Why Vampires Aren’t Cool Anymore

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Until the advent of the mega-successful blockbuster machine that is Twilight, vampires tended not to sparkle under the sun, nor did they shimmer and radiate, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t look like marble statues. Vampires have become so prolific, so ubiquitous, and so commonly used that very few vampire stories make an impression on critical audiences and readers anymore. I can still recall a time when vampires were considered an author’s “big reveal” and that stories were always cooler when there were vampires involved. Don’t get me wrong–I still think that it’s possible for vampire stories to be cool, but rare gems like “Let the Right One In” don’t come along so often. Fantasy and horror writers who have incorporated vampires in their stories don’t strike me as too worried, primarily because it’s a common assumption that if there’s a vampire in your book, it will sell, something which I think has become a great misconception. Traditionally, vampires have gone through periods of extreme saturation followed by a dearth then followed by another burst of too many titles, TV shows, and films.

There’s no denying that Stephanie Meyer’s series of books (and the film adaptations that soon followed) catapulted vampires into the spotlight more than they ever have been before–I would argue even moreso than the days of Buffy. A string of more Byronic, softer, angstier vampires began to pervade bookshelves, airwaves, and the silver screen much to the dismay of hardcore vampire fans. Recent shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood show the softer side of the bloodsuckers, although to the credit of both shows, they’ve put the spotlight on expanded storylines that weren’t in the books, especially in the case of the former, and it’s not completely being lovey dovey 100 percent of the time (although it can feel that way at times, but it is, after all, intended to be a teen drama).

I used to be quite disenchanted with the onslaught of paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and YA novels dealing with the Byronic take on vampires, because I’m a die-hard fan of the 30 Days of Night type of vampires (which was why Daybreakers was such a treat), but I do believe that there are still unique texts involving vampires that come out every so often. Books like Enter, Night by Michael Rowe, which deal with a more unique view of the scary creatures.

People’s tastes have changed. The majority of the (largely) female readership wants the softer, safer, more sanitized version of the vampire, and although this image has dominated the airwaves, screens, and bookshelves of late, my view is that the two camps of vampire fans should both be able to get equal billing. Publicists have certainly caught on to this and will promote a work that will skew more to the hardcore vampire fan audience with assertions that the vampires in a particular book/show/movie they’re pitching don’t sparkle, which comes as a welcome relief to the listener.

But when did this shift occur toward the softer, more sanitized vamps? Some are more than willing to place the blame squarely on Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles series certainly put the fanged creatures on the map, and certainly Rice was the first one to bring us into the heads of vampires, even if Louis de Pointe du Lac presented a particularly angsty, emo, and sometimes whiny “woe is me, why am I such a monster” point of view into the fold. It certainly should be worrisome for a character to reflect on the consequences of what they’ve done, who they’ve killed, what they’ve done to survive, etc, and the hunger that twists the vampire’s stomach and makes them into such fierce, unrelenting predators. But despite bringing the reader into the head of such a creature, it wasn’t until The Vampire Lestat that readers could see how the mind of the monster operated, why they hunt the way that they do, and how it makes them feel in all their glory, naked to the world and unafraid of showing what a true vampire can be.

So, while Louis may have introduced the concept (or at least made it a point of focus), I don’t think that Rice is squarely to blame, and while I do think it’s not that unreasonable to assume that Stephanie Meyer must have picked up at least a few of Rice’s vampire novels, I don’t think that reading those served as a direct precursor to her own Twilight novels.

And while I certainly think that the first time I saw a vampire sparkle was in the pages of Twilight, I also think that paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels have been introducing the “romanticized vampire as love interest” well before Meyer. Look at Buffy and her relationships both with Angel and Spike (although, to Joss Whedon’s credit, when they went into vampire mode, they looked and acted like beasts, something that satisfies hardcore vampire fans), or the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter books by Laurell K. Hamilton, whose vampires, most notably Jean-Claude and Asher, could easily have been taken from an Anne Rice novel in terms of the way they look and their emo sensibilities, particularly in the more recent entries into the series.

