From Parasite to Paramour – Can books about vampires still be scary?

29th Oct 2013

From Parasite to Paramour - Can books about vampires still be scary?
If you’d said ‘vampire’ to somebody ten years ago, their first image might have been of a brooding Romanian count or Tom Cruise sprouting a pair of fangs. Now, though, they’re most likely to conjure up an image of Robert Pattinson looking a bit pained and serious while Kristen Stewart falls over things.

It’s been eight years since Twilight was first published, but the surrounding mania has only recently begun to die down. The final book in the series was published in 2008, and the film franchise wound down just last year. It was a phenomenon that saw phrases like ‘Team Jacob’ enter normal conversation and created legions of obsessive fans.

It’s a sharp contrast to the traditional vampire of folklore, a repulsive, living corpse with no apparent intellect – effectively what we would now call a zombie. And they were pretty damn scary.

In the Victorian era, the monstrous animated corpse of folklore was converted into a debonair aristocrat – with a little help from Lord Byron. At the same infamous party which saw Mary Shelley sow the seeds of what later became Frankenstein, Byron wrote a fragment of a story entitled Augustus Darvell.

Later, his physician, Dr John Polidori, used this as a basis for his novel The Vampyre, featuring one Lord Ruthven, who possessed ‘irresistible powers of seduction’ and just so happened to rely on sucking blood to get by – truly mad, bad and dangerous to know.

With this denial, however, the vampire lost its threatening edge and, instead, became the perfect teenage boyfriend.Just over fifty years later, Sheridan Le Fanu created his alluring lesbian vampire seductress Carmilla, and then, eighty years after Polidori’s novel, Bram Stoker followed suit with an aristocratic bloodsucker of his own – and in so doing, created one of the most iconic fictional characters in the history of literature. Dracula was dark, menacing and unpredictable; he was utterly nonhuman and yet completely captivating.

In 1976, Anne Rice’s modern vampires Louis and Lestat “startled the literary community” with her new take on the legend. Rice’s vampire books about vampires portray dizzyingly beautiful creatures; sometimes narcissistic, sometime self-loathing, but always oozing with dark sensuality.

Despite the years which separate them, what unites many vampire novels is not horror, but sexuality. The connection between the vampiric bite and sexual pleasure is made explicit: victims writhe, there is penetration, fluids burst forth. Although Rice’s vampires are incapable of genital sex, there is no doubt that, for them, the act of biting more than compensates.

In recent years writers such as Charlaine Harris and Laurell K Hamilton have taken things a step further, allowing their vampires to engage in wild orgies of biting and fucking, and implying that, among the various supernatural abilities gained through vampirism, sexual prowess is high on the list.

And then Twilight happened, and we were faced with a vampire who abstained. Not just from biting, but from sex, too. With this denial, however, the vampire lost its threatening edge and, instead, became the perfect teenage boyfriend.

He’s strong!

He’s brave!

He’s veggie!

He wants to eat you – but he won’t!

He’ll protect you!

He wants to take things slowly!

He’ll never get old!

He has cool eyes!

He’s rich!

He’ll sit there and watch you sleeping – but it’s not creepy, it’s romantic!

Did I mention he’ll protect you? Seriously, just amble around bumping into things and getting into danger. I guarantee he will rock up in some fancy car and rescue the shit out of you.

It’s easy enough to take the piss out of Twilight. But the truth is, the series captured readers’ imaginations in a pretty overwhelming way. And it definitely cemented the position of vampires as sexually desirable creatures. Because of course, in the end, Edward and Bella did have sex.

OK, it might have taken four books (and frustrated fans to the extent that E L James bashed out Fifty Shades to satisfy her longing for Cullen to get his love on), it may have seen Bella immediately afflicted with a life-threatening pregnancy, but they did, eventually, do it.

Which is more than you can say for blood drinking.

So does that mean it’s game over for vampires? Have modern representations divorced them so completely from their sanguinarian roots that they are now just really pretty, immortal, and kind of cold to the touch?

It’s easy to think so, especially looking at the way in which, post-Twilight, the market became saturated with multiple undead-boy-meets-girl-but-doesn’t-actually-bite-her knock-offs.

And yet there have been a few writers in recent years taking books about vampires in a different direction. Matt Haig’s The Radleys took vampires off their effortlessly cool and sexy pedestal and graced a suburban British family with bloodlust.

Justin Cronin’s dystopian epic The Passage has seen something of a return to the folkloric vampire, with bloodthirsty monsters roaming a desolate landscape.

Perhaps there’s a little bite* left in the genre yet. But if it’s horror you’re after, rather than undead romance, and you’re looking for something to really get your teeth** into this Halloween, I suggest you kick it old school and curl up with Dracula.

Even if parts of it are well-known enough to be clichéd, it contains some of the most classically chilling moments in horror: from Renfield’s obsessive consumption of flies to the infamous image of Dracula crawling down the walls of his castle, it’s a lot more haunting than Robert Pattinson looking like he’s just had a run in with the glitter glue.

*Sorry, bad pun.
** Oh, sorry, another one.