B&N Week 22: Bring Out Your UnDead!

| May 24, 2011 | 4 Comments


Tuesday! Have you been thinking about me as much as I’ve been thinking about you? [We’ll talk more about it later. Right now, I have a column to write ]

Anyway, we’re talking about horror. Last week was an overview, and this week, I thought we’d talk about the monsters. Without them, really, there wouldn’t be a horror story.

Okay, there are the old standbys. I’m talking about the Universal monsters [because that’s how most people think of them], Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. [Yes, I’ve purposely left out the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.] These characters are emblematic of vampires, werewolves, and mummies that can be found in lots of comics. Well, let’s do a quick swap, though. We’re going to swap mummies with their cousins, zombies.

When I was a kid, I had read Dracula, and wasn’t really afraid of it. I was barely a teenager, and the language was something of a barrier. I’d seen the Lugosi movie on late night television, and again, wasn’t scared. It’s hard to be scared of a black and white movie that didn’t show any blood or gore as a twelve or thirteen year old when you had movies like Halloween, Witchboard, and Friday the 13th to scare you out of your wits. So, for a while, I thought that vampires weren’t all that scary.

Stephen King fixed that. The original movie of ‘Salem’s Lot scared the hell out of me as a kid, making vampires into something that was disgusting and to be feared. They were, in a word, horrific. And this is something that isn’t seen much in comics today.

Like I said before, everyone knows about the link that has been made between vampires and sex. Well, let’s say the aristocratic vampires and sex. For me, that’s a lot of the problem.

Dracula, as a figure, should be more terrifying than he is. And I’m not talking about the aristocratic vampire, either. We’re going to come to that in a little bit.

One of the problems that I find with vampires is the fact that they’re overexposed. Vampire bars/clubs, role playing games, television, comic books, the goth culture, plush toys, and even muppets. I mean, when Dracula is helping to teach children their numbers as The Count, and has been doing it for over thirty-five years, there’s really a problem with that.

After the Universal depictions, the next main figure for Dracula is Christopher Lee, doing the Hammer films. Again, not scary, but delving more into the vampire/sex thing. But those are movies, and while classics, while labeled as horror movies, I don’t think anyone was ever really scared of them. Maybe repulsed by the idea, but not really scared.

The world of novels, though, has been even worse. Either you have the aristocratic vampire, or you have the emo vampire, the most famous of which may be Lestat, by Anne Rice. These are, to me, vampires at their absolute worst, and not in a good way. The vampire has been turned into something that used to be feared into something that those that don’t know any better want to be. Honestly, if you want to become it, you don’t fear it.

And in comics I like to think we used to be the last bastion of the scary vampire. This was, of course, before the Comics Code. Before we neutered ourselves, and vampires became a joke within our pages.

Now, vampires are everywhere, and unless there’s something new to say with them, publishers don’t want to see them. The emo vampire is done [although there will be a publisher that’s just DYING to get the rights to Twilight], the aristocratic vampire is done, and they’re going back [somewhat] to being monsters again. Sure, they’re there as just cannon fodder, but at least in comics, there’s a sense that they’re getting back to their roots. [Go to Facebook, though, and you’ll find games like Vampire Wars that are going full tilt with crap.]

If you do any real research on vampires, you’ll find that damn near everything you know about them is wrong. The accepted lore has been scrubbed by Christianity, whose remedy for everything is the cross and holy water. Once you do a little thinking, though, to coincide with your research, you’ll find that there are all types of vampires, and they are far older than Christianity.

Let’s think for a moment. While vampires are best known in Europe, they are also known in Asia. What does a Chinese vampire have to fear from a Christian [read: Western] symbol? Once you get out of the accepted lore from television, movies and books and actually delve deeper into the different kinds of vampires, you should find a veritable treasure trove of ideas.

(But, what about the expectations of the readership?) Here’s the thing that I want you to understand: the readership cares about what we tell them to care about. Just like the news, we, as writers, are truly the shapers of what the readership knows. If you want to be really brave about it, put references at the back of your book, so that the readers know you’re not talking out the side of your neck. Put down the place where you found the idea to put an iron nail in the heel of a vampire to keep them down.

Again, the readers know what we tell them. If enough of us get the facts as right as we can and put them responsibly in stories, then we can change the tide of what’s known and what’s accurate. Heavy responsibility, I know, but if we have the guts to tell a story and put it out there for public consumption, then we should have the guts to tell the truth when we do it.

Vampires are here to stay. We all know this. And Dracula, the unsurpassed king of them, isn’t going anywhere, either. But I’d like you to try to steer away from the tropes of vampirism.

The Vamp: this is your basic female sexpot, who uses her sexuality blatantly to mesmerize men in order to drink their blood. Usually a redhead, but has obvious physical endowments that are usually reserved for superhero comics. She can also be bisexual, since men really like the idea of two hot women getting it on. A great movie reference for the vamp is Fright Night [the original movie, and the sequel, actually—there is a being done, and I have no idea how that’s going to turn out]. Charlie’s girlfriend is something of a mouse, and after she gets bitten, she turns into a Vamp. In the sequel, the main vampire chick is so totally hot that it’s not even right.

