Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Immortal

To return to an idea explored in my last blogpost, Byron had a major impact on the invention of the modern vampire. Here is his description of it in his Oriental romance, The Giaour:

And fire unquench'd, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race…

In a nutshell: immortality bites. Whenever Byron grants immortality to a figure, it is always a sad story. In his closet drama Manfred, the title character pulls a Byronic version of Faust in order to summon the demons of hell to—get this—help him commit suicide. Living forever means watching everyone you care about die—living forever means that you have more than enough time to get bored of a job or bored of a city or bored of Halloween trick-or-treating—living forever means this times infinity.

Some modern texts figure this out to a certain extent. In Buffy, vampires are demons without souls—and so they live immorally, in the moment, in the present, because they don’t have human minds. On the other hand (ugh) in Twilight, Edward Cullen and family live in Forks, Washington, sitting through an eternity of science labs and pep rallies and—I think I have failed to give major props to Stephenie Meyer. She just designed what seems to be my personal idea of hell.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Sexual Predator

The first modern vampire was born at the same time as another great horror cliché: Frankenstein. While in Geneva, Switzerland, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and Byron’s doctor Polidori decided to write some ghost stories—yeah, they were doing it on a whim, while on vacation—and Mary Shelley indubitably won by writing the first science fiction novel ever. Polidori wrote The Vampyre—and he based it on Lord Byron himself.

Lord Byron was probably one of the world’s first literary bestsellers. He was famous for plenty of things: popularizing the bad boy persona, shaping modern tourism, but especially his sexual proclivities. So when the original vampire story was being written, the vampire took on Byron’s boisterous aristocratic mien—but also a lot of the “my love is fatal to my lover” mythology of Byron’s sexuality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Aristocrat

So I just finished reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and so I’ve been thinking about vampires. I thought I’d spend some time discussing the early vampires in fiction—and finish every post with how that strain translates (or does not translate) into contemporary trends like the Twilight series.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire is a Romanian count—one who has a varied history of fighting against Turks and terrorizing Transylvanian villagers—who now wishes to reside in the slightly more populated area of (say) London. He lives in a castle, he has piles of gold (won over centuries of conflict) in his library, and he is polite, well-mannered, and probably speaks the most impeccable English in the entire novel.

He’s an aristocrat, a caricature of an aristocrat, a caricature of a class that was always considered well on its way out by the time Stoker was writing. The idea of a bloodsucking monster being also a member of the aristocracy is fitting: individuals who don’t produce their own blood, but simply suck it out of others; individuals who live so long that they are rich simply by virtue of their riches being old…

So who ends up killing him? A ragtag team of rising middle-class heroes: a doctor who works at an asylum, a lawyer who is struggling with his first days on the job, a newlywed wife who can type and write in shorthand, and more. The Victorian period in England consolidated the rise of middle-class values, of the nuclear family, of Protestant work ethic—and so in one sense, it’s about middle-class people outsmarting this rich usurper who thinks he can live off the lifeforce of other people.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Pangaea

Panem in The Hunger Games; Eurasia in 1984; the Magisterium of The Golden Compass

Tectonic theory posits that the earth is actually a series of plates floating on molten metal. The continents used to be smashed together in a giant supercontinent that geologists call “Pangaea.” It suggests a simpler world, where you could walk from one side of the extant world to the other; it’s a world that’s almost impossible to imagine as contiguous with our own, Brazil and Nigeria next door neighbors, Russia and Alaska and Canada all one big hunting ground.

In dystopian fiction, a similar move happens: in 1984, we have neither Great Britain nor Russia nor China but Oceania and Eurasia and Eastasia. In The Hunger Games, we have Panem (a word that is probably originally a play on “panem et circenses,” the Latin for “bread and circuses”, but also nicely captures the idea of a pan-encompassing nation-state).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Astroturf

Examples: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451

I just finished Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the many “classic” dystopian novels that make up this genre’s history—and I was struck by Atwood’s decision to set her novel so close to the founding of her dystopia, Gilead.

New regimes are sometimes forged by revolution, born of sweat and popular dissent—created by grassroots movements that call and clamor for change. Few dystopias arise from this, if only because where they end up is ultimately a population of people too miserable, or lethargic, or both. Instead, as in Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian system just springs into life, a fake grassroots movement—astroturf. Extremists in Handmaid’s Tale gun down the American Senate; we have intimations that the caste system of BNW was developed by scientists and World Controllers.