Written in Blood

a farewell to the 1990s vampire subgenre

Jessica Amanda Salmonson



It intrigues me that authors of vampire erotica frequently take themselves seriously, even think their work is somehow daring, when it's plainly adolescent. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with being immature. It's an old adage among science fiction writers — & applies to horror as well — that "the Golden Age is twelve." Sexual content does not make kid's stuff adult, no more than is the IQ of retarded adults heightened by their whacking off on the bus. Yet somehow authors of trivial novels fantasize the wank factor adds maturity. I've looked deep into their eyes while they boasted how important, bold, & artistic their stuff is, & I can see they're not putting me on.

The erotic vampire novel is now passe & its "leading" exponents are small-press practitioners or appearing primarily at websites that provide public access for the incompetent. I would not be surprised if this subgenre retained a specialized niche on the world wide web forever, but it will not again be the mass-market publishing phenomenon it was at the beginning of the 1990s, no more than we are ever going to see a big come-back for 1950s Nurse Novels or 1960s Lady's Gothics. Anne Rice will be the exception in the same way Georgette Heyer was the exception for the Regency Romance subgenre that was all the rage in the 1970s; Rice predated the commercial glut & will survive the passing of her imitators, a reality that is unrelated to whether or not Rice was ever better than the rest. The subgenre rode on the train of her black wedding dress, period, getting that train a bit smudged but not ruining it altogether.

With minimal malice let me use a specific example around which to wrap some thoughts on this specialized subgenre. In 1994 Nancy Kilpatrick's first professionally published vampire novel was Near Death. It fit all its market requirements, good of kind if the reader removed her thinking cap. It took a while finding a publisher because editors received so much just like it, but finally it stuck out for one editor at Pocket Books, & it was a go.

It to large extent exemplifies women's vampire fiction for the whole of the late 1980s through the 1990s. Not the wankiest example, but enough wanks to fit the mould. If you can still find a copy, it's a better choice than many books of this nature, & it strives for some urban grittiness with our leading lady a street junky instead of a your average suburban nurse or heir to a haunted castle, & the usual faux hip rock & roll vampire scenario. Had a man written it, I strongly suspect it would've quoted rock lyrics throughout. We're spared that.

Such books have to be part of a series, so Near Dark is part of a series. Such authors have to connect with a fandom for vampire erotica since no one else is interested, & Kilpatrick has done a sufficiently good job of that that she is able to supplement her income with cheezy Me Teach How Write Good courses, charging money to losers & web-writers who hope to be the Next Big Thing in vampire erotica. And she even edits horny vampire anthologies so some of her graduates will actually feel like they published a story somewhere better than a website -- no promise of acceptance I'm sure, but it's not many writing courses that give wannabes quite such a shot as publication. So, a representative author popular & influential within the given fandom; well representative of a sub-sub-genre that had a brief commercial viability beyond the confines of its own fandom.

Bare in mind, softcore vampire erotica has its origins in the most primitive part of ourselves. These are escapist daydreams from the libido, not from or for the intellect. Certainly they have very little to do with the greater attributes of the literature of the fantastic. We don't have even one modern author who can write with the same skill, beauty, & ferocity of the Victorian Vernon Lee, a lesbian bluestocking whose vampiric femme fatale in "Amor Dure" is not equalled by anything written by anyone now living. The even earlier supernatural love story "The Diamond Lens" by FitzJames O'Brien, or Poe's "Morella," & early twentieth century examples such as Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover" & Marjorie Bowen's "Florence Flannery," each has more horrific/erotic sensuality in it than any dozen "erotic" horrors of the blessedly passe neo fin de siecle vampire commercialism of the 1990s. Tanith Lee occasionally came close to a greater sense of sensual strangeness, though she has always written too much too fast for the majority of her output to amount to anything extraordinary, crying as it does for revision, though a couple of her things will always be read by lovers of strange literature, Nights Master & its first sequel at the very least.

So most of these books must be judged much as one would judge a B-horror film (if not X-rated Star Trek or Starsky &and Hutch "fanfic"), not expecting literate or artistic quality, forgiving a lot of crudities lest we fail to enjoy anything at all, & praising the occasional "exception" that in a more aesthetic world would not be regarded at all exceptional.

