by Mary Jo
My guest today is returning Honorary Word Wench Laura Resnick. In the past she’s talked about Disappearing Nightly, first of her humorous Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, and her humorous collection of columns on the writing life, which is called Rejection, Romance, and Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Novelist
Now she’s here to talk about her October book, Vamparazzi, fourth in her Esther Diamond series. Laura describes Vamparazzi as a book for people like her who don’t like vampire novels. Over to you, Laura!:
I describe my latest novel, Vamparazzi (DAW Books, October 2011), as a vampire novel for people who don't like vampire novels—that is to say, people just like me.
Apart from the fact that vampires have become so ubiquitous that I am frankly sick to undeath of them, I have also never understood what the attraction is. Yes, of course, I recognize the less-than-subtle sexual metaphors of vampirism.
But, speaking as someone who grew up working in a kennel, I also know that when sharp fangs break my skin and draw blood, the pain is mind-numbing rather than erotic. Lustily piercing a lover's major vein or artery would be, in fact, really messy; in the unlikely event that the bitten partner didn't have to go to the ER, she'd be fully occupied with throwing out the gory bed sheets and replacing the ruined mattress. And an undead lover would have unpleasantly cold genitals (eek!).
So when I decided to write a vampire novel as the next book in my urban fantasy series (and, no, you don't need to read the books in chronological order to understand what's going on), there was very little chance that Esther Diamond, the series heroine, would swoon in the arms of a seductive vampire anti-hero.
Esther is a struggling actress in contemporary New York City who gets involved in various paranormal misadventures. In Vamparazzi, she is cast as a vampire victim in The Vampyre, a (fictional) off-Broadway adaptation of the (real) 19th century story by Dr. John Polidori, who is mostly remembered in our era because he was briefly a traveling companion of Lord Byron.
In this Esther Diamond novel, The Vampyre is produced as a showcase for an eccentric D-list celebrity who claims to be a real vampire. The theater is surrounded nightly by volatile vampire groupies and pushy paparazzi; and before long, there's a murder by exsanguination.
In her quest to prevent the killer from closing her show, Esther is drawn into the bizarre and wholly separate worlds of vampire fanatics and real vampires—while meanwhile wrestling with the unwise desire to rekindle her erratic romance with a skeptical cop who's trying to prevent her from becoming the next murder victim. A short sample:
"Let me make sure I understand," I said to Max. "Vampires are real… but everything I know about them is wrong?"
The elderly mage beamed at me. "That's an admirably succinct summation, Esther!"
"Thank you," I said. "Now that I know what a vampire is not—i.e. Lord Ruthven, Count Dracula, and the like—can you be equally succinct in explaining what a vampire is?"
His face scrunched up briefly as he sought a way to reduce his normally loquacious descriptions to as few words as possible in this case. "A vampire is a mystically animated undead individual driven by mindless, voracious survival instinct to prey upon the living for sustenance."
"Ah. So Polidori and Stoker did get that part right."
"In essence," Max conceded. "But unlike their portrayals, the vampiric undead are not beings whom you'd ever meet at a social gathering. And they certainly don't make engaging quips about not drinking… wine."
"I gather they'd stand out in a crowd?"
"Being undead isn't just a matter of lacking a pulse," Max said. "An undead vampire is always in some stage of decomposition, and this is, er, quite noticeable."
Doing the Research
When I started working on Vamparazzi, my biggest concern was: How do I write a vampire novel that isn't a retread of other vampire novels?
As was the case with my previous Esther Diamond book, Unsympathetic Magic (a tale of voodoo and zombies), I soon discovered that the answer was surprisingly simple: Just do your research. Ahhh…
Vampires are so pervasive in pop culture, I mistakenly thought I knew the subject well. Um, no. What I knew, it turns out, were just the fictional tropes of my contemporary society. And most of those familiar conventions were invented by novelists and movie makers, and are wholly unrelated to vampire folklore and history.
Recognizable vampire mythology goes back as far as ancient Babylonia and the Sanskrit tales of classical India. There were blood-drinking demons (known as lamiae) in ancient Greece and Rome, in the medieval Islamic world (ghouls and affrits), and in Renaissance Europe. Various forms of vampire lore exist in Asia, the Pacific Rim, Africa, Central and South America, Australia… and, of course, Eastern Europe.
The Slavic folklore of Eastern Europe is where much of our own culture's concept of vampires originated. And it began with notorious vampire epidemics in the 1720s—which are so fascinating that I incorporated these historically documented events into Vamparazzi.
The problem was serious enough to require several government investigations at the time; you can read translations of the 18th century official reports in Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber.
Vampire epidemics had probably been occurring for centuries in Eastern Europe before they made their way into the historical record. Then in the early 18th century, imperial wars and treaties resulted in the Ottoman Empire losing much of its Eastern European territory to the Habsburg monarchy of Austria.
Upon hearing about vampire epidemics for the first time, a few years after taking over control of the region, the Austrian government's reaction was (I paraphrase): "Whoa, they're doing what in those provinces?" Followed by: "We need to send someone to investigate this and find out what's going on."
