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.

Of course, this thread of the aristocratic culture being the interesting polish on a villain shows up in plenty of monsters: Hannibal Lecter, British Bond villains (because for America, England is as weird and uncanny as Transylvania, apparently), and those creepy vampires of the 20th-century.

What’s weird about Twilight, then, is that in order to humanize the vampires, Meyer makes them into respectable middle-class citizens. They don’t live in a castle, they live in a development home; they don’t travel the world on century-old gold, they settle down in a town called Forks (voted “The Worst Place Name for a Gothic Novel Ever”) and work at the local hospital.

The Volturi (the bad guys) fulfill the role of aristocrats nicely—and so when the Cullens fight the Volturi, when vampires fight vampires, it’s basically average working guys against the Counts Dracula all over again.

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