Friday, October 26, 2007

Enough with the vampyres, already

I went to Borders to buy a book to read on the plane tomorrow. I was thinking a nice mass market paperback science fiction/fantasy. I discovered a sci fi section filled with vampire books. OK, I loved Buffy as much as the next woman (maybe not quite as much as the next woman- I've never attended a Buffy Studies academic conference, but a lot). And I had an open mind, sort of. I'd have taken a nice little dragon book, or a woman warrior, maybe some sentient animals, fairies can be good, or an untried mage coming into his or her power, maybe a little time travel or just an ordinary alternate medieval world with a little magic here and there. But no -- vampires, vampyres, nightwalkers everywhere.

I tried the mystery section, but it, too, was full of the undead.

Yes, we all know I'm picky. With few exceptions, I only read books written by women. I look first for books written by authors who love Dorothy Dunnett. My tastes are specific and I've read a lot so it narrows my choices.


Bought literary fiction. Something my book group is reading. Water for Elephants. Everyone says it's wonderful. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. yadda yadda Not really what I wanted.



Kate said...

Wow, interesting! As a theory-inclined Christian, I find America's fascination with the undead rather creepy.

I've read people who have studied these things more seriously than me and they say that some fads in popular fiction reflect current anxieties in popular culture. Like all the post-apocalypse stories in the 50s reflect America's anxiety about the Bomb. Frankenstein, the rise of science. Or Westerns, post WW2. The Victorian obsession with ghost stories was another one, though, of course, I don't remember what cultural crisis the ghost stories were working through.

But the undead? What is that about? Fear of death? Corrupted traditions? A nation so unmoored from its history that we need to bring back dead people? The past sucks our lifeblood? Face lift surgery? Don't know.

But we're happy you found something to read and are looking forward to seeing you!

The Bride said...

Interesting points. I, with my background in sociology and merchandising, was thinking along different lines. Most obviously, Hallowe'en is next week so it's the time of year to bring forth the Undead Lit.

But the fact that there is so much of it and that it so popular is puzzling.

Again, I was inclining to the theory that success breeds success. The success of Anne Rice, Buffy, and the incredibly popular series by Laurell Hamilton make people want to write like them.

However, this does beg the question of why Rice/Buffy/Hamilton are so immensely successful. So your speculation is interesting.

Me and Dr. Freud think it's about sex, somewhere along the line. Because all these vampires are pretty sexy.

And it all has something to do with evil, dancing along the edge of evil, finding evil not quite so bad as expected, etc.

And that has something to do with the breakdown of public morality. Not just Christianity, but the absence of a conversation about right and wrong in society today. It's all about who has power, not what's right.

And Vampires have power. OK they can suck the life out of you, but they are really powerful and it's OK if they do it to people you don't like as long as they don't do it to you. In otherwords, the subtext is always that power from any source is absolutely good, as long as the body count does not include your own loved ones.

Or possibly the undead are manifestations of longing for gods that are present on earth, where the traditional god/s of traditional religion seem not to 'work' for so many people.

Although in that case, why not more Tom Bombadils in the mix.

SybBrig said...

As the Next Woman (who did like Buffy more than the first woman), even I have been amazed (and dismayed) by the number of vampyre series available. (And disinterested in 99% of them).

I do read the Charlaine Harris series, but mostly due to loyalty (much the same reason I read Stephanie Plum nowadays). (As a side note, the Harris series is now as much about lycanthropy as vampires, which is a curious and common development among most extended vampire series available, as if, after a couple of books, vampires alone aren't enough to hold interest.) I read almost no other such books.

And I find it a little disturbing the number of otherwise boilerplate Chick-Lit books are about vampires. Powells has recently added a whole section for "Paranormal Romances", many of which are vampire-related. (Some quite similar books are shelved in "Horror" -- I couldn't tell why some were in one or the other section. In both cases, they involved consensual romantic or sexual relationships and supernatural elements.)

This trend, of course, isn't just in books, but television and movies, too.

As to why, I think you're both right. On the political and sociological side, the last 15-20 years have seen a dramatic increase in a wariness and mistrust of science and technology -- Carl Sagan wrote about the dangers of it in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996, his last book). It's becoming condoned by the mainstream to not want your child immunized, to not flouridate the water, to tightly control your food intake (avoiding certain additives, or categories of food such as meats, fats, or carbohydrates), etc. This mistrust also extends to government and authority (or maybe stems from it). There is much to hearken back to Wollstonecraft's period, in the speed of scientific (and technological) advances and the cautiousness of the public towards them.