Two particular vampire cases of that era created considerable interest in their time and are generally credited with introducing Eastern European vampire folklore to Western European culture: the separate and unrelated cases of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnod Paole. After these two men each died in their respective Serbian villages of Kisilova and Medvegia, the local mortality rate increased. As a result, Plogojowitz and Paole were accused (in absentia) of being vampires and starting vampire epidemics. Panic and paranoia quickly spread—as did gruesome anti-vampire activities.
In the early 1730s, the authorities who were assigned to investigate these incidents wrote detailed accounts of strange phenomena for which they had no explanation. The contents of these reports were repeated and disseminated, and thus the folklore of Slavic villages entered the imagination of Western Europe.
The vampires preying on the terrified inhabitants of Kisilova, Medvegia, and other impoverished villages were not suave aristocrats using seductive tactics. In life, they had been ordinary peasants; in undeath, they were mindless, ravening, and quite grotesque monsters. And this was typical of the vampire lore of the region.
So, okay, what really happened in Serbia—and other provinces experiencing vampire outbreaks—centuries ago?
The two typical features of historical vampire epidemics were (1) a rash of mysterious deaths and (2) the fear-driven exhumation of corpses… that looked ruddy and well-fed, and which often had blood dribbling from their mouths.
Well, a wave of unexplained deaths in 18th century peasant villages isn't actually mysterious if you consider the conditions in those communities; disease was spreading through a vulnerable population that didn't understand epidemiology. Various fatal contagions, including the plague, were often blamed on vampires in the good old days. (For example, tuberculosis is considered the likely culprit of a vampire scare in New England in the 19th century.)
The Truth About Vampires
And the hysteria provoked by digging up plump, ruddy-looking corpses with bloody lips… was based entirely on not understanding the stages of decomposition. As were all the other "classic" signs of vampirism, such as claw-like fingernails and strange noises coming from the corpses. What the living were seeing in those unearthed graves was, unbeknownst to them, the normal appearance of the decomposing dead. (For an explicit example, see a fascinating National Geographic documentary called Forensic Vampires—but not while you’re eating.)
Moreover, even well-trained doctors (which some of the Austrian investigators were) in the 18th century had a level of medical knowledge that wouldn't earn them so much as a Boy Scout merit badge today. Although the written reports of the Austrian officials demonstrate an ability (nay, a Teutonic determination!) to observe, investigate, and record strange phenomena with precision and detachment, they simply didn't understand what they were encountering in their vampire investigations.
This misunderstanding of disease and decomposition was at the heart of Eastern European vampire folklore, and also at the heart of Western Europe's fascination with it. That fascination was robust nearly a century later, when the notorious Lord Byron, summering at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, challenged each of his houseguests to write a ghost story. In response to this, Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein, which famous novel is the primary reason the challenge is remembered now.
However, the incident is equally important in vampire history. Participating in that game, Byron wrote a fragment which he soon abandoned… and which was then adopted and adapted by Dr. John Polidori, who was serving as his personal physician at the time. Byron (who fired Polidori that same year) subsequently supported the doctor's claim of being the author of the resultant story, The Vampyre. Byron was also reputedly the inspiration for Lord Ruthven, the title character in Polidori's Vampyre; Ruthven is an alluringly sinister aristocrat who uses and abuses others without compassion or conscience.
Polidori died in 1821, only two years after the initial publication of his story, while still a young man. There is speculation that he committed suicide, though his death was officially attributed to natural causes. Either way, he didn't live to see his story's effect on the popular concept of vampires—an effect which is still relevant in our own time.
First published in 1819, and reprinted many times and in multiple languages, The Vampyre was an enduring commercial success, and it ignited the reading public's love affair with vampires. It was the first vampire fiction written in English, and also the first characterization of a vampire as complex and sophisticated; the elegant and manipulative Lord Ruthven is wholly unlike the grotesque, mindless creatures of Slavic folklore or the infamous vampire epidemics.
Polidori's vision of the vampire was fresh, innovative, and unique in its time. He popularized the undead, created the first-ever seductive persona for a vampire, and influenced other fiction writers for nearly a century—including Bram Stoker, who came along several generations later and wholly eclipsed Polidori's tale with Dracula, which iconic novel has dominated our image of vampires ever since.
So now I know who to blame for the romanticization of the bloodsucking undead. It's all Polidori's fault.
Therefore, due to having done my research, the plot of my 21st century urban fantasy novel has one foot planted in 18th century Serbia and the other in Polidori's gothic tale of Regency-era English gentry. And I thank the Word Wenches for giving me this opportunity to share a little vampire history with you!
Vamparazzi, the latest Esther Diamond novel, is available, in print or e-book format, wherever books are sold. You can find the author on the web at http://www.LauraResnick.com/.
Here’s a longer excerpt
Back to Mary Jo:
Laura will be giving away a signed copy of Vamparazzi to someone who leaves a comment between now and midnight Saturday.
So now—tell us how you REALLY feel about vampires!