Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vampirology (2)

[Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)]

In 1993, engineering professor Andrew Keane ... tackled the problem of designing a better space-station girder for American astronauts. He devised strings of numbers expressing the girder's thickness, material, angle of attachment, and other requirements. The numbers were analogous to genes, with each string of numbers representing a chromosome.

Keane coped this "genome" until he had produced a diverse founding population, then ran his evolution program on eleven networked computers. According to U.S. News and World Report (July 27, 1988): "For several days the truss designs had cybersex - they swapped digital genes with random abandon ... Those designs that suppressed vibration best yet remained lightweight and strong were rewarded with greater fertility. Generation by generation, the fittest got fitter. The program threw occasional random mutations among the competing genomes to provide a little extra variety."

Fifteen generations and 4,500 different designs later, an optimal truss emerged, looking vastly different from the ones conceived of by NASA's human engineers. According to Keane, the lumpy, knob-ended result looked somewhat like a leg bone. Tests on the evolved models proved them superior to those designed by humans.

- Richard Milner. Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z (Berkeley & LA: University of California Press, 2009): 164.

"Why isn't everyone a vampire?"

It sounds like a bit of a silly question. But then I guess that anyone who's ever read Dracula has done a few calculations in their head about the sheer exponential speed with which the vampire scourge will spread if everyone who's bitten becomes a bloodsucking fiend in their turn.

[John Sutherland: The Literary Detective (2000)]

That painstaking sleuth into everything literary (and trivial?), John Sutherland, discusses the subject in detail in his essay of the same name, included in The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000):

Let us assume that each vampire infects one victim a year, and that this victim dies during the course of the year to become, in turn, a vampire. Since they are immortal, each vampire will form the centre of an annually expanding circle, each of which will become the centre of his or her own circle. The circle will widen at the rate of 2 x n-1. In year one (say, 1500) there is one new vampire; in 1501, two, in 1502, 4; in 1503, 8; and so, by the simple process of exponential increase, there will be 1,024 new vampires in 1510. ... Within thirty-one years the vampire population will have reached 2 billion. By 1897, the presumable date of Stoker's novel, the numbers are incalculably vast. In fact so vast that they will probably have collapsed to nil. Long since everyone will have been vampirized; there will be no more food-supply ... Dracula and his kind will die out. And with them the human race. [pp. 711-12]

It's a worry. It's almost the worry, in fact, for any writers (or filmmakers) aspiring to make an original contribution to the vampire genre. Sutherland gets round it in two ways: First, by postulating the "selective infection" idea:

There is, one deduces, an inner elite of "super-vampires" who circulate Dracula's sacramental blood among themselves - true communicants in the horrible sect ... it is only this small coterie which is immortal, we may speculate. The bulk of their victims are disposable nourishment - a kind of human blood-bank to be discarded when exhausted. [p.714]

In his footnote to this passage, Sutherland mentions that "This seems to be the line adopted in Anne Rice's very successful series of modern vampire stories" [p.749]. "Unfortunately," he goes on to say, "Stoker does not give us any clear warrant for this speculation, nor does he (as far as I can see) work it plausibly into his narrative." [p.714]

His second attempt at a solution is more ingenious, though admittedly more speculative:

The Dracula paradox touches on what was, for the nineteenth century, a strange mystery about actual epidemics. How and why did they die out? Cholera, for instance, smallpox, and venereal disease infected large tracts of the population, often very quickly. Why did their infectious spread ever stop? ... Why did not every epidemic become, literally (as no disease ever truly has been) a pandemic?

He goes on to cite a number of explanations proposed by nineteenth century theorists; "For the faithful, the hand of God ...was the remote reason for the starting, cresting, and stopping of diseases."

Darwinists, by contrast, believed that disease was a mechanism for separating the weak from the strong, building up 'resistance'. Epidemiologists, finally, drew on the same image of Van Helsing - that of the widening ripples of a pebble thrown in a pond. With the dispersion of energy, as the ripple enlarges it becomes weaker. So, it was believed, did the virus ... lose its virulence and through exposure the host population might become stronger, develop strategies of resistance.

