Review Essay: Recent Books on Vampire Films

Review of:

Gelder, Ken. New Vampire Cinema. London: Palgrave MacMillan/British Film Institute, 2012. ix + 155 pages.

Gelder cover

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Weinstock, Jeffrey. The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema. New York: Wallflower Books/Columbia University Press, 2012. 144 pages.

Weinstock Cover

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Despite their apparent differences in scope – Gelder’s book covers only the last twenty years of vampire cinema, whereas Weinstock discusses a more general history of vampire movies – Ken Gelder’s New Vampire Cinema and Jeffrey Weinstock’s The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema offer remarkably complementary readings of the vampire in film. In particular, both Gelder and Weinstock deal with the ways in which vampire films “endlessly and in so many ways talk about vampires and vampire movies” (1) in order to build “narratives around the vampire’s capacity not just to create a disturbance but to endure it and survive” (vi). Ultimately, these two books deserve to be read together as they work together to illustrate the importance and cultural value of vampire cinema.

Weinstock’s book is part of the Short Cuts: Introductions to Film Studies series and in many ways reads as a primer for vampire cinema. He begins with an introduction that riffs on Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s 1996 “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (ed. Jeffrey Cohen, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). and sets up seven principles, complete with corollaries, that guide the rest of the book:

Principle 1: The cinematic vampire is always about sex
Corollary 1.1: Cinematic vampires are marked by performances of hyperbolic gender
Corollary 1.2: Cinematic vampires are inevitably queer
Principle 2: The vampire is always more interesting than those who pursue it
Principle 3: The vampire always returns
Corollary 3.1: Vampirism begins at home
Corollary 3.2: The vampire always appears to come from someplace else
Corollary 3.3: The vampire is always in motion
Principle 4: The cinematic vampire is an overdetermined body condensing what a culture considers ‘other’
Principle 5: The cinematic vampire is always about technology.
Corollary 5.1: Vampire films are always about dfining the vampire, which is a necessary preliminary to destroying the vampire.
Corollary 5.2: Vampires are always cyborgs
Corollary 5.3: Vampire films are always about the cinema itself.
Principle 6: The vampire film genre does not exist
Corollary 6.1: The vampire film tradition is defined by generic hybridity
Corollary 6.2: Vampire films are inevitably intertextual
Principle 7: We are all vampire textual nomads

Weinstock’s discussion of these principles and their corollaries takes up three chapters and ranges over an astonishing number of films for such a slim volume. His discussion of vampire films from A Fool There Was (1915) to 30 Days of Night (2007) serves to support not only these principles, but also his claim that “The vampire . . . is a sort of ready-made metaphoric vehicle waiting for its tenor. Its potency, however, derives from its intrinsic connections to sex, science, and social constructions of difference. . . . the vampire film is always about sex, always about technology and always about cultural ‘otherness’” (19).

Gelder’s book similarly claims that his volume’s “aim is simply to try to make some sense of what these film do and why they seem to do it over and over” (v) and that

The films in this book all bring their vampires into the modern world, building their narratives around the vampire’s capacity not just to create a disturbance but to endure it and survive. . . . over the last twenty years or so the question of the vampire’s capacity to make this journey and live through it is now paramount. Vampire films stage an encounter between something old and something new, something ancient and something modern; the arrival of the vampire (which is invariably from somewhere else) brings with it both excitement, and catastrophe. (vi)

The five chapters cover what Gelder calls “Inauthentic Vampires,” “Our Vampires, Our Neighbors,” “Citational Vampires,” “Vampires in the Americas,” and “Diminishing Vampires,” coming to the conclusion that

There is something parasitical about vampire films . . . exhausting/regenerating them simultaneously, giving them just that extra bit of life, or half-life. The original vampire and the ‘last vampire’ bleed into each other; sequel and original soon become difficult to distinguish, just as parasite and host, vampire and victim, the remote and the proximate, periphery and centre, likewise converge and fold together. (107)

Perhaps inevitably, both authors discuss, at least briefly, the novel Dracula, highlighting its position as the ur-text of vampire movies. Gelder writes that

Even though they mark out their various distinctions and differences, vampire films always speak to other vampire films, and of course, to that urtext of Stoker’s which still, remarkably, seems to exert some sort of pressure on them, holding them in its grasp or perhaps letting them slip through its fingers. (v)

Weinstock notes that “At the centre of the vampire cinema solar system is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire Ur-text that exerts a powerful gravitational attraction around which all vampire texts – literary, cinematic and otherwise – necessarily orbit” (17).

