Vampires were a tremendous fad in contemporary fantasy for a while. Currently the popularity of the trope is fading somewhat, so this is perhaps as good a time as any to look at it with a view towards what makes for a good story and good myth-making.
The vampire is potentially a unique and powerful story element, but it’s rare to see it done right. Ideally, the vampire combines two opposite emotional triggers, horror and temptation, but usually one side is emphasized to the detriment of the other. Dracula by Bram Stoker captures the horror very well, but the temptation is never properly shown; those who feel it (and succumb to it) are never viewpoint characters, so we never feel how drawn they are to becoming a vampire. At the other extreme, Twilight romanticizes vampires so that the temptation is evoked, but the horror disappears. The real power of the trope lies in the tension between the two, so that the temptation increases the danger and the horror makes the temptation all the more poignant.
The horrible element in the vampire is obvious and simple: it’s a deadly, blood-sucking monster that is incredibly powerful and difficult to fight. A human being must exploit knowledge of the vampire’s weaknesses (sunlight and fire, a stake through the heart, restrictions on where it can go such as barriers to crossing a threshold uninvited, sometimes religious symbols or faith or certain herbs, depending on the story) to counteract its incredible power: enhanced physical strength and speed, the ability to cloud and control the human mind, cunning, and ruthlessness. A vampire comes out of nowhere, moves faster than the eye can follow, cannot be resisted physically any more than a thundering express train, and kills in a split second. Even more horribly, the vampire may kidnap victims and keep them as a blood source and mind-controlled plaything for a long time before finally tiring of the game and killing.
The temptation in the vampire story involves the opportunity to become a vampire. In most vampire stories, it’s possible for vampires to turn human beings into vampires by one method or another. A human being interacting with a vampire must confront not only the awful danger that the creature may kill him at any moment, but also the seductive opportunity. He can, if the vampire is willing to cooperate, become immortal and inhumanly powerful — if he’s also willing to become a killer, a monster, a predatory menace to the human race. The danger of giving in to this temptation, and, having done so, the struggle to control one’s nature after the transformation, create much of the conflict in the best vampire stories.
On top of this, not universally but quite often, the vampire is a sexually seductive figure. A human can be drawn to the vampire’s monstrous beauty and raw sexual vitality, and this enhances both the temptation and the danger of the creature. (This is sometimes true even when vampires are sexually impotent, as in Anne Rice’s vampire stories, but obviously more so when they aren’t.) The increased danger arises because a human being can be paralyzed by erotic desire and fail to fight or flee. The increased temptation comes from falling in love with the vampire and wanting to become immortal so as to be with the immortal beloved.
At this point, the trope is overdone and I have never been strongly tempted to write a vampire story mainly for that reason. It’s seldom done well, though, as noted above, so there’s room for a really good vampire story. If I were to create a vampire tale, the challenge would be to keep the tension between the horror and the temptation so that the reader experiences this tension all the way through. The temptation must never be overwhelmed by the fear, nor the mind become so tempted as go numb to the horror of the creature. To be tempted and afraid, and more tempted because of the fear, and more afraid because of the temptation, is the potential of the vampire at its best.
Whether I could do the trope justice — I don’t know. Perhaps one day I’ll find out.
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