Joban Vampires

Interview VampireThe first vampire novel I ever read, I remember correctly, was one of the Dark Shadows series written by Marilyn Ross. I don’t recall which one, since I had to buy my books from Goodwill or some such vender utilized by the poor. Now, I’m really a squeamish guy and the sight of blood bothers me. Barnabas Collins, however, was a compelling character—deeply conflicted and a reluctant vampire. The combination of his sadness and the setting in coastal Maine kept me looking for Dark Shadows books every time we went shopping. It surprised me, given all that, that I had such difficulty getting into Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I started reading it years ago (it was also a second-hand copy, and, interestingly, the color scheme of the cover nearly matched Dark Shadows novels) and some eighty pages in put it down only to forget about it. Starting from the beginning a few weeks ago, I gave it another try. Although Louis is a conflicted vampire, the pace is languid and it was almost as if the self-pity was overdone. I was determined this time, however, to see it through.

One of the recurring themes of the book, and I presume the Vampire Chronicles series, is that vampires are not evil because of the Devil. In fact, there is nothing Satanic about them. Blame tends to fall on God for their state. The more I thought about it, the more the theodicy of the vampire began to resemble that of Job. Like Job, death for a vampire takes a long time. There is much suffering along the way. Louis can love, in a measure, and can loath himself. He never really understands what it is to be a vampire. The other undead he meets help to define him, but he can’t get too close. His life is a kind of Hell without Satan.

Rice’s vampires don’t fear crucifixes or shun churches. In fact, Louis takes a priest as one of his victims, sacramentally near an altar in a church. Religious imagery and discussion abound in the book. It truly is a vampire theodicy. Perhaps, for its day, it was the next step in vampire evolution. Bram Stoker, while the most famous contributor to the modern vampire myth, didn’t corner the market on defining the undead. When Louis meets vampires of the old world, they are mindless, plodding killing machines that even other vampires avoid. Rice’s vampires feel, think, and yes, theologize. I feel strangely satisfied now that I’ve finally finished the Interview. It was a vampire at my bedside for so long that it feels like an accomplishment to have finally laid it to rest.

Summer of Frankenstein

Two centuries can make an enormous difference. Just two-hundred years ago Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was merely one year in the past. North America and parts of Europe were experiencing “the year without a summer.” Perhaps due to that cool and rainy summer, when Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley called on their friend Lord Byron, their thoughts turned to ghosts. According to the legend, together with Byron’s personal physician John Polidori, the friends spent a night writing scary stories. Polidori, although not widely remembered today, invented the vampire that would, in Bram Stoker’s hands, become the aristocratic Dracula, and eventually, with Anne Rice’s influence, Lestat, Louis, and Armand. Mary Godwin, soon to be Shelley, gave birth to perhaps the most successful of new monsters ever created—that of Victor Frankenstein’s construction. Many have claimed the monster’s pedigree to have been that of the golem, but Shelley’s creativity went beyond this forebear into the sympathetic misfit who, like all of us, never asked to be born. The two centuries since that summer have been haunted.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

Quite apart from the monster tale, Frankenstein is also about building that which we, in our hubris, can’t understand. Progress without forethought, as Epimetheus could never learn, housed immediate and very real dangers. The two centuries since Frankenstein have proven Mary Shelley a prophet. An early supporter of women’s equality, she profited from her novel, but never managed to thrive. Just six years later her famous future husband would die tragically in the Romantic genre of a shipwreck. Even with important friends, Mary found it difficult to capitalize on her success. The monster was real enough.

We’ve become accustomed to making things we can’t control. When’s the last time you were able to fix a car broken down by the road, apart from the occasional flat tire? Can you really stop your job from becoming completely different from what you signed up to do? What about when that bully wanders from the playground into the political field? Once you’ve figured out how to split an atom, you never forget. It may have been Napoleon still recently in the news, or the fact that 1816 failed to warm up like it was expected after the solstice. Perhaps it was the fact that Mary Godwin was a liberated woman in a world still utterly determined by men. We can’t know her intimate and ultimate reasons for creating a monster, but we do know that once the monster is unleashed we can never bind it again.

