Well, we’re just a week away from Halloween. As you might have guessed by my constant usage of vintage skull illustrations, I dig creepy, I dig the undead (usually not out of their crypts), and I dig monsters.
I want to talk about monsters a bit this week. In all my writing I feel like monsters are one of the few things I’m confident in. I’m a horror junkie and have been for a very long time, I grew up in Stephen King’s home state where you can see the reflection of his work in every real-life town and city, and what continually draws me to writers like Vandermeer and Miéville is that they put out really imaginative and cool monsters, or take old ones and put unique twists on them.
I’m going to start off today by talking about vampires.
Bloodsuckers. The hidden predators. Allegories for everything from sexual violence to willing seduction. They have been done a billion times over and show no sign of slowing down. There’s a glut of vampire fiction out there, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gotten bored of vampires; it just means I’ve gotten a hell of a lot pickier about my needle-mouthed night stalkers.
To explain why I like vamps so much, and what (to me) makes for a well written vampire, I feel like we need to pull the proverbial camera back a bit. On an individual basis, the vampire is very much a predator. They are usually described as physically stronger, more agile and more deadly than a human being. Easily able to rip a mortal to shreds in a fair fight. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think Spike does a great job at summing up why vampires are effective villains even against an empowered mortal like the Slayer: “Lesson the first – a slayer must always reach for her weapon, I already have mine.” Except for a few peak specimens of physical training and conditioning, human beings tend to be reliant on external weapons to fight against predators. What makes a vampire effective is that they look like us and can get close enough to keep us from ever reaching a weapon when they go to strike. There are some variants there; The Strain’s body horror vamps, for example, look monstrous from the get-go and their biological weaponry is even more advanced than the traditional fangs and raw brute strength that other vampires exhibit.
Pull the camera back though to look at vampires on a macro scale rather than a micro one. I think what truly appeals to me about the monster is that it represents parasitism rather than some kind of supernatural predator. Yeah, one on one a vampire is probably going to kill you, but in the best stories a group of humans stands a chance against a vamp. ‘Salem’s Lot. The original Dracula. Nosferatu. Fright Night. We humans may be kind of crappy one on one but once sufficiently motivated and given enough of a warning we’re terribly resourceful at violently and efficiently murdering anything we have deemed The Other, and that’s been true throughout most of history. Vampires can’t operate in public because of that. They have to hide in the shadows. It’s how they survive.
A vampire, or a clan of vampires, has to blend in and go unnoticed. They identify important societal institutions and then they infect and corrupt them. They contribute nothing while relying upon a society to give up blood for them, to die for them, often without knowing what they’re dying for. They have to subvert businesses and politicians to serve their own interests, and following down the logical power structure of the society they’ve infected they would probably have fingers in police departments and hospitals as well. These intricate power webs are built and maintained to help them survive rather than out of any desire to play a neo-aristocracy. They may dress it up in nobility and play at being highbrow gentlemen and women, but in the long run they are the horrifying, human-shaped equivalent to a guinea worm infection.
I want stories that explore that aspect of vampires.
I’ve seen the other ones. I’ve enjoyed them. I have read countless stories where vampires are tragic because eventually their bestial instincts overpower their human minds and turn them predatory against their will. Stories where vampires are doomed to chase love that they can never have, only to watch it crumble to dust over and over in front of them. Artistic vampires who grow old enough to watch their works forgotten. There are other, older stories as well. Terrible old stories where vampires stand for queer decadence or try to warn people about lustful foreigners.
I’ve read all of those but very few about the interworkings of how a vampiric society would actually work. A tragedy where someone is twisted into becoming a parasitic being without even realizing the harm he is doing to his society, not seeing that his “minimizing” the damage he does is actually hurting more people. What about a story exploring how ethical vampires stealing donated blood from a hospital is depriving dying surgery patients of lifesaving infusions? Or the classic trope where a vampire only feeds on criminals, but exploring what happens when someone makes himself into a lethal vigilante and ends up feeding on people proven innocent postmortem, and how that struggle leaves him a ruin? Vampires who care about their neighborhoods and families but who end up inadvertently destroying those communities in an attempt to make “safe” prey, creating slums and ghettos out of once vibrant regions by ensconcing themselves in political intrigue, and then not realizing they have done so until the damage can’t be undone?
