Once Bitten? Recent Developments in Vampire Fiction by John C Adams
Updated: Jun 13
There have been so many exciting developments in vampire fiction since the turn of the century, but I'm going to talk about the rise of the scientific vampire novel and the development of post-colonial vampire fiction. Both seem to me a really exciting and vibrant emerging area for this genre.
It's often easier to accept something weird if you know the rationale behind it, although sometimes our enjoyment lies in the very aura of mystery itself. Certainly, modern scientific horror in the vampire tale has been bred from an excellent pedigree. 'Dracula' was based upon Bram Stoker's research into folk tales and legends, and it lingered long on the physical attributes of vampires. It had quite a medical feel, one way or another. We've been drawing upon those accepted symptoms in our writing ever since. Recent novels such as 'The Rhesus Chart' by Charles Stross and 'A People's History of the Vampire Uprising' by Raymond A. Villareal (which I reviewed recently on this blog) reclaim this scientific tradition for the twenty-first century.
The current popularity of the scientific-rationale vampire novel might also be linked to the rise of vampire fiction written from a more sympathetic standpoint. To understand all is to forgive all? Quite a number have vampires as the point of view characters. A satisfying development in recent vampire fiction lies in the shift from treating them as monstrous others set apart from the world of emotions.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in her 'Comte de St-Germain' novels made her vampire the point of view character. I'm actually really fond of St-Germain. Charlaine Harris's 'Southern Vampire Mysteries' have a vampire as an occult detective, helping to find justice for victims of violent crime. Gone are the days when all vampires were outside of humanity, perpetrating unspeakable crimes against sympathetic human characters.
So a vampire in a novel published right now is as likely to be the hero as the villain or maybe a mixture of both. It's important for the reader to relate to them, not just through the good deeds they can achieve as occult detectives or seekers after romantic bliss, but as complex individuals with hopes and fears, flaws and strengths.
But if we don't understand vampires, we can't empathise with them. A lack of understanding creates an unwelcome distance by putting up a barrier that reduces our ability to learn something about our own lives through the trials and tribulations of the central protagonist. A key development has been the rise of fiction examining the scientific rationale for the vampire. We all know what a vampire is like, although fictional examples take many forms and guises. What we want more and more now is to know why they are like that in the first place.
Two very different vampire novels have been published in the last few years that explore the science of vampirism at the core of their plot and character development.
'The Rhesus Chart' by Charles Stross (Penguin Random House, 2014) features a secret government service in London with a remit to, among other things, keep down vampires and the like. Don't be fooled by the opening scene where the hero's wife lays out a logically compelling argument to prove that vampires can't exist. But the geeky guys creating the service's algorithms also have another series of projects on the go, aiming to use computing to generate links with monsters. In short, tech has stepped into the place previously reserved for magic. We used to stand over the old cauldron and boil up eye of newt to summon the forces of darkness. Now we just hit the pulsing button that invites us to 'Run Programme'!
Bob, the hero, is working on a project using info mining from NHS data warehouses. His orders are to use it to prove that vampires don't exist, but soon enough the tech department of a city bank inadvertently generates a portal that enables vampires to contact humans. Alex, one of the more gormless team members, is recruited and very soon their whole department is infected.
The adjustment process for Alex and his colleagues is familiar territory for readers. We all know how literature portrays a human as they are turned and what the consequent symptoms and challenges look like. But this novel is drenched in the plausible mathematics of how we can reach out to the darker regions. Best of all, Bob Howard is the sort of cynical but realistic hero that more novels deserve to feature. I'll also make a special nod to the tech contained in this book. The fact that it's written by a computer programmer adds immeasurably to the reader's enjoyment.
We're on different territory with Raymond A Villareal's novel 'A People's History of the Vampire Uprising' (Little Brown, 2018). This novel does something almost unique, in my experience, in that it doesn't just give the reader a portrait of what it means in the twenty-first century to meet the non-standard needs of minorities (which here means 'Gloaming', Villareal's term for vampire). It also embraces reception theory because your response, as reader, shapes your interpretation of the novel. You could say that about any work, but what I mean is that the writing is so subtle, so open minded, so multi-faceted that it empowers the reader to do this - and then reflect at leisure upon what that means for themselves and for society. Cool, huh?
I've outlined above what I feel to be the main strength of 'A People's History of the Vampire Uprising' but I've included this novel in my examination of the scientific rationale for vampires because of the detailed and methodical way that it presents the spread of a contagious condition such as vampirism and the response of the authorities to the medical challenges (not least of all in resource allocation) to the issues it creates.