Writing the Divine

The media has displayed considerable interest of late in the views of well-known writers towards the divine. Given the vast numbers of non-famous people daily consigned to Hell by the righteous, there are more tears shed for Anne Rice than for the thousands who’ve never written a vampire novel. Equally fascinating is a story from CNN yesterday on Ray Bradbury’s views on God. I cut my literary teeth on Ray Bradbury. I don’t even recall how I discovered him in the small town where I grew up. More likely than not I found used copies of his story collections at Goodwill. Already interested in science fiction, his tales of the future or fanciful past and alternate worlds captured my imagination. Living in a town where nothing ever seemed to happen, Bradbury was a doorway into someplace colorful.

According to John Blake and Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, the doyen of the sci-fi short story is an avid believer in something out there. Reluctant to accept any single religion, Bradbury embraces religious concepts as the wisdom of the sages. He believes, according to the article, that we have much to learn from religions. The views suggested in the interview may lack the rigor and sophistication of the professional theologian, but Bradbury’s emphasis on love comes close to the mark for several religions. People build superstructures around their religious founders and insist on orthodoxy and military adherence to human speculation about them. Often in the process, love becomes just another tenet left over, if you have time for it.

For many decades as I pursued formal degrees in religious studies, I was taught to put away childish things. I gave away my Ray Bradbury books and purchased hefty tomes of incomprehensible gibberish that passes for theological erudition. Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 as high school reading. I picked up Bradbury again. His writing lacked the absolute wonder and fascination it held for my twelve-year-old eyes, but it was like greeting an old friend once again. My thinking had been partially shaped by this storyteller, and it is perhaps even possible, in a Bradburian sort of way, that I felt a “spiritual” connection as I read his books as a young boy. Reading his amateur views on religion was a quiet sort of homecoming.

An old friend

The Return of Christendom

Well, the Internet is shaking because Anne Rice has left Christianity. Not exactly, however. In her own words, according to her Facebook page, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” For years I have observed decent people “quitting” Christianity because the name has been co-opted by intolerant, bigoted Neo-Cons who more often than not have political agendas in mind. I think the battle has been lost, the trademark name of Christianity must be surrendered to those who claim it most loudly. The meek have disinherited the earth. How many Catholic students have introduced their comments to me with “Christians say…” as if Catholics aren’t part of the club?

There was a perfectly good word for what Neo-Cons are calling themselves. It used to be “Christendom.” Harkening back to the imperial days when Orthodox Christianity ruled the East and Roman Christianity ruled the West, Christendom implied the power and the glory in its very name. Beyond a religion, it was a system of rule. The world was fine as long as everyone stepped in line to a magisterial faith that held the only set of keys to Heaven. Then Islam. Then Reformation. Then Enlightenment. The keys began to jangle amid many others on that divine keyring. Christendom seemed pretentious when there was no military might to back the strappado or red-hot iron. Christianity was but one belief system, deeply fragmented, among others.

Under the vision of James Dobson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and their minions, Christianity in its Neo-Con armor has once again become a forum for abuse and intolerance. Bearing little resemblance to the ethics and outlook of the carpenter of Nazareth, this religion would find an easy home in imperial Rome or medieval Aragon. As Ms. Rice notes, she is committed to Christ, but not a Christian. Although my impotent voice bears little weight in this overly loud and hyper-productive world-wide web, I would humbly suggest that Christendom be reinstated, instead of Christianity, to describe the Neo-Con religion. Christendom, after all, retains the imperial bearing and absolute authority the movement craves. Those, like Ms. Rice, who prefer to follow the teachings of Jesus might then have use of the traditional term of “Christian” once again.