Blessay 37: Being Vampirish

From a writing point of view vampires only interested me in the 1990’s. I was bitten, not by a vampire, but a mediocre vampire film – Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992. Actually it’s not that bad. It does have Gary Oldman enjoying himself as the Count and its lovely to look at. Yet style alone can’t disguise the fact that the film contains some very wooden performances and slack dramatic pacing. The whole effort felt disengaged. I believe Coppola produced a Dracula film in order to make cash for more personal projects. Anyway I felt angry and cheated by result. In reaction I started to scribble down ideas of my own for vampires in a new guise. Three years later I’d completed a novella and seventeen short stories. My MSS entitled The Other Side of the Mirror was accepted by Citron Press and published in 1999. It received two longish reviews, sold quite well and then disappeared from the shops and libraries. Not simply a case of sales drying up but the theft of 2 copies from Camden libraries. At least it was issued to forty readers over one year. (Well the author took it out three times but hopefully the rest of the borrowers where enthusiastic fans).

I was delighted to get Ramsey Campbell to write me an introduction. We’ve been old friends since the 60s. His words are warm and perceptive. He probably thought this was yet again another book on that ‘worn out’ subject – vampires. I was pleased that he acknowledged The Other Side of the Mirror as an original treatment of the vampire theme.

This week I was sorting through lots of old papers and unworkable manuscripts, that will probably remain buried in a bottom draw, hidden away in the dark, like Nosferatu unable to face the daylight of revision and publication. Amongst them was my own unpublished introduction to this book. It will probably make most sense to those who have actually read The Other Side of the Mirror. Yet when the book is re-printed one day I’d like my thoughts to be included. (If after reading this introduction you’d like to acquire an out of print copy, then go to Amazon books where you can buy  The Other Side of the Mirror in good condition for 1p plus £2. 80p postage).

Apart from tidying up the grammar I’ve made no revisions to this author preface. So, here are my words, from 1998, on all that’s vampirish (though not every story in the book is mentioned).

The vampire has been employed as a description and analysis of human behaviour since the early eighteenth century. Outside of the confines of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula,and its 20th century Hollywood adaptations, the vampire as “a dead person believed to come from the grave at night and suck the blood of sleeping people”(definition c/o Longman’s English Dictionary 1991) can now have a diversity of meaning. Whilst still preying on and exploiting others, it can be vampirific without its old folklore powers (turning into a bat ) or mythic constraints (the crucifix, garlic and returning to your coffin before sunrise). Even sucking real blood is optional. And the transference of power from victim to perpetrator can also be a psychic phenomena (see Algernon Blackwood’s brilliantly atmospheric story, “The Transfer”).

True a great amount of blood is still spilt in vampire literature. But today the real world is bleeding in a horrifically different way. Many blood metaphors can spring up and cluster round the vampire hinting at bigger parasitical forces threatening to drain away our identity and freedom.

What are some of these other guises, forms and new threats?

Marx in Das Kapital refers to the process of capitalism as possessing a “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Nietzsche attacked nineteenth century ethics as “…the morality of decadence, or more concretely Christian morality…morality as vampirism.” Ceausescu, The Romanian president is viewed as a bloodthirsty exploiter. A leading trade unionist’s reaction to the appointment of Michael Portillo to the job of Employment Secretary was”…it’s like asking Count Dracula to run a blood bank.” And as for Munchausen’s syndrome (a pretending of illness by young women) one patient’s efforts to remain hospitalised for anemia turned her into a “personal vampire” as she took a syringe to draw her own blood and squirt it down the toilet. That’s the background reality that helped me to chart some alternative vampire identities.

The Other Side of the Mirror can be roughly divided into covert vampire stories and overt vampire stories. Of course both types often overlap with metaphorical and real blood.

My story “A Desperate Perhaps” (a phrase of film critic Robin Wood) was inspired by images in Bergman’s 1966 film Persona with its story of the ‘incommunicable’ relationship between a nurse and her patient. The scene where Alma (the nurse) draws blood from Elizabeth (the patient) and tastes it; their silent vampirish encounter, at dawn in the bedroom; Alma’s frustrated babble as she attempts to converse with and possess (?) the other woman – all prompting my fantasy tale about the terrors of giving birth.

“The Monster in the Shoe Shop” contains all the conscious/unconscious harm we can inflict on children growing up. In this case, during Geraldine’s breakdown she distorts some ‘monstrous facets’ underneath the surface of her parents kindly behaviour.

In “The Forcers In” and “A Bali Tale” I’ve taken the vampire myths of ancient cultures. For the former, a Greek legend of AD245 of the Empusas – the vampire like creatures of the goddess Hecate. In the latter, Balinese mythology with its leyangs (vampirish witches) ruled by the head witch Rangda.

Parody, satire and pastiche are to be found in “At the Edge” (a lyric monologue after Poe), “Hope and Mr.Lugosi” (Lugosi’s dressing up as the count inside his coffin was done for real!) and Deconstructing Dracula (the academy’s possession of Dracula for critical theories).

“Munch’s Vampire” could be thematically added to the previous three stories, but not quite. For I feel that any anxieties that artists have about their work quashes any humour in this tale. “The Re-possessed” is a stark fantasy about the sucking power of property owners affecting a homeless couple during a recession.

Both “Sybilmet and Retreata” and “Blood Libel” are related on the level of children, blood imagery and the camps but that’s all, for it’s the least vampire like story in the collection. My novella “Blood Libel” is the one most eligible to have the subtitle  – A vampire on the other side of the mirror. My reading of Robert Jay Lifton’s masterwork on Nazism and medical ethics guided a great deal of “Blood Libel”. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss represents a banal figure of authority (similar to Adolf Eichmann) who’s not only investigating the ‘vampirism’ of a mysterious child but the blank mystery of his own personality. Höss’s blindness and self-pity are a terrible usurping of morality, a sucking dry of the ability of a human being to show any empathy.

Vampires are not only agents of power and destructive competition. As our shadow side they can suck into us producing moral inertia. However unlike the traditional vampire we can still perceive  our reflection in the mirror. We know who should accept responsibility. Though sometimes, we are on the other side of the glass and unable to catch ourselves looking in.