Piper Maitland lives with her husband on a farm in Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire Terriers, a Chinese Crested, and assorted farm animals. She has also written novels under the name Michael Lee West. Visit her online at www.pipermaitland.com.
Bats, big teeth, and blood drinking are beloved staples of vampire lore. Classic literature and horror films have reinforced the immortals’ unusual qualities: they sleep in coffins during the day and stalk the living at night. If a pretty girl accidentally invites a vampire into her house, she can chase him away with garlic, crucifixes, or holy water.
When I wrote my first vampire novel, I wanted to retain the core traditions and debunk others. Since myths and magic arise from undiscovered science, I decided to combine these elements. Drawing from my background in nursing, I created vampires with a human-like physiology. They would have DNA, reproductive systems, and beating hearts.
But how did vampirism originate?
I invented a pre-history for my characters. Thousands of years ago in the rainforests of Gabon, Africa, a human tribe, the Lolutu, contracted an Ebola-like, blood-borne disease. The surviving Loluri were forever changed by a genetic mutation in their stem cells. These aberrant cells behaved like cancer, multiplying and metastasizing. But, instead of killing the host, the infected Lolutu developed longevity and hyper-immune systems.
So, a virus caused a permanent change in the DNA sequencing of stem cell genes, but the condition of vampirism wasn’t viral. It was a genetic disease, and the after-effect was immortality.
These first vampires also grappled with less desirable symptoms. Sunlight caused burning and blindness. The Lolutu couldn’t hunt during the day, but quickly discovered that food did not satisfy their hunger. Intense blood cravings developed, which led to attacks other tribes. The Lolutus’ blood drinking, or hematophagy, was driven by a physiological need for stem cells, which are found in small quantities in human blood. However, the early vampires’ gastrointestinal systems were still human-like, and their stomach acids broke down hemoglobin molecules, which meant they needed to consume large quantities of blood.
Over time, vampires became perfectly engineered: their GI tracts produced highly specialized stomach proteins; their intestines and kidneys became smaller and more efficient; their brains produced more glial cells, which nourish and protect neurons, and sensory integration (touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing) was enhanced.
Despite these finely-tuned adaptations, vampires weren’t indestructible. A catastrophic injury could result in death. A small percentage of immortals were vulnerable to filoviruses, such as Ebola, causing their immune systems to overreact in unpredictable ways.
Reproduction was another challenge. In male vampires, spermatogenesis was overwhelmed by a profusion of stem cells in the testes, resulting in low counts and infertility. Ovulation was sporadic in child-bearing females. Pregnancies still occurred but usually ended in miscarriage and premature births. Full-term babies were rare, but they were also immortal, since the genetic disease is inherited.
Over a span of four thousand years, vampires developed superior predatory attributes, designed to stalk, attack, and control prey. In addition to speed, strength, and agility, a vampire’s sweat glands produce fragrant terpenes, which affect human brain chemistry. The best-known terpene is catnip. When humans inhale vampires’ “bat-nip,” they feel calm, yet mildly euphoric. But the sensation is fleeting. The vampire has only moments to lure and bite his prey. Then another predatory mechanism kicks, a mild neurotoxin that’s secreted by the vampire’s salivary glands and produces temporary paralysis in the victim.
The immortals’ strengths are balanced by vulnerabilities, which help maintain the ecological balance. One weakness is their inability to walk in daylight. This is caused by an inborn error of metabolism in mast cells, along with the overproduction of a compound called IgE, a protein that’s distributed beneath the skin and causes hyper-reactivity to sunlight. (It’s actually a massive allergic response.) Contemporary vampires can venture outside on rainy days if they coat their skin in zinc oxide ointment and wear protective gear. This offers some protection from UV rays, but outdoor excursions must be brief.
A hundred years ago, the immortals’ behavior and characteristics inspired enduring legends. Now, as modern science unravels human biology and chemistry, vampires can finally understand their own physiology. And they can look for cures by putting the myths under the microscope.
Be sure to stop by urbanfantasyinvestigations.blogspot.com tomorrow, Feb. 14th, to catch a deleted scene from Hunting Daylight!
Follow Piper at @PiperMaitland.