Somewhere in my virtual travels I came across feedback another author had gotten on her as yet unpublished vampire novel. The story involved a not so youthful, zoftig vampire who was also a mom. The reader loved the idea of a vampire with whom she could identify.
I get it. Some readers like characters who are “like” them. They love, especially in escapist literature, to imagine themselves in the place of the protagonist. It’s why so many young girls took Bella into their hearts, while many older women looked at Twilight and shook their heads.
Certainly, Fifty Shades owes some of its popularity to the blankness of its characters. Anastasia is generic virginal 20-something white girl in love with handsome mysterious stranger. Kink is a gimmick. It’s the formula that sells.
There is something to be said for this approach. It’s been popular a very long time. Jane Austen was writing for well-brought up young ladies like herself who hoped to marry both well AND for love. Her audience understood the pitfalls and perils that her heroines faced. They liked Elizabeth Bennett because they wanted to believe they were Elizabeth Bennett.
Vamps – as in female vampires – don’t have to be just like us. We might secretly wish to be like them or to be them for a a weekend or a few hundred years, but that’s because they get to do things we wouldn’t do even if we could. We should revel in their badness, their transgressive natures. They walk by night and the night is a filled with debauchery and mayhem. By nature they aren’t good mothers. They aren’t mothers at all except maybe to other vampires they sire, and that may be an incestuous relationship. If they’re constantly fighting their desires, or not feeling them, if they can survive on animal blood or bottles from the blood bank, then we’d all be clamoring for immortality. Sunshine wouldn’t be too much to give up for eternal youth and beauty. Eternal damnation however, that’s something else. We really wouldn’t choose that? Would we?
Who was the first female vamp? Hard to say, but a case could be made for the mythical Lilith (not to be confused with the True Blood version). She has been credited with walking by night, leading men to their doom and stealing children. In terms of the literary predecessors of modern day vamps, the first was Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. (Seen in the first illustration on this post.) Carmilla shows up and becomes friends with the sweet and innocent Laura, but Carmilla isn’t like Laura. She sleeps late, loves the night, disdains Christianity, and oh yeah, wants to be more than friends. She’s Laura’s dark twin, but Laura is the one with whom we are meant to identify.
Twenty-five years later, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker is attacked by the title character’s debauched “brides.” When Lucy goes vamp she takes children, and the fears around Mina involve her chastity as much as her life.
Until very modern times, sex had deadly consequences for women – most of the time. Even sanctified unions led to childbirth which was a dangerous endeavor. Avoiding childbirth involved its own dangers. In Europe venereal diseases were rampant and men often brought “the harlot’s curse” into the marriage bed, but vamps can’t get pregnant and they don’t get sick. They can do as they please, and are by nature lustful. They not only weren’t mothers, they steal other women’s children. And their sexual appetites don’t seem limited to any particular gender. By the old standards, they were transgressive bad girls. Hence the term, “vamps” became popular to describe not just literal blood-sucking creatures of the night, but all femme fatale who led men to their doom and didn’t play by the good girl rules.
Women might identify with them or with some aspects of these characters, but they didn’t have to be like them.
Being mortal, however, these non-vamp vamps often suffered consequences. In the 1929 silent film, Pandora’s Box, the free-spirited and sexually free, Lulu – destitute in London – is killed by non-other then Jack the Ripper. In many stories, including the fictional depictions of the life of Mare Duplessis, conventional morality required that the “whore with the heart of gold” die at the end. Even if a woman reforms, it’s too late. In the 1936 film, Dracula’s Daughter, the famous count’s vampire daughter is a tortured soul, trying to be good and failing, again and again. Finally, she’s put out of her miserable existence.
But if in modern times, anything goes (except the blood-sucking and killing part) then what do we get out of vampires – especially the female ones? Male vampires have become romantic heroes – men to be tamed by the love of a good woman, men who must always fight their wild natures.
So many post Anne Rice-vamps have been humanized almost defanged (or metaphorically castrated). Most stories in the Twilight mode involve vampires who fight against their baser instincts and survive on other-than-human blood or get their human blood without the killing. The metaphor is not about living the libertine transgressive life, but about control and suppression, which becomes equated with virtue.
Part of what I wanted to do in writing Blood Diva was to get back to basics. The divos of Blood Diva need fresh human blood to survive. It is a Faustian bargain that must be made willingly. They never lie to each other, but they lie constantly to mortals.
Is it risky to have a protagonist who does very bad things? Maybe not. Dexter kills and lies and he’s pretty popular. Hannibal Lector is a hero to some folks. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy still exists though the lines are blurrier. We may not be Victorians drawn to the wanton sexuality of vamps and their ability to completely ignore propriety, but we are not so different from them. We still have to contend with and contain the beast within – our own desire to kill, to devour, to lie and cheat. Readers don’t have to love my heroine, but I hope they will enjoy being inside her head – and maybe secretly wish they could be her – at least for a crazy weekend or two.
(Hey if you liked this post could you maybe click that facebook icon [f] at the top of screen on your right? That will take you to the facebook page for my novel where you may “like” or not.)