OR those of you who have been readers of this blog for a while, you’ll know that vampires tend to crop up around me… well, in the pop culture I like to consume. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a big, long-standing favourite with me, for example. And I reviewed Elizabeth Knox’s Daylight a while back. And as I mentioned there (I think?), Sue Ellen Case grounds a lot of this fascination for me. In ‘Tracking the Vampire’ she argued (this was a while ago now) that vampires inhabit a liminal space, figured primarily as life and death. Given the tendency to homologise our binaries (oh yeah, baby, give me more, always more ;-P) this turned into a bigger ontological challenge, blurring the lines between a whole series of differences: between straight and gay, between male and female, between reproductive and non-reproductive and so on… and this, she argued, was precisely queer.
This is part of what fascinated me about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part of why I think the stories about sexuality recounted in around and through BtVS are more complex than at least some people seem to think. I still remember a film student friend of mine gasping at all the symbolic significance of Spike (under the influence of the First Evil (caps necessary)) oh-so-sensually mouthing at a gash in Buffy’s arm. Mmm hmm. Kids’ TV? Nothin’ to see here, folks, move along. 😉
So a while back now, I saw the pilot for True Blood. Ooh! Alan Ball! All cool with the Six-Feet-Under-ness of him! Ooh! Anna Paquin! All dark eyes and kissable (or is it?) mouth! Ooh! Vampires! I decided that I would give into my trashy urges and try vampire fiction again. Who knew, maybe someone could do something with a slightly less puritannical heroine than Anita Blake (maybe she got better, but ugh, save me from a girl with too clear a sense of right and wrong!). So in quick succession (I can’t really imagine reading them any other way) I read the Sookie Stackhouse series. Or, as it’s also known, the Southern Vampire series, by Charlaine Harris. These are the books Alan Ball is basing this new TV series on.
The books are, in themselves, that kind of easy-to-read, fun, never-going-to-be-high-lit-thank-fuck stories which made me dream of lazy holidays. They play on the down-home-ness of the American South, as well as the violence and racism of it. But they draw out some interesting things about the figure of the vampire in contemporary pop culture, and that’s one of the things I want to talk about.
It’s not unusual to see BtVS critiqued (and totally fairly) for its whiteness. There’s a particular line of argument which suggests that vampires and demons are taken as representatives of racialised others, the otherness which is consistently situated as threatening and (at least by Buffy) threatened by our heroes. I’m never entirely sure about this slippage between other-worldly and race, not least because I think that vampires manage to encapsulate, to different degrees in different spaces, a variety of forms of difference. They shape shift according to the work they’re being made to do.
But in Charlaine Harris’ books, the parallel is explicit. The setting of the American South is, I think, no accident. But it’s not just race. Vampires have recently ‘come out of the coffin’ (aheh aheh) and are now lobbying to have the same rights as humans (through the passing of the Vampire Rights Act). What precipitated this coming out? The development of artificial blood by a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Our brand spanking new blond heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, has numerous arguments with lots of different people about not being prejudiced against vampires. In the extra-long opening credits, which involve images of sex and death and Southernness (rivers and road kill and crocodiles and white trash sexy-dancing, and kids in KKK hoods and gospel-singing black people and mostly-naked girls, bar brawls and baptisms) set all in amongst each other to the tune of Jace Everett’s ‘Bad Things’, there’s a shot of a backlit sign that says ‘God Hates Fangs.’ Hilariously, and this really did make me laugh out loud, we catch a glimpse in episode two of a newspaper bearing the headline ‘Angelina adopts vampire baby.’ In fact, I can’t remember if it’s in the book, but in the series, she responds to her (Black) friend Tara warning her that all a vampire wants is to suck your blood by saying ‘Yes, and all Blacks are lazy and Jews all have horns.’ Except that as she’s reminded, drinking artificial blood is probably comparable to living on SlimFast… Sookie’s defence of vampire rights seems to be at least partly premised on a denial of this particular threat, especially when she’s defending her decisions to others: she argues that they can, will and should assimilate… while drinking lots of fake blood and having small kitchens (coz they don’t need to cook). But this isn’t the whole story: she also wants, and I mean wants, the vampire of her small town of Bon Temps. His name, my friends, is Bill. [giggle]
She’s drawn to him. Part of this plays out through another supernatural phenomenon: our friend Sookie is not only a waitress, she’s a telepath. Makes dating, amongst numerous other things, a bit of a bitch. (‘Is she a natural blond, nothing worse than a big black bush,’ ‘Maybe she’ll stop me dreaming about Matt Damon,’ ‘Wow, never thought those thighs would be quite that size,’ or ‘Wow, I wish she’d stop talking, she’s really annoying,’ or ‘I just want sex right now’ etc; though they stick with the earlier two, coz they’re funnier… (and maybe less critical of conventional masculinity?)). Vampires, though, don’t send out brain waves, so it’s kinda peaceful for our Sook, being around them. In some sense, it’s an unusual take on thinking about relationships in contemporary culture, which is usually ‘communicate every fucking little thing’…
But she is drawn to him. Scott Winant’s direction of this relies on long close-up shots of Anna Paquin looking wide-eyed, mostly, and lots of pregnant silences. Oh, and Stephen Moyer, playing Bill, looking mysterious, a bit pale, and mostly up from under his eyebrows. Hey, if an evil sexy look works, I say work it. In a moment that recalls the scene from BtVS described above, though, Bill offers Sookie his blood when she is mortally injured. She at first rejects it, not wanting to become a vampire, but once he reassures her this won’t happen, she suckles on down on his wrist. And wow… if my old friend Katy thought Spike’s lipping of Buffy’s wound evoked cunnilingus, I wonder what she thought of this: the moment is Loooong, and despite Sookie’s battered state, both her hands wrap around Bill’s wrist, capturing, drawing him closer, stroking, while her mouth does some serious work. They’re both half-frowning. There’s no missing the significance (well, okay, maybe I’m just dirty-minded or have read too much psychoanalysis, but c’mon!).
