Death and the Vampire

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‘Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.’
Anaïs Nin

Death most resembles a prophet who is without honor in his own land or a poet who is a stranger among his people.

Khalil Gibran

“No-one- be they vampire, mortal or werewolf- returns from the Land of the Dead, the Dark Land, the Vale of Ghosts, unchanged. The darkness changes you. That is the way of it.”― Excerpt from The Breathing Ghosts, copyright Eleanor Keane 2013.

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Woody Allen

Vampires have been interlinked with both death and fear of death for centuries. Commonly referred to as the ‘the undead,’ mythical vampires exist in a limbo-land between life and death, suspended in animation, hovering between youth and age. They are often portrayed as having all the beauty and allure of youth, but all the wisdom (and sometimes jadedness) of old age. (See pretty much any Anne Rice novel for examples of bitter, beautiful, philosophical vampires.)

In my opinion, the popularity of the vampire in young adult (YA) fiction is not down to their shirking of death, but instead their embracing of that wonderful word, immortality. Death and its cold, brutal reality is ignored in favour of immortal perfection. Of course, this has superficial benefits, too. Gorgeous boy-vampires and girl-vampires in alternating modes of ‘mysterious’ and ‘brooding’ throw their human counterparts into ecstatic reveries on the mere sight of their chiselled fashion-plate faces, untouched by death and decay.

In Anne Rice’s Interview with The Vampire, the child-vampire Claudia is introduced as a dirty, diseased, dying plague victim, the realism of her plight cutting through Lestat and Louis’s luxurious lifestyle and dark hedonism like a knife. It is the thought of her dying so cruelly-so prematurely- that stirs the vampire Louis to turn her. Her suffering appeals to the shred of humanity still left within him.

Yet after she is turned into a vampire, her body changes, becomes more refined, more appealing, less human and certainly more hygienic. Claudia’s matted, dirty hair becomes golden, glossy corkscrew curls. Her skin clears, her eyes shine, but it is all a façade to hide the vampire predator that lurks underneath. She is not dead, she is not undead, she is immortal.

Yet, interestingly, Claudia’s arrival within the film version of the novel signals a deeper, darker shift towards escalating violence and, ultimately, death itself. Before, Lestat and Louis’s kills arguably merge into one decadent, debauched mass of heaving bosoms, bitten necks and bloodstained corsets. The violence is hidden within a stylish but deceptive patina of excess, finery and frippery, as Lestat extends his bloody reign over New Orleans. But it is Claudia who brings with her the reality of disease and sickness. It is Claudia who, in her eagerness for a mother, props up the decomposing bodies of a dead mother and her child in a grotesque parody of doll-house toys. Even Louis and Lestat are disgusted at the unnerving sight, and the way she fawns over them. However, as a vampire, the sad truth is that Claudia is a little girl lost, a vampire-child with no childhood. She will never fully reclaim her self as a (mortal) child, or experience true motherhood, for both symbolize the essence of life: the fertility and fecundity of the mother, the youth and innocence of the child both stand as markers of life and love. Claudia can possess neither fertility nor innocence, and her coveting of the bodies emphasizes her desperate need to regain what she has lost in surrendering her mortality.
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Little girl lost: Claudia in ‘Interview with The Vampire’

Sometimes, the physical perfection of the vampire alone is enough to instil confidence of their own immortality, of their own imperviousness to the cruel, clutching hands of Death:

 ‘She’d known all along that nothing really terrible could happen to Stefan. Life couldn`t be that cruel, not to Elena Gilbert. They were all safe now.’

 The rather twee quote above suggests that mortal Elena in The Vampire Diaries exists within a comfortable, soothing silo of safety. It also reassures the reader that nothing can happen to Stefan, her vampire lover, because he, too, is part of this nice, rather suffocating space. The quote places the desires and needs of Elena Gilbert above the unpredictability of life and the assuredty of death. If Elena has ‘known all along’ that she and her lover would be safe/saved, where is the drama? Where is the danger? Where is the learning experience? Without suffering, we cannot grow and evolve. In her safe space, Elena is as impervious to death and suffering as a vampire, but also ignorant of the lessons that such hardship can offer.

