Ethical Vampires, Part I

April 9, 2010 | 6 books mentioned 28 9 min read

coverVampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker‘s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners.  The vampires of Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone‘s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.

coverSo what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine HarrisSookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer‘s ubiquitous Twilight?  Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.

Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars.  Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.

The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball‘s  hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.

Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (“I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.

Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale.  These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in.  Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.

Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.

But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying.  All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.

Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way.  I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).

So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).

coverThis basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug.   In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence.  At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”

This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.

Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood‘s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire.  They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”

The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty.  By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?”  They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.

In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist.  This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.

Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction—more on this in Part II.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. “Real” vampires are soulless demons from Hell, who deserve no better fate than the business end of a wooden stake wielded by a plucky young Slayer. I hold no truck with these brooding, morally ambiguous, defanged posers. Bite or get off the pot.

  2. I am a HUGE fan of vampire criticism. Probably more so than I am of vampire literature. Definitely looking forward to part two. And after that, can we talk about zombies and their meaning in society and culture?

  3. The question of vampire is still rife in many a minds. I have watched countless movies and read many books on the same subject, but there is never a good explanation as to what they are. They just take the shape of the creative mind of the writer or movie writer. They confuse me.

  4. Dear Willy,

    Yes–lets talk about zombies! Since seeing The Crazies, I’ve become convinced that zombies (or at least what they signify) present a much bigger threat to society than vampires. Films with mass zombie epidemics seem just to represent the Hobbesian war of all-against-all, but, increasingly, I think that in a more general way zombies represent all of the under-motivated, unintelligent, accidental evil in the world (insurance co. functionaries who tell you that you owe them money you don’t; the Post Office losing your mail; bureaucrats at the DMV or the passport office who tell you that your three forms of id are somehow, inexplicably, not sufficient). The stuff that enrages you or leaves you devastated but with no one to blame–that’s the work of zombies! In some ways, I think zombies are a personification of Hannah Arendt’s arguments about the banality of evil.

    Vampires–at least some kinds of vampires–are at the other end of the spectrum of evil: they’re super-intelligent, highly motivated evil doers. It’d actually be nicer if the world had more vampires and fewer zombies because at least then we’d know who to blame. As it is, with all the zombies around, impotent rage and quiet, bit-by-bit spiritual devastation are the order of the day. Or so I find. I don’t come across highly aware evil masterminds that often, but bumbling, unconscious doers of evil–pretty much every day.

    Thank you for reading! Emily

  5. Emily, I like the way your mind works. I’ve been showing this around to my friends, and it’s started some interesting discussions! A lot of us agree that zombies are scarier than vampires, if only because they seem the likelier danger. Your comment sheds a little light on that. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2!

  6. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that Harris and Meyers are writing for two very different audiences. Harris is writing for adults, Meyers for young adults. Yes, plenty of adults are reading her books, but I still think this different intention needs to be taken into account, as it may affect choices in depiction of good and evil, vocabulary, etc.

  7. Dear MRG,

    Yes, audience is important and I should have mentioned it, but, ultimately, I think that H and M have very different worldviews and that these divergent worldviews would make for this same difference, no matter what they wrote or for whom.

    The verbal style of Meyer’s book, the diction, is, as you say, very much shaped by Twilight being a series written from a teenage girl’s point-of-view. Even given this, though, I think Meyer could ask her young readers to confront moral ambiguity and the inevitability of sacrifice and disappointment and loss (most great children’s/YA authors do) but she doesn’t. Bella gets everything she could possibly want and sacrifices virtually nothing. Nor does she have to come to terms with a character who’s equal parts good and bad.

    As you’ll see in the second part of this (though you probably gathered it already), I’m very much prejudiced against Twilight–I think it peddles a really irresponsible version of extreme fantasy and that it’s geared towards young girls makes it even more pernicious.

    Thank you for reading, Emily

  8. I love vampire Lit and criticism. I definitely think it reflects current culture. And I never thought about True Blood in terms of it asking “Who’s the vampire now?” but it’s totally true. Loved this first part and can’t wait for the second!

  9. Don’t forget that the substitute-blood-drinking vampire was done, with glorious cheesiness (REALLY fake fangs) by Forever Knight in the naughty 90s. I also seem to remember Anne Rice having some of her vamps abstain (I love the comparison of Lestat to Gordon Gekko – hadn’t thought of that).