Whichever way you read it, then, Nature appears to operate its own version of the Eleatic paradox: the one which explains why Achilles can never beat the tortoise in a running race. First he travels half the distance the tortoise (who had a head start) has already covered, then half the remaining distance, then half of that distance, and so on and so on ad infinitum. There will always be another tiny fraction of the distance left to cover. Ergo, Achilles will never overtake the tortoise.


It's perhaps a slightly far-fetched comparison, but if we see that "truss-creating" computer programme cited above as analogous to all the ingenious and less-ingenious creators who've turned their minds to concocting vampire tales in the century or so since Bram Stoker let the cat out of the bag, perhaps we can see the the "lumpy, knob-ended" set of doctrines (rather like Asimov's three laws of Robotics) which have resulted as, in their turn, "superior to those designed by humans" - by any particular human, that is.

In a strange sense, that appears to be how pop culture works.

Let's run through our vampire catechism, then:

Can vampires go out in the daylight?

Dracula is frequently seen out in the daylight (though he admittedly looks a bit shaky there). It isn't really till Nosferatu (1922), Murnau's (unauthorised) film adaptation of the novel, that sunlight becomes immediately fatal to vampires. It's how Count Orlock is finally killed in the movie. It's remained a favourite convention of film-makers ever since. In Joss Whedon's TV series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), any old tarpaulin slung round your shoulders seems to suffice to keep away danger, though full exposure is still deadly. In the more recent film Daybreakers (2009), graduated exposure to sunlight is the only way of curing the vampire "virus", as demonstrated by Willem Dafoe to the still-infected Ethan Hawke.

Does everyone bitten by a vampire become one in their turn?

So it would appear - in folklore, at any rate, and thus, accordingly, in Stoker's folklore-saturated novel. The mathematical difficulties caused by this contention became apparent very soon, though. Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu remake has a haunting scene showing the vampire (and rat) infested streets of "Jonathan Harker's" hometown, full of coffins and mourning processions. Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1975) imagines a whole town which is irreparably infected by them and effectively uninhabitable by human beings. It isn't still Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles got underway with Interview with the Vampire (1976) that the idea of having to drink the vampire's own blood to accomplish infection became entrenched (though it had been hazily evident before that). Since then, it's become the faute de mieux solution to the dilemma: in Buffy as well as Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (2005) and its successors.

Are crosses, garlic and holy water effective against vampires?

Not particularly - onscreen, at any rate. Powerful vampires seem to be able to sweep them outside without much difficulty. A "king" vampire even manages to consume food full of garlic in The Lost Boys (9187) as a consequence of having been invited into the house earlier. Even in popular fiction, it's a little difficult to see the power of the cross as physically inherent in the design, without any reference to its liturgical significance. Filmmakers therefore prefer to rely on the "natural" properties of daylight.

Can vampires enter private dwellings without being specifically invited in?

No, but gullible mothers and flatmates tend to let them in anyway, however specifically they've been told not to. So this isn't as valuable a safeguard as it might seem. Once they've been in, they can return anytime they choose.

Where and when did vampires begin?

In ancient Egypt, accordingly to Anne Rice. In medieval Wallachia, according to Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - though the identification of the fictional Count Dracula with the historical Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476) is far more equivocal in the novel, as Leslie Klinger demonstrates in his New Annotated Dracula (2008). Outside the walls of Antioch during the First Crusade, according to J. S. Cardone's less well-known indie-vampire classic The Forsaken: Desert Vampires (2001). Whichever "origin myth" you choose, it tends to be associated with an act of extreme bloodthirsty greed on the part of some living person.

Could a world inhabited solely by vampires actually sustain itself?

Daybreakers, with its towers of living people hooked up (Matrix-style) to blood-vats is probably the most extensive canvassing of the issue to date. No, in short. Richard Matheson's book I am Legend (1954) is less pessimistic, though certain critics have observed that his infected, blood-drinking hordes really resemble zombies more than they do classical vampires. The various film treatments of the book (with Charlton Heston in 1971; with Will Smith in 2007) have tended to be more successful in portraying a world empty of humanity than in solving the difficulties and inconsistencies in Matheson's original plot.

Is there any cure for vampirism once it's been contracted?

