At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
Hazel Grace has a family now. True Blood’s Sam Trammell will play Hazel’s dad in the film adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Last month, our own Nick Moran reported that Laura Dern joined the cast as Hazel’s mom. With the Lancaster family complete, filming will start in Pittsburgh at the end of this month. If you still haven’t read the book yet, let our own Janet Potter convince you.
Part I of this essay explains how the vampires of our historical moment–exemplified in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels–have had a crisis of conscience and changed their ways. They’ve become more human (wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts, driving Mustangs) and more humane (not murdering people to feed on them). This reformation means different things for Harris and Meyer. Harris uses it to explore the dark, vampiric side of human nature, while Meyer, mistakenly, thinks that she can vanquish the vampiric altogether (she can’t and doesn’t, though possibly she doesn’t realize this).
Through her contact with vampires, the danger and intrigues and moral conundrums they bring into her life, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse discovers her own primitive, uncivilized self—and a capacity for violence. Sookie may be friendly, hard-working, kind, and generous most of the time, but when she drinks from vampire Bill a second time, she begins to feel her own vampiric longings and potential:
A little ripple of madness went through me . . . I drank and saw visions, visions all with a background of darkness, of . . . going hunting, the thrill of the run through the woods, the prey panting ahead and the excitement of its fear; pursuit, legs pumping, hearing the thrumming of blood through the veins of the pursued.
In later books this “primitive self, the truer me,” as Sookie calls it, rises to the surface when she’s threatened. Several times she kills in self-defense without remorse. She is attracted to several men at once, and acts on these desires without feeling ashamed of them.
Twilight’s moral universe is rather different. The wariness of fixed, inflexible human characters and easy moral absolutes, continually apparent in Sookie’s world (in which the only consistently demonized social group is the fundamentalist, occasionally terrorist anti-vampire church, The Fellowship of the Sun) is absent in Stephenie Meyer’s. This is in part because Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan, a sheltered, self-absorbed teenage girl, narrates the majority of the Twilight novels.
Kenneth Turan, reviewing the first Twilight movie in the Los Angeles Times, argued that the film succeeds, “because it treats high school emotions with unwavering, uncompromising seriousness. Much as you may not want to, you have to acknowledge what’s been accomplished here.” Turan is right: the movie succeeds because, like the novels, it takes adolescent emotions—in all of their naive absolutism and world-consuming intensity—very seriously.
Bella certainly believes, as only young lovers can, that no one has ever loved as she does, that her love will be eternal and absolute, that no man before Edward has ever been so deserving of love. And Meyer’s plot allows this to be true. From the first time she sees Edward, Bella is filled with a fascinated reverence for his beauty. He and his family are all “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.” Edward in particular, has “the face of an angel,” and his face, Bella insists, is the outward sign of transcendent, spiritual beauties: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.”
Bella feels this—without qualification, without doubt—through all of the two thousand and some pages of her saga, and Meyer seems fully invested in her teenage heroine’s worldview. Edward becomes like a drug to Bella: “Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more.” When she’s away from him, “each tick of the second hand aches like the pulse of blood behind a bruise.”
In order to enjoy the Twilight novels, you have to be willing to enter into this intense emotional and hormonal fundamentalism, the twin of the moral fundamentalism apparent in Meyer’s refusal of nuance and ambivalence in favor of an either/or approach to good and evil. You have to believe that Edward and Bella’s love is eternal, unqualified, rare, imperturbable—that it will never waiver or end. Meyer’s plot never calls these teenage certainties into question. The final pages of the novel find Bella more certain than ever of her love for Edward: “No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you.” Nor does Meyer’s saga question the goodness of the Cullens—though other than Carlisle, the doctor vampire, they don’t do any useful work in their community, aren’t particularly friendly or generous, and generally seem to live only to satisfy their own material desires (for cars, clothes, travel).
And even by the generous standards of fantasy, there’s something obscene about Twilight’s happy ending. It denies its heroine nothing and asks nothing of her. No major characters die in Twilight; no one has to sacrifice or lose anything they love, especially not Bella. Meyer suggests repeatedly that Bella’s determination to be made a vampire so that she can be with Edward forever will require heavy sacrifices on her part: that she will not be able to see her parents or her best friend again, that she will not be able to have children, that, when she gets pregnant with Edward’s vampire baby, carrying it to term will kill her. But none of these sacrifices are required.
