• THE TIMES | 14 January 2006 | Amanda Craig

    VAMPIRES ARE STALKING the charts after a rest in their tombs. With Stephanie Meyer’s debut novel, Twilight, poised for bestsellerdom with its chaste yet intensely erotic description of a teenager’s love-affair with a vampire, Darren Shan’s 12-volume Saga of Darren Shan — of which the latest volume is Sons of Destiny — racing to the big screen and Demons of the Ocean, part of Justin Somper’s Vampirates series one of the top-selling titles of 2005, vampires are suddenly the next big thing.

    Since Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, vampires have held the popular imagination. The vampire never dies, becoming increasingly complex and intriguing.

    The historian Tom Holland, the author of three vampire novels, remarked in The New Statesman five years ago: “Nowadays, it is almost de rigueur for modern vampires to be gay, and many are drug addicts... Even as the outward appurtenances of the vampire — the castle, the cape, the crucifix and garlic — have increasingly become the props of a kitsch mass culture, so film makers and novelists have responded with ever more desperate attempts to shock. Yet these too, by the law of diminishing returns, would seem to spell the end of the vampire’s allure. Or perhaps not — for the vampire, like a virus, has endured by mutating.”

    This is exactly what happened. Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first in the genre, was a Byronic libertine, his appetites the apotheosis of Romantic self-Indulgence; Stoker’s Dracula was an aristocratic nightmare to delight republicans.

    However, vampires have spent the beginning of the Millennium developing a conscience and a culture. Terry Pratchett’s blood-suckers were the first to reform — in Monstrous Regiment (2003) his elegant female vampire Maladict drinks coffee not blood and proves a faithful friend to the heroine. But Shan’s Vampire Princes, with their isolationist warrior culture, have completely reformed the genre. Shan — the only living author praised by J.K. Rowling, and the one children most want to see filmed — originally planned three books about his hero’s choice to become a vampire to save his best friend’s life. But by the third, he was interested in the background to his “vampaneze” culture.

    “We’re used to Dracula being evil, that’s the norm, but I wanted to explore what might happen if you have to drink blood to survive but don’t lose human emotions. Mine are not nice guys, but rather than the straight division between good and evil I was thinking of warrior cults such as the Masai Mara, the Celts and the samurai,” he says Part of Shan’s appeal to children of 10-plus is that his “autobiographical” saga is a coming-of-age story about loyalty and friendship. It resonates with the fear of terrorist cells that could destroy us from within. Shan is a young Irishman and the Troubles were at the back of his mind when he created the vampaneze — he was “trying to explore the way you have to talk to people, because if you don’t talk you become a separate culture”.

    The vampire’s status as the outsider who looks like us plays to our deepest preoccupations now that Britain and the US feel under siege from home-grown terrorists, but it is striking how the new wave of vampire writers insist upon the vampire’s potential for compassion. Just as we modify our view of immigrants according to whether we think of them as terrorists or Polish plumbers, so the vampire is becoming potentially benign.

    Meyer says: “I think the attraction vampires hold for us humans has to do with their dual natures. Obviously, we all enjoy being scared — you only have to look at the success of the horror industry to see that. Of all the monsters we dream up to frighten ourselves, most are traditionally ugly, repulsive things. They are the opposite of the things we want ourselves to be, and we run from them. The exception is the vampire. They have attributes we envy: they are beautiful, they are forever young, they are intelligent and well-spoken, they often wear tuxedos and live in castles. We want what they have, even as we fear what they want.”

    Her story, recounted in hypnotic, dreamy prose, encapsulates perfectly the teenage feeling of sexual tension and alienation. Bella Swan, her narrator, is half way to the vampire world when she moves to Seattle to live with her father. Pale, eccentric, clever and virginal, she is drawn to four beautiful “siblings” at her new school. All are vampires sworn to abstinence, feeding only on animals or criminals. Edward, with whom she falls in love, thirsts for her blood but can’t consummate their relationship if she remains human; their passion becomes even more dangerous as Bella is hunted down by a posse of very different vampires.

    To Meyer, the vampire is not a figure of evil glamour against which the virginal heroine must pit her virtue. Her vampires possess supernatural strength and telepathic abilities, but garlic, crucifixes and sunlight don’t affect them. Immortal and beautiful as angels, their problems stem from loneliness and a refined sensibility.

    “Vampires stand for the choice between the worldly and the heavenly — the pull of these things we want (immortality, riches, beauty) versus the idea of choosing good over evil. Is it worth it to be evil, if you can get everything you want?”

    Somper also addresses this problem in his romping Vampirates sequence, Demons of the Ocean and the forthcoming Tide of Terror (Simon & Schuster). A twin brother and sister, adrift on the sea after running away from an orphanage, are picked up by vampire pirates. At first, Grace, the heroine, doesn’t realise why she must stay away from the crew; the discovery that some humans are kept on board to be bled like cattle is a flesh-crawling shock. Then she discovers that the pirates who have her brother are worse.

    “I’m interested in the idea that we really don’t know who our enemy is — that enemy is all a question of perspective, often derived from lack of information or misinformation,” Somper says. “In Vampirates, the twins have grown up hearing a shanty which sets up the vampirates as the ultimate evil but when Grace comes into contact with them she finds that this may be unreliable. The vampirate captain and his comrades are capable of compassion. They are essentially peace-loving. To Grace, the pirate world is more abhorrent than that of the vampires.”

    Vampires may seem to be strong meat for children but much classic children’s literature plays with the concept of appetite, as pleasure and the source of evil. Appetite for food, life or another person all mingle in the vampire; the Millennial vampire, like many of us, could simply be exercising consumer choice in turning against human flesh for the free-range and cruelty-free.

    “As much as you might play around with elements, you can’t get away from the central idea that vampires crave blood,” Somper says. “In Vampirates, some of the vampires have imposed controls on this need and found ways to meet it without harming others. But other vampires think such control is a denial of their true self.”

    Chaste, self-denying, humane and civilised, the new vampire might seem to be in danger of becoming too anodyne. Yet the one thing the vampire does not hunger for is revenge. By playing on our deepest hopes rather than our deepest fears, Dracula’s descendants may have a stake in our hearts, rather than the other way about.

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