Kim Newman is not just an acclaimed film critic and pop culture expert — he's also the author of a Dracula-themed alternate history book series, beginning with Anno Dracula. So he knows what he's talking about when he says that a lot of recent vampire stories, well, suck.
To celebrate the re-release of his second Dracula novel, The Blood Red Baron, Newman breaks down the problems with substandard vampires.
After all that build-up, there's got to be more to a vampire villain's evil plan than drinking some dimwit's blood.
This is an especial problem when dealing with Dracula, or equivalent King Vampire type characters. If your villain has lived centures, gained vast occult powers, can transform into pretty much anything he (or she) chooses, has their pick of willing and unwilling victims, possesses a castle (and a fortune and a title) and can enslave lesser mortals by the sheer force of will, then he (or she) better have a colossal scheme to be getting on with or face a charge of monumentally failing to live up to their potential.
The problem dates back to Dracula — which, to be fair, had the advantage of coining all the cliches and so can't really be criticised for it. In Bram Stoker's book, the Count comes to Britain as a would-be conqueror only to be tripped up because he conceives a hard-to-explain passion for the wife of a provincial solicitor. Of course, this misstep left open the door for my Anno Dracula series — in which Dracula sticks to his original plan and takes over the Empire. Ever since, there's been a need to escalate evil vampire plans — the several-times-thwarted rise of a vampire ruling elite in the TV show Being Human, or Dracula's suicidal plot to wipe out humanity with a plague and then starve to death in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, or the vampire who seeks an elixir substitute for human blood so he doesn't have to be a killer in George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream, or Anne Rice's characters' attempts to answer the riddle of their own existence and the reason for evil to exist, or the immortals who pull off a casino heist to ensure really long-term financial stability in Marc Behm's underrated novel The Ice Maiden.
Whatever you think of the execution, the sheer scale of the enterprise is appreciated. Next to these stratagems, merely taking over a Maine town in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot seems unambitious (a whole city, as in Robert McCammon's They Thirst, plays better), let alone the way some Hammer Films (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Scars of Dracula) have Christopher Lee's Count just get into an undignified spat with some students and their girlfriends, or the hang-around-and-annoy-people act of The Lost Boys. Yes, vampires drink blood — but there has to be more to their schtick than that ...
The biting scenes ...
Everyone who's ever written a vampire story knows that the act of vampirism has to be central. For a long time, from Sheridan LeFanu and Stoker through to Rice and Stephenie Meyer, the dominant trend has been to emphasise the bodice-ripping, seethingly sexual side of neck-nipping ... in the movies, even the ratfaced Nosferatu slides into the heroine's bedroom lasciviously, and there have been a great many big bloody romantic clinches. The heroine swooning in the cloaked aristocrat's embrace as he barges into her bedroom is one of the big, primal scenes of horror fiction and plays out in movie after movie, mostly with matinee idol bloodsuckers. Equally familiar is the scene where Dracula's three wanton brides force themselves on Jonathan Harker, which has inspired dozens of bosomy, fanged starlets to fall out of negligees as they predate on some poor hopeless clod. It's no wonder there are so many vampire porn movies: all the stuff about seduction, penetration, boudoirs and night raptures is barely even symbolically sexy.
Because of this, there have been several trends to counter-program: vampires have attacked like muggers, addicts or childish fetishists in the likes of Martin, The Addiction, 30 Days of Night, Let the Right One In, etc. Indeed, these types of vampires have their own sets of cliches to deal with — how many times have you seen some pathetic degenerate lick spilled blood off a floor? — and they need to be avoided too.
Because, as everyone who's ever written a vampire story knows, the problem with biting scenes is that there aren't that many variations you can play with. In Anno Dracula, I wrote a chapter where a heroic vampire is wounded and their human partner willingly lets them feed to build their strength up; I don't claim to have invented that bit of business, but I feel slightly responsible for the fact that it's been done so often since then. Especially in a novel — or, worse, series of novels — variety has to be maintained, and you can't just write the same scene over and over. I've noticed in my own books, and in other series, that there tend to be fewer and fewer bites as the story goes on, and the ones described get more perfunctory when the author feels they can't think of a new way to describe someone biting someone else.
So, biting scenes are a pain. In werewolf stories, it's transformation scenes. They need to be there, but how many can you do before you get tired and the audience goes home?
Seriously, what do you think you look like?
In Stoker's novel, Dracula is first described as dressed all in black: he's been hiding in his castle for centuries, brooding and plotting and didn't need a larger wardrobe. When he leaves for London, he does so in Jonathan Harker's clothes — which we assume are boring British tweeds — in order to fit in. The only adaptation which picks up on this (the weak BBC production with Marc Warren) shows why most others drop the idea: Dracula just looks foolish when dressed as a regular bloke. It's one of Stoker's masterstrokes to have his villain wander about London 'in a straw hat which suit him not'. He may be immortal, powerful and diabolical, but he has no idea what to wear that won't make him look a prat. Not being able to see himself in a mirror, he really doesn't know what he looks like — the vampire pimp in Scream Blacula Scream is infuriated when he can't preen in his new threads in front of a looking glass, but even if he could he'd be the worst dressed vampire in the movies.