Even a vampire trying to justify his continued existence to himself, knowing that it comes at the cost of constantly harming others on a visceral level. If you are a decent person, how do you do that? Do you try to convince yourself that as an immortal repository of historical knowledge you are worth a few blood sacrifices every weekend? Especially in the age of the internet? How about when you factor in how badly the human memory deteriorates and blends over time, how flexible our minds become to suggestion even over a mortal lifetime.
We can have the other vampires stay too, I still like them. But I’d like some vampire fiction that doesn’t tie itself to explicit violence and sexuality when it markets itself as mature.
Continuing along the vein (sorry) of social parasites, brutes disguised as aristocracy and people who can only exist by hurting others, the two books I read over the weekend deal very heavily with authoritarianism. I am speaking of Chuck Wendig’s first two Aftermath books, Aftermath itself and Life Debt. My very brief review is that they make a good gap filler between the original trilogy and the new Force Awakens universe, I would recommend reading them at least once, but that I do pine a little bit for some of the gems in the old, non-canon EU that I grew up on as a teen. These feel a lot more grounded even while using the same levels of in-universe jargon, and that’s something people are either going to love or hate without a lot of room in between. There’s not much in the way of jedi or force action here and it plays out more along the lines of a military/espionage thriller with a bunch of new characters introduced at a breakneck pace. I found some forgettable but loved others, like the Imperial loyalty officer turned halfhearted New Republic fighter Sinjir. As someone who really loves Chuck Wendig’s blog and other works, they felt a bit too much like Wendig novels and less like the Star Wars novels I expected. I don’t want to bash them because I did enjoy them, they just weren’t a tone I have ever seen in Star Wars before and it felt incredibly jarring to me, and that’s coming from someone who read prrrrrobably over a hundred of the old EU novels and can tell you in graphic detail how a lightsaber worked within the universe’s technological ruleset. I thought the inclusion of openly gay characters in the setting was welcome and long overdue, and I thought that the two novels explored some untrodden territory in terms of Star Wars storytelling, but I just don’t know that the narrative voice worked for the stories it wanted to tell. Grain of salt, because I know some people who came out loving these books and I admit that the voice is an entirely subjective thing to quibble about, and the stories themselves are very solid and go a long way toward explaining some of the events in The Force Awakens.
Okay, all that said, my favorite aspect of these books was something that Rebels has been exploring of late: How the hell do you have an empire as evil as The Empire and still have people willingly sign up? Even the nazi regime had more defectors than we see of the Empire in Star Wars, and the Empire blows up entire planets for fun.
While Rebels explores how imperials can become drawn in by propaganda and how the escalation of violence by both sides just creates new hardliners, this is more about the internal power struggles that had already been at play in the Empire and how Palpatine was the only thing keeping them from each others throats. Like a lot of real world authoritarian and fascist groups it had split into at least four subgroups; aggressive and defensive military factions, a cultish religious circle and a group of economists trying to play the forever-war to their advantage. It’s great to hear Imperial characters lambasting each other for allowing their navy to build something called a Death Star, others saying that they should surrender rather than draw the war out because the Rebels/Republic will be forced to display leniency to show how different they are from the Empire (this particular exchange a direct result of one imperial threatening to have another executed during a roundtable discussion on strategy), others still lamenting that everything had gone to hell ever since Palpatine started buying into his own propaganda and letting his religious Sith teachings influence how he chose to govern instead of keeping them separate.
It ties into one of my favorite things about the First Order in Force Awakens: they really do come off as a bunch of ill-equipped neo nazis completely unable to learn from their predecessors’ failure. The Empire was a comically xenophobic group who signed their death warrant when they blew up Alderaan and turned an even larger portion of the galaxy against them, and then were dumb enough to sink a huge portion of their resources into building the second Death Star. What do the First Order do? Sink all of their resources into building an even bigger superweapon while skimping on training and then provoking a counterattack seemingly on a childish tantrum of a whim. It made them look pathetic and dangerous and this trilogy is fleshing that out in a good way, it makes me even more eager to see Rey and Finn and company tear them apart over the next two films.