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[GUEST POST] J.L. Gribble (STEEL VICTORY) on the Evolution of Vampires in Popular Fiction

Gribble photo colorBy day, J. L. Gribble is a professional medical editor. By night, she does freelance fiction editing in all genres, along with reading, playing video games, and occasionally even writing.

Previously, Gribble studied English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received her Master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and Steel Victory was her thesis novel for the program. This is her debut novel.

She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with her husband and three vocal Siamese cats. Find her online, on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram. She is currently working on more tales set in the world of Limani.

The Evolution of Vampires in Popular Fiction

by J.L. Gribble

Vampires drink blood and/or kill people to survive. So why have they endured in the imagination of popular culture for almost two hundred years? Because it turns out that while vampires are monsters of death along with the rest of the villains of the horror genre, they are also a lot about sex. And if there’s one thing that modern culture likes to be entertained by, it’s sex.

The historical influences of vampires were terrifying. Vlad the Impaler’s reputation of excessive cruelty, including impaling his enemies on giant stakes, spread throughout Europe. His female counterpart, Countess Elizabeth Báthory, was a serial killer accused of murdering young female virgins and bathing in their blood to retain her youth. Neither of these things is terrible sexy.

Yet two centuries later, we find ourselves with Edward Cullen from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, written for the young adult paranormal romance subgenre, in which a handsome vampire seduces a modern teenage girl. How did we get from bathing in blood to sparkling in the sunlight?

The modern era of vampire myth in Western literature began in 1819 with the publication of “The Vampyre,” a short story by John Polidori that is often viewed as the origin of the romantic vampire genre in fantastical fiction. Polidori imbued his Lord Ruthven with seductive elements despite the fact that everyone the character encountered ended up suffering. Not all authors treated vampires as creatures of sexuality, however. In James Malcolm Rymer’s serialized gothic horror (1845–47), Sir Francis Varney the vampire is presented as the first sympathetic vampire, who despises his condition but is still a slave to it. Both of these works establish many of the tropes that become the staples of vampire lore in years to come, such as fangs and puncture wounds to the neck.

In the Victorian and Puritan ideals of Europe and North America, vampirism in literature became a surrogate for sexual intercourse. Later in the 19th century, sex returns with a vengeance in Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (1871) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the latter of which brought vampires into the cultural mainstream. Though Stoker was inspired by the historical Vlad the Impaler, his Dracula was a veritable rake who manipulated women to his own ends. Due to cultural sensibilities that precluded sexual encounters between characters, Stoker used vampirism as a cover for the sexuality inherent in his horror novel. As originally created by Stoker, the persona of Dracula contains an amalgam of cultural sexual dreads such as foreignness, animalism, and dreamlike qualities. The vampire became an extended metaphor; just as death has been used as a euphemism for orgasm, the vampire represents both sexuality and death.

And thus was born the sexy vampire trope. Vampires represent the titillating anxieties we carry that a sexual act will carry grave punishment such as death. Though the vampire remained firmly in the traditional horror genre for many years, providing readers with such classics as Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), it never quite forgot its subversive sexual roots. When Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, the first novel in her Vampire Chronicles series, in 1976, she brought the world the lives of Louis and Lestat and solidified the link between vampires and sex in mainstream horror and fantasy.

Changing social mores allowed greater aspects of sexuality to be directly portrayed in works of popular fiction. By the early 1990s, adult readers were devouring the more explicit escapades of the characters in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series (Guilty Pleasures, the title of the first book in 1993, says it all). Sex and drama have always been intertwined, and young adult readers were introduced to J.L. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries series in 1991 (currently the most popular television show on the CW network).

Not all vampires of the 21st century are sexy. Sunglasses After Dark, written by Nancy A. Collins in 2005, features Sonja Blue, a vampire character less interested in sex and more focused on killing other monsters like herself. Vampires are also alive and well in historical horror, such as Kate Cary’s Bloodline (2006), in which a soldier in World War I interacts with a vicious descendant of Stoker’s Dracula and Mina Harker. In urban fantasy, such as Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and my own Steel Victory, vampires are written more along the philosophy of “vampires are people, too”: perhaps older but not necessarily wiser.

These days, paranormal romance is where vampires really shine (and sometimes sparkle), exploding this subgenre and upstaging the werewolves and other mythical creatures. The vampires there are people too, just older and much, much more attractive. A cable network like HBO was necessary to bring Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries to the screen to handle the sexual content, and Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series for young adults has even spawned a secondary series, Bloodlines. The astounding popularity of the Twilight series, despite any criticism of plot and characterization, secured a lot of expectation that stories about vampires must also include elements of romance if not outright eroticism.

Original vampire television shows such as Forever Knight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its spinoff Angel), and Moonlight adapted a lot of this sexual expectation, combining the concept of the sympathetic vampire (tragic heroes) with the romantic love interest. Original films featuring vampires as both heroes and villains have run the gamut from traditional terrifying horror (Noseratu, 1922, and From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996) to ridiculous comedy (Blacula, 1972, and What We Do In the Shadows, 2014). Comics and graphic novels have remained the haven of the tales of the vampire hunters (Blade and Nightstalkers) and dark vampiric heroes who are not necessarily also romantic characters (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and American Vampire).

Authors and creators will continue to reinvent the vampire to appeal to changing times and cultures, but the vampire seems to have found a solid niche in fiction as the representation of sex and its relationship with death. That focus has shifted much of the balance to sex over death, but it’s quite possible that the pendulum will swing back over time.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] J.L. Gribble (STEEL VICTORY) on the Evolution of Vampires in Popular Fiction

  1. Barnabas Collins. Felt that should be said.
    I would like to throw in that monsters make great stand-ins for other radical life experiences, such as addictions or disabilities, as well as use/misuse of power and the responsibilities that come with it. If anything, an attitude from sci-fi migrates in: alien is interesting, not evil.
    A monster who acts heinously because of his addictions (and has a conscience about it) has to find alternative ways to alleviate his cravings or to find a way to be free of them. A vampire who is limited by sunlight or overcome by rage or hunger shares a lot with a human with a medical condition or injury that requires some intervention and creativity to accommodate. Of course, being bitten by a bat (or a radioactive spider) can give great powers and with that comes (all together, class) . . . In all the flavors of vampire stories, we also play out that having a Condition is no excuse for acting inhuman.
    “Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants help from us.”* Or so Dr. Julia Hoffman, Dr. Natalie Lambert, Beth Turner, and—occasionally—even Buffy hope.
    And the capes. Don’t forget the capes.

    *Ranier Maria Rilke

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