Mina Harker is cured (allegedly) when her "infector", Count Dracula, is killed and burned at the end of the book. Angel, in the Buffy series, is not cured so much as incapacitated when some gypsies curse him with the return of his soul. Spike, in the same TV series, has a computer chip planted in his head which prevents from attacking or killing anyone "good" (though demons and human malefactors still appear to be fair play). Daybreakers is the first story (so far as I'm aware) to toy with the idea of a complete cure through graduated doses of sunshine (combined with large amounts of water to counter the burning).

How do you kill a vampire?

Simple - stick a stake through their heart. In Buffy, this makes them disappear at once in a puff of dust. In the novel Dracula, decapitation appears to be required also. Lucy Westenra has her severed head stuffed full of garlic to make doubly sure. Burning the body also seems to have a certain efficacy. It's unclear if this is sufficient in itself, though, or requires the staking and slashing to have taken place first.

All in all, as most juvenile students of the genre are well aware, vampire-hunting appears to be one of the safest sports in existence. All you have to do to succeed at it is:

  • Not wait till almost dusk - when vampires arise - to explore the creepy old mansion on the outskirts of town.
  • Not forget to bring along your little kit of stakes, hammers, holy water, garlic, machetes, matches, lighters and lighter-fluid.
  • Not fall in love with exceptionally fine-looking vampires as they lie in their coffins, and sit there watching them till the sun sinks in the west.
  • Not bring along the erstwhile girlfriend or boyfriend of same, and have to persuade them of the necessity for this little operation over the open grave in question.
  • Not wildly underestimate your opponent, and just give them a bit of a ding rather than actually making sure they're done for (obviously the term "dead" becomes a little ambiguous in this context).

Observe these simple rules, and you can look forward to a long and prosperous career as a vampire slayer without any need for the constant physical training and supernaturally developed senses of Buffy and her crew.

For the typologist the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist, the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different.

- Ernst Mayr, "Darwin and the Evolutionary Theory in Biology" (1959)

I'm afraid that the same basic dichotomy applies to vampire fiction (as it does to lit crit in general, I guess). You can spend your time trying to deduce the essential features of the ideal type, or delight in the peculiarities and divagations of the population of such stories.

A very wise professor I once met compared it to acting like Gulliver in Lilliput and Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Critics can regard themselves as giant lawgivers, whose function is to observe the ways of the puny ants crawling at their feet, or they can see themselves as dwarfs crouching at the feet of giants, whose job is to learn from the ways of their betters.

Arrogance or humility - you take your pick.

I couldn't write a believable vampire story to save my life, which is why I suspect a healthy dose of the second attitude might suit me better in the long run. As long as you're not too pompous about it, though, I think a little bit of looking down on them from above won't hurt all that much.

So, as some small tribute to all those loons who've spent their time entertaining me by writing such stories (and elaborating their basic conventions), I'll leave you with a small listing of the texts [the population] I've used in my attempt to construct this portrait of the true, eidetic vampire as we know him-or-her (or it) today:

The Vampire Canon:
An Introduction

  1. John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819):

    • Bleiler, E. F., ed. Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole; Vathek, by William Beckford; The Vampyre, by John Polidori; and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron. 1764, 1786, & 1819. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966.

  2. Varney the Vampire (1845):

    • Rymer, James Malcolm [or Thomas Peckett Prest]. Varney the Vampyre or The Feast of Blood. 1847. 2 vols. Introduction by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

  3. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872):

    • Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly: Stories. 1872. Introduction by V. S. Pritchett. London: John Lehmann, 1947.

  4. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897):

    • Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. London: Arrow Books, 1973.
    • Stoker, Bram. Dracula’s Guest. 1914. London: Arrow Books, 1966.
    • Ludlam, Harry. A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker. London: The Quality Book Club, 1962.
    • McNally, Raymond T. & Radu Florescu. In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires. 1972. London: Robson Books, 1997.
    • Wolf, Leonard, ed. The Annotated Dracula: Dracula by Bram Stoker. 1897. Art by Sätty. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. / Publisher, 1975.
    • McNally, Raymond & Radu Florescu, ed. The Essential Dracula: A Completely Illustrated & Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker’s Classic Novel. 1897. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.
    • Haining, Peter, ed. Shades of Dracula: Bram Stoker’s Uncollected Stories. London: William Kimber, 1982.
    • McNally, Raymond T. Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. 1983. London: Book Club Associates, 1984.
    • Wolf, Leonard, ed. The Essential Dracula: Including the Complete Novel by Bram Stoker. 1897. Ed. Leonard Wolf. 1975. Notes, Bibliography and Filmography Revised in Collaboration with Roxana Stuart. Illustrations by Christopher Bing. A Byron Preiss Book. New York: Plume, 1993.
    • Stoker, Bram. The New Annotated Dracula. 1897. Edited by Leslie S. Klinger. Additional Research by Janet Byrne. Introduction by Neil Gaiman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2008.

