By Liam O’Carroll
What is the reason for the vast popularity, and even longevity, of that body of literature dedicated to vampires and blood sucking? Is it really as intellectually anemic as it seems? And what would happen if we utter, not without certain arrogance, that its popularity is matched only by its sheer absurdity?
The lecture was a popular one and those without seats had to stand at the back. Dr Andrew Gill was thrilled to have such a huge audience. Perhaps unsurprising given the popularity of the subject of his paper. ‘The vampire is so ubiquitous in western culture and yet it has to be one of the most nonsensical of fictional creations.’ Dr Gill looked around the room, hoping to see disapproval on a few faces. He didn’t need to look far. Two undergraduates, undoubtedly Goths, were exchanging quizzical glances. Elsewhere in the room, eyebrows were raised and mouths opened in surprise. Satisfied, he pressed on. “One moment, the vampire is presented as insubstantial, almost ghostly, while the next, when it suits the requirements of the plot, it displays utter corporeality.” He paused, allowing his words to take effect. The faces of the goths now bore expressions of indignation. Others showed signs of disapproval too: a casually dressed man in his thirties Dr Gill recognised as a successful author of horror fiction, and an elderly Professor in her wheelchair who had done some groundbreaking research in the field of European folklore. Good, thought Dr Gill. Ruffling some respectable feathers now. He continued. “We are asked to accept that they cast neither shadow nor reflection, are able to pass through narrow gaps such as the crack in a door - recall Lucy in Dracula - they can rise from their coffins unhindered by the intervening six feet of earth and are often seen to float high off the ground to appear at the bedroom windows of potential victims. This skill set is at odds with many of their other behaviours: they are supposed to be intangible and yet they are able to inflict such damage on the bodies of their victims; their teeth can puncture skin and they employ a considerable force of suction to extract fatally copious amounts of blood. They inflict injuries that require prodigious physical strength such as the crushing in of a man’s skull: recall Kurt Barlow in Salem’s Lot who carries out such an assault with his bare hands. Moreover, the vampire has an apparently solid chest through which a stake must be hammered with considerable force in order to kill it. if the undead are such intangible creatures, what use would it be to drive a stake through their hearts?” By now, the audience was fully engaged, most listening with looks of fascination. Though he wanted to be challenging, Dr Gill was pleased to see a few smiles and nods of agreement in the room. “Given these superhuman abilities, plus the fact that they can change physical form and control the weather, one wonders why they do not simply take over the world.” This received a ripple of laughter and Dr Gill felt a gratifying tingle. Knowing laughter was always welcome. There was also a scowl from the Professor of European folklore, a heavy sigh from the horror writer and hisses of savage outrage from the goths. “This is because the vampire is the epitome of fragile superficiality. They give an impression of formidability but this is a veneer which disintegrates under the shallowest examination. Dracula for example is a figure who is built up to be feared as an existential threat to civilisation and yet it takes surprisingly little to bring his enterprise to an end. After all the Count’s efforts to relocate to England, an effort paralleled by the reader who endures such a tediously repetitious narrative, how is it that he gives up at the first major setback? After all the build-up of tension and expectation, the moment Van Helsing and his team of vampire hunters seize Dracula’s coffins, what does he do? He turns tail and retreats to Transylvania. So much for the greatest villain in literary history.” And so it went on. Dr Gill ripped the vampire phenomenon to shreds, citing examples from a variety of texts. The casually dressed horror writer sat throughout with his arms folded, an impassive look on his face. Dr Gill enjoyed this in particular. Why should a best-selling author take offence at a parallel session at an obscure literary conference? The man was rolling in it. Meanwhile, academic writers rarely make a penny from their published work, in fact, they are more likely left out of pocket. True, it can’t be nice to hear your genre so mercilessly denounced but it serves him right for attending just to hear if any of his books would get a mention. “One could read Bram Stoker’s novel as a fable of hubris, of how Dracula’s ambition leads to disaster as, due to his arrogance, he underestimates his opponents. Dracula, albeit once a figure of some historical importance, thinks he can simply step out of the fifteenth century and re-enact his heyday in the nineteenth. He learns the hard way that, for all his supernatural powers, he is no match for the modern world. Alternatively, perhaps Stoker simply ran out of ideas.” Dr Gill milked the appreciative laughter that greeted this. It