In a lot of similar YA paranormal fiction, vampires are demoted into ‘tortured souls’, or fallen angels- rather than bloodthirsty fiends- and the real dilemma is not whether (the heteronormative) male vampire is going to kill her, but if he will ‘truly love’ her. (Yawn.) Irritatingly, the mortal- and often virginal- heroine ultimately always remains whole, intact and beautiful, despite numerous dangers and threats. Safe from harm, safe from vampires, safe from death, and safe from life itself.

To give a dictionary-definition of ‘immortal’, (thank you, Dictionary.com) yes, immortal means someone or something is impervious to death, but it also has other, far more whimsical meanings:

-not liable to perish or decay; imperishable; everlasting.

-perpetual; lasting; constant.

– or, of or pertaining to immortal beings [i.e. gods.]

Whom, in this context, wouldn’t want to avoid the grim torture of bodily decay in favour of something everlasting and continuous?  (As SF writer David Gerrold once said, ‘Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.’) Death is ugly and sad, and much of our culture seems to be (perhaps understandably) obsessed with avoiding it- particularly the physical signs of old age.

If one is to follow this view, the beautiful Dorian-Gray like vampire is surely a literal representation of our culture’s obsession with eternal youth and physical perfection. There are a myriad of face and body creams on the market which proclaim to turn back time and restore youth. All of them fail, and yet we keep buying them.

Despite the recession, plastic surgery is still on the increase, with 9,430 breast augmentations performed in 2010, 10,015 breast augmentations in 2011 and 3,249 liposuction operations performed in 2008 alone. Ear corrections and eyelid corrections are becoming more common, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right. Young girls are becoming more and more detached from their bodies, and are made to feel more and more insecure about their looks, comparing themselves to ‘perfect’ celebrities and actresses in glossy mags that have already been airbrushed to look wrinkle-free and cellulite-proof. (For more on the vampire ideal and beauty standards, see the link to the Womanist Musings article below, which also further analyzes Claudia in Interview with The Vampire.)

And through all this insecurity, through all this body hate-peddling rubbish, sidles the figure of the vampire. Gorgeous, decadent, otherworldly, ethereal, powerful. Whether male or female, the vampire usually holds others in their sway. Their bodies are not subject to the ravages of time, their bodies do not become victim to fat, stretch marks, scars, wrinkles, crows-feet or varicose veins. They do not die, they are not buried, they have no mourners, they are not grieved, they leave no obituaries. They float away with their (usually human) lover off into a fairyland where such things are miraculously accepted.

They are everlasting perfection incarnate, and sometimes, just a little bit boring because of that. In The Breathing Ghosts, I wanted to address the illusion of the ‘perfect immortal vampire’, and give it a kick up the arse. Some of the ways in which I did this probably seem trivial at first- a vampire woman with a plain, severe face, a vampire with a broken nose, a flat chested, boyish girl vampire, a weedy and effeminate male vampire. They may be little changes, but to me they were the little changes that arguably started earthquakes in the way I depicted/depict the undead. Sure, these vampires are powerful, but they are by no means perfect. They have flaws, they have foibles. They beget scars. They are by no means the ‘perpetual, lasting constant’ implied by the word immortal. Their bodies are not ideal, and their personalities shift- they may be cruel at one point, vulnerable at the next. These vampires are (hopefully) as complex as humans, perhaps even more so.

The word ‘immortal’ can also signify a god-like deity, but my vampires are certainly not gods. They swear, fight, break hearts, have their own hearts broken, live, lust and- on quite a few occasions, actually die.

For instance, the novel opens with a passage concerning Angelica, a young (mortal) girl caught within the Witch Trials of Salem. Instead of being miraculously rescued at the last minute by a (no-doubt brooding) vampire lover, I wanted the reader to actually see her die before she becomes a vampire. To actually see the devolution from living, fighting, persecuted girl to muddy corpse. For it is ironically only through her death that Angelica can progress onto the next stage of her life, and all its dark twists and turns.

