Extrait du mémoire de littérature « Cleavage and Fangs »

Introduction

 » Over the last fifty years, a very peculiar phenomenon has been occurring in western literature and popular culture: heroes grew their hair out, wives became warriors, ladykillers became killer ladies, damsels became detectives. In short, a reclaiming or recuperation of archetypal or popular literary, mythical and cultural figures by sexual, social and ethnic minorities has taken place. Whether they belong to these minorities or not, many writers and artists have taken it upon themselves to give new faces to old characters – and this is especially true of the only minority which outnumbers the “majority”, namely women.

Indeed, while there was once only Sherlock Holmes, there is now Kay Scarpetta[1]. Novels and historical accounts on Queen Guinevere[2] have wedged their way onto library shelves devoted to Arthurian legend; Indiana Jones has to compete with another, female, ‘Tomb Raider’[3], while Xena[4] kicks Hercules to the mythological curb, and Van Helsing passes the tricks of the un-dead killing trade down to a younger, blonder vampire slayer[5]. But on the other end of the stake, things are not quite as encouraging – while this feminization of literary figures, one of the possible post-modernist approaches to western myths and archetypes, is clearly undeniable and keeps spreading to all genres and formats, one area seems to be resisting the changes. In modern horror and fantastic works, many writers, self-labeled feminists and others as well, have broken stereotypical gender roles and have strived to craft more empowering, three-dimensional and thought-provoking female characters, for instance Shirley Jackson[6], Anne Rice in her Mayfair Witches series[7], or the ever trendy JRR Tolkien[8] and the ever obscure Sarah Waters[9]. But one creature still lingers in the dark limbos of literary opprobrium, left behind in this march towards a better use of female figures as a symbol of – and an accessory to – a positive, or at least an objective, consideration of women: the vampire woman is still buried in her lonely grave under over a century’s worth of degradation and abuse.

One could wonder, in view of the current reclaiming and modernization of myths and symbols, what makes this particular character so profoundly un-redeemable, that she must continue to serve as a prop for, at worst, chauvinistic authors and at best, oblivious writers who do not realize the potential of this neglected figure. While the ‘vampire craze’ that seized most western countries over the last twenty years or so has been at the origin of hundreds of ‘new’ vampire fictions (novels, comic books, movies and television series – or even cartoons, not to forget breakfast cereal) and as many scholarly works, all tend to focus on male characters, be it as villains (like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend[10] ) or as reformed, tragic heroes (the list would be too long, but for instance Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Count St Germain[11] novels, Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape[12] or of course, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles[13] would be on it). While the process of domestication, itself leading to a refocusing on the monstrous character and to a more and more complex characterization, has been in progress ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – she was one of the first to insert a story from the fiend’s point of view within the two other narrative circles making up the structure of her novel, thus giving the monster a voice – this has been replaced by narratives entirely from the monster’s, here the vampire’s, perspective, but one notes that it is seldom if ever used with female protagonists and that since Mrs. Shelley’s times, where women were only mute (not to say dumb) literary pawns to be used in the men’s games of play, not much has changed for that other great monster of the Victorian Gothic novel. And what few vampiric females can be found in today’s literature and pop culture works are, perhaps more than ever, reduced to their only two ‘useful’ attributes, their cleavage and fangs.

When most others have evolved for the better, I believe the literary figure of the vampire woman as symbol of feminine status in our societies has regressed, or to use a fitting Biblical image, I would say she is a fallen figure, once regarded as a potent device allowing writers and readers, like few others ever did, to express and recognize metaphorically “all that is not said, all that is unsayable, through realistic forms”[14], and now relegated as an object of ridicule and degradation. How and why this damnation – out of the Eden of early Romantic vampire works, to the dark inferno of current sadistic, hateful or hollow characterizations – took place can be better understood by taking a look at these works of British and American literature featuring female vampires. But since more vampire fictions have been published in the last forty years than over the two centuries before them, one must pinpoint crucial moments in this metamorphosis. In order to illustrate my point, I have chosen to study the three stages of the transformation of this literary subject – which are the original state of bliss, the intermediary moment of sin, and the subsequent purgatory stage, to pursue the comparison started earlier. These three ages are symbolized by three major works, all written over the course of a century, which respectively correspond to the three levels listed above: Sheridan J. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire [15].

An analysis of the first will provide an overview of the fascination and sympathy the figure of the female vampire kindled in readers and authors alike, as well as an approach to its complex metaphorical and evocative power, establishing the character Carmilla as the pre-lapsarian vampire  par excellence. Then a study of Dracula‘s female « nosferatus » will point to the dawn of a new era, one where guilt is at the core of the vampire woman – in short, she becomes an outlet and a cartoonish device for misogynistic writers to share and spread their distrust of the ‘weaker sex’ through a narrowing down of the complexity of her characterization. The novel marks the advent of the vampire whore, a vessel of hateful ideas and the target of sexualized violence. Since Stoker’s work spawned a virtually endless brood of literary and cinematic copies or adaptations, the female vampire as wanton sinner deserving punishment will become canonical, and pseudo-Lucys will populate screens and libraries, only the better to be dispatched in scenes of orgiastic aggression, until the 1970s, where Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire is published to unprecedented success. Like no other before, she redeems the vampire by presenting him as a haunted yet flamboyantly attractive being. He becomes sensitive, cries over spilled blood, loves pathetically ephemeral mortals and shares passionate moments of artistic and sensorial elation with his kindred. But unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, this otherwise very sympathetic and progressive text, vector of many messages of acceptance and empowerment, leaves the female vampire in worse shape than before, quite involuntarily: as the novel’s analysis will reveal, the main, and almost lone, vampire woman is a girl, the child-vampire Claudia, who is written for no political, social or cultural reasons, but solely for emotional ones. As such, written in a decade where activism was everywhere in the United States, one of the most successful works in vampire fiction history – and the first in a long while not to portray women as exclusively sexual objects – gives us an empty vampire, the projection of personal feelings and emotions, whose sole import is to bring the writer comfort and to move the male character’s storylines forward. This puts the last nail in the coffin of the female vampire as meaningful feminist or women-friendly literary device – in other words, this archetypal figure, in terms of what meaning she can carry,  has hit rock-bottom.