The similarities between these two books become most apparent when Weinstock and Gelder discuss the same movies, as happens often. For example, both authors analyze the cinematograph scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which Dracula speaks to Mina Harker in front of a screen showing clips of various films. Weinstock claims that it “shows us . . . the vampire present at the birth of modern cinema and the correspondence between the two – each creating legions of the undead” (77). Similarly, Gelder writes that “the scene self-reflexively puts Stoker, Dracula, theatre, the origins of cinema and Coppola’s film into a sort of mutually citational loop” (4).

Even when their analyses of films differ, they often seem to overlap, as, for example, in their discussions of the use of technology in the Blade films. For Gelder, Blade’s reliance upon technology is an example of his claim that vampire films often highlight the anxiety surrounding encounters of the new and the ancient – in this case, Blade and his technology (equated, perhaps, by the half-vampire’s name) are the “new” coming up against the “ancient” vampire regime. For Weinstock, the reliance upon technology in these films illustrates that “the silver-screen vampire, itself a product of cinema technology, is inevitably defined in relation to various technologies of representation, definition, detection, and destruction” (57).

Both authors also highlight the importance of what Gelder calls the “moment of recognition” in vampire films. Weinstock writes that

Vampire movies, like monster movies in general, are always about definition. . . . What the protagonists conclude about the nature of the vampire . . . has important ramifications not only for deciding how to combat the vampire but for understanding how the represented cinematic world works.

Gelder notes that “Every vampire film has its key moment of recognition. To recognise a vampire ‘for what it is’ turns out to be crucial to a character’s wellbeing or otherwise; it is also simply a way of saying, this is a vampire film” (vi). Weinstock’s claim that “vampire movies always define themselves in relation to previous cinematic representations of vampires and are often quite explicit about the revisions to the mythology that they are making” (127) could have just as easily appeared in Gelder’s discussion of what he calls the “citational” nature of vampire films. Ultimately, Gelder’s interest is in examining this citational nature of vampire films, Weinstock’s in discussing the principles guiding those films, but both offer investigations of the form and function of vampire cinema, and that similarity makes these two books particularly interesting and useful when read together.

Despite their many similarities, however, the ways in which the two works diverge means that one cannot simply stand in for the other. Weinstock’s conclusion that “what makes the vampire so potent is that it is a concatenation of sexual, racial and technological anxieties and longings – a sort of Rorschach ink blot of culturally specific dread and desire” (13) tied to the fact that “a fundamental characteristic of the vampire film tradition has been its tendency to morph and colonise other genres” so that, “like the vampire itself, the vampire cinema continually transforms itself and seeks out new victims to vamp” (17) reads as dramatically different from Gelder’s claim that

Vampires may be immortal for the time being, but they also carry with them a heightened sense of change, death and loss. This is the direction vampire films routinely take, in fact: offering the possibility of immortality and then cruelly snatching it away, or turning it into something that vampires cannot bear. (106)

The two authors’ takes on the mobility of vampires differs, as well. For Gelder, “vampires in the modern world in new vampire cinema – far from being able to move about freely and so on – are in fact condemned to a particular form of living that is precisely about registering the loss of one’s freedom” (94). For Weinstock, on the other hand,

Mobility and crossing of not only geographical but social and psychic borders is central to the vampire narrative. Either the vampire arrives from elsewhere to interrupt the day-to-day existence of his or her new locale or the protagonist arrives at a place marked by some fundamental social difference – the superstitiousness of backwater villagers, the lawlessness of Mexico or Santa Carla, California, etc. (96-97).

Weinstock’s book suffers a bit from lax proofreading, with problems on pages 49 (“Her’s”) and 109 (“Frost . . . becomes inhabiting” by La Magra”); Gelder’s book sometimes seems to sometimes lose focus (as, for example, in an inexplicable concentration on filming locations for the Twilight series that neither adds to the discussion of the films nor corresponds with any other film’s discussion in the book). Despite these minor problems, however, The Vampire Film and New Vampire Cinema together provide compelling discussions of over 150 vampire movies, offering insight into not only the vampire films themselves, but our continuing fascination with those films.