Poor, poor Angelica. Her death is not romanticized or idealized. It is painful, messy, dirty, horrible and very real. I did a lot of research into the Salem Witch Trials in order to inject realism into the chapter- women really did die for no reason at the Trials, they went through a horrific ordeal and were persecuted and tortured, and I wanted to respect their histories and the lessons their murders can teach us. I didn’t want to sweep the brutality, misogyny or ignorance of the situation under the proverbial rug. I wanted to bring it out into the open and say Look, this is death. This is suffering. This, for some very unfortunate people, was life.

Yet, for all this, some people and some cultures are still fascinated by death. Every year Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead with sugar skulls, parades and piñatas. Historic cemeteries give tours and lectures. Morbid tales of death and the grotesque by Edgar Allan Poe have become classics (and also partly inspired The Breathing Ghosts.)

The Wellcome Collection recently held a large-scale exhibition focusing on death, called Death: A Self-Portrait. Its exhibition included Incan skulls, Renaissance vanitas paintings, postcards, and even human remains. It also included a massive chandelier made of 3,000 intricate plaster-cast bones, made by the artist Jodie Carey. The Wellcome Collection also asked visitors to tell them about objects that they associated with death. The results are fascinating, bizarre, poignant and memorable. They range from a turtle shell, to skulls, a cross, a birthday card and even a tiny hand-carved coffin charm.

Traditional vampires, with their coffin beds, skull paraphernalia and velvety Gothic costumes fit seamlessly into this, for vampires- despite what Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and others of their ilk tell us- are death. They are death in all its ghoulish gory glory, for they do not live and they do not honour life.

P Barber’s 1988 work, Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality describes the blood-soaked visceral history of vampires throughout the centuries. Barber describes vividly the horrors of corpses full to the brim of liquid blood, the terrifying ghost of a sixteenth-century shoemaker and even the exhumation and dissection of an entire graveyard packed with Serbian vampires. There is no life here, unless it is life forcibly taken. There are no moody, tortured-soul vampires sliding through high-school with tight jeans and ‘hero’ haircuts. Barber’s criticism delves deep into vampire superstition laced with tales of blood, demons, living corpses and death, death and more death.

Vampires have been intrinsically connected with death for centuries because they are both the survivors of the death, and the victims of it. Death shapes and colours their prolonged lives, and gives them meaning and purpose. It is death which has given them their individuality, their autonomy and their horrific power, but at a terrible price- the price of their humanity. They are the death-dealers, who accept death, and give it freely, brutally, and without conscience. If vampires weren’t the ‘undead’, they’d probably be average humans. It is the fact that they are impervious to death and remorse that truly sets them apart, for it is our mortality, our humanity and ultimately our ability to love that makes us human. It is wrong to idealize vampires as some sort of immortal, romantic god-force, because they are the very antithesis of that- they, in my view, are faithless, amoral drifters, counting out their nights in tides of blood- the blood of life, the blood of death, and the blood of others.

Notes

The image is of Metairie Cemetery and is from Loco Steve on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/5183351202/sizes/m/in/photostream/) and is Creative Commons licensed for commercial reproduction.

The quotes from Anaïs Nin, David Gerrold and Khalil Gibran are from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_death.html#QKXoWQuZLFkZp8dr.99

The quote from Woody Allen is from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/death

The quote from The Vampire Diaries is from The Vampire Diaries: The Struggle, by L.J. Smith Chapter 10, p.316.The image of Claudia is from http://vampirechronicles.wikia.com/wiki/Claudia

Related Links

The Wellcome Collection: Death: A Self- Portrait: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/death-a-self-portrait.aspx

Read more about the accompanying book here: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/death-a-self-portrait/death-a-picture-album.aspx (Warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted)

Investigate the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Objects of Death’, with wonderful illustrations: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/death-a-self-portrait/your-objects-of-death.aspx

Renee’ Martin’ s article on ‘Vampires and Impossible, Timeless Beauty Standards’ at Womanist Musings: http://www.womanist-musings.com/2011/10/vampires-and-impossible-timeless-beauty.html (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/)

Buy the book Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality by P Barber here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vampires-Burial-Death-Folklore-Reality/dp/0300048599/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1361910035&sr=8-1

Worrying (and very scary!) statistics on plastic surgery in the UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jan/30/plastic-surgery-statistics-uk#data

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