Monday, 24 August 2009

Fiction to sink your teeth into

There's a bit of a trend happening in Young Adult literature at the moment and, frankly, I've had enough. It seems to me that about ninety per cent of the books in the teens section of Borders, Waterstones, Blackwell's and elsewhere have black covers, dramatic titles and some variation on the Gothic palely interesting girl/ ominously thorny rose/ big dark castle/ moon theme of cover illustration. They're all about vampires.

Now don't get me wrong - I loved Twilight as much as the next girl - and possibly more than she did. I've read them all several times. But I pick up these books and everything inside me goes "meh." Vamps have just become too damn safe. It didn't used to be like that.

In the original European legends, Nosferatu is violent scavenger, more animal than man, with no higher intelligence, certainly no appeal for his victims, merely seeking the blood it requires to survive. More modern werewolf than vampire.

The sophisticated, attractive vampire is a reinvention when the myth hits the English language, but the credit for it does not belong to Stoker. Instead we must trace the origins of the English vampire back to that near-legendary night in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori took shelter from a thunder storm and challenged eachother to create the best ghost story. Ironically this challenge, supposed to be a showdown between the two famous poets, threw up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the original English vampire story: John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

The ‘vampyre’ was Lord Ruthven, and he was a very different creature from any predecessors. He is a tall, pale, attractive aristocrat at whom ladies throw themselves from all sides. Many believe that Polidori took for a model his employer Lord Byron, who was not known for nothing as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. As a result the English vampire is often known as the ‘Byronic vampire’: the model which was taken by many subsequent writers including Stoker. ‘The Vampyre’ begins like this:

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him.

He's already got that sexy bad boy vibe going, and it's only the beginning of the nineteenth century. Leaving aside Dracula, and all that goes with him, we really have Anne Rice to blame for the current crop of vampire fiction. She turned the genre on its head by giving us a vamp's eye view in her Interview with a Vampire and left the field wide open for the moodily interesting vampire victim, the unwilling biter bit by destiny and trying to resist his inner nature. A bad boy who wants to change, but who is always going to look good in black.

But they've lost their edge. The vampires have gone domestic, and it's not doing the sense of narrative danger any good. Get rid of all these Twilight clones, people. Start thinking some new storylines and definitely some new cover designs. Let's get back to books that bite.