A date with the undead

January 12, 2007

The vampire has come a long way from its Gothic literary origins, and Clive Bloom thinks the revival is enough to send Dracula creeping back to the crypt

I'm in this New York deli sharing a latte with this gorgeous hunk of a guy when he lets slip that he's a vampire. I've not dated for ages and a vampire on your arm is almost as good as a pair of Jimmy Choos nowadays. What's the worst that can happenI? Or so the new vampire chick lit would have it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for retro chic, and I'm not racist, but nasty, psychopathic vampires are so last year. Dracula may have been a miserable old bugger, but at least you knew where you stood with him. The rules were simple: keep your distance, don't go wandering in graveyards, wear a polo neck and never go anywhere without garlic and a crucifix. It was all so straightforward. Nowadays, the old boy's just got too much cultural baggage. For a start, there's that fancy-dress tuxedo, the Bela Lugosi accent that's become obligatory, the Transylvanian castle that's just waiting for a makeover and, of course, the fact that oversize canines, a taste for blood and being one of the "living dead" is more likely to raise a laugh than scare the willies out of anyone.

The Carpathian count was created by Bram Stoker in 1897 as a gothic revival villain. He was one of a line of vampires who could trace their ancestors from J. M. Rymer's comic Varney the Vampire of the 1840s through to Sheridan Le Fanu's little lesbian romp Carmilla , in 1872. Dracula caught the fin-de-siècle mood and the vampire took off, as it were. Nevertheless, right from the start there was something missing. After all, the fiend himself occupies less than half of the book and who really cares what that dozy lump of a solicitor Jonathan Harker does? And, of course, there's all that biting and sucking stuff with just a hint of something naughty.

The book left out more than it said, and what it left out was sexual romance. Hollywood understood first. It was in 1915 that Theda Bara, with her kohled eyes, jet-black hair and piercing stare, first whispered "Kiss me, you fool!" to her romantic lead in the film A Fool There Was and the "vamp" was born, a sexually aware and sensual woman who could drive men to insanity with desire. Vamping became a craze, and was even revived by fashion designer Ossie Clarke in the early 1970s. With the appearance of Anne Rice's book Interview with the Vampire in 1976, the vampire finally gained a plausible back story, kicked off goth make-up and got a green card.

The vampire capital of the world has not been in the Romanian forests for decades. Hip vampires live in New York loft apartments, but Toronto or the Midwest will do; Buffy just allowed them to kick ass. Qualifications are few: good looks; the grooming of a metrosexual; a touch of genius between the sheets; a BMW; and preferably a good job. One must be a hetero and for most of the past 500 years been on the lookout for a soulmate who isn't freaked out by a lack of suntan and a penchant for blood.

Since 2000, there has been a deluge of vampire-inspired novels. This has been particularly evident in the area of women's romance, especially in the Love Spell Book Club, which promotes writers such as Lynsay Sands, C. J.

Barry, Colleen Thompson, Nina Bangs, Kate MacAlister and Marjorie Liu, "bringing a little magic" into the lives of their readers. The love bites hardly stop there, and other publishers such as Piatkus are getting in on the act with their own writers such as Maryjanice Davidson. In a series of books titled Undead and Unwed , Undead and Unemployed and Undead and Unappreciated , we follow the antics of Elizabeth ("Beth") Taylor who finds herself on a morgue slab one day, a vampire and a spinster, in search of a man and the perfect shoes. The books are a comic blend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Bridget Jones's Diary . Helen Fielding and Jane Austen loom large over the genre with moody, vampiric Darcys finally seducing supernaturally enhanced Elizabeth Bennets, or randy, dead Rhett Butlers finally bring their Scarlett O'Haras to screaming orgasm.

If one is not keen on straightforward romance, there is Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark , a Sookie Stackhouse mystery where a mind-reading waitress solves a series of psychopathic killings while dating one of the undead.

Other stories include Living Dead in Dallas and Club Dead . If the reader is in the mood for mystery there is also Dead Witch Walking , a police procedural novel where the main protagonist is an Irish-descended witch in a halter neck who keeps charms on her handcuffs. She is an "Inlander" who works in the vampire bars of Cincinnati looking for tax-evading leprechauns and is partnered by Jenks, a married fairy (no irony here, Jenks really is a fairy) who likes imitating Billy Idol. We are told in the blurb that Harrison "has been called a witch... has never seen a vampire... loves graveyards... and wears too much black". Enough said.

The intelligent vampire read would have to be David Sosnowski's Vamped . In effect, it is Richard Matheson's I am Legend written from the vampire viewpoint, combining the vampire back story begun by Rice with the coming-of-age tale of the (nearly) last human girl and her transformation into the "womanhood" of marriage as a vampire. The book, sold as chick lit vampire romance, aspires to serious literature that uses only a popular format. Indeed, the cover could not be more misleading - "single male vampire seeks more than one-night stand" is calculated to gain the attention of the Love Spell Book Club rather than literary awards.

Vampires are everywhere. Richard and Judy even chose Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian , a reworking of the Dracula story, as one of their choice reads for the summer of 2006. But vampires are certainly not what they used to be. The problem was that originally they were nasty, vicious brutes who killed people in the most perverse manner. The undead clearly had a bad press. Nowadays, the genre has worked out some new rules, although you choose your author for which rules you are going to follow. Vampires are no longer scared of garlic or silver, they can wear crosses, go to church (most seem to be Catholic), eat pizza and watch Blackadder and The Simpsons , buy and sell on eBay, invent computer games, drive nice cars and earn a good living as an author or therapist, eat food, drink tea and coffee and get about during the day. Evil they are not, just misunderstood.

For the most part, vampirism has been put down to a flu-like virus (all the books make it clear this is not Aids and vampires are not the "other") for which the "cure" is blood conveniently now produced artificially and sold by the local blood bank or in the supermarket. The desire to bite necks has been suppressed and vampires "attack" humans only if sexually aroused and with their partner's consent.

Vampires can put the "glamour" on people, but singularly fail with the woman who will be their soulmate, are moody and mean, but also caring and sad and are miserable and lonely until brought out of their self-defensive shell by the woman they have searched for over the centuries. As for sex, it's the full monty for these vamps and it is described in full detail over and over again. Vampire sex is like sex should be. It's the last orgasm in Sex in the City and fireworks night combined.

I suspect that little has really changed in women's romance since 1961 when Mills and Boon published Sara Seale's The Gentle Prisoner , her reworking of Beauty and the Beast . The heroine falls for the scarred hero and accepts the "beloved prison" that becomes home. But despite endowing their vampires with superpowers, an ability to defeat knife-wielding street gangs, hold down a good job and still go shopping, these vampire books repeat the mantra of female desire depicted in Kathryn Blair's Dear Adversary of the 1950s, where a woman allows herself to be "mastered... when she can feel she is also loved".

Today, a doctor, international playboy or newspaper executive will not hack it. The world of modern romance is darker and more fantastic - and the possibility of meeting the man of your dreams is not merely unlikely but impossible. Men aren't what they used to be and nothing gets those missing kicks going like an all-American vampire. I suspect poor old Dracula would not be amused. Time to creep into the crypt and not creep out.

Clive Bloom is emeritus professor of English and American studies, Middlesex University. His book Terror Within: The Dream of a British Republic is due to be published in spring.

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