  5. Richard Matheson's I am Legend (1954):

    • The Last Man on Earth, dir. Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow - starring Vincent Price - (Italy, 1964).
    • The Omega Man, dir. Boris Sagal, writ. John William Corrington & Joyce H. Corrington - starring Charlton Heston - (UK, 1971).
    • I am Legend, dir. Francis Lawrence, writ. Akiva Goldsman & Mark Protosevich - starring Will Smith & Alice Braga - (USA, 2007).

  6. Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (1975):

    • King, Stephen. 'Salem's Lot. 1975. London: New English Library, 1976.
    • Salem's Lot: TV Miniseries, dir. Tobe Hooper, writ. Paul Monash - starring David Soul & James Mason - (USA, 1979).
    • 'Salem's Lot: TV Miniseries, dir. Mikael Salomon, writ. Peter Filardi - starring Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer & James Cromwell - (USA, 2004).
    • King, Stephen. 'Salem's Lot: Illustrated Edition. Photographs by Jerry Uelsmann. 2005. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

  7. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles: 15 vols (1976-2003):

    • Rice, Anne. Interview with the Vampire. 1976. The Vampire Chronicles, 1. London: Futura, 1994.
    • Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. 1985. The Vampire Chronicles, 2. London: Futura, 1986.
    • Rice, Anne. Queen of the Damned. 1988. The Vampire Chronicles, 3. London: Futura, 1990.
    • Rice, Anne. The Witching Hour: A Novel. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 1. 1990. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.
    • Rice, Anne. The Tale of the Body Thief. The Vampire Chronicles, 4. 1992. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.
    • Rice, Anne. Lasher: A Novel. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 2. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
    • Rice, Anne. Taltos: Lives of the Mayfair Witches. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 3. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.
    • Rice, Anne. Memnoch the Devil. The Vampire Chronicles, 5. London: Chatto & Windus, 1995.
    • Rice, Anne. The Vampire Armand. The Vampire Chronicles, 6 (1998)
    • Rice, Anne. Pandora. New Tales of the Vampires, 1 (1998)
    • Rice, Anne. Vittorio the Vampire. New Tales of the Vampires, 2 (1999)
    • Rice, Anne. Merrick. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 4 (2000)
    • Rice, Anne. Blood and Gold. The Vampire Chronicles, 7 (2001)
    • Rice, Anne. Blackwood Farm. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 5 (2002)
    • Rice, Anne. Blood Canticle. The Lives of the Mayfair Witches, 6 (2003)

  8. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 1 feature film (1992) / 7 TV Series (1997-2003).

  9. J. S. Cardone's The Forsaken (2001):

    • The Forsaken: Desert Vampires, writ. & dir. J. S. Cardone, prod. Carol Kottenbrook & Scott Enbinder – starring Kerr Smith, Brendan Fehr, Izabella Miko & Johnathon Schaech - (USA, 2001).

  10. John Ajvide Lindqvist's Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2004):

    • Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson, writ. John Ajvide Lindqvist, prod. Carl Molinder & John Nordling – starring Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson & Per Ragnar - (Sweden, 2008).

  11. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga: 4 novels (2005-8) / 3 feature films (2008-10).

Not to mention John Carpenter's Vampires (1998), with James Woods as the leader of a church-sanctioned Western-style posse of rootin'-tootin', pistol-packing vampire-hunters; the Underworld trilogy (2006-9), with Kate Beckinsale in tight leather combatting werewolves (until she falls in love with one); Van Helsing (2004), with Kate Beckinsale in a frilly peasant blouse assisting Hugh Jackaman as the eponymous hero; and so on and so on and so on ...

Add flame to blue touchpaper and retire.

[Kate Beckinsale in Underworld (2003)]

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