*Originally published in Monsters and the Monstrous: http://monstersjournal.net/

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Review of Her Wicked Angel by Felicity Heaton

Wicked angel

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In Her Wicked Angel, the dark angel Asmodeus is sent to earth to retrieve the witch Liora for his master, the Devil. But when Asmodeus sets eyes on Liora, he is lost; he can’t imagine handing her over to the Devil. Instead, he sets out to make her his own.

In this latest entry of the Her Angel Romance series, author Felicity Heaton offers a sexy hero and a beautiful heroine whose chemistry makes the pages sizzle. I particularly liked Heaton’s depiction of Asmodeus’ difficulties as a hell-born angel on his first trip to earth; the fact that he doesn’t know how to behave and Liora has to teach him evened the odds a little bit. He might be overwhelmingly powerful, but Liora is a powerful witch in her own right—and as attractive as she finds him, she’s not overawed by him. That made for a nice balance in their relationship.

I was a little distracted by what felt like the author’s constant use of “male” and “female” in the text. I get the reasoning—these demonic angels aren’t exactly men and wouldn’t necessarily think in the same terms we do. Nonetheless, the constant use of the terms seemed a little overly biological to me. I think the words “man” and “woman” would have been almost invisible in a way that “male” and “female” weren’t.

But that’s really a minor issue. This is a solid romance novel. The plot is entertaining, Asmodeus is a bad-ass, and Liora is definitely his match. Her Wicked Angel is wicked good fun.

Overall, I give it 8/10
4 stars

~Margo Bond Collins

The Urban Fantasy Anthology – Review

Review of The Urban Fantasy Anthology. Ed. Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2011. $15.95.
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In The Urban Fantasy Anthology, Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale have created a much-needed collection of urban fantasy suitable for classroom instructors, academics, and interested laypersons alike. As Beagle notes in his introduction, “urban fantasy has become so vibrant, and has evolved so rapidly, that it has emerged as a distinct marketing category.” This book brings together a variety of important stories in the field from both grand masters of fiction and comparative newcomers, creating an important text for anyone interested in urban fantasy. Perhaps more importantly, however, the anthology creates a collection that leaves the impression of a genre (and series of sub-genres) still developing.

The Urban Fantasy Anthology

Beagle and Lansdale have chosen to divide the collection into three categories: Mythic Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and Noir Fantasy. The sections are introduced by Charles de Lint , Paula Guran, and Joe R. Lansdale, respectively. However, the section introductions illustrate the difficulties inherent in defining a genre, particularly one as new as urban fantasy. Indeed, beyond the basic element of the fantastic in a modern setting, the various section editors themselves show little consensus about what constitutes an “urban fantasy” story. In the introduction, Beagle claims that “I still think that urban fantasy’s most important distinction is that it isn’t The Lord of the Rings” (9). Each section editor’s introduction provides his or her ideas about the concept of “urban fantasy,” deepening and enriching the conversation surrounding the genre and its various sub-genres—a move that will, I suspect, more firmly entrench the various categories, despite everyone’s apparent reluctance to do just that.

Charles de Lint entitles his section introduction “A Personal Journey into Mythic Fiction”—and given the fact that de Lint’s novel The Jack of Kinrowan: A Novel of Urban Faerie inspired the term “urban fantasy” (much as his fiction participated in inspiring the genre itself), the development of the genre and de Lint’s development as an author might well be synonymous. However, de Lint writes that he “found the terms ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘contemporary fantasy’ unsatisfactory . . . partly because not all the works we were looking at were urban, or set in the present day” (18). His use of the term “mythic fiction,” then, arises out of the fact that, as he notes, the difference between other urban fantasy books and what he calls mythic fiction is that “the magical/mythic/folkloric elements of these books is colour and shade, rather than the substance of the story. The new urban fantasy story remains rooted in the genres from which it sprang. Its magic is more often matter-of-fact—bricks and mortar—rather than something that leaves the reader with a sense of wonder.” Mythic fiction, he implies, should create that wonder missing in other kinds of urban fantasy.

