When an author chooses to write about vampires, that’s not the end of things. You then have to define your bloodsuckers. What are the rules your vampires must follow?
There are several popular literary archetypes. The best-known is, of course, Count Dracula: aristocratic, Old World, subject to the standard religion-based laws of behavior, and superior to all other vampires. Or there is Anne Rice’s Lestat: selfish, arrogant, androgynous, willing to sow chaos for the sake of doing so, not subject to religion, feared by both mortals and other vampires. Most recently you have Edward: young, moody, romantic, denies his vampiric nature and sees humans as more than a food source. And in between you can find vampires that mix and match these characteristics.
In creating the vampires for my novel Blood Groove, I tried to simplify the process by boiling it down to a single characteristic. What one word described the vampires that I liked to read about? “Scary” didn’t fit, because that’s a value judgment by the other characters, not the writer (i.e., what scares Jonathan Harker might not scare Van Helsing). “Sexy,” again, was something others (or even the vampire himself) might think, but it wasn’t an absolute quality on which I could hang a strong, unique character. Other common descriptions, like “moody,” “Gothic,” “sullen” and “romantic,” were even less defining. I needed a core quality that allowed my vampires to embody all these other aspects.
I found it in “nihilistic.”
Nihilism rejects any objective value or meaning, and leaves it to the individual to decide what, if anything, matters. A nihilist seeks no higher purpose and espouses no belief system. And given our infotainment-loaded society, which gives Britney Spears more attention than unjust wars or genocidal famine, it’s clearly a nihilistic world. Nothing is more attractive, and dangerous, than a true nihilist.
And what could be more purely nihilistic than a vampire? Once a human being, s/he is now, biologically at least, merely the remains of a human: a corpse. “Life” in the traditional sense can have no meaning, because it’s over. “Existence” as the vampire experiences it happens to others: while mortals age and change over time, the vampire remains the same. They are separate and untouchable, and they cannot be altered, only ended. (Jeri Smith-Ready, in her WVMP novels Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone, has a unique take on vampires’ inability to change with time). When no action can have any substantial result, then action itself becomes meaningless, and without meaning you have nihilism. And this is, I believe, the absolute core of the vampire’s appeal.
Consider two of the literary vampires that predate Bram Stoker’s publication of Dracula in 1897: Carmilla, in the haunting novella of the same name by J. Sheridan LeFanu (written in 1872), and Sir Francis Varney, hero of the ungainly but rollicking penny-dreadful serial Varney the Vampire (1845-1847). Beautiful Carmilla insinuates herself into the homes of lonely young gentlewomen, then seduces and drains them of life. The lesbian subtext is hard to miss, but it’s also not the point: what defines Carmilla is the sadness in her eternal quest for love that she must then inevitably destroy. Varney also finds himself blindsided by love, as well as loathing at what he’s become. He finally immolates himself in Mount Vesuvius rather than continue his evil ways.
Then consider Dracula. Despite recent interpretations by Frank Langella and Gary Oldman, this is no romantic hero. He gifts his three vampire wives with a peasant’s baby, then thinks nothing of leaving them behind when he journeys to England. He slaughters the entire crew of the Demeter with no provocation. If his victims rise after death, he does nothing to help them acclimate. He exists entirely for his own whims, because to him human beings are little more than “sheep in a butcher’s,” as he calls his pursuers. This utter disregard for the world around him gives him a power that his predecessors lacked, and explains why he, and not they, became synonymous with the word “vampire” in popular culture.
And so the central vampire in Blood Groove, Baron Rudolfo Zginski, would be first and foremost a nihilist. He would think himself above the concerns of the world, and even of connections to others of his kind. And in the course of the story his nihilism would be tested by events forcing him to consider whether selfish interests are really the best ones of all.
Blood Groove, from Tor Books, comes out on April 28th, 2009.