Monday, 9 September 2013

Why we need vampires - Anne Rooney

See the end of the post for Adele Geras's
poem inspired by this picture
I'm back with vampires again this summer, after letting them lie in their graves for eighteen months. But this time it's different. Last time I was writing my own bunch of modern teen vampires coming to terms with vampirehood in Vampire Dawn. This time, it's good old Dracula and I'm doing a retelling. I read Dracula rather differently now, not because of writing about vampires but because of researching them. I did a lot of research for Vampire Dawn, and Bram Stoker did a lot for Dracula. I piggybacked on his, not going off to interview Romanian peasants myself but using his notebooks and various other ancient texts as my starting point. Returning to the vampires again set me thinking...

There are vampiric legends all around the world. I made a list of some of my favourites when I was writing Vampire Dawn - including the Ashanti vampire, Asasabonsam, which hangs from trees by the hooks it has in place of feet and drops onto unsuspecting victims passing below, and the southeast Asian Penanggalan, a disembodied female head that flies, trailing its entrails behind it. They make your bog-standard turn-into-a-bat type European vampire look pretty tame.

I wondered why there are vampire legends all over the world.Usually, when something crops up everywhere - like flood legends - there's a good reason rooted in fact. With my fiction brain in, I hoped it was because there really are or were vampires. People have thought this until pretty recently. There was even the Highgate Vampire scare in 1970 (the Highgate vampire has an appreciation page on Facebook). But that was just a scare and a vampire hunt. In 1892, the unfortunate Mercy Brown became the third member of her family to die of tuberculosis, not an uncommon fate at the time. Locals believed she was a vampire and, when her brother Edwin fell ill, had her dug up. Her body had not deteriorated at all, confirming once and for all that she was a vampire. The vampire hunters cut out her heart, burned it, and mixed the ashes into water which they gave Edwin to drink (a traditional way of ridding a victim of the influence of a vampire). Edwin died two months later, of TB rather an attack of raging vampires. That was in Rhode Island, where you might have hoped people would know better by 1892.

But then I put in my science brain and thought again about why there might be vampires all over the place and decided that it's probably - like so many story patterns and archetypes - because they satisfactorily explain something that is common to all cultures and is a fundamental part of the human condition. What could it be?

 I settled on the grief, anger and resentment that accompany bereavement. The vampire preys first on their nearest and dearest. The victim stays alive, but in only a semi-live state. The vampire/dead one sucks the life out of the surviving mourners. The survivor might long to join the dead one. The survivor feels sapped, destroyed, tormented by the dead one. They might feel hatred towards the dead one, but at the same time remain drawn to them. Only when the dead one can be well and truly nailed and accepted as properly dead can the survivor shake off the haunting and get on with life. And some don't - some do follow their loved ones to the grave.

Vampire stories give us a way of encapsulating the parts of grief we don't like to acknowledge, cloaking them in a form we are allowed to hate and shun. They give us the right to say 'stay in your grave, leave me alone'. There are other stories that do the same - The Monkey's Paw is one - but vampires provide an established and universal metaphor for the fear and hatred we can have even for the dead we loved, a way of acknowledging those feelings without guilt. Of course, we've picked up vampires and run with them, and I doubt any modern vampire writer would say that's what they're doing. I wouldn't have done.

Well, that's my vampire theory. Please tear it apart now and drive a stake through its heart.


Adèle Geras has sent this wonderful poem of hers,  inspired long ago by the top of the two pictures here, and given me permission to share it with you - for which I am extremely grateful.


          Mother, on first acquaintance
          he is not to my taste.

          (Put him in the Yellow Room.
          Gather me into my garments.)

          His coat glitters like cockroaches.
          His boots contain nightmares.

          (Pull the flat maids out
          from between grey sheets.)

          His fingernails are white;
          unreasonably curved.

          (At eleven o'clock the family portraits
          open their mouths to scream.)

          Wallpaper absorbs and disperses
          the shadow of his hat.

          (I am wearing a bustle.
          I am wearing a corset.
          I am wearing a hat
          with a veil; with a black veil.)

          Tears leave stains
          at the bottom of teacups.
          Sighs become cobwebs.

          Mother, have you seen them?
          Mother, is it rude to speak of them?
          There, there, thrusting between his shoulderblades
          he has a pair of ribbed and leathery wings.

          (He will spread them.
          They will mask the light;
          groan and flap like an umbrella
          in an ecstasy of wind.
          They will fall into dry folds
          when he is done with them.)

          Put him in the Yellow Room.
          Let me consider.

Anne Rooney
Stroppy author


Savita Kalhan said...

Interesting post, Anne, and it made me think. Vampires terrify me in films and books. Not necessarily at the time, because I do like a good vampire story/film. But later, the thought of them - what they are, what they do... I always thought the myth of the vampire was so widespread across different civilisations because it was a variant of the 'bogeyman', but a far more evil incarnation. I'm not sure I'd like to do the research you've obviously done though, and I do make sure I've got garlic in the house and that my windows are shut at night...

adele said...

Lovely and interesting post. By coincidence, one of my poems is based on just that wonderful illustration and I will send it to you Anne by email in the hope that you can somehow format it to appear here...when I tried to copy and paste, it came out all wrong...

Stroppy Author said...

Oh yes, do send Adele, and I'll do my best to format it.

adele said...

Thanks so much, Anne...that is lovely! Very generous of you to put it up on the actual POST ITSELF! (I am blushing modestly!)

Stroppy Author said...

Not at all - it's the best bit of the post now! I don't want it hidden away in the comments. It is so kind of you to share it.

Penny Dolan said...

Really interesting point, Anne, about the fictional "vampire" echoing hidden human fears and feelings about the hold that the real dead held and hold over those left behind.

Candy Gourlay said...

... I could've sworn I'd commented earlier. Just to say ... so vampires share something with zombies ...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I can't provide a stake through the heart to your theory. In fact its a fascinating one that has never occurred to me. Very life affirming... we can move on once we have coped with our vampire. Brilliant!!! And great poem Adele.