So one of the things that slowed down updates on the last couple chapters of Enemy Mine was that my attention had largely shifted back to original fiction. And I disappoint myself when I admit that it’s about vampires.
Vampire fiction bothers me because everyone winds up inventing their own canon, picking and choosing from the vampire lore that has been defined largely by Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. Why even call it the same thing, if you’re going to make up all the rules? And yeah, while Anne Rice(‘s homoeroticism) was a formative influence on me and my writing, I really didn’t think there’s much new or interesting to be said about vampires.
There are basically three ways that vampires end up getting written. They can be (1) straight-up evil monsters, which is boring; they eat people and the good guys kill them, the end. Or they can be (2) otherworldly and sexy (hello, Anne Rice), but that requires atmospheric prose and a certain unrealism, a lack of specificity about vampire biology and bodily functions and where they get their fake IDs made. Because details are death to mystery and romance, with vampires losing much of their glamour when taken away from their shadowy backdrop and planted firmly in the mundane world that we live in. Which leads us to (3) sexy vampires brought low by having to put their pants on one leg at a time.
Vampires living like humans are disappointing. Vampires living in drafty Gothic mansions are ludicrous. What’s a writer to do?
(Although one recent vampire book that I enjoyed immeasurably despite its flaws was Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, for a very visceral depiction of vampires that was unlike anything else I’ve read. Vampires are all but incapable of passing for human; the one we get to know is described as large and spidery, with eyes the color of stagnant water and skin like old mushrooms, "the sort of mushrooms you find screwed up in a paper bag in the back of the fridge and try to decide if they’re worth saving or if you should just throw them out now and get it over with" — and he’s creepy and magnetic and triggers all sorts of hindbrain, run-like-hell prey instincts in the main character just by his presence, and there’s still sex in the air. I don’t think that description did it justice, but trust me, it’s really cool.
Unfortunately, when McKinley tried to go into more depth about vampire social structures and how the vampire lived, it sort of fell apart. She didn’t have original ideas on that front to match her original ideas about the creepy-factor of vampires, and given a choice between (2) or (3), she hit some pretty well-worn cliches in the interests of keeping them separate from humans.)
The more I thought about vampire fiction and its perennial popularity, the more I wondered if perhaps it indicates a failure of imagination. That it’s really just fantasy that doesn’t want to admit to being fantasy, because Fantasy Is For Loser Geeks. It’s fantasy where the author didn’t want to deal with the heavy-lifting of inventing their own creatures and building up from scratch, so they’ve piggybacked on the existing schema of ‘vampire.’ And readers are equally to blame, for preferring endless rehashings of the same mythology to trying something new. (Though yeah, I do get it, actually — vampire fiction is easier to pick up because you already have an in, you already know what vampires are, you have a life jacket to keep you afloat from the start. The same way that fanfic gives you an in because you already know the characters. Anyway.)
Vampires, I said. Not gonna write ‘em, I said.
…But alas, it was too late, because vampires and post-apocalypticism had fused in my head to create an idea that would not die. And while I resist vampires on principle, I have a deep-seated weakness for monsters and other non-human creatures as protagonists. The question that fascinates me is: How would their differences make them deeply, fundamentally different from humans? In the way that they think, the way that they perceive themselves and the world?
Take immortality, for example — an idea oft-used in fiction, but I don’t think the effects that immortality would have on one’s psyche have ever been explored to my satisfaction.
For one, how do vampires conceptualize their lifespans? As humans, we can make a number of generalizations and assumptions based on our age — about what our place in society now ought to be and where we ought to be in our development. We know about how much longer we’re likely to live and can probably make an educated guess about the general shape that the rest of our lives will take, or at least how we’d like it to go.
Vampires, who can live to indefinite ages and have no “natural” death to die, lose that framework. Do they think of themselves as old or young? Do they consider themselves to be at the beginning, middle, or end of their lifetime? How do they know what to do with themselves? How to carry themselves? Ought a two-hundred-year-old vampire behave like a human twenty-year-old, forty-year-old, or eighty-year-old? Or none of the above? Would it depend on the company they were keeping, that said 200-year-old vampire would act as protege to the millennial ancient but wise mentor to the 20-year-old human?
What would immortality do to your faith, if the world moves on and leaves no trace of the religion that you used to believe in down to your bones? Would you keep believing it anyway, or transfer your allegiance to a different faith, or lose the ability to believe in anything at all? If you’re twenty-five thousand years old, what would you think of the popularity of an upstart religion like Christianity? If you were raised a medieval Christian, what do you think of how your church has changed?
And if you live long enough, then sooner or later the society that birthed you will no longer exist. It may be go down like the Aztecs, wiped off the face of the earth with extreme prejudice, or it may simply evolve beyond recognition, but there will come a point when you realize that you don’t have a homeland anymore, that it’s gone and there’s no getting it back. Like discovering that your childhood home has been bulldozed, times a million.
This is particularly relevant to my story, because it’s set a few generations post-apocalyptic, but most of the vampires are pre-apocalyptic. It’s a hard reality for the vamp protagonist to swallow, that even if they manage to make the standards of living a little less, well, post-apocalyptic, the cultural fabric of America has shifted permanently and it’s never again going to be the country that he knew before. That this is America now, with its mutated language and mutated religion and survivalist culture, and he’s become the foreigner, on the outside looking in.
