Undead Introduction to the Vampire and the Monstrous Other

Undead Introduction to the Vampire and the Monstrous Other
© Artwork by Hunger Artist

Since their animation out of folk materials in the nineteenth-century by Polidori, as Varney, and in Le Fanu and Stoker, vampires have been continually reborn in modern culture.

They have stalked texts from Marx’s image of the leeching capitalist, through Pater’s Lady Lisa of tainted knowledge, to the multifarious incarnations in contemporary fictions in print and on screen.

They have enacted a host of anxieties and desires, shifting shape as the culture they are brought to life in itself changes form. More recently, their less charismatic undead cousins, zombies, have been dug up in droves to represent various fears and crises in contemporary culture. It is surprising then, given the recent vogue for vampires and all things undead, that there has never been up until now a special issue of Gothic Studies on vampires.

When, in the late 1970s, Sir Christopher Frayling was researching his book ‘Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula’ in the reading room of the British Museum, Gothic studies had not yet entered the academy and vampires were not considered to be an appropriate topic for academic research.

If you visit the British Library nowadays, you might struggle to find anyone who is not studying the Gothic. Back then, Frayling was the first to invite vampires into the academy, having just been given access to the newly discovered Dracula notebooks (Stoker’s lost research notes for the novel). The rigour, imagination, and sheer scope of his research into vampires can be seen to have initiated the critical study of vampire texts.

Another work, Ken Gelder’s ‘Reading the Vampire’ (1994), is seminal in its decipherment of the vampire in its cultural context from a range of theoretical perspectives (appropriately open-minded for such an elusive creature), but it appeared in 1994, necessarily excluding recent avatars of the humanised vampire in paranormal romance and Young Adult fiction. Equally seminal and much cited is Nina Auerbach’s ‘Our Vampires, Ourselves’ (1995).

Auerbach charts the progress of vampires through the nineteenth- and twentieth-century as far as the 1980s, focussing on United States culture during the Reagan years. These two monographs pave the way for this research, which continues to document the interest in vampires within academic circles; however, these new scholars are in a position to respond to more recent developments.

Our approach is one which builds upon but in some ways moves away from the now conventional Gothic studies approach in that the vampire, following Frayling, Gelder, and Auerbach, forms its own tradition and discipline.

Today, Gothic courses are embraced, but vampire studies still require some explanation. The Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture project has sought to take up this mantle, initiating vampire conferences and symposia in universities and developing vampire studies in literature at Master’s level.

The research project itself was launched in 2010; it relates the undead in literature, art, and other media to questions concerning gender, technology, consumption, and social change. Based at the University of Hertfordshire, it has provided an interdisciplinary forum for the development of innovative and creative research into vampires, examining these creatures in all their various manifestations and cultural forms.

Bringing vampires into the curriculum has proved controversial for some. Following the first Open Graves, Open Minds conference, news stories emerged that we were reacting against the Americanisation of the genre (‘UK Bringing Vampires Back Home’, ‘University Rejects Americanization Of Vampires’, ‘Cool Britannia For Vampires’, and ‘Bloody Hell: Brits Complain Yanks Are Stealing Their Vampires’), developing a vampire degree (‘Coffin Boffin Syllabus’, ‘Twilight Gets Scholarly Treatment’, and ‘Wanna Study Edward Cullen’), and eating food out of coffins (this part was true at least).

There have been detractors and scoffers, though these interventions have not been without humour. It has been amusing, but it has also provoked some interesting debates around the canon and the study of popular literature in universities.

We have often found ourselves defending the very notion of vampire studies, and so have our students. The project continues to explore the vampire in all its vicissitudes. This special issue of Gothic Studies is designed to communicate the significance of studying the representation of the vampire, the richness of this research, and the lively debate that ensues.

The essays included here are the living progeny of the undead project that began in 2010; they offer a vigorous commentary on the development of the genre, the construction of racial and gendered otherness, the treatment of gay sexuality, the significance of pseudo-science in sympathetic vampire narratives, the vampire’s relationship to the zombie, and the emergence of young adult vampire fiction. Together, they are essential reading for anyone who wishes to explore open graves with an open mind.

Frayling identified the dominant archetypal vampires as they emerge in fiction: the Byronic vampire (or ‘Satanic Lord’), the Fatal Woman, the Unseen Force, the Folkloric Vampire, the ‘camp’ vampire, and the vampire as a creative force.

Another strand has since developed — the vampire with a conscience. We are fortunate in editing the first journal issue to comment on this new strand of sympathetic vampire as it appears in the twenty-first-century, and our contributors highlight in particular the ubiquitous political symbolism that the undead can bear.

