Many people argue that Dracula was a key work in the vampire mythos, consolidating legends thousands of years old and creating a unified vision of the vampire for the West. Dracula was adapted into countless films and plays throughout the 20th century, and over 100 years after it was published, copies of this book still remain in print and are readily obtainable in almost any bookstore. Most people in the English speaking world have heard of Dracula, some are even familiar with the plot, and a handful have even read it.
But another work in the vampire canon deserves equal recognition: Interview with the Vampire, published in 1976. If Dracula consolidated legend and created the vampire as a figure of horror and a metaphor for fear and sexuality, Interview with the Vampire was the bridge which spanned the gap between the Gothic vampire and the new vampire mythos, in which the vampire is a figure of sympathy and romance.
Say what you will about Anne Rice, and there’s a lot of say, The Vampire Chronicles were a critical work in the evolution of the modern vampire. These books reflected not only a shift in society which demanded a reworking of the vampire legend, but a profound shift in the presentation of the vampire and the expectations of readers.
The 20th century was a period of substantial upheaval all over the world, and numerous norms, social systems, and traditions fell by the wayside as the steamroller of progress blazed a new path. By 1976, the vampire legend was becoming outdated. The vampire was crossing a line from a figure of deep fear to a figure of fun and almost mockery; the vampire as horror figure was no longer frightening in a world which had seen the worst of what humanity could unleash, from the grueling and horrific environment of the First World War trenches to a haunting image of a young Vietnamese girl covered in napalm published in 1972. People no longer needed to fear the supernatural, because there was ample to fear in the natural.
The vampire as a metaphor for sexuality was also becoming antiquated. The loss of virginity no longer carried the same impact in 1972, and the stirrings of women’s liberation were starting to make the attachment to the model of innocence and womanly perfection seen in Gothic vampire novels seem questionable. People no longer wanted stories in which innocent women were corrupted by supernatural beings when the very definition of innocence was shifting with popular culture.
The distinctive feature of Interview with the Vampire, of course, is that the story is told from the vampire’s point of view, and that he is established as a sympathetic hero. As The Vampire Chronicles unfold, we are introduced to an array of sympathetic vampires, along with evil ones, creating another key jump between Gothic and modern vampire. In the Gothic era, all vampires were evil, and were not personified or made sympathetic (with the exception of Varney the Vampire). In the modern era, there are good and evil vampires, distinguished by their deeds and approach to undeath, reflecting shifting ideas about evil in the 20th century.
In the Gothic era, drawing dividing lines was facilitated by the very structure of society. Colonialism was still going strong and was widely accepted, the class system was extremely rigid, and people had very different ideas about the nature of evil and what drives people to commit acts of evil. As the 20th century progressed, grey areas started appearing left and right, and the idea of a duality of good and evil began to seem almost simplistic and laughable, which is part of the reason why interest in the Gothic vampire began to wane, as people started to find the legend unsatisfactory.
1976 marked a critical point in the evolution of the vampire in the West, with the publication of a bestselling vampire novel which turned the tables of the traditional legend and created a cult following. The Gothic vampire was discarded as the face of the vampire mythos, and replaced with a modernized version which fit in better with the 20th century ethos.
Thus, at the close of the 20th century and in the early years of this one, an explosion of vampire fiction which explores an entirely new mythos. One in which vampires are figures of sympathy and sometimes even of pity, one in which vampires are allowed to be tragic heroes, and one in which vampire hunters are relatively thin on the ground, because the drama is not in the pursuit and slaying of the vampire, but in the development of interpersonal relationships.
Some things appear to have carried over from the Gothic era. The treatment of women in the new vampire mythos, for example, is quite woeful and extremely depressing. As I pointed out last month, modern vampire fiction features, almost exclusively, young white human girls being preyed upon by much older vampires. These girls are usually innocent in the modern sense; rather than being pure and untainted by the world, they are traumatized victims of society. They are, of course, still virginal, and they often lack agency, just as the women of Gothic novels did.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Evernight features a vampire female as lead who is also, rarely for a female vampire, a sympathetic character, for instance, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer may feature a white, wounded girl as a lead, but she does not lack agency. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, we see primarily male vampires and Sookie is a white, wounded woman, but she also has powers of her own and asserts herself, and is especially empowered in terms of her sexuality.
Laurel K. Hamilton’s series featuring Anita Blake is also a departure from the norm. While the series starts out relatively tame, it quickly turns into a blood and sex drenched ultrahorror/fantasy series. Anita Blake, however, retains her autonomy and power. She is a strong female character and she crosses into the realm of dark magic and other nebulous activities while remaining a sympathetic protagonist, which sets her apart from Sookie Stackhouse, who manages to keep her hands relatively clean although she inhabits a world which is similar in some ways (both series, for example, feature other supernatural creatures beyond the vampire). Blake’s activities certainly stretch the imagination of what constitutes good Christian behavior, and it is curious that of all the books in the new vampire mythos, it’s one of the outliers which addresses religion on any regular level (yes, we see Sookie going to church and the Eastern Orthodox faith is referenced in Vampire Academy, but we actually see Blake wrestling with issues of Christian faith at times).
It is interesting to note, however, that the most popular series tend to adhere to the norm. Twilight has sold in the millions and inspired a series of films, The Vampire Diaries may not have attracted much attention in the early 1990s but it’s a hit television series now, and the explosion of young adult vampire series are all fairly formulaic. True Blood is probably the standout there, since it’s a hit television series based on a series of books which departs from the norm of the modern vampire mythos, but I also note that some substantial changes have been made in True Blood and that some of them have had the effect of weakening Sookie’s character.
All of these things, though, are the legacy of 1976. If the vampire mythos would not exist in the West at all without Dracula, the modern vampire would not have been possible without the groundwork of Anne Rice, which allowed authors and readers to bridge a gap from the outdated Gothic model for vampire stories to create a new one which more accurately reflected the world that they lived in.
I’m personally rooting for a mainstreaming of feminist values so that someone else can write in 100 years about the shift from the early 21st century vampire to the 22nd century vampire mythos, which will hopefully feature empowered women and more female vampires as sympathetic characters.