written trap of questioning their sanity when thinking about vampires. In the realms of fiction, why bother? For a book that has been marketed from a vamp-heavy angle, does it really matter if the central characters blindly fall for the assumption that vampires exist?

So far, the mythological traits of the vampire are all there: inability to walk in the sun, the need to subsist on a diet of blood, fangs, not being able to enter another’s house (which is curiously present in fictions like True Blood) and seemingly eternal life. You could be forgiven for seeing it as a vampire novel. But it’s not. Eli, and one of her victims, Virginia, give accounts of the experience. It is “an infection”, “a separate brain is forming” that attaches to the heart and makes decisions of its own accord. Vampirism is not a way of life, or a choice. It is an infection that controls the corpse it is hosted by. Which to me sounds like some strange cross between zombies and vampires. In an age where zombies are gaining momentum in popular media, perhaps we should have seen that it was only a matter of time before the two ‘species’ crossbred and adopted each other’s traits.

The book is fascinating though. Brutally visceral, wonderfully graphic…and at times too much for me to stomach. The most jarring element of the novel was the paedophilia. Lindqvist sets the tone early on with a scene in the locker rooms. Hakan, Eli’s guardian of sorts, is laying in wait to drain the blood from a young boy. Whilst he does so, he witness the young (they are described as 12 or 13) boys undressing and orgasms despite himself. I was frankly shocked at this point, but the scenes only seemed to get worse. Hakan’s motivation for becoming Eli’s guardian appears to be the sexual stimulation he gets out of being around a minor. Oddly enough, Eli has been stripped of sexuality, literally. The ‘vampire’ has no genitals, only a “smooth surface” where something had once been. Even though the vampire is de-sexualised (in opposition to every other modern vampire who combines feeding with sex), the world around it is so overtly sordid that reading the behaviour of the humans makes us question our own race. It is interesting that the vampire has been used in this instance to tackle the taboo subject of paedophilia. Because Eli is more mature than an actual 12 year old (being over 200 years old), it gives her/him the ability to know what is right and wrong, and refuse to be subject to certain experiences.

Although genderless, it is revealed in the latter half of the novel that Eli is short for Elias, and that the vampire was once male. This confuses Oskar, Eli’s friend, and romantic interest. It is also made more confusing by the fact that Lindqvist changes genders halfway through the novel when referring to Eli. After the initial shock, Oskar maintains his interest in Eli, but it doesn’t come across as sexual. Rather, it appears that Oskar is just desperate for someone to connect with. A broken family home coupled with bullying have taken their toll, and leave Oskar with thoughts that we (cinematically savvy) would associate with a future serial killer. Eli provides salvation in her acceptance of Oskar.

When reading, it made me think back to the film versions.

2008’s Swedish Let the Right One In is the better of the two.

The film itself communicates the bleak, despairing atmosphere of the novel. The soundtrack is limited, relying instead on the minute expressions and sounds of the cast. Elements of paedophilia have been kept to a bare minimum, instead concentrating on the relationship between the human and the non human.* It is more a story of the struggle of a young boy to escape an emotionally and physically abusive life.

Eli is far more vampiric in the film.

However, it was interesting to see they picked an actress who was able to look suitably androgynous.

In comparison, the American version seemed like a milder version:

Chloe Moretz plays ‘Abby’ which is a feminine name, and therefore does not allow for any underlying hints of the novel to emerge. Regardless of whether it is supposed to be an ‘adaptation’, the film’s cinematography was startlingly similar, but without the same impact.

There is so much more I could write about this book, but for now, I’ve covered the basics…

 

 

 

*Although, interestingly, in the novel, the most monstrous character is Hakan, the predatory paedophile. After burning his face off with acid, jumping 10 storeys and surviving, he is on the run. A journalist aptly describes the fascination with finding him:

“It’s a search for the archetypal Monster. This man’s appearance, what he’s done. He is the Monster, the evil at the heart of all fairy tales. And every time we catch it, we like to pretend its over for good.”

Dracula

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I think I should probably admit something:

I’m not a fan of Dracula.