    I just can’t get into vampire lit. this time around, but I loved your analysis. To me Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains the one truly great bloodsucker story, mostly because of the moral resistance put up by Van Helsing and the rest of the cast. I grew up on Hammer Horror movies with Christopher Lee crumbling into dust at the sight of a crucifix, and have a bit of a problem with undead who drive Volvos.

  10. In a lot of vampire stories, there’s an expositional scene where somebody explains “the rules” of vampires, and how the vampires in that particular story are different from other fictional vampires. This is where the author establishes the conventions that will later factor into the story, and discards those for which she has no use.

    The traditional vampire survives by hunting people and drinking blood, comes out only at night, is immortal unless killed in special ways, is eternally young, and is repelled by garlic and religious icons.

    Writers of vampire fiction tend to bend the conventional mythology to their narrative and character needs. If they want lots of gunfights, then they’ll expand the traditional methodology of vampire killing. If they need the vampire to travel during daylight, then the author will come up with a loophole. Lots of vampire stories get rid of the garlic and the crosses. The blood drinking has historically been the one thing that all the fictional permutations on vampires shared in common, because most authors are drawn to the genre by their interest in exploring the vampire’s nature as a predator that hunts people. Whatever else the traditional vampire is, he’s a killer, and he survives by killing. That’s why Dracula, for example, can only be redeemed by dying.

    The recent spate of sexy vampire stories pushes the bloodletting to the background, for the same reason that predecessors have tossed out the garlic. These vampires forestall predation not to mirror our concerns with ethical consumption, but because the predatory aspects of vampirism are uninteresting to the authors and inconsistent with their narrative objectives.

    Writers like Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer are recreating the vampire as a romantic hero, and they are interested in his eternal youth, immortality, and supernatural specialness. The actual vampirism is an inconvenience to be dispensed with so the sexy vampire can fill this role; his bloodlust makes him broody and aloof (in a sexy way) and adds a sexy hint of danger to the courtship narrative. But he never needs to pop off and kill somebody; Edward can live on animal blood, and Bill can buy fake blood at the supermarket.

    The central moral or ethical problem of the vampire is that he preserves his own life and youth by inflicting harm and death upon others. What Harris and Meyer are doing is exactly the opposite of presenting vampirism as an ethical metaphor. By turning the vampire’s need for blood into an inconvenience that is easily and harmlessly dispensed with, they de-emphasize the ethical question. The eternal life and eternal youth of the vampire are no longer unholy gifts purchased with innocent blood. They’re awesome, sexy superpowers.

    Thus, Bill’s vampirism in the Sookie books is the best thing he’s got going on; his vampire charm hides the fact that he’s actually kind of a jerk. In “Twilight,” vampirism is downgraded from a devil’s bargain to a metaphor for the libidos of teenage boys. Edward’s easily-conquered desire becomes an illustration of his chaste virtuousness, rather than a struggle with the fundamental darkness of his nature.

    These aren’t stories written to mirror the struggles of readers trying to live ethical lives in a greedy society. Such a parable would focus on balancing the costs of consumption with the costs of abstention. Instead, these authors write about ordinary girls who attract the undying passions of men who are imbued with supernatural sexiness. The costs are marginalized. Everything’s free in the land of sexy vampires, because these stories are romantic fantasies, not parables.

  11. You make some really interesting points, Daniel. But I guess I still find myself wondering why these authors would choose the vampire as the vehicle of romantic fantasy? Saying that Meyer and Marris take supernatural sexiness without the murderous bloodlust doesn’t quite satisfy the questions: why vampires now?–and why this kinder, gentler vampire now?

    The vampire has a lot of moral baggage–he is still and has always been a predator, as you say–and he hasn’t, by any means, always been sexy. It’s not enough to say that the vampire has become a romantic fantasy. There’s still the question of why and the moral baggage.

  12. Emily,

    The core narrative of both Sookie and Twilight is one in which an ordinary girl attracts the attention and affection of an aloof, glamorous supernatural hero. New permutations of this trend involve werewolves, angels and fairies, and the underlying story is the same. While these various creatures have served different symbolic or allegorical roles in other contexts, in modern paranormal romances, they’re interchangeable.