The final book, Breaking Dawn, promises that most sacrosanct of fantasy conventions, an epic battle between the Cullens and the Volturi (evil vampire royalty who still feed remorselessly on humans and who believe that Edward and Bella’s half-vampire/half-human child, Renesmee (a name Bella invents by combining her mother’s name and that of Edward’s mother), presents a threat to the vampire community as a whole). However, when the good and bad vampires finally gather on the field of battle, Bella’s new vampire talent–the ability to shield all she loves with an invisible, impenetrable force field–immobilizes the enemy. The battle’s over before it starts. And so begins happily ever after “forever and forever and forever” for beautiful, rich, immortal Bella Cullen, who will spend eternity with her beautiful, rich, immortal family, eternally in love and in lust with the god-like Edward. It makes Harry Potter, with its dead parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and relatives, look like brutal realism.
Reading Meyer against Harris is a lesson in the varieties of fantasy. Meyer’s fantasy is total—as much a fantasy about human nature and love as it is a generic fantasy. In Twilight, perfect happiness and love, perfect goodness, and perfect material satisfaction are all bestowed on the heroine. Harris’ fantasy, by contrast, is temperate, self-aware. Sookie is a waitress; she’s never been to college; she has no health insurance. In between her forays into the luxurious and exciting world of vampires, she worries pretty constantly about money—medical bills, her need for a new car, a new roof.
Harris’ characters are also readers of genre fiction. We see a Tami Hoag suspense novel tucked into Sookie’s coworker’s apron; Sookie’s grandmother reads Danielle Steele; Sookie repeatedly professes a love of romances and mysteries. In True Blood, we catch a glimpse of Sookie’s grandmother reading a Charlaine Harris novel. These images of escapist reading in Harris’ own novel series don’t allow her reader the sort of total immersion fantasy that Twilight demands. Harris’ novels show you yourself engaged in fantasy (Look! That’s me! That’s what I’m doing—reading vampire-romance-mystery novels, just like Sookie’s granny, trying to forget about being unemployed/bored senseless by work/behind on the mortgage!). And through Sookie’s incessant money worries Harris incorporates into her fictions the mundane oppressions that create the need for escapist literature. In this, Harris’ books offer a metacommentary of sorts on their own social and emotional function and that of genre fiction more generally (and please forgive me for using the word “metacommentary” about the Sookie novels–I know it’s at least silly, possibly profane). Sookie dates and goes to work for the vampires just as I might pick up one of Harris’ vampire mysteries: to leave the real world and all of its tedious, squalid hassles behind.
Harris knows what her books are and what they do and she won’t let her readers forget it. She forces you to see yourself trying to escape your own life and in so doing she refuses you the total fantasy that Meyer offers—she reminds you that escapism and fantasy are just that—fantasy and escapism: They are not real, they are not ultimately the solution to the oppressions of daily life. Like Sookie, I always have to go back to the hassles of real life (unemployment, health insurance, family drama)—have to close the book, leave behind the vampires in all of their impossible glamour and titillating danger.
Harris is also keenly aware that class as much as race is at the heart of our cultural myths about vampires. Sookie works for vampires because she’s poor and they are wealthy (through long lives and disdain for human laws, circumstances the Harris vampires are unapologetic about). They pay well and she can’t afford not to, despite the dangers this work inevitably entails. And Sookie’s unabashed about how dazzling and tempting the luxuries of vampire wealth are to her as a small town barmaid, though the money’s not so intoxicating that it keeps her from being regularly revolted by the machinations and violence that vampire business usually entails (Harris’ vampires are engaged in business or work of some kind, unlike Meyer’s). Making money is bloody, dangerous work—a truth that Alan Ball’s True Blood makes queasily literal.
On her first assignment for the Viking vampire and nightclub entrepreneur, Erik Northman, Sookie gets a Carrie-style blood soaking when she (using her telepathic powers at Erik’s behest) discovers that Erik’s vampire partner has been embezzling. The vampire embezzler is staked and erupts into a fountain of blood–gasp and guffaw-inducing in its abundance. Anna Paquin, who plays Ball’s Sookie and wears a lovely white dress in this scene, ends up as red and slick and gooey as Erzsébet Báthory after one of her blood baths (see Part I of this essay for more on her).
