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The Quick and the Undead

July 7, 2010

Few supernatural myths are as pervasive as that of the vampire. As long as there has been popular entertainment, there have been bloodsuckers to send the thrill of fear and sensuality through the populace. But what’s most interesting about the undead is the re-invention that fuels their longevity. In terms of their changing incarnations, vampires are the David Bowie of occult superstition.

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Nosferatu: silent but deadly.

And, once again, vamps are en vogue. Whatever qualms I may have with what I perceive as Stephenie Meyer’s ulterior motives, I have to admit that Twilight has become a cultural phenomenon unequalled since Harry Potter. Though I will say, Meyer’s ‘vegetarian’ vampires are a far cry from the pure malevolence of Dracula and its first (silent) film adaptation, Nosferatu.

Of course, Meyer is not the first to romanticise the old vampire myth in this way. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles introduced Louis, the sensitive vampire tormented by his own craving for blood. This was echoed in the mid-’90s when Buffy the Vampire Slayer stormed onto television screens. The character of Angel was in many ways a carbon copy of Rice’s Louis. This aside, Buffy treated the vampire myth very differently. All of the superstitions — crosses, garlic, holy water — applied, unlike Meyer’s (almost) entirely secular approach. And let’s not forget that in sunlight, Meyer’s vampires did not burn to a smoking crisp. They sparkled. In Buffy, the romantic ideal of ageless, beautiful creatures of the night went out of the window. Vampires were largely the bog-standard supernatural pest for the Slayer; more the cockroaches of the night than anything else.

Given the way ‘Twilight fever’ has sparked across the globe and spawned a number of new bloodsucker-based franchises, there is a danger that vampires may be losing their edge. Edward Cullen (I have to spit the name out) and his unholy offspring (The Vampire Diaries, anyone?) have reduced the vamp from a singular figure of terror to the ‘inhumanly perfect’ heart-throb for teenage girls — and boys — to pine for. I miss the days when human protagonists didn’t offer themselves freely to the undead BECAUSE THEY WOULD GET EATEN IF THEY DID.

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At least I can see the funny side. (Photoshop genius: Hannah Laws)

Thankfully, amongst all the chaos of Nosferatu the Ubermensch impregnating high-schoolers with demon babies, hope has still emerged. HBO’s True Blood takes the vampire romance trope, but gives it back its teeth. Sure, the lead falls head over heels for a vampire, but he’s still dangerous. And Bill and Sookie have more chemistry than an explosion in a pharmaceutical plant, compared to Bella and Edward, whose sexual tension registers  somewhere below absolute zero.

Add to that Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This novel, my attempt at summer reading, is an update of Dracula, but not like you’d expect. It doesn’t assume the novel as a factual background, but keeps it as a work of fiction and poses the question, what if Vlad the Impaler really was a vampire? and produces frightening historical information to back up the enquiry. I’m just over halfway through, and it’s gripping stuff, even with a largely epistolary narrative (in true Stoker style). Thank god for Charlaine Harris and Elizabeth Kostova then, making it so I don’t have to give up on my favourite creatures of the night just yet.

But a warning, Stephenie Meyer: if I see you crossing the street, I will seriously struggle to brake. You’re just lucky I don’t have a car.

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You. And me. Just think of the merchandising rights...

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