Finally, having studied Le Fanu’s Clotho, Stoker’s Lachesis and Rice’s Athropos[16], one will have a better, if maybe imperfect, understanding of what I mean by the expression « the fall of the female vampire », and hopefully grasp the terrible missed opportunity this neglect of a very potent cultural symbol truly is, in artistic and social terms equally. Then, conclusions will have to be drawn on this unstoppable regression, and especially on a possible redemption or rebirth of the feminist vampire, whether it may be coming from the page or the screen – new blood, as it were, that is much needed, at a time where images of  abuse, inequality and violence against women are more present, and perhaps less contested – because more insidious, than ever. The eventuality of such a revolutionary reversal seems to be emerging, and could finally lead to the fleshing out of the portrait of that forgotten vampiress, and allow her, not to crawl, but to rise out of her deathly gynaecia to regain some of the fascination and power she once held, and would no longer necessarily be confined in the role male and guiltily indulgent or oblivious female writers have reduced her to – that of a potentially lethal bimbo. But before deciding if hope may be starting to appear as a distant light at the end of this tunnel of a century of literature, one must first discover the three striking faces successively worn by the descending  female vampire.


[1] The amazing deductive abilities of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s British detective have developed into modern forensics in Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling series of crime novels about Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, started with Post Mortem (1989).

[2] See in particular the Alice Borchardt novel The Dragon Queen (2002) – and its sequels – as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1982) series of novels about an order of  Merlin-like female druids.

[3] I am of course referring to the video game/comics/movie character Lara Croft.

[4] Being the heroine of the cult television series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995); the character debuted as a villainess on the original Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994) show, to such popular and critical acclaim that an Emmy-award winning series – which outsmarted, outshone and outlasted the original – was created for her.

[5] Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a 1994 movie about a Californian cheerleader who happens to be endowed with the skills and strength to kill vampires, and which was turned into a popular TV series in 1996.

[6] In her 1959 Gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson does sacrifice to part of the Gothic heroine tradition by making her protagonist Eleanor a relatively classic frustrated, hysterical and potentially suicidal damsel in distress, but she finally reverts this didactic to portray the men as similarly flawed, and gives us the character of Theo, every bit the modern, independent 1970s woman, who does not depend on men in any aspect of her life.

[7] Started in 1989 with The Witching Hour, the series tells the story of the Mayfair family, all of them witches and most of them women.

[8] While female characters are clearly outnumbered by males in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) and absent in The Hobbit (1937), they are nonetheless well-characterized, and figures such as Eowyn or Galadriel announce the growing influence women will take in The Silmarillion (1977).

[9] Though well-known to amateurs of queer theory and of original takes on Victorian England, Waters’s three novels, two of which can be considered part of the Gothic tradition, remain little-known out of England, but enjoy a tremendous popularity and critical acclaim there. Her three novels – Tipping the Velvet (1998) Affinity (200) and Fingersmith (2003) – are female-centric, compelling, thought-provoking and genre-bending stories.

[10] Published in 1954, Matheson’s novel depicts the situation of Robert Neville – the last mortal man left after a terrible plague has turned all of Earth’s population in vampires – who finds himself in the situation of the abnormal, hunted ‘monster’ at the hands of the horrific majority.

[11] Hotel Transylvania (1978) was the first novel about Count St Germain, a very, very ‘nice’ vampire whose story is told through over (for now) eighteen books, hugely popular with female readers of fond of romances set against historical backdrops.

[12] This 1975 novel’s premise is similar to that of Interview With the Vampire (IWtV): a vampire has his life story recorded on tape – but this vampire is Dracula, giving his version of the events « so shamefully misrepresented by Bram Stoker », a version where he is a persecuted victim instead of a vicious monster.

[13] Started with IWtV in 1976, and still continuing today, the series deals with an impressive amount of vampires telling or writing the story of their lives, most importantly Lestat de Lioncourt, perhaps Rice’s most famous vampire.

[14] Rosemary Jackson,  Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (26), New York:  Methuen, 1981

[15] Sheridan J.Le Fanu,  “Carmilla”, in In a Glass Darkly (1873), Oxford World Classics,  Oxford UP, 1993.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula (1897), London: Penguin Popular Classics, Penguin Books, 1994

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (Book I of the Vampire Chronicles) (1976), New York: Ballantine Books, 2004

[16] The three Grecian Fates, who were a maiden, a woman and a crone, and were meant to represent the three stages of life – they wove and cut the thread representing  the length of existence, Athropos being the one in charge of cutting this thread, thus bringing death. »

Toute reproduction interdite, (c) RM Guillerme, 2004

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