Teaching the Vampire in Literature
“Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!”—Dracula, 1897.
In 2002 I began a short story about the wife of the historical figure Vlad Dracula. I was in a sorrowful state of mind at the time, and the story served as a vehicle to process what was happening. A couple of years later, as I began a master’s program in literature and creative writing at Harvard Extension School, the story became the focus of many of the creative writing workshops I signed up for. A long-time Goth girl, I wanted to pay homage to Bram Stoker, so in a sense, my first novel is a work of fan fiction. As passionate as I was about this story, I knew there would be a specific niche audience for it. I toiled over it every night after work, writing through the night until the novel was complete. It served as the heart of my thesis, and after graduating, I began the long search for an agent, just as the great recession hit. Long story short: I self-published The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love in 2010.
Coincidentally, the associate dean for the humanities at Harvard Extension had been developing a course about vampires. A few months after I published The Veiled Mirror, she contacted me and asked if I would serve as one of the teaching assistants for the course, called The Vampire in Literature and Film. I was honored (and stunned!) by the offer, and didn’t hesitate to accept. What did I learn? All vampire stories have an element of fan fiction—err, I mean pays homage—to what came before. This formula works in many types of literature. We began with the earliest works, Coleridge, Polidori, de Fanu, Byron, and of course, Stoker. As we moved into the modern works: Anne Rice, Charlene Harris, Rachel Caine, Tom Holland, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyer, and Elizabeth Kostova, the pattern became clear. There are certain expectations for a vampire story, and there is disappointment when these are not met. It’s part of the definition of any genre—certain traits are endemic to each one. However, each vampire story must contain some new innovative element that makes the work unique, or else all vampire stories would wind up the same. How to strike this balance is the question.
It reflected the experience I had while workshopping a novel I’ve been working on for years. Initially, it was a Gothic retelling of 1001 Nights with vampires as the central characters. My classmates’ comments were often similar: “But, shouldn’t she be sleeping in a coffin filled with earth from her homeland?” “Wait, you said there was a photo of him—shouldn’t it be impossible to take a photo because it’s like a reflection?” And so on and so forth. What we have now in most modern vampire fiction is a lengthy explanation, somewhere in each story, where the ground rules are set. Think of the introduction to Interview with the Vampire, where Louis dispels myth after myth. Garlic has no effect. He likes looking at crosses because he finds them beautiful. Once Anne Rice built a foundation where readers could suspend their disbelief, the plot could proceed.
With each new generation of vampire fiction, one still can find homage to the old stories, though. The basics are often still there: vampires tend to represent the aristocracy, with few exceptions. Dracula himself pops up fairly regularly. Some new innovation using a stake, garlic, or silver helps defeat or at least hinder the vampire, such as the ultraviolet-infused bullets in Underworld.
Even though it’s hip to balk at trends and many people roll their eyes when talk of vampires comes up, it cannot be denied that the popularity of the vampire story endures for a reason. The first time this course was offered, two hundred students signed up and the enthusiasm was off the charts. The enthusiasm didn’t diminish when it was offered again the following year. In fact, many students offered suggestions to the dean about which books she should include in the future. Various media channels have asked the dean for interviews, articles, and even though the course hasn’t been offered since 2011, the requests keep coming. The course will be offered again soon with a revised syllabus, and I expect we’ll see high participation again. And while my own writing has taken a different path, I still have a special place in my heart for vampire fiction. How can I not? It’s how I got my start as a writer.
To read an excerpt of The Veiled Mirror, please click here. Thank you for visiting, and enjoy the rest of the stops on the Vampire Bite Blog Hop!