So I just finished reading the book Dead Until Dark, by Charlene Harris. As a fantasy fiction writer, I try to keep up with the hot trends in books, movies, television etc. and True Blood (which is based on Dead Until Dark) has been getting quite a bit of press. If you’ve watched an episode, it’s easy to see why. You’ve got sex, you’ve got murder and you’ve got…well, more sex.
But I have to admit, I’ve always liked a good vampire story. I’m the kid that grew up reading Stephen King and Anne Rice (I was actually forbidden to read Anne Rice, so I would sneak the books out of my mothers bedroom or read chapters at a time at the local bookstore). I plowed through Salem’s Lot while in grade school and then Dracula while on a family trip one heart-racing summer not long after. Dead Until Dark itself isn’t brilliant. It’s basic pop fiction fare: lots of dialog, little description, a fast-paced plot that ends in about 300 pages. What is brilliant is the world she creates. Because Harris departs from the traditional vampire lore in some very interesting ways:
(1) Vampirism isn’t demonic possession, it’s a virus. In the traditional Der Vampir / Dracula story, the vampire is a human person who’s been possessed by a demon. One of the key arguments for staking Dracula in the book is that by killing him, they were freeing his soul from imprisonment by a demon. The demon possession is, thus, why vampires can’t stand holy water or crosses. Holy water was used in Dracula and Salem’s Lot to destroy the vampires living space. The cross fended them off. In Dead Until Dark, this is not the case. Vampires can go to Church, can touch crosses, no problem. Religion is taken off the table and vampires become the new persecuted social group. They have a virus which “they can’t help” and they “just live a little differently” than everyone else. In the book, the integration of vampires into mainstream life is equivalated to the early days of the civil rights and, clearly, the gay rights movement.
(2) Vampires still break cultural taboos, but just as much as humans. Its perhaps hard to understand in today’s culture. But in the 19th century when Dracula was published, vampires epitomized all the taboos of 19th century life: cannibalism, sexuality, isolation (they weren’t part of a local community), and anti-Christian (they couldn’t go to Church and were in fact deadly afraid of Christian artifacts.) The vampires of Dead Until Dark are still cannibalistic, they need blood to survive, but they have an artificial blood they can drink: “True Blood.” And many show restraint in terms of their blood-sucking habits. Humans, by comparison, burn down vampire homes, conduct kinky sex regularly and have a serial killer on the loose. The book doesn’t portray vampires as morally better than humans, but they’re certainly not portrayed worse. And that’s the point.
(3) Vampires aren’t completely animalistic and humans don’t always act, well, humane. One of the key frightening points of Dracula is the understanding that a person as wise as Dracula could become a slave to animal desires, losing reason, cultural restraint (as mentioned earlier), sympathy. In Der Vampir, Dracula, and Salem’s Lot that holds true. Humanity does eek into Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and it certainly does in Dead Until Dark. But by putting the context of the story into a murder mystery, we get to see one of the worst sides of humanity: the serial killer. Just a brief glimpse over the bios of John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy (here), and Jeffrey Dahmer is enough to make your blood run cold at the inhuman nature of what they did. This is incredibly ironic that Harris would use that contrast, as the original medieval legends about werewolves and vampires are believed to have originated from serial killers.