So, why vampires? What got you interested in writing this book?
My good friend and editor in the book division, Lisa Thomas, called me up one day and said “How about vampires for a book?” I said, “Vampires? I used to know everything about them when I was thirteen years old. Sure I’ll do vampires.” And then she explained that they were trying to get out a book to coincide with this Explorer show on the Vampire of Venice.
The other reason I acceded to her request is that one of my long-standing interests was in the history of mythologies-- folklore, and that kind of thing. I have shelves of books on Ancient Greek and Roman and Indo-European religions--where the roots of a lot of these legends are. The thing was not just to do vampires but to do the historical and geographical roots of the vampire mythology. So that appealed to me. That would make it distinctive and different from the corpus of vampire books- and there are lots of them.
With Twilight and True Blood, the latest incarnation of vampires are heroes and love interests. Is this new?
No, not really. It depends on how long a view you take of history. It’s new basically with the nineteenth century. That’s kind of where a key shift happens in the vampire story. That’s when what was largely a “peasant superstition”--that’s what the pope called it in the mid-eighteenth century--was picked up by largely English and Irish writers. A figure that sort of resembles what we think of as a zombie today, with bloody sheets, a horrible face, crawling out of a coffin someplace, is cleaned up, dressed in evening clothes, given a title, given a castle, and turned into a new twist on the old gothic villain. The gothic villain came up in eighteenth century novels as a scary character that lived in a castle somewhere on the European continent and terrified a young heroine. They took that archetype and spun it around this vampire, this peasant legend, and created what we think of generally speaking as the vampire of popular culture.
That quickly morphed into the demon lover or the edgy lover or the dangerous lover; forbidden love has always been around too. And that’s what leads up to Twilight. Clearly the appeal of the vampire figure there is that he’s a charming guy but he’s just the other side of a very strange line.
How does Dracula fit into the story?
Dracula, which comes in 1897, is a key point. It’s a novel written by Bram Stoker, the Irish writer. All roads lead to Dracula and come out of it the other side. It’s the crossroads of vampire lore. It reflected- and people have written books on this-- the British Empire’s fear of foreign invasion, of Eastern European invasion. Because the whole story is really about the vampire from Transylvania coming in through the precincts of London and wreaking havoc. It was very scary at the time; it’s not so scary to read now. And certainly today’s vampires are much more sensitive creatures, and they seem to reflect a societal shift from paternalistic thinking to one that’s more nuanced.
New Moon and True Blood are both adding werewolves to their mix—and the werewolves and vampires don’t exactly get along. Was that always the case?
The earlier you go in folklore, the more [vampires and werewolves] are conflated and confused, and it’s hard to separate one from another. An old word in the Balkans for vampire was had a common root with the word varkolak, used to describe a wolf pelt or wolf hair. And some people have explained that werewolves were supposed to become vampires when they died. I think what you have when a mythology gets to a point of maturity is it has this great branching out, with this proliferation of different branches, and mostly it’s the writers, the moviemakers, who impart these new and separate roles and identities. Simply because it gives them more dramatic scope to explore. So now fans of Twilight would be horrified if somebody said that a vampire and werewolf was the same thing. Now they’re mortal enemies, but that’s a very late development in the evolving legend.
In True Blood as well as Twilight, there are human-vampire romances. Does that ever work out?
That thought would have terrified earlier generations. And that’s what’s so terrifying about Dracula in 1897 is that he seems to be pulling the two women he preys upon into his orbit. It’s not like what happens a century later.
In True Blood you have the romance between Sookie and Bill. It’s essentially a fictional device; it’s up to the imaginations of the writers whether [the couple] can work it out. But most vampires today are basically just people: they have the same emotions, the longings, and they fall in love with their human inamorata--essentially a love story with this added element of a line that’s been drawn between them. But they’re no different from a love story of two sides of the rail road tracks. It’s a forbidden kind of love relation.
Could Bill and Sookie have a baby?
Can humans and vampires produce offspring? I don’t know!
Vampires in True Blood have been seen as representing oppressed minorities. Does using the vampire as a symbol for the oppressed work?
It used to be that vampires are the oppressors, sucking the blood out of the population. Karl Marx uses it, and Friedrich Engels: the vampires are the proper classes that are sucking the life out of the workers.
Can vampires enter and control your dreams as they do in True Blood?
They’ve never entered mine! Again, all this is the proliferation of a legend. There’s no stopping the ways they can be interpreted and reworked. And I’m sure it’s been psychologized, let’s say. Even Sigmund Freud once agreed with a German scholar that in the beginning probably all the dead were vampires because everybody was just afraid of dead people. And then one of his great disciples wrote a book on the nightmare in 1920 which talks about vampires as a nightmarish function.
Why do you think vampires have had such a long run in popular culture?
It seems to me that it’s rooted in this psychological, very ancient fear of the dead. There has always been a fear of supernatural creatures. With the human imagination, darkness is filled with monsters. Then we get into something very important, that this book tries to bring out, that before the germ theory of disease took hold, people didn’t often understand what was often killing them.
If you disturbed the grave for one way or another- and this is the forensic angle of the book- the bodies you found in there didn’t always behave as you expected bodies that were in the grave to behave. They weren’t rotting away. They looked swollen and they had what appeared to be blood trickling their chin from their mouths; their hair and fingernails seem to have grown. In times of epidemics, when mass graves had to be opened a lot to put new fresh bodies in there, Seeing these things, and the general fear of the dead, may have been the most important contributory streams to what became the vampire legend.
And to answer your question about the fascination of it, horror has always fascinated people. And only lately, and by lately I mean nineteenth century, was that twisted into the kind of romantic or gothic villain role.
Do you have a favorite vampire book or movie?
Dracula is a must-read. The Hunger is an interesting book and a great movie. That’s a little off-beat.
Do you have vampire envy?
No. I still don’t see vampires as the readers of Twilight see them, as eternal life full of erotic adventures, because all that’s new. It used to be that if you’re a vampire you’re instantly rendered evil, you’re a henchman of the devil, or you’re baited by demons. You wouldn’t want to be a peasant vampire. They didn’t have much of an existence, because usually they were run down after a few weeks and staked through the heart and that was that. This belief in [a vampire’s] eternal life only works if they don’t get you first.