The books that line the fantasy and romance shelves now are a reflection of readers’ desires for male vampire leads like Angel and Spike, and they dredge up a certain amount of nostalgic attachment to be sure, but when one examines the most popular male vampire leads today–Bones from Jeanine Frost’s series, or Erik from the Sookie Stackhouse series to name a few–they go back to readers’ desires to see handsome, charismatic, noble vamps who are fierce when they have to be but ultimately crumble in the arms of their respective female love interests.

All that said, even though vampires have lost their edge and most hardcore vampire fans (myself included) consider them to be uncool, the “hardcore” dangerous vamps still definitely have a place on screens, shows, and in books and they’ll continue to have a readership, even if the readers who crave Byronic vamps outnumber us. The important thing is that both types should be made available, and both camps can say “to each his or her own.”

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Thoughts on “Let The Right One In” (2008)

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Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma), based on the novel of the same name by John A. Lindqvist, is a creepy film. I still remember the praise it received years ago (and continues to receive), because it’s so dark, so chilling, so innocent, so off-putting, and made with an aesthetic that favours art and storytelling rather than fast-paced commercialism and trying to get blockbusters to appeal to tween girls and their mothers. It’s all about audience. The Twilight films are geared toward the more commercial, mass audience and Let the Right One In is more of an art-house film, something that takes its time with pacing and establishes a story rooted in our worst fears but also our greatest hopes in a way.

While I do think the film deserves all the praise that it received, I’m not sure Hollywood needed to do its own remake called Let me In, which I have yet to see, but I’ve heard that it’s also a faithful adaptation. Still, like most devotees of horror cinema, I seldom think that remakes of a European or Japanese version of a film are done well. In any case, I enjoyed watching this film, especially as the ending surprised me.

Sympathy is such an interesting thing. It’s also one of the toughest–and most critical–things for any writer to establish, whether writing a screenplay, a novel, or a short story. In this case, the audience’s sympathy should go to Oskar and Eli, the young protagonists of the film, one a twelve year-old schoolboy tormented by Connie, and two other accomplices who, despite the fact that they’re unwilling, still go along with what he asks them to do and put Oskar through a lot. The other, Eli, has been twelve for the past two hundred years, something that the film doesn’t explicitly acknowledge (she refers to having been twelve for a long time). She’s not a girl, as she insists, but a vampire, and all she wants is another kid to play with, to keep her company, and to ignore the fact that she lives off human blood and that all other food makes her sick 😉

“Refreshing” is often a word that gets associated with this work, and with good reason. I sympathized with Oskar, of course, but also with Eli, because even though she’s a vampire and not really a child besides the fact that she inhabits the body of one, there aren’t any gratuitous transformation scenes. The blood that’s shown is done so in a sparing manner, which increases the film’s impact. It’s not about “Oh dear Lord, there’s a vampire child in town and she’s terrorizing everyone! How can we stop her? We, the townspeople, have to find out where she lives, barge in there, and kill her!” (of course, one of the men tries to do just that, finding the girl in her makeshift coffin, a bathtub), and it’s not “Oh, this poor girl is so in love with this boy and all they want to do is be together, even if it consumes both of them!” It’s not a Harlequin romance, and the “love” they feel is more along the lines of companionship, as they are so young, and their interactions, despite their kiss and Oskar’s assertions that he wants them to “go steady,” don’t carry the connotations of a deeper lingering sexual desire that fuels every Twilight knockoff out there.

But the aspect I found connected me the most to Oskar was his experience being bullied, even if the other two boys in the bully, Connie’s, crew weren’t comfortable going along with it, one of the particularly remorseful boys going so far as to cry as he whipped Oskar in one scene, which begs the question–if they didn’t want to bully Oskar, why were they going along with Connie’s demands? Did Connie’s older brother, who, it should be noted, bullies his younger brother but somehow seems to love and defend him, force the other boys into participating in Oskar’s torment?

Eli counsels Oskar, advising him to “hit back.” When he protests that there are three of them, she tells him to hit back even harder. A few scenes later, on a school outing to a lake, he does just that and does what most of us who have suffered through bullying would only dream of doing. It’s not relevant to the plot whether he gets suspended or expelled from school, but we do get to witness a scene in which Oskar’s mother frantically pleads with the boy’s father (they’re separated) to talk some sense into his son. Still, one can hardly blame the poor kid for striking out the way he did. As children we’re always taught that for every negative action, there is a consequence, usually punishment or that something bad will in turn affect the wrongdoer. But bullies seem to have an immunity to consequences. Either they don’t care, or they get a slap on the wrist because of who their parents are. The point is, they always seem to get away with it. Certainly, that’s been my experience with the bullies I dealt with growing up.