[Hmmm. Could the resurgence in modern paranormal obsessiveness (the retrochic attraction of Stoker's Dracula and Wollstonecraft's Frankenstein) also explain the current Jane Austen-mania, the original antiseptic antidote to the overwrought gothic?]

So there's the pull of the paranormal/supernatural, outside of science and technology. And the attraction of individual control and contempt for authority, all well exemplified in the current manifestion of the vampire myth:
Vampires are lone individualists, surviving forever looking as beautiful as the day they were killed. (Vampires never sire old or ugly people, I take it. Did I mention also our culture of celebrity and beauty?) Vampires are powerful, almost unkillable, and don't have to answer to anyone. All reasons to favor the vampire.

On the simple capitalist side: Feeding the fire is the popular success of Buffy, Anne Rice and Laurell Hamilton -- although I'd argue that they all succeed for other reasons than "vampires" per se (Buffy for snappy, funny writing and serious life issues; Anne Rice for metaphorically written soft-core pornography; Laurell Hamilton for explicitly written tumescent and throbbing not-so-soft-core pornography).

By the way, HomoDomi informs me that the single most common costume at the school-Halloween party last night, was witches. Lots and lots of witches. We aren't quite sure where that specific aspect of the supernatural comes from. There were no vampires, but we think that is because vampires have been sexualized, so they are not of interest in the K-5 set. Witches, in comparison, are relatively unsexualized (the television shows Charmed and Hex aside, which the wee tots won't have seen, either, and few of their parents, out of the target viewing market).

David Briggs said...

Is it possible that a small bit of the fascination with vampires is because of combined fears of the apocalypse, and a rejection of science fiction? Many people do not like science fiction because of the bug-eyed monster of early Hollywood fame (and for that matter, early science fiction fame, especially the covers of the early pulp magazines), and reject the whole category, but because of fears about tomorrow turn to the only other available topic, vampires?

With regard to the number of witches at said Halloween Party, I would blame that squarely on the shoulders of J.K.Rowling and Harry Potter. Enough said.

SybBrig said...

Dealing with topics in reverse order:

I shall have to check with HomoDomi (I wasn't at the party) but I believe there were not many wizards there, only witches. I doubt there would be many Hermiones and no Harry Potters. (And the latest Harry Potter film is PG-13 and outside the viewing tolerances of most K-5 kids.)

The witches I've seen and heard about are more along the lines of Kiki's Delivery Service and The Littlest Witch than Hermione (i.e., black plain dresses and a traditional witch's hat). I've just now realized that Molly has seen Kiki more than twice and loves it - but she hadn't mentioned that and hasn't seen it in a few months, so I didn't connect.

As to popular culture falling back upon vampires because they didn't like science fiction...that doesn't work for me. I've written and erased a couple of paragraphs trying to articulate why, but can't. It has something to do with the whole calculation of FearingApocalypse - DislikeSciFi = Vampires. The current popular vampire-obsession is far too specific to just be a contingency position. While I'm sure there are some people who want "different world" fiction but don't like science fiction, I doubt there are so many that publishers can make money off of them.

Anyway, if fears of the apocalypse are sending these people to fiction, how comforting to have the fiction be so clearly Here-but-Not-Here, with all those ghouls and ghosties. It allows the viewer to reject the whole fear of real world-ending mayhem, sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, more cathartic.

David Briggs said...

Sorry about that, I had not known of the recent popularity of "The Littlest Witch", nor of the presence of "Kiki's Delivery Service", but to a certain extent, I STILL blame J.K.Rowling and Harry Potter. They may not have been DIRECTLY responsible for all of those kids wearing witches costumes, but the powerhouse that is (and was) Harry Potter still helped those get written, published, produced, filmed, and shown, again and again. And that INCLUDES such items as "The Littlest Witch" since while it predates Harry Potter (if I remember correctly) it might at least owe some debt of gratitude to HP for its current existence, and to parents searching for a "replacement" for HP for the younger crowd. Don't forget the popularity of HP, and the massive crowds out to purchase the book the second that the book was released.