Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella, I Am Legend–a brilliant story that I am rereading now–is an important vampire tale that follows the great classic film interpretations, but it really is the earnest literary beginning of the zombie genre. And there are dozens of great vampire stories in weird-tales, fantasy, and horror pulp magazines. But it is really in the mid-1970s where we see a revolution in vampire fiction that has defined the genre since. In 1975, Fred Saberhagen finally gives Dracula’s side of the story in The Dracula Tape. Also in 1975, Stephen King published ‘Salem’s Lot, the first novel after his bestseller Carrie. ‘Salem’s Lot is a fun-to-read Dracula/Haunted House tale that loops into his Dark Tower Cycle, which has vampiric characters and interdimensional vampires throughout.
Tanith Lee’s weird and evocative literary fiction contributed to the genre, but it is Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in 1976 that, in my mind, both elevates the vampire tale to literary novel while simultaneously investing it in the mythic depths of culture. I didn’t love the 1994 film, though I admit there is some beauty there. It is an unusual movie that can garner Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, and two BAFTA awards, and also get the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screen Combo for Brad Pitt’s and Tom Cruise’s brooding relationship on screen. My wife thinks that any combo with Tom Cruise is a shoo-in for the Golden Raspberry. But the power of the cast–which also has Antonio Banderas, Thandie Newton, Christian Slater, and Kirsten Dunst, who receives a Golden Globe nomination–the strength of Neil Jordan’s work as director, beautiful cinematography, and a compelling score by Eliot Goldenthal (Frida; Across the Universe) shows the pop-culture power of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.
What interests me about Interview with the Vampire and its sequels, though, is the mythopoeic element as it transports the vampire tale into the present moment.
The first mythopoeic strain, which I will leave for another time, is Anne Rice’s ability to speak to the myths of culture, like the loss of religious knowledge in the West, man’s search for meaning, questions of power and corruption, the (empty?) Bohemian promise, and the ever-thudding drumbeat of romance in our culture. Rice partly does this by atmosphere, but also in the (post?)existential struggle of her characters.
The second thread is Rice’s mythopoeic ability to delve deep into vampire lore, using some elements of legend and transforming others in order to create a wholly new myth. Some of her vampires are repelled by holy symbols and creep the nights as fairly standard vampire punks. She has cults and covens and gangs of vampires, lurking in the shadows and always searching for meaning in their existence. Sunlight kills, as does totalizing fire, but a vampire can survive almost every other wound. Indeed, they can rise from pain and near-death to even greater existence.
But her greatest vampire creations, Louis and Lestat and Armand and the rest, are near-gods. Their bloodline–a phrase here that has new meaning–goes back into the ancient world when the pyramids were young and mythology was just gossip. With this legendary strength, each of the great vampires is shaped with individual powers. There is a connection to their mortal lives, where skills of philosophy, art, hunting, leadership, beauty, and something like madness are enhanced and transformed in mystifying ways. Yet, there is always an element of unpredictability. Becoming a vampire is an eternal commitment, and thus a timeless risk. For being immortal does not erase the haunting questions of mortality, but elevates them a hundredfold as their powers and hungers are elevated.
The greatest challenge of being a god in Anne Rice’s vampire universe is not to go mad with the questions of what it means to be human.
In creating and recreating a vampire myth, Rice must imagine a canon–a constitution of her fictional world. It is in her sequel to Interview, The Vampire Lestat, (pp. 236-238), where she reveals in its baldest form “The Great Commandments Which All Vampires Must Obey.” The irony, of course, is that both Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat are confessionals. By definition, their protagonists Louis and Lestat must burn for breaking these commandments. This is the self-contradictory and self-creating power of Anne Rice’s mythic tale.
Here is where Armand is told by a centuries-old master the deepest truths of vampiric existence.
Into the sanctum lined with human skulls Santino took Armand, telling him of the history of the vampires.
From all times we have existed, as wolves have, a source of mortals. And in the coven of Rome, dark shadow of the Roman Church, lay our final perfection.
