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.

God’s Blessings on January 19, 2017

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

I recently read Brian Niemeier’s free short story, Izcacus. It was an interesting read, both while I was reading it and afterwards. It’s a good use of fifteen minutes. Unfortunately short stories lend themselves to short reviews, because (when well written) they’re so tightly written that talking about them gives away too much information. At least I have that problem. Russell Newquist would probably find a way around it, as he’s very good at writing reviews, I’ve noticed.

But I am going to talk about Izcacus, so this is your warning that there will be spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading here (until you’ve gone and read the story, at which point please come back).

 

Or here, that would work too.

 

Even here, really. But that’s it. The next paragraph will have spoilers in it, so stop reading now if you haven’t read it and don’t want to encounter spoilers.

 

I should begin by saying that I went in knowing that Izcacus was written as an attempt to bridge the gap between religious vampires and scientific vampires. So I didn’t some at it with perfectly fresh eyes, as it were. That will naturally color my thoughts on the story, but probably it has a bigger impact on my reaction to it than my considered thoughts about it.

The first thing I find interesting about Izcacus is that it uses what my friend Michael referred to as epistolary narration. That is, several characters narrate the story in the form of emails, letters, blog posts, journal entries, and most interestingly letters to a dead brother. It’s by no means an unheard of device, but it’s not overly common, and as Michael reminded me, it is also the narrative device in Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I doubt that coincidence is accidental, though I haven’t asked Brian about it. He uses the device well and avoids its weakness—it can easily become very confusing to have multiple narrators—while taking advantage of its strength. In particular, it allows a lot of character development in few words, since the voice of the character tells you a lot about them. Not merely the words they choose or their commentary, but also what they choose to talk about and what they leave out. Editorial decisions tell you as much about a person as creative decisions, if they tell it to you more subtly.

Second is that one of the problems that every horror author is faced with in the modern world is that horror and modern technology don’t blend well. I don’t mean that they can’t, but a person with a cell phone can—in normal circumstances—call for help so that they won’t feel alone. Of course, that doesn’t always do much. (There was a news story a while back about a russian teenager who called her mother on the phone while a bear was eating her. She died before any help could arrive. More locally, there was a hunter who shot himself with a crossbow and called 911 but was dead before they arrived. If a broadhead cuts a major blood vessel, you can bleed to death in as little as about 45 seconds. I’ve seen a deer pass out in about 20 seconds.) But there is still a big difference in mood between knowing that help is on its way and won’t arrive in time versus not even being able to call for help. By setting the story on a remote mountain without cell service, and further where they had to trespass russian law to even be, this problem was solved very neatly. There are plenty of very remote places in the world and if you haven’t told anyone that you’re going there, no one will ever come looking for you there. (One reason why the Pennsylvania hunter safety course emphasizes telling people where you are going hunting and when you will be back, every single time.) Structurally, I really like this.

The mood is done well about isolation and danger and so on, but in general I’m far more interested in structure than mood—possibly because I have a very powerful and active imagination and can imagine the mood for myself even if it is not described, but my philosophical side rebels against plot holes. Pleasantly, there are no plot holes in Izcacus, which I appreciated. And the structure is very interesting indeed when we come to the central point of the story: vampirism. Izcacus, we find out, means “blood-drinker” in the local dialect, and the mountain climbers eventually find a cave with some old but suspiciously fresh corpses. And here is where Brian marries religious with scientific vampires. Vampirism is a form of demonic possession, but possession requires the cooperation of the possessed. And so the demons have created a virus—which walks the line between living and inanimate—as a means of entering healthy hosts. The virus acts in its natural fashion to weaken the host; by putting them in extremes of pain and weakness, the host becomes more willing to accept the possession which will rid them of the pain. And as the story (or rather, one of its characters) noted, after death the body becomes merely material. 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, and in fact one weakness of the story is that it isn’t made very clear why the vampires are called blood-drinkers at all. No one is exsanguinated that I can recall, and any wound seems to suffice for entrance of the virus. Granted, one of the characters was bitten on the neck, but another seemed to be infected by a cut on her shoulder. And this is somewhat inherent in the nature of blood-born viruses. If saliva will work for transmission, blood-to-blood contact will as well. (As will semen-to-blood transmission, but fortunately Izcacus is not that sort of story.) 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. (Update: Brian clarified what I misunderstood.)

(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. And if you want to take that as a semi-punning reference to the undead, I’m powerless to stop you. But if you do, please feel a deep and lasting sense of shame because of it. That’s not really a pun.)

But, what it sacrifices in traditional vampire lore, it makes up for in the reason why anyone is going near the wretched things in the first place. My two favorite vampire stories are Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Interview with the Vampire (the movie; I’ve never read the book, which a good friend has told me isn’t as good; the screenplay for the movie was written by Ann Rice who wrote the book, so it is plausible that her second try was better than her first). In both cases the vampires can pass as living men and come into human society on their own, though in Dracula he does at first lure Jonathan Harker to his castle in Transylvania by engaging his legal services. But it is really Harker’s legal services which are required, there, he isn’t interested in Harker as food (at least not for himself). In Izcacus the vampires are not nearly so able to pass in human society, so the humans must come to them. This is in line with other stories (most of which I haven’t seen or read) where the humans venture into the vampire’s territory. I think that there the lure is some sort of treasure, whether real or actual, but while greedy protagonists make for relatively pity-free vampire chow, they don’t make for sympathetic protagonists. In Izcacus there are really two motives which drive the characters; a noble motive which drives all but one of them, and a far more sinister motive which drives her. The official reason for this clandestine meeting is to recover the bodies of people who had died trying to summit Izcacus, while the hidden reason is to recover samples of the disease which was the reason the Russians sealed off access to Izcacus in the first place. Thus it is the backers of terrorism who are funding the expedition in the hope of retrieving such a virulent virus to be used as a bio-terrorism weapon (thinking of it only as deadly, and not as diabolical). I find that very satisfying because instead of a pedestrian tale like greed going wrong (who doesn’t know greed will go wrong?), it’s the much more richly symbolic tale of the problem with making deals with the devil. As Chesterton noted, the devil is a gentleman and doesn’t keep his word. The devil may promise power, but has no interest in delivering on it. I’m told there’s a line in one of the tellings of Faust where after selling his soul for knowledge, mephistopheles tells faust he doesn’t have that knowledge to give, whereupon Faust is indignant that he had been lied to. As I understand it, Mephistopheles basically said, “I’m a devil, what did you expect?” It’s one of the reasons why I’m so fond of the short form of the baptismal vows in the Catholic rite of baptism. “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” It’s a terrible idea to expect the devil to keep his promises; it’s more his style to bite the hand he’s shaking.

Glory to God in the highest.