They cause physical and emotional damage. Scars that never fully heal. Of course, there comes a point when we’re forced to move on, and it becomes clear that nobody really gives a shit about the effects that bullying has had on us with the exception of close loved ones.

I found this film to be powerful because it explored this often painful territory. The story is told in a way that makes it seem wonderful, because it shows that there is hope for Oskar and that the pain will stop for him, but Eli doesn’t exactly lead a charmed life. When she can no longer rely on her adult helper for fetching blood, she has to do it herself, which does a lot of harm. Oskar knows this, and eventually realizes that she’s a vampire, but despite the fact that he has his reservations, as any normal person would, he still wants to be with Eli all the time and doesn’t see a killer. He just sees his best friend, and the girl who cares for him the most, even going so far as to kill for him. Granted, he does get pretty shaken up when a few drops of his blood land on the floor and she laps them up like a cat, but like any other child, she’s hungry, and needs to eat, even if her dish of choice is fresh blood.

Another aspect that differentiates this film from other works of vampire fiction is that it’s missing a sense of feeling an obligation to explain an origin story. We know from the movie’s promotional blurbs that Eli has been 12 for more than 200 years, but we never get an explanation of how she became a vampire, if she was born as one or if someone sired her and if so, who (and why/how). We never learn if there are other vampires, although we do see that she can turn others into vampires if the victim doesn’t die. And we don’t learn where she came from, or why she speaks Swedish 😉 But these unanswered questions give the work more freedom in a sense, because it allows the work not to be forced into a corner, constrained by the limits of vampire mythology or cliched plot points we’ve seen thousands of times before.

If you haven’t see “Let the Right One In,” I urge you to do so. It’s an exercise in originality, but also just a compelling story told in a unique way with characters that have complex motivations and are well-developed. The work really touched me in a way that few films do, and it was a delight to have a story that mixes the innocence of a child’s world with the darkness of a vampire’s in a way that doesn’t come off as comedic or schmaltzy and overly romanticized.

“The Dollmaker” in Murky Depths Issue #18

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Murky Depths Issue 18

My short story, The Dollmaker appears in Issue #18 of Murky Depths Magazine, sadly the publication’s last, as announced here. I have mixed feelings at the moment. On the one hand, I’m elated to see another one of my stories in print, and not only that, but my name is on the front cover, something usually reserved for the “somebodies” included in that issue, not the “nobodies” that no one has ever heard of (namely me). The illustrator did a fantastic job with my protagonist, dollface, and the black and white colouring added a touch of elegance and class.

The Dollmaker is a story that’s particularly close to my heart, because it’s one that I had to work extremely hard to sell. I had to fight for it, and I knew I had a well-crafted tale on my hands in this one. It’s the rather tragic story of a New Orleans prostitute who looks like a life-sized doll, and her constant struggle to find what she considers “home.” It disturbed many readers in all of its incarnations, but what surprised me the most was that even after I’d gone back and re-edited the tale to make it a different story, the Murky Depths editor, Terry Martin, said he liked the original version better because it preserved a sense of mystery better, which made me feel more flattered than I ever thought I could be, because I’m used to hearing that previous drafts of something are crap (or at least that’s how I think of them).

It’s a great issue packed with some awesome graphic novel stories as well as short horror fiction from a British Fantasy Award-winning mag that truly has excellent standards (and I’m not just saying that because my story is in there ;-)).

But despite this sense of joy, I’m also quite saddened by the news that they’re closing down, although it’s not too surprising given the current worldwide economic climate. Magazines and publishers are struggling to stay alive, and every day it seems there’s a new story about how a genre magazine is shutting down, such as Chaos Theory: Tales Askew, or Realms of Fantasy (although a new buyer was thankfully found, and the magazine has resumed publication).

Still, although this may be their last issue, I encourage you to pick up back issues of the magazine, which are available on sale on the Murky Depths website, linked above.