As shocking as it sounds, given that every single vampire text has to in some way reference Stoker’s creation, I’m not a fan. I don’t like the novel,, I don’t like the way Stoker writes, and I’m not particularly interested in the ‘legacy’ of Dracula.

I’m aware that it stems from the myth of Vlad the Impaler.

By all accounts, the man was a bit of a bastard. The whole impaling thing got out of hand. His version of impaling involved inserting a pole up the rectum of his victims. They died slowly, painfully, and usually when the stake got as far as their lungs/heart and punctured them. But Dracula did no such thing. He was secretive, repulsive, compelling. He could climb up walls. He didn’t eat, and he had a coven of child-hungry female vampires. There has been unending criticism on the text, and I believe there will continue to be. Everybody wants to pitch in with their interpretation of the novel. The sheer momentum it has acquired means that writing about it, or making links to it add gravitas to the work of the author.

The Dracula myth has been warped and adapted to suit various cultural needs. At the time, it was seen as a fear of invasion. The Count was markedly foreign, and represented a corruption of puritanical Britain. He infected hearts, minds, and various other bodily parts with his powers (something that vampires would call ‘glamouring’ these days).

In the 70s, with the Hammer Horror films, we had this incarnation of Dracula:

He was sleazy, lurid, and very kitsch. It blunted the once horrific threat vampires had posed. They had become comic cannon fodder. The Hammer Horror series developed a cult following, but weren’t quite up to Hollywood standards. The vampire wasn’t revered. It was being mocked.

Then, in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Along with Frankenstein two years later, Hollywood were trying to create their own brand of the monstrous classics. This time, Dracula looked like this (courtesy of Gary Oldman):

Notice anything about these 3 pictures? I do.

1. They’re all male. (Well, obviously, but go with me on this one)

2. They’re all over 30.

3. None of them are attractive.

Since the last Dracula film, vampiric protagonists have taken a sharp turn. No longer do we view vampires as creepy, older, or repulsive. They rarely turn into bats any more. Instead, they are defined by juxtapositions. Beauty or innocence is a often-used trope to confuse the audience. How can something that looks so innocent or attractive be evil? It forces us to change and realign our perceptions of good and evil. Rather than Dracula, who is obviously unattractive, today’s vampires are closer to human (and youth) than ever. This serves two purposes: to point out that metaphorically, the legend has a great deal of potential left (and because we fetishise youth) and secondly, to make us reconsider what we consider to be human/inhuman behaviour.

Still, all being said, I’m still not a fan of Dracula.

Nightwatch

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On the front cover of Lukyanenko’s Nightwatch, the Telegraph describes it as the “J.K.Rowling of Russian literature”. The writing matches the crude comparison. I’ve seen the film, and it is nothing like the book.

On the one hand, the book was published in 1998. It talks of mobile phones as almost space-age gadgets, which seems inconceivable in today’s modern age. The main fixture is magic, not vampires. The book rather simplistically charts a struggle between good and evil, with the ‘light’ magicians on one side and the ‘dark’ magicians on the other, whilst trying to note that the world will ‘always balance out’ the good and evil. The vampires are always on the dark side, and need permits in order to feed on humans. They are involved in society, but their true nature is hidden. But this is still a step forward from the vampires of Anne Rice who could only come out at night.

The film, on the other hand, is cool, sophisticated, and doesn’t seem riddled with clunky storytelling. The book itself is separated into three different stories, each of which follow the same protagonist. It does spell out what ‘the twilight’ is, whereas the film could get confusing at points.