And this pretty much sets the tone for all of Sookie’s vampire work: she ends up bloody, battered, sore, almost dead. It’s working for the man—er, vampire. It’s another day in the salt mines. Harris doesn’t have any illusions about what it means to be socially vulnerable, to live somewhere around the poverty line. While part of Sookie’s motivation in accepting the vampires’ lavish payments for her telepathic services is definitely the allure of their world of beauty and intrigue and money, sometimes, even when she’d rather not, Sookie feels like she doesn’t have much of a choice—as a single woman with no college education or health insurance whose day job is waiting tables and whose savings are dwindling.
Meyer, on the other hand, attempts to obscure the workings of class and money in her books, but she acknowledges these even as she try to hide them. The first vampires, Vlad the Impaler and Erzsébet Báthory, fed on the lives and labor of their subjects. The Cullens, Meyer’s enlightened vampires, don’t literally feed on human beings—and yet their whole monied way of life is the product of a different sort of feeding on others, a metaphorical but nonetheless illicit sort of feeding. The Cullens’ beautiful houses, cars, parties, clothes—their leisured and essentially dilettantish lives (playing cards, hunting, driving Ferraris, composing melodies on the piano, shopping) are all funded by supernatural insider trading:
Edward had a lot of money—I didn’t even want to think about how much. Money meant next to nothing to Edward or the rest of the Cullens. It was just something that accumulated when you had unlimited time on your hands and a sister who had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the stock market
Vampirism, in its most basic structural form, is not a collection of campy trappings (pale skin, pointed canines), but the ability and willingness to appropriate the life, work, property, and livelihood of others. Edward’s sister Alice is psychic and while Meyer never shows Alice having visions of the future of the stock market, here Meyer rather unapologetically reveals insider trading as the source of the Cullen’s unbelievable wealth—this, and an unlimited time in which to wait for investment returns. The Cullens, for all of their virtuous vegetarianism and pangs of conscience, are no better than the arch-villain Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, no better than the host of “vampire capitalists” who, by some accounts, who brought the global financial system to its knees in December of 2008.
Bella is wary of the Cullens’ money while she is human, and she claims that this is because she has nothing to give in return:
Edward didn’t seem to understand why I objected to him spending money on me—why it made me uncomfortable if he took me to an expensive restaurant in Seattle, why he wasn’t allowed to buy me a car that could reach speeds over fifty-five miles an hour, or why I wouldn’t let him pay my college tuition…Edward thought I was being unnecessarily difficult.
But Bella, as usual, has it wrong. She’s wary because she knows it’s bloody money (never mind Edward’s condescending paternalism—which, creepily enough, is appropriate given that he’s around 100 to Bella’s 18). Bella’s wariness here is motivated by the same horror that made her recoil from her brief glimpse of a Volturi (i.e. evil, human-eating vampire) feast: a flock of unsuspecting tourists are ushered into the turreted throne room of the Volturi’s Italian castle and happily begin to snap pictures. In horror, Bella watches the doors close and lock on the unsuspecting lambs; she hears their screams as the feeding begins.
Intuitively, she recoils from the Cullens’ money for the same reason (at least while she’s human—once she’s a vampire she revels in it). The “vegetarians” no longer suck blood from human bodies, but they suck money from the labor of others through illegal means. It’s not quite as physically repulsive or terrifying but it’s still not quite in line with Bella’s insistence that Edward and family are spiritually radiant individuals.
And so we’re back to the beginning, to Erzébet Báthory, Vlad the Impaler: remorseless aristocrats taking blood and life and labor from their poor. Meyer’s vampire is no more enlightened for his vegetarianism, no better and no different than he ever was. But Meyer doesn’t understand the difference. The Cullens’ “vegetarianism” and its patina of moral evolution is enough for her—just so long as they don’t bite anyone outright, literally. Harris knows better and uses her fantasy to teach as much: We’re the vampires, the vampire collaborators, now and we always have been—but vampires can be people too.
Vampires 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 Ellis’ American 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.
So what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie 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).
This 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.