God’s Blessings on January 20, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the twentieth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Yesterday I wrote about some thoughts I had after reading Brian Niemeier’s short story, Izcacus. Brian mentioned my post in a post on his blog, where he clarified something I said:

One item I should point out, since Christopher discloses that he’s not normally a horror reader, is that I did some pretty extensive research before writing the story. One of my goals was clear away the accretions artificially heaped upon vampire mythology since the 19th century and depict vampires closer to how they were understood in the original folklore. What I found wasn’t a clandestine society of suave, neck-biting supermodels. In the old tales, vampirism presents much more like a disease.

This is actually something which Brian had mentioned when I interviewed him, but had slipped my mind in the intervening time, so I really should have remembered it and clarified my thoughts. The relevant section from my post yesterday was this:

This is a very interesting take on vampirism, adding some very interesting technical detail to the mechanism of becoming a vampire. It’s not as blood-centric as vampirism traditionally is… So while it’s an interesting step forward for the mechanics of vampirism, it seems to come somewhat at the expense of some of the (recent) traditional lore of vampirism.

(That is not in itself bad, of course; I gather one staple of horror is re-interpreting older horror stories so as to create fresh lore; essentially producing a sense of realism by treating previous fiction as existing but inaccurate. Horror is not one of the genres I normally seek out, so I’m not very familiar with its conventions—or perhaps I should say its unconventions.

There are two parts to what I said that should be distinguished, the more subtle one I stand by and the less subtle one I stand corrected on. Since corrections are more important than new material, I’ll address the part I stand corrected on first.

It was a simple mistake on my part to talk about Dracula as the beginning of vampire lore. Doubly so because Brian had mentioned in our conversation that he had gone back to earlier vampire mythology. This was partially an error of communication and partially an error of thought on my part. By lore, I meant the world-building done by authors writing for entertainment. I’ve heard the term used that way metaphorically in science-fiction, where it is unambiguous because no one has actually told putatively true stories of the distant future or other planets. I then used it without thinking in a context in which there is a great deal of literal lore. This was just poor use of language on my part, because there was no way for someone unable to read my thoughts to read my words as I meant them. So for that, mea maxima culpa.

This was also an error of thought on my part because my strong interest in the stories of vampires in fiction (that is, relatively modern entertainment) obscured to my thinking about the significance of the vampire lore before the advent of modern fiction. This also was an error, and Brian’s goal of going back to the source and making it fresh again is a legitimate and noble goal. I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t, but I may have implied that by omission—I can certainly see how my words can be reasonable read in that way—in which case mea culpa.

I have only a passing familiarity with a little bit of the traditional vampire lore that Brian mentioned, by the way. I don’t mean to imply that I already knew it and I simply forgot to mention it. I was aware that the idea of vampires being able to be seductive is relatively new, possibly originating with Dracula. I was under the (possibly mistaken) impression that vampires were originally closer to sorcerers, that is, men who sold their soul to the devil for power and lost much of their humanity in the process, becoming recluses who may fall into outright cannibalism. I’ve got no sources for any of this, and might well be mistaken in my recollections of what I heard more knowledgeable people say many years ago.

Now, as to the more subtle part which I do stand by, but would like to elaborate on, I want to defend the modern accretions which have been artificially heaped upon vampire mythology. Not as better, mind you, but merely as something with enough meaning in them as to deserve their existence as something separate.

As a small bit of background, the way that greek mythology was presented to me in school as a child was as a unified thing, with particular gods and beliefs and stories about them. That is, it was presented as if there was a canon. I’m not sure if that was intentional or just a by-product of being so familiar with Christianity the people who wrote books for children just naturally presented it in more-or-less that way, which was then filtered through the simplicity of a child unfamiliar with religions without a canon. Anyway, this turned out to be wildly inaccurate. The Greeks had different gods, different conceptions of the same gods, the same stories about different gods, and wildly different stories about the same gods. Probably the best analogy today would be if you were to ask about Spiderman. He’s appeared in at least four different comic books about him (five if you count Spiderman 2099, though that was about Miguel O’Hara, not Peter Parker), countless others where he showed up for an issue or a few issues, at least four animated series that I know of and probably several more, and maybe a dozen movies. His origin story has been retold half a dozen times, and differently. His personality has varied widely with different authors, and it is absolutely impossible to even come close to giving a chronology of his life and actions which are consistent with half of the things he’s been in, let alone all of them. And so it was with the greek myths. The gods had very different personalities when different poets were telling their stories, and again when playwrights were. None of them were official; to a great degree you just pick what you like and stick with that.

And so it is with popular re-interpretations of folklore. Dracula portrayed a vampire as someone only very slightly inhuman, but attractive rather than repulsive. Fast forwarding to Interview with the Vampire—which was an excellent movie I really need to do a review about—you get to what Brian described as neck-biting supermodels. Well, that’s not quite true because I don’t think it’s implied that all vampires become beautiful. They’re seductive, but it’s not the same thing. All vampires becoming beautiful really comes into its own with Twilight, I think. In Interview with the Vampire the vampires are still relegated to the darkness where their seduction is by candlelight. And if I recall properly there were vampires who (by movie standards) were not particularly nice-looking in the vampire theatre. There is the minor detail that the leading roles are played by movie stars, who are beautiful, but in fact I believe that was something Ann Rice objected to in the casting of Tom Cruise. And later repented of, I heard, because he undeniably did an amazing job in the role of Lestat. Anyway, in Interview the vampires are seductive because they are hypnotic; they are not naturally attractive but rather supernaturally attractive. And this seductiveness does work with the idea of damnation, which certainly is a theme in Interview. Satan lures people with empty promises, and so too do the vampires in Interview. It is suggested, though not outright stated, that their seductiveness is only active when they are hunting; that is, it is generated by their intention to kill. It is not the sort of thing which can be used as a superpower precisely because it is only in giving into their bloodlust that they have the power at all.

And this, I should note, is quite representative of something real. We’re all familiar with art that has its power by titillation; and there is no good use of this titillation. It only has its specific power as a misuse of something because the proper use necessarily curtails it. Kind of like how a wine bottle only becomes a weapon if you break it. This is a very good representation of the sort of empty promise with which Satan tempts people. Vampires live forever, but only by killing human beings. Vampires are attractive, but only when they are hunting. You can see the same thing in people who use sex to gain influence; as soon as they stop the sex they lose the influence. Thus as soon as pop stars gain enough wisdom to stop peddling sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, they lose their platform to distribute this wisdom. Someone else still peddling those things has replaced them on stage.

So these new vampires are very different from the old vampires, though as we see in Twilight, they can easily go bad. By which I mean, revealing nothing about the human condition. (The central conundrum of Twilight is, what if you were irresistibly attracted to someone who could barely control their desire to kill you? Even if it is mildly interesting, it’s not exactly a question with broad applicability. The answer is, move out of town and change your phone number. Sometimes putting yourself out of the reach of temptation is the right answer. When someone can barely control their urge to kill you, that’s one of those times. Relatedly, if you can barely control your urge to kill someone, leave town. Leave the country if you have to. Even if it means having to call in sick to high school more often because there is less cloud coverage.) Still, abusus non tollit usum. There are good vampire stories about modern vampires left to tell.

(N.B. I don’t mean that last point to sound contradictory to Brian, who so far as I know has never claimed otherwise. I mean it more in contrast to the generally sound heuristic that modern things are bad. It’s one of the exceptions, I’m arguing.)

Glory to God in the highest.

One thought on “God’s Blessings on January 20, 2017

  1. Pingback: God’s Blessings on January 19, 2017 – Chris Lansdown

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