A great link between the two themes of this article (the science of vampirism and the welcome emergence of vampire novel based upon non-white heritages) is provided by Nalo Hopkinson's 'Brown Girl In The Ring' (Hachette, 1998).
'Brown Girl In The Ring' is set in urban Toronto some years after an unexplained set of riots led the rich to evacuate the city and barricade the poorer residents inside, where they are then left to fend for themselves. Ontario's leader, Premier Uttley, is facing re-election and at the same time awaiting a heart transplant. As part of a pitch to voters within what's left of the democratic system, she opts for waiting to receive a human heart rather than the more usual route of having a grown to order pig's organ transplanted inside herself instead. Talk about first-world problem! The difficulty lies in finding a suitable donor. It quickly becomes clear that the donor in question won't be yielding up their organ voluntarily.
Through the underground world of violent street gangs, Uttley's fixer 'commissions' the acquisition of a human heart. Rudy, the boss, works out that his useful idiot Tony knows the unwitting donor and orders him to go fetch the organ. To strengthen Tony's resolve to see it through, he skins Melba alive in front of him. Soon, Mami has 'fallen down the stairs' and is on her way to hospital in any ambulance, being artificially kept alive just long enough for the surgeons to rip out her heart for the benefit of someone much wealthier. This leaves Mami's family, including young mother Ti-Jeanne, helpless in the face of the tragedy that has enveloped their matriarch.
The horror element is provided within a medical context. Melba's skinning alive is described in gory yet anatomically correct detail. The scenes involving the eventual transplant of Mami's heart into Uttley's body are also pretty gruesome. But science can only go so far in preventing the rejection of the stolen organ. In order for Uttley to accept the heart, and go on to reflect upon her life choices and decide there is a better way, powerful magic from Mami and Rudy's cultural and ethnic heritage is required. Rudy doesn't hesitate to wield this power, but in this novel at least a weak man who perpetuates pointless cruelty does so at his peril. The strength of the female line and the ability of forceful and impressive women like Mi-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne bodes well for their ability both to counter the injustice of a political system that ignores their needs and to fight back against the violence of gang leaders like Rudy within their community.
Although I've stressed the scientific element, this novel is also strong in its linguistic and cultural portrayal of Ti-Jeanne's milieu. For me as a white reader, it opened up wonderful vistas of another heritage through the spells and demon summoning that the family initially fight against and then attempt to manipulate to their own advantage.
I've saved my favourite novel out of the four for last. It's 'My Soul To Keep' by Tananarive Due (Harper Collins, 1997). Here the reader is immersed in the writer's Ethiopian heritage through an immortal man Dawit, who is currently masquerading as David Wolde, a university lecturer in Miami. Dawit has married and fallen in love many times in the past centuries, but his attachment to current wife Jessica and young daughter Kira has stolen over him unawares.
Dawit's violent past is something he struggles to escape and his current enjoyment of killing and cruelty is vividly portrayed. Even after he escaped the brotherhood run by leader Khaldun in Lalibela, Abyssinia and tried to make his own way, he and vampire soulmate Mahmoud cannot put their love of killing behind them. Centuries later, Khaldun sends Mahmoud to track Dawit down and return him to the brotherhood where he belongs. It is against their rules for an immortal to fall in love with a mortal, and the group is very concerned about the fact that Dawit has impregnated human women, not just now with Jessica but also back in the Jazz Age when he had two other children. No one quite knows what that means for the passing down of their power from generation to generation.
It's long past time that non-white heritages should be coming forward to take their rightful place in the canon of great vampire tales. And it makes such perfect sense when we go back to the tales that started it all. The folklore and traditional tales of Romania, which Bram Stoker plundered to kick vampire fiction off in the first place, were originally created by peasant and farming communities up in the Carpathian Mountains. This area, along with other countries in the region such as Bulgaria, had been colonised by the Ottomans and integrated into their empire centuries earlier. It was never the case that vampire stories had an exclusively white provenance, and it's horrible that in so many ways from Victorian fiction onwards we've been left to assume that it did. Thankfully, we're all way past the assumption that a vampire must be an aristocratic white man stalking the streets of London!
So, overall, recent vampire fiction is heading in a more understanding direction. It's attempting to empathise with the vampire and to understand through science how the condition could arise (with a rich variety of theories being put forward to explain it) and how it can be contained within civil society rather than seeing the sufferer excluded and demonised as in fiction of the past. Vampires are no longer something to be locked away and contained rather than learnt to live with inside society. That can only be a welcome development.
Thank you so much for joining me for this Friday Frighteners post! As always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Many thanks to photographers Clement Falize, D Wesson and Zeeshan Qureshi for providing the cover images for this blog.