Margot Adler, Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side. Weiser, 2014
There’s no question that vampires are big. In fact, they are – or at least have been over the past few years – something of a publishing phenomenon, especially among young adults. There’s even a fashion crossover with the Gothy look, plus the interesting psychological syndrome, usually associated with one’s teenage years, whereby the wearer of striking outfits and make-up is simultaneously screaming ‘look at me/how dare you look at me!’. Vampires, in short, are cool.
Margot Adler’s quest to uncover the secrets of the undead began, as she movingly describes, with the slow death of her beloved husband from cancer. Suddenly she was ravenous for everything connected with immortality – and of course vampires are as near being literally immortal as damnit. Adler set herself the monumental task of reading as many vampire works as possible, then reporting on them in the form of a book, besides musing on many possible shades of meaning behind the genre. So far, so understandable.
However, unless one is a committed New Ager, the work is immediately confusing – even, dare one say it, perhaps somewhat irritating. This book about vampires begins with ecological pioneer Stewart Brand’s campaign to get NASA to publish a photograph of the whole Earth… This little section ends with ‘so hold that image of the Earth in the back of your mind as we go on a very strange journey…’ Arguably what is truly strange is the crowbarring in of the environmental theme, which has a noticeably jarring effect. Yes, of course it is valid as Adler’s own opinion: ‘perhaps our blood is oil, perhaps our prey is the planet’. And, incidentally, this is also Whitley Strieber’s stance – but perhaps this is not the sort of angle that is immediately attractive to your average vampire-lover.
If not marginally annoyed by the opening of the book, and indeed the remorseless personal anecdotes – though there’s never any doubt that Adler is a good and decent person - there’s plenty of stuff worthy of deepish pondering. She notes that even modern vampire works tend not to dwell on penetrative sex, but concentrate instead on the deeper intimacy of shared blood, of rare moments of ecstatic kisses and so on. Of course there was no question of sex in the Victorian Dracula, and indeed the antihero himself was hardly young and lusty, but a sinister and even repulsive older man. As in very much older man.
Equally, it might be added, but for very different reasons, there’s no question of sex in the phenomenally best-selling Twilight saga, largely because the author, Stephenie Meyer, is a church-going Mormon to whom any sort of extramarital hanky-panky is unthinkable. (Or rather, it probably is only too thinkable, but that’s all it is.)
It is when discussing Meyer’s Mormonism – hardly an unimportant factor in the shaping of the narratives - that Adler seriously misses the mark. She muses that Meyer’s portrayal of a vampire driven to create others in his own image reflects the Mormon passion for huge families. Plus, she opines that the semi-deification of the vampire is a reference to the Mormon belief that all the faithful will eventually become gods of their own worlds. Fair enough, but – oh dear – only up to a point. As a former Mormon myself (and, incidentally, a founder member of the British Dracula Society) I would suggest that what Meyer’s subconscious is really telling us is very different.
For a start, it’s only Mormon men who get to be gods. Women can marry them (several women to one god, rather predictably), but not even the most faithful female can ever become an independent deity. And on a day-to-day level, few except prejudiced apologists would argue that the Mormon Church is not one of the most repressively male-dominated organisations in the 21st-century West. So when Meyer has her main character Bella declaring that she’s fed up being Lois Lane, adding: ‘I want to be Superman!’ this is not pro-Mormon but fervently, if implicitly, anti-Mormon. (Is Meyer’s saga actually a cry for freedom?) But, incredibly, this never seems to dawn on Adler, who admiringly quotes the ‘Superman’ line without drawing the obvious inference.
She also devotes many pages to her own card-carrying feminism and just paragraphs after the Meyer comments praises Joss Weedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for his own deeply-felt pro-female stance. Adler quotes his comments about the blonde girl who always gets killed in classic horror movies: ‘She was always more interesting to me than the other women. She was fun; she had sex; she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it… [but] what if the girl goes into the dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him.’ And so Buffy was born – literally a punchy demon/vampire slayer who under all her occasional vulnerability, has powers that ordinary men had better not mess with either. Perhaps Meyer would have loved to feel intellectually and spiritually free to create Buffy… That, I would suggest, is potentially rather more interesting than uncritically touching on Mormonism’s tendency to create enormous families.
Otherwise, though, Adler’s material can be fascinating, as she presents various arguments for the vampire representing the social outsider – duly quoting from Colin Wilson’s 1950s classic – or, more specifically, the very teenagers/young adults who have turned buying vampire books into a feeding frenzy in recent years. Adler quotes an email from Anne Rice, author of the Vampire Chronicles: ‘…right now the vampire reflects more than anything else the tremendous need of adolescents and young people to embrace their monstrous and outsider status in our society, their refusal to see themselves as the criminal class they are often forced into being where their established rites of passage are understood to be forbidden sex, illegal drugs, and sometimes criminal rebellion… the vampire… the metaphor for the outsider in all of us, is romanticized by them because they so desperately need to find a noble path through the hideous passage that Western culture has set up for them.’
That the vampire is a figure of power, straddling as he or she does the twilight zone between life and death and always tempted, at the very least, to create others in a similar image with or without their consent, is well known and certainly worth debating, as Adler does here. But then she homes in on ‘vampires’ in politics, citing, for example, Voltaire’s comments about vampires being stockbrokers and men of business who suck the blood of ordinary people. Adler seems curiously struck by the analogy of vampires and politicians, though quite why is hard to fathom as it’s not only well-worn but screamingly obvious. And it’s clearly metaphorical, not literal. She seems oblivious to the irony here – which is not just the stuff you make stakes out of.
There’s a good deal of material one can really get one’s teeth into (all possible jokes intended, with no apology): vampires seen as epitomes of the fears of their particular era is a sober and intriguing theme. In Dracula, for example, we have a heightened reflection of Victorian London’s terror of disease coming in on boats from foreign lands. The 1980s, with their sensationalist AIDS scare, saw a spate of tales about vampires as bringers, or even embodiments of, diseases of the blood. And now vampires are conflicted about their sexuality, and the power of sex to enslave.
A third of this book is concerned with the subjects raised above and other angles on the phenomenon, but the bulk of the pages are devoted to ‘Margot’s Annotated Bibliography of Vampire Fiction: an overview of more than 270 novels, as well as anthologies, short stories, and assorted nonfiction.’ Hardened vampirists might prefer to turn to this section first, then flick through the first third. On the whole, it’s a valuable and handy bibliography, with useful and often incisive comments. (However, Adler’s patience with her self-appointed task wears thin occasionally and we’re simply informed, in one case, that ‘the writing is lovely’. And we’re told baldly that Sir Walter Scott includes vampire verses in his poem ‘Rokeby’, just as Baudelaire’s vampire poem is mentioned but not described. The poor woman was obviously flagging.)
This is a very patchy book, largely because the risky strategy of including so much personal material doesn’t always work, but also because one more – final – draft wouldn’t have hurt, to even out the overall tone and the ups and downs of authorial energy. Yet to ardent vampirists, and certainly to New Agers, it will no doubt prove a valuable addition to their collections. – Lynn Picknett