Armand already knew the rituals and common prohibitions; now he must learn the great laws:
One–that each coven must have its leader and only he might order the working of the Dark Trick upon a mortal, seeing that the methods and the rituals were properly observed.
Two–that the Dark Gifts must never be given to the crippled, the maimed, or to children, or to those who cannot, even with the Dark Powers, survive on their own. Be it further understood that all mortals who would receive the Dark Gifts should be beautiful in person so that the insult to God might be greater when the Dark Trick is done.
Three–that never should an old vampire work this magic lest the blood of the fledgling be too strong. For all our gifts increase naturally with age, and the old ones have too much strength to pass on. Injury, burning–these catastrophes, if they do not destroy the Child of Satan, will only increase his powers when he is healed. Yet Satan guards the flock from the power of old ones, for almost all, without exception, go mad.
In this particular, let Armand observe that there was no vampire then living who was more than three hundred years old. No one alive then could remember the first Roman coven. The devil frequently calls his vampires home.
But let Armand understand here also that the effect of the Dark Trick is unpredictable, even when passed on by the very young vampire and with all due care. For reasons no
one knows, some mortals when Born to Darkness become as powerful as Titans, others may be no more than corpses that move. That is why mortals must be chosen with skill. Those with great passion and indomitable will should be avoided as well as those who have none.
Four–that no vampire may ever destroy another vampire, except that the coven master has the power of life and death over all of his flock. And it is, further, his obligation to lead the old ones and the mad ones into the fire when they can no longer serve Satan as they should. It is his obligation to destroy all vampires who are not properly made. It is his obligation to destroy those who are so badly wounded that they cannot survive on their own. And it is his obligation finally to seek the destruction of all outcasts and all who have broken the laws.
Five–that no vampire shall ever reveal his true nature to a mortal and allow that mortal to live. No vampire must ever reveal the history of the vampires to a mortal and let the mortal live. No vampire must commit to writing the history of the vampires or any true knowledge of vampires lest such a history be found by mortals and believed. And a vampire’s name must never be known to mortals, save from his tombstone, and never must any vampire reveal to mortals the location of his or any other vampire’s lair.
These then were the great commandments, which all vampires must obey. And this was the condition of existence among all the Undead.
Yet Armand should know that there had always been stories of ancient ones, heretic vampires of frightening power who submitted to no authority, not even that of the devil vampires who had survived for thousands of years. Children of the Millennia, they were sometimes called. In the north of Europe there were tales of Mael, who dwelt in the forests of England and Scotland; and in Asia Minor the legend of Pandora. And in Egypt, the ancient tale of the vampire Ramses, seen again in this very time.
In all parts of the world one found such tales.
My vampire fiction reading is haphazard, but this Rice glimpse gets me wondering about vampires as social or individual. Is that a feature in the changes of vampire fiction? Dracula was both a kind of unusual occurrence, and one who yet could generate a sort of ‘society’ (how subservient – or not?). Is that a folkloric element, developed by Stoker? Is a big part of the threat, in lore, one vampire ‘becoming social’ in the way Dracula does?
Rice’s are clearly highly organized (but not perfectly under control!).
And, curious thought, are H.G. Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) at least functionally a vampire society, but very much a self-contained rather than ‘generative’ one?
One of the most astonishing and in its distinctive way horrific ‘vampire’ stories I have encountered is Andreas Karkavitsas’ The Beggar (1897: English translation, 1982 – though I read it in an older Dutch translation). The ‘vampire’ there is very much an ‘individual’ (but I don’t remember whether ‘generating a society’ is viewed as a specific threat).
Yes, exactly–social vs. isolationistic. Absolutely. Perhaps most of all, Rice suggests “love” as the key to her most powerful early vampires. What Octavia Butler does is make it so that, whether or not there is love in the beginning, the vampire and prey need each other, are entwined.
I don’t know Karkavitsas. I’ll check it out.
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