Yes, I am aware that Syfy showed Aliens on the Moon last night, but if you think I’m turning over two hours of primetime to listening to Nick Pope and friends blather on about how blurry photographs might or might not show alien moon bases, you have another thing coming. I watched a few segments of it, enough to know that it has nothing that would pass for proof and was generally a sub-Ancient Aliens batch of insinuation.
On the other hand, I watched the second episode of The Strain, and I’m not sure that this was a better choice. The clichés are strong in this one. I don’t know what the book was like, but this episode seemed constructed out of spare parts and duct tape. How laughable was it that suddenly a 200-page set of documents related to the incident was leaked just hours after the plane landed? I mean, I write fast, but seriously… It’s not possible to have a plausible disinformation campaign with leaked documents (200 perfect bound pages!) and a CEO scandal the very next morning! Russia certainly tried with MH17, but it took them the whole weekend to manufacture a fake story about Ukrainian culpability. And let us not get started on the ridiculous view of federal bureaucracy on the show...
Since there really isn’t anything useful to talk about in The Strain’s collection of clichés and terminally dull subplots, I’d like to talk instead about someone else’s reaction to The Strain and other vampire fictions.
Last Wednesday Salon.com book critic Laura Miller argued that the vampire genre needs to die because popular culture is far too obsessed with the undead. According to Miller, vampire fiction in particular is ruining perfectly good stories of human misery and is no longer contributing anything useful to literature. Her view is terribly myopic, but by the time she reaches the end of her argument it quickly becomes clear that her issue isn’t with vampires per se but with what she sees as a moral failing in America reflected in ignorant audiences’ poor literary taste, and the authors who exploit it. That moral failing is for her intimately tied to a failure to embrace a liberal social agenda.
Miller erects her thesis on the back of her upset at discovering that Lauren Owen’s new novel The Quick (unread by me) is not in its entirety a sensitive portrayal of the moral compromises involved in carrying on a same-sex romance in Victorian England but rather a vampire novel, which degenerates quickly into a tiresome litany of the various powers and limitations of the vampire, along with their quasi-feudal social structure. Such discussions, Miller correctly observes, are stations of the cross for genre fiction and every bit as tiresome (if I may add) as the pseudo-Lovecraftian fictions that stop dead to list the various Mythos gods and their powers.
Call this the vampire yada yada, and it has become excruciatingly tedious. I’m all for imaginative world-building and even consider myself rather tolerant of the bizarre pedantry it can inspire in fans. […] But vampire mythology mostly comes down to taking a position on the same old points, like whether crucifixes will successfully repel the fiends — but only if the crucifix holder truly believes! — etc. (It’s a rare vampire story that troubles itself to pursue this curious relationship to traditional religious symbols, beyond superficial logistics, that is.) I finally bailed on “The Quick” when I realized that while I would happily read a fictional exploration of how well-born men engineered same-sex romances in Victorian England, I could not bear to read yet more yada yada on what kills or motivates a vampire.
If I read this correctly, Miller’s immediate problem isn’t the vampire itself but the limits of genre fiction, which insists on hitting the same notes over and over again—unlike, say, reviewers who allude to Seinfeld lines seventeen years after they ceased being fresh. That, or she is upset that The Quick does not cater specifically enough to her particular interest in issues of class, gender, and sexuality.
Miller dislikes The Quick for being a vampire novel, but she apparently also wants us to read all contemporary vampire hack work as representative of a degenerate literary trend that has fallen from the classic period, when (presumably) vampires had greater meaning and import. But when was that true? As someone who has read virtually every horror story published in the Victorian era (or so it seems—there’s always something new to find), I know firsthand that most of the novels and stories published then were trash. Utterly useless. Miserably crap. But it just isn’t right to argue against an entire genre because bad writers reduce it to stereotypes. In a different context: Would you throw out Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti because Brian Lumley writes crappy Mythos fiction?
Consider this: F. Marion Crawford—a great horror writer—included a scene just like the one Miller criticizes in his short story “For the Blood Is the Life” in 1911, fourteen years after Dracula and almost a century since John Polidori’s The Vampyre had already made it a cliché:
“I have seen an evil thing this night,” he said; “I have seen how the dead drink the blood of the living. And the blood is the life.”
Crawford then describes the ritual destruction of a vampire in great detail. Even in 1911, readers had heard this all before.
But for every knockoff of Dracula, there were also some frankly bizarre uses of the genre. Consider Le prisonnier de la planète Mars (1908) by Gustave La Rouge, in which vampires were revealed to be bat-people from Mars! Or La Jeune Vampire (1920) by J.-H. Rosny aîné, in which vampires were this time revealed to be humans possessed by souls from another dimension.
The point, of course, is that Miller’s problem isn’t with vampires but with bad genre writing on the one hand, and the fact that monsters (of any kind) have traditional powers and limitations that writes must discuss as surely as a Harlequin romance must explicate the broken backstory of its brooding romantic lead.
