SJ’s Top Ten: Vampires
I love vampires. I always have, even back in the day when I got it in my head that they lived in old barns off the sides of state highways where I grew up. That’s just one of the things that you have to know about me. I find that declaring love of fang is a loaded statement these days, because everyone’s so twitchy about the evolution of vampire from horror standard to weird emo love interest. We could debate how that happened and the cause/effect of that for like a month, and none of us have the time and the patience for that. So. To make it easy, let me just say that I like vampires that use their teeth and have minimal emotional issues about being a vampire. I prefer stories that use the folklore at least as a starting point, but also bring something new and interesting to the equation. Plus, people seem to forget that vampires were human once, so with that kind of monster you do have all the benefits of an actual personality. Part of the reason a vampire is interesting isn’t just the sex thing or the oral fixation, but the fact that they are versatile. They can be protagonists and antagonists, they can walk the line between love interest and stalker, they can use their looks to lure prey, they can be hunger-driven machines. There is a lot to work with, plus a lot of metaphor. After all, they’re the predator we don’t have to look over our shoulder and worry about because they don’t exist. The concept of animal appetite with human skin is terrifying, like Niestzche’s superman on crack.
It’s really hard to define what makes a successful vampire, so in the interest of keeping things diverse, I’m going to list out some of my favorites today. I’m also going in no particular order because I find it hard to choose and I really don’t have it in me to rank. I’m also only talking about things I’ve actively seen or read, so while I’ve heard Let the Right One In and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are amazing, unfortunately I haven’t experienced it yet for myself, so I can’t put it on. I’m also one of like four people on earth that was unable to watch Buffy when it aired, so I can’t really cast my vote there, either. What can I say, there’s always something to catch up on. If anything, view this list as my personal love list of vampirism, and if it introduces you to something new, excellent.
Count Dracula, Dracula, by Bram Stoker – Probably one of the first to put a vampire in a modern setting (though he came after Polidori’s attempts), Dracula is still the vampire standard. Cool and sophisticated? Check. Suave and seductive? Yep. Cunning and violent? Checkeroo. No wonder the fixation with him has lasted so long. I think we also tend to forget that for the time, the themes and portrayals in the novel were pretty intense and that Dracula was that era’s equivalent of urban fantasy, as well, so of course he’s going to be influential to any vampire in a modern/urban setting, no matter what the time period.
Lestat, The Vampire Chronicles, by Anne Rice – Probably one of my first introductions into the genre. I find that Lestat is one of those characters that people love or hate, and he actually does go back and forth and evolve during the course of the books. He’s unlikeable enough but you sympathize with him to a certain degree. He plays that fine line between killer and romantic antihero to the hilt. Plus, although his drama is somewhat less hyped up than Louis, he has his own issues to work through, especially regarding Claudia. He should be a character that doesn’t necessarily form attachments, he should be someone that we hate and regard as a villain, yet time and again he’s in the center of things and I always enjoy reading how he interacts with those around him. For me, he’s one of the strongest vampires in the series, and definitely has become something of the face of the series, and for good reason.
Claudia, The Vampire Chronicle, by Anne Rice – Child vampires are a tricky thing, and Claudia is genuinely terrifying. Not only is the concept of being an adult woman trapped in a child’s body somewhat horrifying, but her bottled rage is amazing. She’s not passive in how she reacts to her situation, and it says a lot that she’s affecting parts of the series even long after she’s gone.
Sonja Blue, The Sonja Blue Series, by Nancy A. Collins – Truly one of the most unique takes on the vampire I’ve ever read. The series as a whole is hardcore, badass, graphic, and not for the faint of heart. What happens when a girl is turned into a vampire, but still living? Sonja’s Other is expressed as a separate personality that comes out at certain times, all while she acts as a slayer and tries to take revenge on her sire. Her desire to live life and have relationships and her utter inability to do so is a really poignant battle, her snark is hilarious, and she is terrifying when The Other comes out to play. I feel like I have to constantly remind people this series exists, and it’s a shame, because it’s amazing. It’s probably an early take on what would become urban fantasy, but put through a violent, dark splatterpunk filter. You empathize with Sonja, you’re on her side as both something of a victim getting revenge and a protector of other victims, so it’s truly startling when her real nature comes out and messes with everything. Amazing read.
Skinner Sweet, American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque – Originally a vehicle for Stephen King, the American Vampire comics should get huge kudos for reinventing vampire mythos and making it fresh in odd periods of history. Not only does it play with what powers what vampires have, but it also keeps evolving and changing the slayer vs. vampire dynamic. No one stays on the same side for very long, and this is especially true of Skinner Sweet, the original American Vampire. Formed by accident as an outlaw in the old west, Skinner was unlikeable to begin with and doesn’t get any more likeable. He’s hilarious, though, and there are odd moments when he does something that makes you drop your guard, so when he’s back to being vile, it makes it all that much harder to read. He really is a vampire’s vampire, and seeing him interact in the old west, 1920s Hollywood, 1930s Las Vegas, World War II, and other vignettes is a huge treat and one I never get tired reading. He’s become my go-to example for what can be done well with the genre.