When Dracula became a stage play in the 1920s, it was a drawing room drama: so Dracula shows up in tailcoat, starched shirt, bowtie, top hat and opera cloak. This was the look Bela Lugosi rocked on stage and film, and remains a default for, say, Grandpa Munster and the Count from Sesame St; Christopher Lee kept the black swashbuckling cloak, now lined with scarlet, and that hung about almost as a vampire uniform for decades. A cloak can be raised to transform into bat-wings, or flung up over the face to hide a crucifix from sight, or to conceal the biting down on a heroine's lovely neck. Robert Bloch wrote a story, 'The Cloak', which is adapted in the Amicus film The House That Dripped Blood, about the vampire's cloak which possesses anyone who wears it. This dressiness was carried over by Anne Rice's clotheshorse vampires and is still a part of the vampire image — especially as fed into goth culture and fashions. Though if you were prone to messy eating, would you go out in really expensive frilly shirts?
From the '80s onwards — the patient zero seems to be the film-within-a-film of Brian DePalma's Body Double — there's been a tendency for vampires to adopt passing youth cults, dressing up as punks, bikers, new wavers, club kids, slackers, or whatever. How anyone who can regenerate body parts gets a body piercing or a tattoo is a question few filmmakers bother to answer, just as the tendency to put whatever the accepted 'alternative' pop music style is in the year of production on the soundtrack always strikes me as silly. Dracula's idea of music is howling wolves, and though I can imagine him appreciating Howlin' Wolf, the idea that he might listen to heavy metal just reduces his stature. People tend to stick with the music they liked as teenagers, no matter how embarrassing. There's a scene in Twilight where the sensitive vampire — who was turned in the early 1900s — listens to Debussy, but I'd be more convinced if he had a stack of ragtime or minstrel 78s in his lair and could still plunk out 'The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi' on a banjo. Actually, risky though it would be in a film, I prefer Stoker's original notion of a vampire who has no aesthetic, fashion or musical sense or interest whatever, and might fail to be convincing if he even tried to fake them.
Fragile immortals ...
This is something that comes up over and over. Vampires can only be killed by a stake through the heart. If you're really hardcore, even that doesn't work unless you pray while you're hammering the wood home. Only, vampires can also be killed by direct sunlight. And decapitation. And silver bullets (strictly, that's werewolves — but it's too poetic to leave off the list). And holy water in the sprinkler system. Or just running water — in Dracula AD 1972 and Daughters of Darkness, vampires die by falling into the shower. Or being blown to bits. Or being struck by lightning. Or kung fu. Or too much garlic on pizza. Or being eaten by a werewolf. Or ... well, too many things for a supposed immortal, really.
When we meet Carmilla, Dracula or many other vampires, we are told that they've lived for centuries and defeated countless enemies. But this is the week they die. A titanic struggle has to be undertaken, and you need an array of heroes and heroic mentors to do it, but Buffy or Van Helsing or Doctor Who or Blade or Captain Kronos are going to win and the vampires will be dust. Nevertheless, with the proliferation of vampire movies and the need to get some variety into death scenes, it seems that the once-fearsome monsters are far too easy to get rid of. So, maybe it's time to make the monsters hard to kill again — since an easy victory makes for a dull storyline.
But I'm not like those nasty vampires ...
Lestat only kills murderers — or did after Anne Rice changed her mind and decided she liked him more than whiny Louis. Edward Cullen and gang are 'vegetarians', which means they feed off animals. Angel seems to subsist on donor blood. The vampire leads in Being Human and True Blood are mostly on the wagon, except for flashbacks — they do sexy drinking, but have sworn off killing people (I'll 'fess up, the same goes for at least two of the protagonists in the Anno Dracula series). And let's not get into the Little Vampire, Count Duckula or the Count. These characters get all the cool parts of being a vampire — living forever, hot girlfriends or boyfriends, stylish wardrobe, super-powers, etc — but are let off the repulsive, evil or wretched side of the lifestyle. In the end, that's a cop-out: if they don't kill people, or at the very least hurt the ones they love, it's not that they aren't proper vampires, it's that the authors are ducking out of moral complexity in order to have a high old time without giving the Devil his due.
In many recent fictions, we've had attractive vampires — characters we might want to be or be with — but they have to have teeth, they have to have a sense of estrangement from human morality or at the least struggle to keep a moral compass. Spider-Man has a more complicated attitude to his condition than most fictional vampires, and he comes from a comic book written for children. We should hold our vampires to a higher standard.
Nomadic haemovores ... ?
I know it's an attempt to get past the embarrassments of being in the same genre as The Vampires Night Orgy or I Was a Teenage Vampire, but doing a vampire story in which characters are confronted by immortal, blood-drinking, back-from-the-dead, turn-into-a-bat, nocturnal creatures and don't call them vampires just isn't convincing. This means you, Ultraviolet the TV series, Near Dark the otherwise classic movie and the Will Smith hatchet job of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. If you were doing Jaws, you wouldn't bend over backwards to have characters avoid using the word 'shark' in discussing what's eating them, would you?
Of course, none of these are hard-and-fast rules, and you can do good work even if you willingly plunge into all of these traps. Though vampires are not quite as overexposed as zombies just now, there are a lot of vampires about — and that of course means a lot of substandard work. So, the real dictat for anyone setting out to do a vampire story is the one that applies to every type of fiction — just do it properly, don't take short cuts and find a way to connect with the old material in something approaching a fresh way.
The Blood Red Baron, book two of the Anno Dracula series, is available now from Amazon.