Included in the first section are two stories by de Lint himself, as well as one each by Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, and Peter Beagle. These are certainly not stories of the matter-of-fact or brick and mortar, but their forays into the mythic vary widely. Gaiman’s otherwise apparently prosaic tale of a novelist-turned-screenwriter invokes the magic of the silver screen in the era of silent film as well as that of Victorian stage magicians, while Beagle’s story of a medieval tapestry unicorn set free in the modern world by a sympathetic museum-goer reads more like the works included in the “Paranormal Romance” section. All of the stories, however, deal with worlds of myth and legend, from a road-tripping Jesus and Satan in Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt,” to an elf who plays music in a coffee shop in de Lint’s “Make a Joyful Noise,” to a Native American shape-shifting crow in Bull’s “The Bird that Whistles.”

Like the other section editors, Guran is uncomfortable with the term “urban fantasy”—but unlike de Lint and Lansdale, she also takes exception to the term “paranormal romance,” noting that many of the works categorized as paranormal romance are as likely to trace their origins to other genres. As she points out, Charlain Harris’s initial Southern Vampire Mysteries novel (the basis for the HBO series True Blood) “won an Anthony Award as Best Paperback Mystery of 2001” (139, emphasis Guran’s). For Guran, the central shared characteristic of fiction in this category is “an intersection of ‘the other’—the magical, the strange, the weird, the wondrous, the dark that illumines, the revelation of the hidden—with the mundane, the world we know” (145).

The anthology includes in this section stories by de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Francesca Lia Block. In many ways, Guran is right—Block’s story of a grieving-mother-turned-zombie-hunter-P.I. (“Farewell, My Zombie”) and Vaughn’s tale of a party-crashing zombie created by a controlling boyfriend (“Kitty’s Zombie New Year”) seem more mystery than romance. Similarly, Charnas’ “Boobs”—the story of an adolescent girl becoming a werewolf—ends more in horror than romance (though not entirely in either), as does Armstrong’s “A Haunted House of Her Own.” Indeed, of all of the excellent offerings in this section, only McAllister’s “Seeing Eye” seems to conclude with the potential for love that is the hallmark of commercial fiction romance novels.

Although none of the authors of the introductions are entirely at ease with the term “urban fantasy,” Lansdale is the most outspoken: “It’s not my purpose here to round up these stories and brand them. They can be tagged to some degree, but they are not confined by the tag” (275). Lansdale also notes that “this section of stories owes less to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more to noir and writers who tripped the dark fantastic with gleeful enthusiasm” (276) such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Flannery O’Connor (among others).

The Noir Fantasy section includes two stories by Lansdale and one each by Thomas Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio. Steven R. Boyett’s short story “Talking Back to the Moon,” also included in this section, is the only previously unpublished work in the collection. Only in this portion of the anthology do the selections seem to fully live up to their section name: these stories are dark. Disch’s “The White Man” is chilling in its depiction of a young Malawi girl encouraged to hunt vampires in Minnesota, and in Palwick’s “Gestella,” the reader follows a domesticated werewolf wife as she spirals down to her inevitable horrific end. Black’s “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” dispels any romantic notions about vampirism, while “Talking Back to the Moon” offers a bleak post-apocalyptic world, even for werewolves and centaurs. “The Bible Repairman” and “Father Dear” both feature parents making dreadful sacrifices for their children.

The anthology has a few weaknesses, perhaps unsurprisingly for a collection attempting, in part, to both stabilize and expand conceptions about a relatively new genre. Guran’s section introduction, for example, relies fairly heavily upon comments in Landsdale’s section introduction, though Guran’s precedes Lansdale’s—but this is really only a problem for a reader reading the anthology in strict order, and I suspect that most casual readers will pick and choose among the stories available. More problematically, Beagle’s introduction attributes “cheerful werewolf heroines running radio call-in shows” to Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (10)—a mistake that perhaps indicates an only passing familiarity with the “Paranormal Romance” version of urban fantasy, as the werewolf in question is actually from Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series. Ultimately, though, The Urban Fantasy Anthology offers a much-needed collection of what Beagle calls “raw, consciously commercial fiction, feeding an unquenchable hunger for walks on the wild side, blending and shaking up familiar themes until they are transformed into something new and meaningful” (11)—an affordable collection that brings together some of the best stories to be found in urban fantasy, accompanied by an accessible critical framework. Despite its minor flaws, it’s an absorbing collection—so much so that I read it in a single sitting—and the consistently well chosen stories overcome the taxonomical tensions among the various section introductions.

~Margo Bond Collins

* Originally published in Monsters and the Monstrous. 2.1 (2012): 96-8. (http://monstersjournal.net/)