For some, the new vampire has meant the adulteration of the power of the Gothic; the emphasis on paranormal romance (a new genre in itself) between human beings and sparkly, vegetarian revenants has led to a clash of genres and a “Gothic romanced”.

We think instead that the new vampire, and the parallel generic hybridity, invites new approaches to Gothic studies. The range of articles below is wide, and all the ambivalences of the humanised vampire, who still bears traces of his or her monstrous otherness, are revealed; we also include a discussion on the vampire’s truly monstrous undead counterpart, the zombie.

Victoria Amador notes that, despite the all-pervading presence of vampires in contemporary culture (to which this collection is, of course, a response), lesbians of colour have been neglected. Yet vampires readily lend themselves to representation of alternative sexualities and have as readily raised questions of racial identity.

Amador notes that there has been an evolution in the depiction of lesbian vampires from the monstrous and threatening to more complex figures (as vampires have become more humanised in general). This new complexity has made possible explorations of race, sexuality, gender and other issues by women of colour through vampire fiction.

Amador analyses The Gilda Stories of the African-American Jewelle Gomez, and the Chicana-American Terri de la Peña’s story, ‘Refugia’. These narratives by United States feminist activists of colour employ the vampire myth to affirm female sexualities and feminine community in ways that subvert racist and patriarchal domination, with the taking and sharing of blood a crucial symbol. Amador praises the timeliness of these fictions and their foreshadowing of a new, egalitarian discourse.

Charlotte Bosseaux looks at one of the most important and influential texts in the movement towards the humanised vampire — Joss Whedon’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ — but from the perspective of a different discipline, that of translation studies. One of the successes of this project, demonstrating again the strength of the vampire’s allure, has been in attracting interdisciplinary attention.

Vampire narratives constantly play with identities — sexual, most notably, but cultural, too — and thus how such play can cross cultural boundaries is itself an intriguing question. Bosseaux shows how the actual techniques of translation have an important role in the mediation of meaning; the two options of dubbing or subtitling can have very different effects.

Taking the vampire character Spike — whose cultural identity is best defined as an adopted working-class English, significantly contrasted to the United States setting — she demonstrates how translation of Buffy into French attenuates or preserves Spike’s vampiric, and English, otherness, which is defined crucially by his language.

Thus vampires (and we are not the first to observe this, of course) serve to explore ideas of identity — sexual, cultural, or ‘racial’. Kimberley A. Frohreich turns to the core image of the vampire myth — the transmission and circulation of blood. This, from Dracula on, has served as a metaphor for racial mixing.

The nineteenth-century vampire, in fact, developed alongside the consolidation of pseudoscientific racial and political discourses of miscegenation. Frohreich examines the recent vampire dramatisations of ‘Blade’ (1998) and ‘Underworld’ (2003) (in film), and ‘True Blood’ (2008–) (as TV adaptation of Charlaine Harris’s novels) to show how the vampire as racial other has both endured and yet been radically transformed to articulate contemporary positions towards race — sometimes more progressively, often complicatedly and with ambiguity. But, with miscegenation as the theme, the child-bearing female body also becomes involved, as receptacle of racial purity. Overall, these narratives expose the construction of racial and gendered otherness.

The vampire, however, has long served as a versatile political metaphor, not confined to issues of race or sex. Through the dialectics of Slavoj Žižek, David McWilliam chooses to explore a more particularised political moment than those broader concerns.

The TV series ‘Ultraviolet’ (1998), though destabilising the categories of otherness in ways akin to other twentieth- and twenty-first-century vampires, raises suggestions of neo-conservatism, where Manichaean characterisations of the enemy as monster presaged the ‘War on Terror’ instigated in response to the Twin Towers attack of 11 September 2001. McWilliams’s close reading of the complex narrative of ‘Ultraviolet’ reveals a warning against the dehumanisation of “the enemy”.

Blood and otherness return in Xavier Aldana Reyes’s closer look at ‘True Blood’, this time emphasising the series’ much-discussed treatment of gay sexuality. Blood. as medium of infection (particularly AIDS), and as metaphor and means of pleasure, is central to Reyes’s analysis, and makes this chapter differ from the usual focus on the struggle for rights which has been observed in ‘True Blood’.

For Reyes, vampires in the series are something more complex than direct metaphors of the homosexual, and blood in the show — particularly vampire blood — becomes addictive drug and commodity as well as vector of disease.

In addition, the synthetic ‘True Blood’ substitute complicates the metaphor further, leading Reyes to conclude that capitalism has colonised more “natural” haematophilic relationships.

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