    Meyer’s objective in “Twilight” is to cast the hero as the dreamiest, swooniest, most perfectest boyfriend imaginable. Harris’s objective in the Sookie books is to cast Bill as an intoxicating, romantic preternaturally sexy dude who later reveals human flaws like jealousy and possessiveness. The existing vampire mythology is a convenient foundation for both authors; they keep what they like, and toss what they don’t need. And what they don’t need is the predation and the neck-biting.

    Being a vampire would be awesome, if it weren’t for the icky blood-drinking. So, if an author pushes the blood to the background, she is left with a fantasy-romance hero who is just awesome. When you strip away the ickiness, what you’re left with is barely a vampire, but that’s fine for these authors’ purposes.

    So the question isn’t “why vampires?” but, rather “why paranormal romance?” Was that even a subgenre five years ago? Why do readers now fantasize about attracting some kind of mythical creature instead of some kind of Prince Charming? What’s the difference between Vampire Bill and Mr. Big from “Sex and the City”? Maybe the trend toward fantasy romance suggests widespread female dissatisfaction with the failings and weaknesses and squalid desires of mere mortal men.

  13. Hi Kristy, I think that Twilight will make interesting reading for your group. Possibly infuriating, but interesting as well.

    And Daniel, I still disagree with you: While the vampire might be kinder and gentler in certain ways, he’s very much a vampire–blood drinking, both actual and metaphorical are still taking place. In the Sookie books: humans and vampires alike are drinking blood and it can still be frightening and repulsive. The close-up shot of Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) licking and sucking at Sookie (Anna Paquin)’s bloody neck for the first time in True Blood revolted me in a way that I am rarely revolted these days. And then there’s Sookie’s empassioned and animalistic feeding on Bill in the first book. There’s also Bill’s rape of Sookie and his forced feeding on her in one of Harris’ later books–Club Dead, I think.

    In Twilight, there’s the Volturi feeding frenzy that Bella only hears and then there’s evil vampire James’ attack on her in the first book, and Jasper Cullen’s near attack in the second. Meyer is squeamish about violence and so most of it tame, abstractly or indirectly described, or avoided altogether (the epic battle that should take place in the fourth book barely begins–SM can’t bear to kill any of her characters off). But this doesn’t mean that the same potential for violence isn’t there. There’s also–my favorite–the headboard of Bella and Edward’s honeymoon bed–out of which Edward takes great bites in order to avoid biting Bella. And a great deal could be said about Bella’s vampire pregnancy–the violent, predatory nature of her baby and how it savages her body while she’s carrying it (it made me wonder how Meyer feels about pregnancy, to say the least). And, as I’ve said and say again in Pt. II, there’s also some metaphorical, vampirism going on in the Cullen family.

    These creatures are still very much vampires and they’re not interchangeable with zombies or werewolves. They’re predators and they still like blood–they’re just more temperate, more humane in their appetites–most of the time. But they still stalk animals, people, other vampires, good investment opportunities.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree because I just don’t see fantasy romance as interchangeable with vampire fiction. But thanks for the spirited debate, Emily

  14. Zombies are more akin to swaggering street thugs while vampires are more like diabolical criminals who scheme and plot in the dark corners and cellars before making their move. Or, if you will, a gangbanger in contrast to a wallstreet hoodlum or mafioso.

  15. To me, the Whole Foods metaphor is a stretch and it doesn’t resonate. This critique seems more of a dig at Whole Foods and of a certain type of conspicuous consumption. Or is it a critique of the attitude of the people that shop at Whole Foods? If this is the intent, that’s fine, but it mashes up the reality of vampire-humans or human-vampires. There are vampires in this culture; quite simply they are people who suck the life out of you. They can be, and often are, bosses, spouses, girl friends, boy friends, and other human beings. Or just as bad, credit card companies that charge Mafia level interest rates with an ethical base to match.

  16. Have you considered widening your analysis to other vampire Romance novels like J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and Lara Adrian’s Breed series? Since there are some similarities between the two series a comparison could be very interesting.

    Also, in response to Daniel:

    “The central moral or ethical problem of the vampire is that he preserves his own life and youth by inflicting harm and death upon others. What Harris and Meyer are doing is exactly the opposite of presenting vampirism as an ethical metaphor. By turning the vampire’s need for blood into an inconvenience that is easily and harmlessly dispensed with, they de-emphasize the ethical question.”

