The Discreet Charm of the Vampire

"I live in many countries, many languages, many cultures. I always find myself in the interstices, in places of passage. It's the only way of acting in this boring life."

These sentences are taken from a singular (and most interesting) novel, The Dracula's Diary by Marin Mincu. The Dracula in question, I must specify, is Vlad III of Valacchia, better known as "Vlad the Impaler", who inherited from his father the surname of "Dracula", i.e. "Demon"; the historical character chosen by Bram Stoker to create, in 1897, the everlasting masterpiece that is Dracula.

The novel by Bram Stoker gave life, in time, to a series of followers, more or less motivated, more or less sincere; and, with the birth of the movies, to a series of directors, up to the recent attempt by Francis Ford Coppola. It's rather singular, it seems to me, that the vampire is, by default, refractory to the mirror (in the sense that mirrors don't reflect him), but is not at all refractory to the (glass) eye of the camera: a vampiric illness due to an excess of technology? A structural emptiness in his neuronic reflexes?

Be that as it may, if today we are still talking, discussing, disserting about the vampire it is obvious that this figure possesses a charismatic charm not granted to too many characters of the fantastic Pantheon. For instance, dear old Frankenstein appears a little on decline: after the shining movie season by Hammer Film, the good doctor and his creature don't seem to enjoy an excessive popular favour. And not even the attempt by Kenneth Branagh has been able to take him back to the wave crest.

Nevertheless, even though this is not obvious at first sight, the two characters have many things in common. On the literary level, they're both direct descendants from the big, phantasmagoric carnival that is the gothic novel, conceived and concretely accomplished by Horace Walpole in 1764 with his novel The Castle of Otranto. Furthermore, in the veins of the two major characters flows blue blood: Dracula is a count, and Doctor Frankenstein is a baron (anybody ever noticed it?). But the essential trait that unites the founder of the vampirical family to the first, unforgettable lab monster of modern times is the victory over death, the resurrection of the body, in one form or another: more ethereal, problematic, romantically doomed in Dracula; more concrete, material, scientific in Frankenstein's monster. They both embody the theme of the challenge to God, the shifting of Nature laws toward borders not permitted to man; and as it always happens to all who aspire to take the place of the Almighty (at least in literature, from the Greek tragedy on), the price to pay is very high. But, luckily, the very modern laws of seriality also grant an unending series of resurrections, in defiance of all the moral imperatives one may invoke.

I think the vampire still enjoys, in the collective imagination, a better fortune than his cousin the monster most of all for two reasons. First, Dracula and friends are inherently polyvalent, adaptable to each and every situation, re-proposable in the most different contexts. Like another great archetype of fantastic literature, the ghost, they embody deep and omnipresent dreads, not restricted to the narrow spaces of the lab of a more or less mad scientist. They are, in short, a direct filiation of basic structures of human fear; and even though nobody can deny that, today especially, science and technology have a very relevant place deep down inside these fears, it is also undeniable that the fear one feels in front of the irrational, the metaphysical, has a much deeper impact than the fear born of the rational. Today writers know this truth very well; so that one of the novels that gave rise to splatterpunk is, not by chance, Vampire Junction by S.P. Somtow, published in 1984.

In the second place, in a world like ours; a world where nutritional excesses are banned as sinful by social conscience; a world where being on a diet, being agile and quick, getting rid of superfluous weight is a definite civic duty for everybody; in this world, Dracula can afford to stuff himself with blood at will, without limits. It is true, as a friend recently pointed out to me, that the Dracula's of literature and movies are slender, lean vampires; and it is also true that they eat very little, on the contrary they don't eat at all; but how much blood do they drink! They swallow blood with a greed, a carnal satisfaction that has no equal in reality. And if, as it is abundantly proved, blood incarnates in so many cultures, in civilizations apparently so different from each other, the meaning of "primary food", is it amazing that Dracula is a hero of our times? He must possess an incredible metabolism: despise all that he eats (or drinks, as you like), he never fattens; he's always in good form, but he never has to be on a diet... The dream of the frustrated glutton of our days!

Not to speak of his obvious, intrinsic sex appeal; his fascination on ladies is too well known. In the vampire myth, wonderful intuition, the pleasures of food and the pleasures of sex are fused together; they become a whole that sends back the reader, or the viewer, directly to the fetal pleasures of maternal womb, and to the following delights of maternal bosom. Conditions of happiness that the status of grown men allows nobody, but conditions that all of us, I presume, regret; and in the image of the undead they find a fulfillment, ghastly as it may be.

Long live, then, Dracula! Long live the one who, on one hand, no doubt embodies the Freudian "perturbing", the unrest of the unconscious coming to the surface, the atavic dread of death; and, on the other hand, proposes himself as a model of absolute gratification of the senses (at least until a sharp pole, a cross or a sprinkle of holy water intervene to forever close this arcane condition of beatitude).

In short, the discreet charm of the vampire lies exactly in this: in the duplicity of a beatific and primordial life that is in truth death; in the so opposed, but so perfectly complementary, two faces of the birth-life-death parabola typical of every human being.

And if to transcend this parabola, to arrive at the unquiet peace of immortality, we must wrap ourselves in a black cloak, sleep in a coffin filled with soil, go out only at night and bite a few necks... Well, that's still better than decaying under a gravestone, isn't it?



Author: Vittorio Curtoni
Source: Urania magazine, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milano, Italy, June 1993

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