Of course, what’s particularly interesting about this is that it inverts the usual ‘first taste’ story—and there’s a Fiona Apple nod later in the episode, albeit evoking Sookie’s desire for sex/vampire suckage. But at least in this case, this isn’t about sweet virginal Sookie getting penetrated and made into a bad, evil, undead thing. Instead, she drinks deep. Bill’s maleness becomes complicated by a site that penetrates the supposedly inviolate male body (and there’s something intriguing, I think, about the fact that he bites himself so that she can drink). The sexualising of this shifts away from simple reproductive het sex, and into something queerer (as Sue Ellen Case would suggest).
But what’s also interesting is the effects of this queer exchange (and yes, he ‘cleans her up’, licking away the blood that covers her face (apart from, in a shot I suspect was not intended this way, but which I found cool and amusing anyway, a moustachioed crusting of dried blood)). As Bill explains to her later on, not only does this let her heal, but it heightens her senses and her – cue his cute Southern embarrassment – libido. In the book, it enhances her attractiveness, making her skin glow, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter… but I guess Anna Paquin doesn’t get much better? 😉 But intriguingly here, we have something other than assimilation happening: we have the blond white mortal girl altered by her interaction with the vampire. She’s made other than what she was. And in turn, he is altered by her blood: he knows where she is, and how she’s feeling. There’s a blurring, then, of the lines between Sookie and Bill, between their different ‘races’, between their self-contained identities. She shares in some of his sense of the world as her senses sharpen. He shares in her emotional state. As she says to him, “You were just licking blood out of my head. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.” (And Bill’s thinking “You ain’t see nothin’ yet, honey,” I’m sure. Lucky about that non-telepathic with vampires thing, huh?)
This will get more complicated as the series progresses: there are more vampires, there’s more blood-sucking, and some other fun stuff (shape shifters! werewolves! fairies (both magical and queer!)! maenads! dwarves! and so on). Sookie meets more vampires, shares her blood with them, and has some of their blood too. (Bill’s not going to be all that forever). Each of these is significant. She gets a decent amount of sexin’ from various males of various speices round about the place, and each of these ties bind, in different ways and to different extents.There’s more evocation of the ties between folks through the sharing of blood or magic. For example, Sookie’s brother, Jason, winds up bitten by a werepanther (thereby producing not a genuine shape-shifter, but a half-man, half-panther combo) because this werepanther wants the girl (also a werepanther) that Jason is sleeping with; Jason is preferable because he comes from outside their shared community of shapeshifters, which has become so inbred many are permanently caught as half-panther beings. So the werepanther seeks to bind Jason into the community and thereby make him less attractive to the girl werepanther so that Jason won’t be the better choice anymore. (Confusing, huh?).
And I suppose in the end, this is what is intriguing to me: the supernatural, and particularly horror-focused evocations of it, seems to focus so clearly on undermining the self-containment of the liberal humanist individual. It makes the intercorporeal literal in the sharing of blood, and in the consequences of that sharing. This is, of course, Kristeva’s point, when she talks about how the abject functions: it dwells in the space between subject and object: both me and not-me, testifying to the incompleteness, the necessary permeability of my boundaries. For her, the edges of the body represent the containment and delineation of the subject. Thus the abject is both the condition for the possibility of my being an individual, and testimony to its impossibility too. And the powers of horror, as the essay is titled, lie in this dual function: the loss of self and the origination of it, the powerful seductiveness of losing the sense of the edges of the self, and the terror of precisely that. The queering of identity is often enacted through the vampire, through the werewolf, through the individual-becoming-other-through-the-other’s-gift. These are the stories that draw me to them. And it’s only partly about the sex. I think. 😉