TO DIE OR NOT TO DIE
by Angela Zeman
December’s Vanity Fair magazine selected cougar-bait Robert Pattinson for its cover. Happy Holidays. If anyone needs a reminder (I would have, a month ago) he’s the smouldering vampire heartthrob for eleven year old girl-fans in the smash hit movie franchise, “Twilight.” It might deserve the attention it’s getting, I have no opinion, never having seen it. Teen yearning/angst-filled entertainments don’t normally interest me. But Otto Penzler made me pay attention.
The Thursday before Halloween, I attended a gathering at Mysterious Bookshop to help celebrate its 4 year anniversary at the new Tribeca location. That same day, Otto, the bookshop’s owner and noted publisher/editor/bookman, had been rave reviewed (plus photo) in the NY Times Art Section for his collection of stories about Vampires. A doorstop-sized softcover book, it features vampire stories old and new, including (assistant Daniel told me) a vampire story written by D. H. Lawrence. Who knew Lawrence had written such a story, said my enthusiastic informant.
Right, good for D. H., but I walked away with a question broader than D. H.’s unexpected participation: why MORE vampires at all? We’re already surrounded with so many. Shouldn’t vampires be over about now?
Remember Buffy? (Another teen show I never watched.) She began saving the world in 1997. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, who with stern high school spirit, slayed (slew?) vampires and other supernatural bad guys on a cable TV channel until 2003. She spawned an industry of tie-in games and products which still sell.
In 2001 Charlaine Harris’s first (and hysterically funny, in my opinion) vampire softcover novel appeared and caught Alan Ball’s attention. (Cable TV series Six Feet Under; the film “American Beauty.”) The resulting TV series, True Blood, premiered in 2008, featuring a 25 year old cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse, whose campy sexual adventures in Bon Temps, Louisiana, are at least safely outside the boundaries of statutory rape. One critic assures viewers that the acting won’t make you vomit. Good to know! This show I did watch. To the best of my knowledge, new seasons are still being shot.
In 2003, on the heels of Buffy’s last adventure, Stephanie Meyers’ first Young Adult vampire novel (aka the aforementioned “Twilight” series, starring Pattinson, et al) came into print and spiraled with vampire super-speed into a multi-venue industry that retroactively boosted Buffy’s cult popularity. Then this year, 2009, The Vampire Diaries burst out of its coffin. Another YA success, which, in fact, angers Twilight fans as being written in far too exact imitation of the successful Twilight storyline.
“Twilight” and True Blood are both hot picks for MTV’s People’s Choice Awards, given every January to the most popular television, movies, and music.
Just reporting, not criticizing. Don’t forget Dickens was considered “pop culture,” in his time.
Vampires have entertained us sporadically over the centuries. Remember Count Chocula, the sugar-bomb cereal, and Sesame Street’s Count Von Count, who taught toddlers their numbers? In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. Dracula was never represented as “the” original vampire, but became a classic much-filmed story. Historians speculate that Stoker might have been inspired by a pre-Christian holiday during which dead spirits arise at night from their graves to roam among the living—aka Halloween, in this country. Ann Rice began creating her vampire empire (the Vampire Chronicles) in the seventies, thankfully without consideration of the disposable income of adolescents.
Still, seems creepy to me: the appearance and thriving of so many vampire entertainments in the last decade. Freud would have obvious opinions regarding the incessant feverish sex, blood-fests, alive only in the dark, vampire tales … But what would he say about the ubiquitousness of it these days?
Clearly Stoker and Rice had followed artistic inclinations, not a publishing trend, and in fact had merely produced first class stories. (Merely!)
Trends, on the other hand, burst into existance with usually one blockbuster-level success that generates dizzying profit. Publishers and producers rush to replicate anything that earns so much money, resulting in a market glut. Then as audiences tire of the often less interesting copycats, they stop buying. When profits drop, publishers and producers drop the product. Until … enter the next huge success. John Grisham’s legal thrillers make an easy example. And Bond. James Bond. My guess is publishers are still enjoying the upcurve created by Dan Brown’s religious exposure/revelation puzzle thriller. I give that five more years, since even Brown’s finding it difficult to reproduce such a narrow sub-category.
So, commercially speaking, I thought vampires should be dying out by now. But no. Otto Penzler’s vampire anthology is a huge success. And fresh crops of vampire novels continue to appear in chain-bookstores. Chains are not known for taking commercial risks.
Donald Maass, literary agent, was present in the Mysterious Bookshop that night. He’s known for analyzing blockbusters and explaining their whys and hows, so I turned to him. I asked if the current vampire fever could possibly (wild guess) spring from the terrorism and violence 9/11 slammed onto our doorstep—as opposed to wars that happen to “others” at a comfortable distance. And he said absolutely. “The supernatural endows special powers—” Well, certainly, I’d long been familiar with the many disguises of the desire for power. I myself love superheroes.
But he continued. This is the part I hadn’t suspected: “—and immortality.”
Aha. Sucks to be mortal.