Now that he’s committed the act of writing a novel that has vampires (The Rhesus Chart, the next “Laundry” story, to be published in July next year), Charles Stross examines the current role of vampires in fiction:
So what are vampires good for?
Leaving aside a whole bunch of different mythological tap-roots, some of which are quite interesting in their own right, the modern western interpretation of the vampire is largely the fault of Bram Stoker (although he, in turn, was working in a literary tradition with notable antecedents such as Varney the Vampire).
The interesting thing about vampires in fiction is what they’re used to represent. Vampires are the talkative reflection of our fears; unlike horde-shambling zombies they’re singular entities, intelligent and outwardly handsome, the exterior shell concealing festering horrors within. And the nature of the horrors in question changes with time. Back in Stoker’s hey-day, the fear of contagion, of the degeneration and insanity that went with syphilis, was clear: so was the clash of uptight Victorian public morality and private lascivious debauchery that went with it. (It’s no accident that Vampirism-as-AIDS was the big metaphor of the 1980s: blood, sex, and death are deeply intertwingled in our collective id.)
More recently, we have a whole bunch of other vampire metaphors. There’s the untrammeled greed angle, the psychopathic serial killer angle, the sexual predator. Vampires are rapists, non-consensual sadists and torturers, serial killers. They are, above all, parasites and sociopaths — you can’t be a vampire, a successful apex predator upon people, and feel much empathy for your prey.
So what do we make of that sub-species of vampire that fucks its food?
One of the weirder twists in the development of a sub-genre happened some time in the early 1990s, with the advent of the paranormal romance. In retrospect it’s fairly obvious what they’re for; they allow the reader to vicariously explore emotional aspects of BDSM without the troublesome need to find a partner with a roll of duct tape and a flogger who also understands the need for safe words. (This may also be a side-effect of changing gender/power relationships in society at large causing confusion, uncertainty, or dissatisfaction with traditional power roles: don’t tell the Pope. Ahem. There’s a really complex knot of issues here, including the implications of the demographic transition for human interpersonal and familial relationships, that is probably food for several PhD theses.)