Pearl, American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque – Pearl brings a distinct female energy to an otherwise violent series, but that’s part of the fun. A hopeful actress in the 20’s, Pearl finds herself at the mercy of a nest of Hollywood vampires and a frenemy who feeds her to them. Turned by Skinner, she spends the rest of the series dealing with not only her attraction/repulsion to him, but her love for her human husband, Henry, who is unwilling to be turned. Her conflict always comes across as real, and she is always having to recover from some amount of drama or pain being thrown her way. A tender and loving soul, it is a thing of dark beauty when she vamps out. Not only is her vampire character design off the chart, but as an American Vampire who is distinctly hard to kill, she tends to do a lot of damage.
Adam, Only Lovers Left Alive – Not horror, but it definitely has some dark moments. Adam is a character who strikes a good balance. You can believe that his thing about not killing people is more from finding it uncouth than it is having a huge reluctance to do it. His angst comes more from his frustration with seeing the human race be stupid than at what he is. He exudes the loner/rocker trope that works so well with vampires, yet you can believe that there is a thinking person under there. His devotion to Eve and friendship with Ian are also lovely things to see in a genre that tends to view vampires as either something that kills or something to kill. His ability to build things and his fascination with art and beauty are also really nice character touches.
Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive – It’s interesting to see the calm, collected older role go to a woman in this genre, and I really love Eve’s character in the film. Her husband’s decline is what really ruffles her, and their relationship really carries the film. Although they live apart, you know they love each other. She also has some really fascinating powers, and how she deals with the loss of Marlowe is heartbreaking and the presence of her sister is hilarious. There is also a sense of joy in her love of music, and through the cool exterior you get a sense of the person she started out as. Plus, even she has a decision to make by the end of the film, and how that’s handled is really fascinating, as well. Her sister is also a fabulous character to watch, but she and Adam truly make the movie, and it’s their reactions to everything going on around them that drives the film to its finish.
Supernatural – I get people either love or loathe the series, but there is some insanely smart writing and execution in it as a whole, especially with vampires. There’s not one character in this that totally stands out, but I really love the various portrayals of vampires. Really, you’ve got a little bit of everything: vampires having a family life, vampires trying to not kill humans, the argument about should vampires die just for being who they are, Gordon the hunter being turned into a vampire after he lost his sister to one, and of course, a group of vampires using the allure of a Twilight-esque book/movie series to lure prey and in turn make more vampires. Every vampire episode on the show is slightly different, and it really gives some intelligent viewpoints into the archetype of vampire and the folklore as a whole. Plus, the redesign of the teeth for the Supernatural universe is just lovely to look at in action. Admittedly it is one of the many things from that show I’m jealous of.
The Lost Boys – I have a deep love of this movie for various reasons. It was one of the first to really just go for putting vampires as that modern, sexy teen archetype that we’ve seen way too much of today. It is strongly grounded in folklore, and you actually get to see some of the vampires’ home life, so it’s the only one of the franchise to identify the vampire characters as actual characters and not just something to be killed. David, Paul, Dwayne, and Marko definitely use their looks to lure prey and they’re not afraid to use their fangs. Not only that, but it’s so refreshing to see vampires enjoy being what they are for once. You have your conflicted characters in Star and Michael, and you even get the sense that the gang has some empathy with the mere presence of Laddie. You also have Max, the head vampire, who is obsessed with family and is an unusual take on what a vampire love interest could be for the middle-aged crowd. This is definitely one of my personal favorites.
Also, honorable mentions should go to The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, 30 Days of Night, and Daybreakers. I honestly feel a lot of the conceptual work here is better than any vampire character per say, but all three do some really interesting things with the genre that are worth checking out, and all three are very different takes on what vampires are. Because honestly, that’s the thing. There’s no right way to write, act, or conceptualize a vampire per say, but it helps when you have a strong idea of the world they live in, or a strong view of who they are as a person. A little insight on some of the mythos goes a long, long way, as well.
It’s not that vampires can’t be romantic figures, but the fact that a lot of people want to take the sex appeal away from the fangs and general idea of what a vampire is unfortunately says a lot. You don’t get to a la carte your real life people or partners, so it’s sad that a lot of interesting creative opportunities are getting bypassed because blood and love apparently don’t go together. After all, if vampires can exist in the old west, if they can stay married on separate continents, if they can technically turn a child and be affected by it for ages afterward, yet still be portrayed as feral creatures, than surely it’s not wrong to assume that they still have something of the personalities they were born with. There’s no easy way out in really good genre fiction, and I think that’s what bugs me a lot with the genre. You can’t just take the killing aspect or just take the emotional drama aspect or just take the sex appeal…all three can go into making a vampire character that’s really cool and, heaven forbid, well-developed.
So what’s your favorite kind of vampire? Sexy? Murder machine? Share your examples with the class!
Selah Janel writes all kinds of dark stuff, including vampires. Her story in The Big Bad: An Anthology of Evil features two teen vamps on the run, while it’s prequel in The Big Bad II showcases a 1950s vampire housewife cult. For something more historical, check out Mooner, which pits lumberjacks against a vampire and their own moral compasses. When she’s not writing fangs, she’s getting up to other hijinks and writing even weirder stuff.