It seems you can’t keep a good monster down. The vampire simply won’t stay vanquished. Like the rest of the undead, it refuses to stay in the grave. The literary genre that spawned it, “horror”, has itself gone into something of an ironically terminal decline (in terms of book sales specifically), and yet the vampire still manages to survive in current literature. It has cleverly changed its appearance (another vampire trait) so that it can now exist as “dark fantasy” instead. Clever, devilishly clever.
In Bram Stoker’s apocryphal Dracula, published in 1897, there was no doubt that the vampire was a creature of hell. And we are left in no doubt at the end of the book that the vampire is gone to dust, never to rise again…and yet the vampire has risen anyway, in defiance of its own creator (be that God or the author). Stephen King himself has pointed out that the novel Dracula was a success despite some marked shortcomings in the quality and construction of the prose: ‘Dracula is a frankly palpitating melodrama couched in the badly creaking frame of the epistolary novel […] with little to distinguish [it] from similar books in the genre, such as MG Lewis’s The Monk or Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, which have been largely forgotten.’
The monster, then, has become greater than the book. The vampire has the undeniable power to mesmerise us, enabling it to possess the popular consciousness. You could say it lives off that consciousness as a parasite, spreading through and claiming the popular mind for itself. It consumes one art form and then moves straight onto another, its appetite unsatiable. While Bram Stoker was still alive, there was a stage production of Dracula. The character then quickly moved (with a nod to Nosferatu) into the Boris Karloff era of black and white films. And then into Hammer Horror films. Always adapting to and mastering the latest tools for the manipulation of new and larger numbers of innocents. A cunning creature that always stays one step ahead, either to avoid capture or to lay a trap for its prey. A creature of terrifying sophistication, which uses civilization itself as a tool for its unholy desires. Clever, devilishly clever.
In the same way, the depiction of the vampire in literature has had to become more sophisticated. Look at the persuasive, intricate and beautifully wrought work of Anne Rice. Her vampires have new and greater powers, powers that did not exist in Dracula, although it is clear that Dracula is always in the process of growing and yet to realise his full potential. I would argue that potential is fully realised in the vampire Lestat, for he does not end up staked and undone. He wins. The vampire is no longer the monster. Instead, the vampire has become the hero!
Just when we thought we’d seen every trick, the vampire grabs Bram Stoker’s pen and rewrites the book with itself as sympathetic hero. The seduction is complete. The popular consciousness has fallen to the vampire and now everyone loves him. There is no Van Helsing in Twilight. Only Robert Pattinson. Beautiful Robert Pattinson.
Ultimately, the vampire’s greatest power is to change its appearance to suit its surroundings and immediate place in history. It is always there and always relevant. In Dracula, its relevance was in how it represented the devil, as described by the church, but also the darkness of the id, as described by Freud at the time. In Twilight, its relevance was in how it represented the social alienation of youth. In Empire of the Saviours (release date: May 2012) its relevance is in how those at the top of society have bled us far too much of late.
Long live the vampire!