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Imagining a different kind of vampire story and a review of Shadow of Night

By August 16, 2012No Comments
Finally, a book review.  Kind of.  I just finished the second novel in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night.  This is the sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which I have to confess, I could not actually finish.  But my friend brought me Shadow of Night and said it’s much better than the first one, and, they’re in Elizabethan England.  Who can resist Elizabethan England, really?


Keeping in mind that I didn’t actually finish A Discovery of Witches…maybe it got better somewhere in there…I did quite enjoy Shadow of Night.  It was a little like the third book in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series, only with witches, demons and vampires.  Honestly, you probably could have taken out the vampires, witches and demons, which would mean removing the main characters as well, and the book still would have been interesting.  Or maybe not.  At any rate, it was a fun read and compelling enough to stick with for over 500 pages, and that’s saying a lot.  I won’t summarize the plot here for you….just insert some slightly modified version of a vampire book you’ve read or a movie you’ve seen, only put them in Elizabethan England.

Here’s what the book really got me thinking about: why can’t anyone write a better vampire novel?  Really?  Last year, I read The Reapers Are the Angels and Raising Stony Mayhall, both of which I felt were good enough to rise above (ha, ha) the zombie genre into the realm of just good literature that happens to be about zombies.  Last month I read The Last Werewolf, which my friend and I found deeply disturbing in its violence, but about which we are still talking several weeks later.  So perhaps it transcends the werewolf genre.  What about vampires?

My husband swears by Anne Rice, and I confess that I haven’t read any of her vampire books.  But Harkness’ novel, despite its historical pretensions, just can’t seem to quite break free of a form that looks relatively new (traceable to the Twilight Series), but is actually much older.  I’m talking like John Donne’s poem, The Flea, older.  Blood, sex, blood, sex.  Man/flea/vampire sucking blood from a woman, who’s kind of reluctant, but you know, not really.  Really she so wants to have her blood sucked.  Don’t we all?

Now I’m not denying the eroticism of a little biting here and there.  I’d let Spike bite me any day, but definitely not Angel.  He takes himself far too seriously, which is another problem with the vampire genre.  Why are all vampires so serious?  I would think immortality would improve your sense of humor, but it seems not so much.

What wears me out about all the vampire stories I know is that at their core is a semi-helpless human woman and a overbearing, borderline-violent vampire man.  Bella and what’s-his-name.  Sookie Stackhouse and Bill/Eric/Alcide/next hunky yet dangerous creature.  Diana Bishop and Matthew Roydon.  I happen to really enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse books, but could Sookie date someone who isn’t also tempted to eat her or kill her or beat her up?  And in Harkness’ novels, Diana Bishop is a witch.  She’s supposed to be pretty powerful herself.  So far I’ve only seen her use her magic in a way that even vaguely threatens her vampire lover once.  The rest of the time she’s using it to save him or letting him suck his blood.  Shouldn’t he be a little scared of her sometimes?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Drusilla looking creepy

The exception which must be mentioned, of course, is Buffy, where the girl is definitely not helpless, nor is she just human.  She is still in love with a vampire, and she does let him suck her blood, but she can also kick his ass.  And in the end (hope there’s no one for whom this is a Buffy spoiler), she kills him.  Also, Buffy has two of the most kick-ass female vamps in the history of vampire lore–Drusilla and….(wait for it), Harmony.  Drusilla is verifiably scary and sexy and crazy all at the same time.  Harmony is Joss Whedon never, ever taking the whole vampire thing too seriously.  See the epic fight scene between Harmony and Xander in Season 4.

As you may have gathered by now, I quite enjoy vampire stories.  But it’s 2012, people!  Where are the other interesting female vampire characters?  Pam (like many things from True Blood) is far more interesting in the books than she is in the HBO series, and she is scary.  But she’s still really just Eric’s minion.  Surely someone can do better.

What makes vampires such fascinating storytelling material?  They are immortal.  They are powerful.  They are violent.  They are sexual (not always, but pretty often).  Is it these characteristics that makes it so hard to imagine putting a female vampire at the center of a story?  Can we not imagine her being overly protective of her weak and helpless human man (assuming she’s straight)?  Do we not like to picture him lovingly offering up his life’s blood to save her?  Is it too strange to conceive of a man who kind of gets off on being a little afraid of the woman he takes to bed?

Because Joss Whedon is a storytelling god who anticipates all things in the universe, he’s already given us a partial answer.  In Season 4 of Buffy, Buffy tries dating a mere mortal.  It doesn’t go well.  She has to pretend to let him beat her in a fight.  He chafes at being described as “kittenish.”  And of course, he really doesn’t like being saved by his girlfriend.  He goes to dangerous lengths in order to become as super-human as Buffy.  And in the end, he leaves.  Super-human woman and merely human man…it never lasts.

But still…I have hope.  I believe there’s a different kind of vampire story out there just waiting to be written.  What would an interesting woman do with immortality?  What would her dating life be like?  How would it look for women to seriously harness the power of the vampire myth?  And isn’t it about time?

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