Since the serial I’m writing, Martha’s Children, is a vampire story, I figured I should get caught up on some of the contemporary literary depictions of vampires. As luck would have it, I stumbled into two novels of vampires of the glamorous kind: Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark (2001), and Christopher Moore’s You Suck: A Love Story (2007).
What’s a glamorous vampire? Well, it’s certainly not Varney the Vampire, Count Orlock, or even Dracula. They were often repulsive, being ugly, old, or stinking of blood. No, these are vampires who look very attractive, better than most humans, and have sexual drives that surpass most people. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla bordered on this territory. I gather Twilight‘s sparkly vampires are deep into it. So is the leading man/vampire in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.
It’s easy to see why the glamorous vampire is a draw. He’s (apparently) young, hot, forbidden, and your love will be eternal. At least that’s the hope.
Dead Until Dark is primarily a love story. Crazy Sookie Stackhouse, whose ability to read minds causes her problems and whose gift is sort of known by the townspeople, falls in love with Bill Compton, local boy who also happens to be a vampire who fought in the Civil War. Bill has the usual super-strength, super-speed, and, oh, he’s very handsome and super-good in bed. Like most vampires, his kind don’t do well against silver, garlic, sunlight, or fire. Most importantly, they are legal. Since a synthetic substitute for human blood has been found, vampires have come out of the closet/coffin to mix in human society. Because her focus is on Sookie and Bill, in this volume Harris didn’t work out many of the details of how humans and vampires coexisted, though the ones she offers are thoughtful and telling: there are vampires serving as police, and some humans, called “fang-bangers,” have sexual liaisons with vampires by choice. Even so, her vampires are still primarily predatory outlaws in behavior. They interact with each other on the basis of force and custom. And some show little respect for humans. No doubt, subsequent books and the TV series have developed Harris’s concept of vampires living legally among humans.
Harris treated her vampires seriously. Christopher Moore doesn’t seem to treat anything seriously. I’d previously read two of his books, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (1999), in which a Nessie-like creature tries to mate with a fuel truck (read the book, I can’t explain), and Fool (2009), a revamping of King Lear in which the jester manipulates everyone else to bed Cordelia. In You Suck (2007), which is actually the middle story in a trilogy, Moore decided to take on vampires, goth culture, young love, and oversized bald cats wearing sweaters.
Superficially, Moore’s vampires aren’t much different from Harris’s. They aren’t legal, but they lose all their bodily imperfections, such as scars or tattoos, when they transform, and they have incredible sex with each other. They have the traditional fear of sunlight. On the other hand, Moore varies from tradition by having vampire bites vanish in seconds, and some other peculiarities when vampires drain their human prey.
But this is Moore. He doesn’t take anything seriously. So his glamorous vampires are not actually glamorous, because they are young adults (late teens, early twenties), and are fumbling around with sex and vampirism without much of a clue. Moore doubles down by throwing in Abby Normal, a sixteen-year-old goth girl who outdoes Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland (from Northanger Abbey) in having all sorts of ridiculous romantic notions about the dark side. Abby imagines the vampire couple, Tommy and Jody, as mysterious and romantic creatures, “Lord Flood” and “the Countess,” and seriously wants to be their minion. Once she gets to know them better, Abby gradually becomes disillusioned, but manages to transfer her fantasies to a biochem grad student who lives at home with his parents, who becomes her “sweet Ninja Romeo.”
You Suck is ultimately a satirical take on glamorous vampires and the more absurd aspects of goth culture. It’s a reminder that people are real, imperfect beings, and even if they get a physical makeover in becoming vampires, their characters will reflect their past. I’d like to think I’ve lived up to that lesson in writing Martha’s Children.
That said, you’d think I’d condemn Harris’s book outright, and you’d be wrong. Even glamorous vampires are acceptable, if they tell a good and interesting story. I think Harris did an excellent job in giving the book a real feel for its setting, and the bits she does throw out about how vampires interact with humans and each other are interesting. “Crazy Sookie,” as she’s called at one point, is the narrator, and I suspect an unreliable one, which raises intriguing possibilities about her romance with Bill. I’m curious to know whether Harris could sustain that device over the whole series, or if it recedes into the background. The one piece that doesn’t work at all for me is the mystery of the murdered women; too much isn’t known until the killer is revealed.
So what should a would-be writer take away from these two books? I offer two lessons from each of them.
1. Character is of the utmost importance. You Suck feels more realistic than Dead Until Dark because its characters are more intelligible, and drawn in more detail. Their natures drive the plot most of the time. Dead Until Dark‘s characters are both idealized and odd at the same time, which combined makes them feel less realistic.
2. A strong setting with colorful descriptions won’t carry your book, but can make it much more enjoyable to read by drawing your reader into the story. Harris wins this comparison, though Moore’s description of San Francisco isn’t bad.
3. The unreliable narrator is a sophisticated technique, tough to master, but it can throw a new perspective on events (Abby Normal’s journal in You Suck) or make one question and think about what’s going on (the odd Sookie as narrator in Dead Until Dark).
4. Satire, especially at length, is an even tougher technique to master. Harris uses it only occasionally, but tellingly, to criticize the way we glorify things in unreal terms. Ironically, one of her targets is the idea of the glamorous vampire, quite a mixed message there. Moore is a satirist, period. But You Suck isn’t his best. The targets are too obvious: teen/twenty singles culture and goth culture. It’s fun, but once he introduced Abby Normal’s journal, with its pretentious attitude, everything else is anticlimax. Fool is more on target; it’s hard to read King Lear thereafter without a smile creeping in.