What is interesting to think about is why the vampire aspect of the series was played up far more in film than in the book. One would suspect because of the aesthetic appeal of the vampire. Blood and fang-penetration is far more visually appealing than wands…

 

Lost Souls

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(A lot of vampires are very ‘lost’, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s to do with the idea that they are neither human nor inhuman, thus lost in every sense of the word. Lost identity, lost definition, lost role in society…)

Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls (1994) is the next text I’m going to write about on here. It was a text I dealt with in my MA dissertation, alongside Lost Boys and Twilight. What makes it different to many other vampiric texts is the overall tone. Brite writes in a very visceral, obvious way that leaves no room for subtlety. So much so, that her main character, Nothing, is mysteriously summed up by his lack of name. In previous conferences I’ve attended, people have discussed the text, citing Nothing as being the poster boy for Foucaultian homosexuality- he is without identity because he chooses to live outside it. The vampires in this text are just as lost as David et al in LB. They drink copiously, sleep with whatever they can, and eat whatever they want to.*

The similarities continue: the family ties run through Lost Souls, even delving into the murky depths of incest (Nothing falls in love with his father, Zillah, and sleeps with him). In New Orleans, the vampires haunt the bars, bringing a dirty, sleazy glamour to the night. What is perhaps most disturbing about the text is the treatment of women. Many vampiric texts have the same theme running through. Women are victims, a resource to be plundered. In Lost Souls, they are merely pieces of meat to rape and incubate vampire offspring. Whenever a woman gives birth to a vampire (in this text), they are ripped apart, and die painfully in the process. (NB. This is a more extreme version of how Bella gives birth in Breaking Dawn) Male power is dominant, and sexual categorisation seems to no longer apply. The vampires behave like feral packs in the text though, which subsequently seems to dehumanize them, and the humans they associate with. Brite seems to be making a satirical comment on society and sexuality in general; the vampires are just the metaphorical playthings she uses.

What is interesting is how different vampires today are. Zillah et al seem defined by the grunge era America they were written in. Today we have a much slicker, polished, and aspirational vampire. These vampires have no god, no mention of religion, and family is warped in a very disturbing way. Whereas Brite revels in the dysfunction, Schumacher’s Lost Boys tried to find a way to fix it. By the end of the film, Michael had assumed the dominant male role, taken charge of his family, and dispatched the ‘threat’ of vampirism. It was a classic tale of good vs evil, where society and it’s ‘virtues’ triumphed. But here we have innocence destroyed and families torn apart.

There is a clear change in what the vampire represents throughout the eras.

 

 

*This is often a point of contention in vampire mythology. Dracula was never shown to eat, but neither did he say that he couldn’t. Anne Rice’s vampires cannot eat, yet Meyer’s vampires are physically able to eat, but just don’t find it pleasant.

Lost Boys

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Obviously, this is an essential slice of vampire culture. It epitomised 80s America, youth culture, and a massive shift in the way we saw the metaphorical figure of the vampire.

In my MA dissertation, I argued that the Lost Boys were the epitome of the psychosocial moratorium*, and that the vampire itself had become a metaphor for the lost youth. The figure of the vampire is representative of the psychosocial moratorium. They live on the edges of society, are unbound by rules and are neither adult or child.

A lot of criticism has focused on the political background to the film, and the homosexual interpretations of the vampire. For example, the Reagan years and the fear of AIDS was continuously linked to the fear of ‘infection’ in Lost Boys- Michael was ‘tricked’ into becoming a ‘half vampire’, which conveniently meant he had the opportunity to choose whether or not he wanted to make the full transition. The cynic in me says that this could be seen as a sly dig at ‘choosing’ sexuality/the idea of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. Nevertheless, the vampire was moving from being a mere spectacle (as in the Hammer Horror films) to being an important cultural marker which reflects our fears. Their ability to assimilate in society, as in the Lost Boys (where they were seen as an anarchic adolescent crew) marks the beginning of the vampires who infringe upon us and claim aspects of our identity.

 

 

 

*The psychosocial moratorium something Eriksson discusses as being the result of a (usually adolescent) identity crisis. It is the individual’s way of dealing with this lack of identity, and a way of ‘taking a break’ from society (being absolved of social responsibilities and expectations, ‘suspending’ their identity) and being able to find a  role/place where they belong. The way the PM presents itself differs from generation to generation. I would argue that today University is the biggest example of a PM; it has become a rite of passage for many young people, and delays the gaining of employment, housing, and is a time where the individual forms their identity.