    In both of the series I mentioned above, vampires find someone they feed from indefinitely. Ward’s vampires are a separate species and are really only sustained by the blood of the opposite sex of their species. Adrian’s vampires similarly are only sustained by the blood of their mates and those have to be genetically compatible. Those compatible mates are granted many of the features common to vampires such as immortality, but only so long as the blood bond lasts.

    So, in both of these examples, rather than mitigate the problem of blood from humans with will-power (Meyer’s solution) or technology (Harris’ solution), Ward and Adrian convert it and make that need a necessary and fundamental component of a closed system.

  17. Lisa,

    I have not read those series, but the scenario sounds to me like a fantasy/romance about a boyfriend who can never, ever leave you, rather than a consumption parable about sustainable food sources.


    I may have overstated the point. Sexy vampires are still vampires. And there’s a reason they’re still vampires; eternal youth and ethereal beauty and pale skin and red lips have been part of the vampire mythology. But the ethical implication of the vampire myth comes from the price that must be paid for the alluring aspects of vampire existence. When you allow the vampire to be immortal and seductive without having to inflict suffering and death upon others to sustain himself, you haven’t made the vampire more ethical, you’ve merely made him less interesting.

    But fantasy romance is more likely than horror to sidestep the ethical questions implicit to the vampire. His minuses become pluses. The romantic vampire’s desire for blood gives him an aura of danger, but he will be willing to abstain on her behalf; he is therefore willing to sacrifice for the heroine, and her love will be enough to sustain him.

    The vampiric exchange of fluids also transforms into a convenient erotic act for authors and readers who want titillation, but find actual sex icky. In Charlaine Harris’s novels, bloodletting is a sex act; in “Twilight” abstention from blood-drinking is a metaphor for abstention from sex. These are romantic fantasies about undying men who supply undying love without making sexual demands.

    I did like that Vampire Bill in the Sookie series turned out to be kind of a petty jerk once the novelty of his vamp exoticism faded. But Harris’s vampires are still tamed and domesticated; by curing them of their predatory needs, she avoids the central problem. And “Twilight” is entirely without moral complexity.

    While we’re plugging authors who do a better job with the vampire beat than Stephanie Meyer, I’d be remiss not to point out Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series as a really fine example of fiction that explores the ethical implications of being a vampire. The vampire protagonist of that story agonizes over whether he should turn his HIV positive girlfriend into a vampire; doing so will save her life, but he’s not so sure his condition isn’t a fate worse than death. But, despite his principles, Pitt isn’t above drinking a homeless guy when he’s hard-up for a fix.

    Meanwhile, a group of vegan-ish hippie vampires tries to reconcile their needs with their ideals, while another vampire faction starves itself to fulfill a cultish religious prophecy, and a third group creates a horrific factory farm to supply umbilical cord blood to cabal of vampire elites.

    So there’s a lot going on, and it’s nice to see vamps given an opportunity to do something more interesting than making goo-goo eyes at vapid teenage girls.

  18. Hi, again, Daniel,

    Your latest installment convinces me that you are on to something with your fantasy-romance thesis–You’re right that being a vampire or a werewolf confers a desirability on a romantic hero that’s akin to the post A&E Pride & Prejudice mini-series “Darcy effect.” And you’re quite right that Bill comes to seem quite unimpressive once the singularity of his glamorous condition is off-set by other “supes” in Harris’ ever-expanding cast (most more handsome, rich, noble, etc. than Bill).

    But I still think that the vampirism–the vampirism of Dracula and the metaphorical vampirism of a hero like Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho/Patrick Batement is there in Meyer and Harris–that it’s not merely the alluring patina you describe, though obscured somewhat by fictional vampires’ newfound interest in moral living. Vampirism’s just more diffuse in Harris, more toned down (sometimes people are vampires, sometimes vampires are vampires, sometimes vampires are people). Harris is still very much interested in the human/vampire potential and tendency to exploit others mercilessly for pleasure and gain (which is what I call being a vampire). Meyer is totally unconscious of the fact that she’s made the Cullens into a pack of Bernie Madoffs, and she does have old-fashioned vampire massacres in her books (she’s just too squeamish to describe them any way but indirectly). I guess the difference between us is that I see metaphorical vampirism as vampirism. Plus, as I said before, there’s plenty of, as you say, “icky” vampire antics in both books (That scene when Bill first bites Sookie in AB’s True Blood still shivers my timbers–there’s just something about bloody mouths, especially hungry, sensual bloody mouths with flickering bloody tongues).