The stations of the cross for horror stories were so clichéd even in the nineteenth century that Walter Parke, writing an exposé on the penny dreadful (or penny awful) industry in 1875, complained how the stories had made use of the same few plot elements since the days of the Gothic novels. He quotes (or rather fabricates a quote) from a publisher of penny awfuls, whom he calls O’Riginal, that about sums up the problem:
“My dear sir, Milton couldn’t write ‘Penny Awfuls,’ nor did he live in an age when literature was a branch of commerce,” returned the O’Riginal. “There is a knack in ‘Awful’ writing as in everything else. It requires special capacities to do it with success. The faculty of skilful construction is essential; but original genius is rather in the way than otherwise.”
The full piece is published in my Hideous Bit of Morbidity, but the point is quite clear: Much of horror fiction, especially crappy fiction, is assembled from clichés and borrowings and standard parts, just like the way detective fiction moves from crime to criminal to solution and the way hard SF requires pedantic explanations of imaginary propulsion systems and wormholes. The question isn’t whether these genre elements should be included but how they are used. Miller doesn’t like bad writing or bad plotting, but seems to want to blame the monster rather than the author for the errant artistry.
I’m even willing to spot her the argument she makes about the futility of zombie fiction, which for the most part exists, as she says, “to express horror at faceless, herdlike mass societies; to force characters into isolated and dramatically interesting small groups; and to give gamers an excuse to massacre large numbers of people without even the shadow of a moral qualm.” Miller seems unaware that modern zombie fiction emerges out of a strain of vampire fiction—George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead used Richard Matheson’s vampire novel I Am Legend as model—and that the monster known now as the zombie long ago outgrew the Haitian corpse-slave in favor of an existence modeled o on the rotten European revenants whose cadaverous descriptions actually come from early modern vampire lore.
Miller, however, would like to undo the horror of Dracula alongside European folklore. She argues that vampires emerged from tales of “sexually predatory succubi” as well as the sexually magnetic Lord Byron; therefore, the sex-crazed “blood sluts” of Dracula can never be divorced from the vampire as a monster of horror. The sex is “baked in.” (This would apply only to literary vampires; nonfiction vampires remained gross zombie creatures.) The trouble with that is that this applies more to Carmilla than Dracula, and in any case, the vampires weren’t meant to be objects of lust but rather all the more horrific because they could steal women from the (presumably) male reader through unfair vampire power. They weren’t meant to be attractive to the reader, and indeed I can’t conceive of a reading of Dracula that would result in the reader falling for the vampire.
Miller doesn’t reveal her real problem with the vampire genre until the end of her piece, when she concludes that vampire fiction is useless because it fails at “challenging the social and economic inequality that intensifies around us every day.” She believes it instead assigns desirable traits to aristocratic leeches who (for her) represent the One Percent, though I would personally liken them more to modern versions of the heroes and lesser gods of myth. Sexy vampires and scary ones are equally to blame: “Blindly fetishizing the most brutal and arbitrary manifestations of power and dominance is every bit as remedial as the boy fans’ fixation on violence and gore…” The genre, she says, must die so that the public can rise up above the lust for their oppressors and the love of violence to seize a literature of empowerment, to overthrow the One Percent in the name of the proletariat.
If you’d like to talk about a cliché, Miller’s jeremiad falls into its own genre. Harry Quilter exemplified it in his hysterical essay on the “Gospel of Intensity,” which blasted the “Great God Pan” and all of Decadent fiction for its moral turpitude. But I’ve quoted Quilter too often in the past. Instead, let me close with Walter Parke’s warning about the dangers of horror fiction, if only because like Miller, Parke called for an end to a disliked genre with Parke’s vision of moral correctness. The difference, of course, is that as a good Victorian, Parke had a different vision of what moral rectitude would be. He considered penny awfuls to be “evil,” not because of their subtext (he didn’t have a problem with aristocracy in the least) but because of the violence and horror and crime contained in the actual text:
We cannot doubt that we have here an evil of considerable magnitude, for which a remedy is urgently needed. The law has evidently no power to stop it, or to decide precisely how far it is calculated to deprave the minds of readers. It is useless to cast the entire blame upon such persons as the O’Riginal, who write only to live, whose sole care is to suit their market, whether the moral results be good or bad, and who are equally ready to write sermons if that would serve their turn better. Nor can we even throw the entire onus upon the publishers or projectors of such trashy compositions, for, in an age when literature is dealt with so completely in a commercial spirit, when even religious publications are not above making friends with the “Mammon of unrighteousness,” it would be unreasonable to expect the lower classes of literary traders to be over-scrupulous. As long as a large and paying public can be obtained for them, “Penny Awfuls” will be produced. Nor should we censure the readers for their depraved taste, for which, indeed, considering that in most cases no other has ever been fostered in them, they rather deserve pity. The only effectual remedy lies in the spread of education, not only in its useful and intellectual, but in its purely imaginative branches. It would, indeed, be a national benefit if there were to arise some original genius, with a power of writing for the masses in such a manner as to sweep away the whole catalogue of horrors, crimes, and unwholesome excitements in which they at present delight, and substitute something which should combine the fascinations of the “Penny Awful” with adherence to truth and nature, and evince both a healthy imagination and a sound moral purpose.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Oh, wait: That’s another cliché.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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