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Khazad-dûm Report: June 3, 1990

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report
June 3, 1990, Topic: Vampire Novels
Reported by David Bratman

Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 27 Number 8 (Whole #122), August 1990.

Khazad-dûm gathered over juice and cookies to discuss vampire novels. There are a lot of good ones out there. What makes them so popular? Well, in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the blood-father of vampire novels, it’s clearly because it’s so good. Unlike the wordy Frankenstein with which it’s often paired, Dracula is a cracking good read. Chrys found it possibly the scariest book she’s ever read. The Count is evil, charming, clever, and powerful, and there’s almost no way to stop him. (I noticed that Dracula’s blood-thirst increases as the book goes on. He seems to be able to restrain himself back in Transylvania, but later on the amount of blood transfused into Lucy in the attempt to save her life is amazing. I wondered if inexplicable deaths after transfusions in those days prior to blood-typing might help explain the origins of the vampire myth, but the others quickly disposed of that idea.)

Ellie observed that in the recent spate of vampire books, the vampire is usually a sympathetic character, and sometimes even the hero of the book. Perhaps authors, tired of merely scaring you with vampires, wanted to do character studies of people with this strange compulsion of heavy necking. After all those evil tales, why not give the vampire a chance to tell his own story? It’s a good literary device, and a trick most obviously pulled in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.

Although Rice’s prose didn’t win many plaudits from us, we liked her New Orleans setting. Something about all that foggy, verdant decadence is perfect for vampires. Berni noted that the setting is one thing Rice’s book has in common with George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream; so is the basic plot of struggle between a good vampire and a bad vampire. However, although we weren’t wild about Rice as a writer, Martin’s really enthralling combination of vampirism and antebellum Mississippi River steamboating got thumbs up from everyone.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain Chronicles are paradoxically both too much about vampires and not enough about them. There is a whole subculture of vampires running around in there, which takes away from the impact of a vampire as a lonely outsider which distinguishes so many other books. At the same time, Yarbro’s books aren’t really about vampires. Edith pointed out that the function of the vampire in Yarbro’s A Flame in Byzantium is to provide an immortal viewpoint character: someone who could look at fading Constantinople and compare it through personal experience with Rome at its prime a thousand years earlier.

One oddity about comparing vampire novels is that each author has his or her own explanation of the traditional characteristics of vampires. Sometimes the authors disagree, which can make it confusing to read several vampire novels in a row. Martin, we felt, was particularly successful at this. Though his vampires can be killed by sunlight, a courageous one can tolerate it in small doses if necessary. By the end of Fevre Dream, his hero vampire Joshua is out almost as much by day as by night (much to the other vampires’ distress). Martin dismisses a lot of the more difficult vampire lore as nonsense, and Joshua turns this to his advantage in his attempt to pass as human: he lives on a steamboat (legendary vampires can’t cross water) amid lots of silver trim and mirrors. One curious note: although the name is not given, Joshua’s father (dead before the story begins) is clearly supposed to be the Count de Saint-Germain, the same person as Yarbro’s chief vampire. (Saint-Germain was a real person, a man of mysterious Eastern European origin who floated around 18th-century France, leaving rumors of the occult and supernatural lifespans wherever he went.)

We also talked a bit about vampire music. Saint-Germain was a composer. Buffy Ste. Marie has a vampire song in her repertoire, and so does Claudia Schmidt. I happened to be listening to Philip Glass’s Powaqqatsi while reading Fevre Dream, and found that Glass’s broody, churning score made absolutely perfect sinister steamboat music. I recommend the combination to everyone. (Hi there, Pat Wynne!)

And we indulged in some vampire humor. Damon Knight wrote a story called “Eripmav” short enough to be printed on a t-shirt, which Amy F. was wearing, so we had a live reading right from her torso. And I brought along undoubtably the worst vampire book ever published: the Barnabas Collins joke book. It simply consists of every lousy vampire joke ever created (“What’s Barnabas’ favorite song? Fangs for the Memories”). I tried to give it away, but nobody would take it, not even the Dark Shadows fans. Maybe at the Mythcon auction.

In conclusion, we had a few thoughts in answer to our original question, what makes vampires so popular? Edith observed that the vampire combines Eros and Thanatos, two very powerful forces. Various characteristics of vampires have a basis in known fact: there are people who are ultra-sensitive to sunlight, who (in the days before electrocardiograms) were buried alive by mistake, who hate garlic, even who have blood-lusts. The vampire is dead but not at rest: the same fear lurks in us for vampires as for ghosts.