    I don’t know the Joe Pitt books but will check them out. And thank you for this spirited and civil debate. I’ve enjoyed it, Emily

  19. The Cullens only eat endangered species. Chasing lions and wrestling bears, oh my!

    I agree with your assessment of the sticky-sweet Twilight series, but I think it is unfair to ascribe simple-minded sentimentality to teenagedom. Think of the Twilight moms! Think of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire series, which, while bloodier, sexier, and more cracktastic–in every way more explicit than Twilight–espouses the same black and white morality. As does, for that matter, Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings.

  20. Hi Liza,

    You’re right: I shouldn’t blame teenagerhood. It’s really immaturity that’s the problem–a condition most often associated with adolescence but one that can linger well into adulthood. As my aunt says: You’re only young once, but you have your whole life to be immature.

    I can get behind certain brands of black-and-white morality and certain brands of youthful sentimentality and naivety about love–but not Twilight’s. I think that Meyer fails spectacularly as a moralist-novelist in giving a selfish, narcissistic young woman everything a girl might pine for with no (no! no!) real sacrifices required.

    That’s a criminal fantasy. This full argument is for another time, but I think fantasies likes Meyer’s are a real source of women’s dissatisfaction with men/ women’s pining for materialist love ideals/women’s unrealistic expectations of what true, sturdy male-female relationships consist in and what they’re like. Twilight’s poison as far as I’m concerned. Forget the sex-will-kill-you logic of Twilight, what I can’t stand is its tarting up of true love as inextricably intertwined with cash, leisure, and bling, creepy paternalism (by a man/vamp who doesn’t have good judgment even after 100 years of living), and female masochism.

    Frankly, I find the whole thing revolting. However, it should be confessed here that your comment finds me in an unguarded moment and perhaps I’ve said more than I should or more than I’d feel in less heated moods. Or maybe I’ve said what should be said: Twilight collects and mythologizes the most pernicious lies about the nature of happiness and male-female relationships and offers them up, candy coated, for the delectation (of the young especially)–those who don’t know any better.

    Better for us all had it not been written!

    Excuse my melodramatics if you find this to be in that vein. And thank you, thank you for reading, Emily

    PS Are the Black Dagger books worth a look? And bear in mind: I know I’ve just said I wished that Twilight had never been written, but because it has been written and voraciously consumed by millions, I found and find it interesting, even as I hate it. That is one standard of worthiness; the other is, does it do anything distinctive and interesting with the vampire trope?

  21. “Vampiric Art and the Allure of Stasis” This piece by Emily Wilkinson from 2010 reanimated in me some other types of vampire archetypes. Below is pasted from conversation with a pal, but, for what it’s worth!

    [I never could put my finger on my strong, instinctive dislike of the 2013 Jarmusch vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive,” but I think I’ve figured it out.

    I did not find this movie cool, romantic, or sexy. What I did find was an airlessly hermetic couple, and a fetishistic worship of “curated old technology and the wilds of a post-Crash Detroit. They may be somewhat visually compelling when sipping on their blood in crystal vases but when their “supply” runs out (SPOILER ALERT) they are perfectly happy to tear to pieces and devour another romantic couple, one that is actually young and vibrant, not a waxen image of youth like they are.

    I have the strange impression that Jarmusch intends to convey that his
    lead characters are “romantic and sexy,” but something out of the collective
    unconscious oozes across the screen in spite of him.

    I sense the significant presence in the older (OK, my) generation of Boomers who have perverted the natural order of caretaking towards the younger generations and instead see them as a resource with which to prop up their own “eternal coolness.”

    When a well-established author like Jonathan Franzen, critiques whether or not
    Millennials are angry enough, angsty enough, etc., and dismisses their use of social media, even if it is to rustle some feathers, it seems enormously presumptuous. When have young people cared what “the oldsters” were grumbling about, anyway over the last, say 2000 years? I am sure there is a good Greek or Roman quote about this somewhere.

    Also got this vibe from Assayas’ (another older filmmaker) Clouds of Sils
    Maria, about Boomer and older creatives and the generations following up behind them.

    @TomB — First comment. As for what is “real” and not “real,” I think the vampires of imagination are no less vampires than Camus’ plague is a “real” plague. Not literal, but a hyper-reality based on deep instincts into the human condition.

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