subsided but before he could continue, another voice pre-empted him. “Hubris? An ironic allusion, surely?” All eyes turned to the back of the room where a tall man stood, one hand raised. Dr Gill regarded the questioner. Funny, he hadn’t noticed him before. He was about sixty, bald with a thin white moustache and dressed completely in black. Honestly, this was supposed to be a literary conference, not a horror convention. Goths he could understand, but a middle-aged man was surely too old to be dressing up in public as the Count. Still, an event whose organisers had publicised with such sensational marketing material was bound to attract a few oddities. The man spoke again, his voice deep and melodious but soft in tone and yet somehow seeming to fill the room. “Have you considered that the hubris you assign to the title character is also detectable in you?” Most people in the audience looked baffled at this while the best-selling author’s mouth twitched with the beginnings of a smile. Dr Gill bristled and glanced expectantly at the convenor who took the prompt and cleared his throat. “Uh, if we could please leave questions until after we have heard all of Dr Gill’s presentation. Thank you.” The black-garbed man apologised graciously and lowered his hand and Dr Gill continued his peroration. As he neared the end of his lecture, Dr Gill produced a paperback from his pocket. “I would like to leave you with the words of Arthur Conan Doyle who I feel sums it all up perfectly.” He made a show of leafing through the book, despite the visibly protruding bookmark. Reaching the relevant page, he read aloud the following: “‘Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.’” He closed the book theatrically and looked directly at the best-selling author. ‘In short, the popularity of the vampire in literature is matched only by its sheer absurdity’. Nearly everyone in the room turned to see how the author would react. Whether it was this attention that made him blush such a brilliant red or Dr Gill’s provocative inuendo, it was hard to tell. His paper finished, Dr Gill thanked the audience for their attention and accepted their enthusiastic applause. However, before he yielded the floor to the convenor, he failed to resist discharging one last piece of derision: “It only remains for me to say that, when you go to bed tonight, don’t forget to wear your crucifixes and put the communion wafers in your keyholes!” Appropriate laughter greeted this parting mockery, drowning out the sarcastic ‘Ho, ho, ho’ of the more outspoken of the embittered Goths. Dr Gill’s stream of heresy was the subject of animated conversation during the coffee break. Arguments broke out between aficionados of the vampire corpus and those less enamoured of the genre. Some who felt no aversion to the Gothic horror canon nevertheless could not help teasing those who were clearly offended by the denunciation they had just heard. At one end of the room, Dr Gill was listening with satisfaction to the effects of his diatribe when the convenor appeared beside him. “Thanks Andrew, great paper.” “You liked it?” “Oh yes. Mind you, you’ve upset a few people I think but between you and me, I thought you made a convincing argument. Gosh, isn’t it dark out there?” Dr Gill glanced briefly at the nearby window. “Well the clocks have just gone back, haven’t they?” The convenor nodded. “Of course. That’ll be it.” The next morning, organisers came in early to prepare the venue for the final day of the conference. It had been a good one, fully booked and vibrant. Dr Gill had really sparked a debate. Perhaps they should have him back next year, even if he was something of an iconoclast. As staff lined up chairs, tested power points and filled water jugs, they were unaware that Dr Gill’s availability for a future conference would now be in considerable doubt. The night before, he had gone to his hotel in an exhilarated mood and to celebrate the success of his paper, had ordered a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant before retiring to his room to finish a bottle of a favourite wine. In the morning, he had failed to appear at breakfast and when checkout time had passed, the room maid had used the master key to enter his room. Shortly afterwards, passers-by in the street wondered at the police car parked outside the hotel and it was not long before local newspaper reporters were on the scene asking questions. When the hotel maid had found Dr Gill, she saw that one arm stretched out towards the bedside cabinet, fingers hooked around the drawer handle, presumably in the act of opening it. People occasionally wonder why there is a copy of the Holy Bible in every hotel room in Great Britain. Dr Gill could definitely have suggested a reason. To be available for a future conference, Dr Andrew Gill would have to be booked for a lecture slot after sunset. This was because Dr Andrew Gill lay in his hotel bed, his body almost completely drained of blood.
Liam O’Carroll is an actor, writer, journalist, podcaster and pro-disability rights activist. He is married and lives with his wife and son in South West London. This is his first collaboration, and we hope very much not his last, for Perro Negro.