Authors and After Words

Along about my freshman year in high school, my friends and I discovered the creepy pleasure of the Halloween Midnight Movie. Some of the discoveries we made in the art of “B” movies have served me for decades. Oddly enough, those early images of what Hamlet might have been referring to as “the stranger things in Heaven and Earth” than are dreamt of in philosophy have evolved into a high level of popularity in these latter days of the first decade of the 21st Century. I refer to the glut of fiction centered on Creatures of the Night, specifically the most fascinating of the un-dead, i.e. vampires.



The phenomenal success of the Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series – some 2,444 pages long, which is centered on the fortunes of a maladjusted teenaged girl named Bella who is attracted to the eerily beautiful son of a family of so-called “vegetarian” vampires* and whose life is further complicated by an infatuated young werewolf, all of which happens in the American Northwest – has spawned a plethora of like modeled fictions.



Vampires, along with other forms of the un-dead, have been with us since way back when. Along with the Egyptians, there is ample evidence in the annals of anthropology of the imaginative significance other ancients placed on the disposition of the dead along with the belief in a continuing state of existence after death. This evidence tells us how important it was to treat the dead with reverence and ceremony both in order to honor them and to facilitate their passage out of this life and into the next. This passage was not only crucial for the dead but for the living as well for if it was not accomplished, the dead were likely to remain in this life to suffer themselves and/or to bring suffering to the living.



Sophocles’ play Antigone clearly illustrates this reasoning as Antigone is willing to risk her own death to properly bury her fallen brother. The folklore of Eastern Europe and the Balkans reflects that ongoing tradition as lived and amended through centuries of experience including warfare and plagues which only elaborated on the possibilities of serious un-dead misadventures.



These traditions came to fruition through the darker impulses of the Romantic Movement in a competition amongst literary friends which not only produced Mary Shelly’s ground breaking book, Frankenstein, but an early version of the vampire saga as well. Eventually, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shelly’s Frankenstein, the Gothic literary movement and the darker visions of Writers like E. A. Poe and E. T. A. Hoffman would come together to form that sub-genre of speculative fiction we call “Horror” in which the theme of the un-dead continues to thrive.



Judging by her continuing success, her re-conversion to Catholicism notwithstanding, the most important writer of 20th century vampire fiction remains Anne Rice for it is she who has so exquisitely elaborated on Hamlet’s charge as well as Count Dracula’s assertion that, “There are worse things than death, Doctor Van Helsing.” In an authorship that spans some twelve novels, Anne Rice has detailed the agony, pathos, and essential tragedy of the Realm of the Undead, that alternative world which exists beside and within our own.



Her authorship is too wide to consider at length in this column. Suffice it to say that Rice remains essentially true to the conditions of vampiric irony and agony expressed by Stoker and others. She especially develops the sensual and sexual implications implied in the earlier works, threatening both genders with permutations of lust and power. In Rice’s dark world, possession ultimately devours and destroys love and actual, human death becomes a consummation devoutly to be wished, in the hope that some measure of peace, if not redemption, can be found in surcease. The very doors of vampiric sexuality that Rice opens, are the ones that Meyer seems to enter. As moving as it is to many, however, her accomplishment may not be quite what it seems.



According to a recent report, there are 27.5 million Twilight books in print. I first became aware of the series about a year and a half ago when I was teaching a writing workshop at the Sister Bay/Liberty Grove Branch of the Door County Library. The workshop happened to include all girls of middle school age and in the course of the workshop I asked them what books they were reading. In virtually one breathy breath they replied Twilight. They told me a little more about the series and, naturally, I read them – not in one fell swoop, mind you, but over time.



In that meantime, I made it a habit to ask other young readers and some older readers as well about the series. I met a grown woman a few months ago that has read them three times and says she will continue to re-read them. I met with a group of senior high girls all of whom had read them and when I told them how I had come upon the series, they rolled their eyes and told me in no uncertain terms that these younger girls should not be reading…well…for sure they should not be reading the fourth book! So, what is it with this series?



Well, of course it’s all about teenaged angst and teenaged romance and very much about sexual abstinence before marriage. Whatever the point may be of young Bella’s hideous pregnancy after her marriage I cannot imagine, except to create enough conflict to last for three or four hundred more pages. These conflicts will be resolved, of course, and finally everyone will get what they each want in one way or another and then live happily ever after.



I, however, like one of the young ladies I interviewed, still wonder, why did I bother? What’s worse, I wonder if there isn’t something seriously dangerous about Meyer’s deconstruction of the vampire mythology. That mythology arises out of the awareness that symbolic evil is representative of actual evil. Meyer, however, has detoxified the vampire myth and replaced it with a fantasy about nice vampires who mean no harm to living homo sapiens and can experience something akin to normal teen aged love, even though they can delay its gratification to finally exist in a forever present in which agony, ageing, and death are actually eliminated. This is the kind of fantasizing that makes myth making synonymous with lying.



The great myths exist to express our deepest and most serious experiences of life; they exist to tell the truth to the actual world and to help us live that world to the fullest. That’s the difference between trivial art, like the Twilight books, and serious art, like the time fantasies of Madeleine L’Engle.



There used to be a saying that I haven’t heard since I was a kid. It went: “Wake up and die right!” I find that oddly appropriate as it applies to Bella and Edward, the eternally un-dead lovers.



*Supposedly, this is an ironic designation meaning that these vampires feed only on animals. I wonder how the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) feel about that.