How does it feel when you know jokes that no one else living would understand?
How does it feel when you’re the only one left who speaks your language? Your head is full of words that no longer have any meaning.
How does attraction work when you start dealing the sort of age discrepancies that immortality brings into the picture? In our society we’re wary of relationships with even a few decades between the participants because of the inherent power imbalance. We’re suspicious that someone is taking advantage of someone — that the feeling isn’t genuine because the older partner just wants a hot young thang and the younger partner is overawed by money/fame/power.
It’s difficult to believe in a genuine connection between people of dramatically different ages, and it comes down to a lack of life experiences on the part of the younger person. I couldn’t date a high schooler, hot though they may be sometimes, because they lack the entire experience of being an independent adult, of living apart from your parents, working for a living, paying your own bills and feeding yourself. And conversely, a fifty-year-old dating me would probably feel similarly about my lack of experience with marriage, kids, career, mid-life crises, bereavement. They’re landmarks of the human life, shared experiences that put us on a more equal footing with our romantic partners.
So what landmarks would a vampire lifespan encompass? I’m inclined to think that the losing-one’s-homeland revelation — realizing that everything you valued as a human has ceased to exist — would be the biggest watershed moment (and probably also the point when most vampire suicides would happen). What experiences would a pair of vampires need to share before their lack of common ground came between them? Would the 25,000-year-old vampire really be interested in discussing her long-lost culture with a 200-year-old boyfriend who doesn’t get what that means yet?
What kinds of patterns would develop for relationships between vampires? As humans we have many different templates — the relationship between parent and child, siblings, classmates, BFFs, objects of all-consuming romantic passion, fuck buddies, colleagues, neighbors, rivals, boss and employee, teacher and student. What templates would spring up for vampires?
I don’t think vampires would engage in marriage per se, certainly not the till-death-do-us-part variety, but we do form emotional attachments and desire symbolic recognition of our attachments. It’s not hard to imagine an analogue for marriage that would accommodate vampire biology.
The relationship between creator and vampire offspring has been explored at length in other fiction, but what about the bond between vampires who happened to be born in roughly the same time/place as you? Even if you don’t particularly like them, hey’re the only ones who really understand where you came from. Especially as you get older and your numbers dwindle, I think that every so often, even if it was only once a decade or so, you would feel compelled to seek out your contemporaries for a pint and an afternoon of conversation devoted to references about lolcats and Captain Planet, just to reassure yourself that this existed once, even if it’s vanished off the face of the earth and survives only in memory now. I think the bond between people who shared those memories would be complicated — hell, they probably wouldn’t even want to spend too much time together, for the emotional upheaval of being reminded of your past like that — but I doubt they’d be able to break it even if they wanted to.
Moving away from the subject of immortality, to an issue more specific to vampires — humans: food or friends? Again, there’s a spectrum of attitudes depicted in vampire fiction, ranging from "HUMANS ARE LESS THAN CATTLE COMPARED TO US!" to weeping blood tears about the state of their damned souls. Standard operating procedure seems to be having the faceless majority of the vampire populace hold humanity in contempt, while the protagonist/love-interests are the liberal ones.
I think it would be a matter of dichotomies — that humans have a very distinct food vs. friends dichotomy that never overlaps (in America, we won’t even eat cute animals, for Chrissakes) but for vampires it’s not so clear-cut, because any human has the potential to be food, but any human also has the potential to be a vampire.
Tying back to what I said earlier about monsters being interesting for having a unique and distinctly not human worldview, I think we need to stop trying to understand the vampire psyche in the same terms as the human psyche. Yes, humans who regularly kill other humans are either going to be sociopaths or pretty torn up about it, but I don’t think vampires should be subject to the same standards. For one, if human blood is a biological necessity then they’re eating to live, and I think most people could come to terms with that in pretty short order. Hey, if it’s you or them, who you gonna choose? Do you really have to feel guilty if it’s a biological imperative?
(This is semi-connected in my mind with the [unnerving as fuck and no longer legal] psychological experiments that involve placing normal people in situations that encourage abuse of authority, and seeing how long it takes them to start losing empathy.)
On the other hand, I don’t think they would come over all vampire-superiority-complex either. They all started out human after all, and while it’s not rare for people to repudiate their origins, they’re also aware that any human is capable of becoming a vampire. Turning someone into a vampire doesn’t make them instantly smarter, so it makes no sense to scorn them one day and accept them the next. (And not just the speshul humans, those awesome diamonds in the rough who are worthy of the vampires’ attention, unlike the tawdry ugly masses around them, Anne Rice and Storm Constantine, I am LOOKING AT YOU.) It isn’t that some humans are for eating and some are for befriending — everyone is both. And humans would have a hell of a time wrapping their heads around that.
I don’t think it would be considered unusual or gauche or embarrassing for vampires to become emotionally attached to humans – vampires don’t procreate the way humans do, after all, so how else would the species continue if not through love, through the desire to have a loved one stay in one’s life forever?
That got quite long. And though I’ve read a lot of vampire fiction, I suspect that I’m having trouble remembering examples that don’t fit my thesis — so how does this jive with your reading experiences?