I recently saw the trailer for the movie remake of Dark Shadows. Seeing Johnny Depp as Daytime TV’s favorite vampire Barnabas Collins had me thinking about the continued popularity of vampires in fiction.
The birth of vampire lore is easy to understand when viewed against what was understood of medicine and science in medieval times. Since the mechanics of decomposition was so little understood one can see how people let their imaginations go wild. They didn’t know about the shrinking of the skin which gave the appearance of hair and nail growth after death. Nor did they understand the natural causes of blood pooling in the eyes and mouth during early decomposition due to the work of gasses inside the body. All of these observations coupled with such a limited body of knowledge lead to one simple conclusion; the dead were leaving this graves and feasting on the living. Even the solution of the wooden stake was a very rational one. If you want to anchor something to the ground you drove a stake through it. It was thought the stake driven into the consecrated ground of the churchyard would be enough to keep these wandering undead in place whether or not it pierced the heart. A simple solution to a simple problem.
So if the myth grew from observations then where did the vampire character come from. That may be harder to answer without picking a specific character and time period. The vampire tale’s rise in Victorian England came about as a response to the sexual repression of the period. Some of which we still see in the sex appeal of vampires today. Humans are also creatures of appetite. We often eat not until satisfied but until we feel ill. We will hoard and stockpile for the future all that we deem important; our appetites insatiable. How reassuring it is to know there is a creature that surpasses even human level appetites. The hunger that drives the vampire is a reflection to absurd levels of our drives whether they are sex, drink, wealth or food (blood of course). Lastly I would be remiss if I did not mention our love of nostalgia. The good old days are just beyond our reach but an immortal being represents a crucial link to those past times. The vampire represents our shared past by having lived, or unlived, though it. We also have an innate respect built up for our elders so an immortal would command the ultimate respect. Plus think of how rich they would be, talk about old money. Though that concept certainly flies in the face of the reality of money and inflation.
For a writer, these three elements of vampire lore provide fertile material for incredible characters and drama. These are creatures we can fear, love, hate, fantasize over and laugh at. My next novel is is a vampire story and I am beginning to work on another. I look on these works as a challenge to take the familiar lore and twist it in a new way for the reader. I also enjoy reading vampire stories especially ones that have brought something new to the genre. Stephenie Myer’s Twilight was an awesome read as was The Fixer from Jon F Mertz, to name a couple of recent reads of mine. Both of these works, though they couldn’t be further apart, took the lore in new directions. That is what makes them such good reads. Vampire stories are an acquired taste, (pun intended), but one that I know I will be returning to again and again and one worthy of reading if you haven’t.