The Aristocrat/The Clan: where the idea of vampires being sired and having their lineage be important comes from, I have no idea, and is outside the scope of this column. Let it suffice to say that the aristocratic vampire and vampire clans are relatively new [call it forty years], and the idea has gotten more prevalent over the past twenty. The aristocratic vampire is a smooth talker, usually from Europe, and generally will only be seen at night. The clan generally has something of a court or leader, and this fits in well with the aristocratic vampire. Dracula is the archetype from which every other aristocratic vampire is measured, and you just have to play Kindred: The Embraced once in order to get your fill of a clan mentality of vampires.

Barnabas the Whiner: Watchers of Dark Shadows [original or the 90s remake] will know what I’m talking about. This is the vampire that no longer wants to be one, and whines incessantly about it. Luckily, there aren’t that many of these types of vampires around.

Holy Water/The Cross: this propaganda is so overused that it’s no longer funny. What’s worse is that it is being perpetuated by those who don’t know any better. From the myriad types of vampires out there, this should be the least effective protection available. (Propaganda?) Yes, propaganda. Just like the way Christianity either adopted or demonized gods from other religions, their symbols have become the source of protection from everything that goes bump in the night. Terrible.

Stakes through the heart: this has gotten out of hand, as well. Some vampires are only susceptible to certain types of wood. Unless you have that type of wood to make a stake out of, you might as well try driving a tenderloin through their heart, for all the effect it’ll do.

Sunlight: Not all vampires are prone to blow up or turn to dust when they’re struck by the rays of the sun. Basic research, folks! Again, we’ll go back to Dracula [the book], in which he’s able to walk around in the daytime, although his powers are weakened.

Those are the basic tropes for vampires. Of course there are more, but those are the prevalent ones. And now, you’re probably feeling like I took away all your toys, and that you’re unable to tell a story with vampires without them. If that’s the case, then you’re not really a writer, at worst, or at best, not ready to spread your wings and tell different stories with this type of character.

I want you to remember something. At their base, vampires are monsters. Much has been done to humanize, and thus, sympathize with their plight, so that we forget what they are. We watch a movie like the original Dracula, where there’s obvious dread about the townspeople when it comes to the castle, and because we’re sophisticated, we think of it as nothing more than superstition [which is exactly what Renfield does in the movie]. Go talk to your grandparents or great-grandparents [if you’re lucky enough to have either], and ask them about their fears in childhood. They’ll tell you stories about things that were common knowledge during their time, that we’ve mostly forgotten during ours. I’m sure you’ll get interesting stories. And those monsters? There wasn’t anyone trying to humanize them back then. Again, let’s go to Dracula.

Even though his name is the title of the book, not once does Bram Stoker delve into the telling of the tale from his point of view. It’s all from the points of view from the characters that Dracula is terrorizing, or from newspaper clippings and such. This makes the monster all the more terrible, because we don’t know his motivations. He’s just killing. [And yes, poor Mina should be dead from one of those transfusions given her, since there was no blood typing done.] If we go to the original movie, again, he’s just killing. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. As a matter of fact, he’s very deliberate in his actions. The true mark of a monster!

I suggest, when you write, not to make your monsters ciphers, but to make them truly formidable and menacing. I’m not suggesting that you write from their point of view—not unless they’re being truly deliberate in their monstrosity. This is not to say that when you get in their head, writing from their point of view, you’re free to be vulgar. Vulgarity and horror are not the same thing. Jason Vorhees could be a better horror figure if it wasn’t about the splatter. Michael Myers is a good horror figure because he’s always around, watching, before he acts. [Let’s stick to the first two movies, and that’s all, okay?] His kills feel more deliberate because you’ve seen him watching. Suspense is built that way.

How to do that in comics, with vampires?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. And even if I could, I wouldn’t, because it would be my way, and not necessarily yours. All I want you to do is to think outside of the box when it comes to vampires. Brian Lumley did it when he wrote his Necroscope series. [It went somewhat absurd, but it fit within his milieu, and was scary for all that.] If you can find a way to be scary while avoiding the vampire tropes and say something original with them—then congratulations! You’ve done better than most.

And that’s about it for this week. For homework, I want you to do research on vampires, read Dracula, and then think about what you want to say with your vampiric creations. See if you can avoid the tropes and do something truly spectacular with them.

Next week, we’ll talk about werewolves. See you then!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ruiz Moreno says:

    “How to do that in comics, with vampires?”

    See: AMERICAN VAMPIRE by Scott Snyder. Done.

    Yay, werewolves!

  2. John Lees says:

    Well said, Ruiz. American Vampire is brilliant stuff, surely as much the final word on vampires in comics as The Walking Dead is for zombies in comics. Any other vampire comic from now on will have to bring something special to escape from its shadow.

  3. Oh yeah, American Vampire is incredible. Scott Snyder is a pretty ingenious guy.

    Also there’s a comic by Image called Undying Love that puts a new spin on vampire stories, kinda like a mix of Asian lore and a John Woo action flick.

  4. Jon Parrish says:

    Brian Lumley’s Necroscope was the book that really prompted me to get into writing simply because I had never seen anything like it before. What a small world we live in.

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