I believe men & women write pretty much at the same level of complexity when striving for higher art, but when writing at the low end of the industry, there is very little resemblance between men's stories & women's stories. Some volumes of the late & beloved Karl Wagner's Year's Best Horror was sometimes barely more than Year's Best Rock-n-Roll Referenced Horror By Guys Karl Liked. The rock-n-roll allusions always annoyed me. George R. R. Martin spoiled at least one good novel with Golden Oldies quotations. It creates a wholly false illusion of "Hipness" for old hippy dudes with the same gross-out daydreams as any number of indistinguishable authors. For me, these lyric quotes break the mood of any story & forces me to recall a long car trip home from a convention in the company of some of these dear wankers, who wouldn't stop singing teenage death songs until I threatened to stab them with a spoon. When I collaborated with punk rock lovecraftian Wilum Pugmire on a story for a Dennis Etchison anthology (a tale picked up for Wagner's Year's Best, as it was correctly rock-n-roll referenced), it was because I knew I couldn't write quite boyishly enough on my own, & these editors rarely comprehended any other point of view. It was just like when comix artist Trina Robbins couldn't sell sexy cartoons to Playboy because the women in her strips were too aggressive for the market, then she found a guy to help her on scripts so that Playboy editors could finally relate & started cutting her big checks.

Genre authors invariably fall into imitating each other, so you always find a lot of them doing the same thing, each thinking him or herself innovative. The last decade's women's dark fantasies rarely shared the heavy metal attributes of men's horrors, so rock-n-roll quotes have not been de rigour for vampire romances. Near Death despite taking place in a rather rockin' underclass quotes not Mick Jaggers & Jerry Garcia, but Lord Byron & T. S. Eliot, which does strike me as an improvement, though it's really only a horizontal move. The entire Goth movement can to some degree be regarded as a profound misunderstanding of PreRaphaelitism, & there's an undeniable charm to that 1990s backward look at 1890s Decadence. To fix on Victorian black lace & nineteenth century verse takes the aesthetic of Horror away from the boyish affection for the Rolling Stones & girl-shaped guitars, & moves it to early episodes of the television series Beauty & the Beast — which is to say, from loud boy horror to quiet girl horror — but nowhere near the marvelously affected artfulness of the Victorian Yellow Decade.

Yet I was so pleased an area of Dark Fantasy wherein women writers were encouraged to write commercial gibberish for women readers to the same high degree that men were already writing gibberish for men.

But in an interview in Deathrealm Kilpatrick said she thought her book, because it quoted Eliot, would increase interest in Eliot's work. She clearly saw her book not only as some kind of masterpiece in & of itself, rather than part of a big batch of similar books, but she fancied her mass-market paperback, tailored for a particular sub-genre, to be the salvation of poetry. This went beyond chutzpah. It was wildly delusional. Quoting something by say Lord Byron where someone else would've quoted Bob Dylan adds pretention instead of a warm beer, but better still would've been to write something that didn't need such transparent buttresses to convey worth, but which just might stand on its own merits.

The destiny of these downmarket books was to be forgotten quickly, replaced by others no worse or better (indeed, the first draft of this article was completed in 1996 for a publisher who decided the book was too "old" to be the primary touchstone for my commentaries, & I was asked to do another version citing another book that wasn't already a year too old to be consequential). Sure, it's okay to take pride in one's work. But for crine out loud, the pride is in having written a specific kind of book that is a good representation of its type & loved by readers who want to get a wide-on reading about a prostitute who interacts with a privileged-class vampire, as occurs in Near Death. This is a hard-ass take on the Harlequin Romance, not literature. The new "women's horror genre" is an improvement over the fake-supernaturalism of the "Lady's Gothic" romances meted out in the 1960s, but ultimately have the same purpose: make publishers money pandering to readers who adhere to fads & deplore surprises.

Kilpatrick also stated in Deathrealm that her book is "hip." Snap your fingers, daddio. This mirrors the identical hallucination among those guys who thought splatterpunk was hip, when it should've been called splatterhippy, given the actual ages of the slack-jowled oldsters writing most of it. Having seen myself transformed by passage of time from a good-looking street kid who could always discover a great group-squat complete with hot water & electricity, to a middle aged frump struggling to pay a mortgage, I know what it is to lament one's streetwise youthful edge, luck, beauty, or charm. The 1980/90s splatterhippy books by men, & The Sensual Vampire tales by women, were the result of publishing trends that for the 1990s were about as hip as flashers in the park or hookers on a highway margin. Hip in this context means a vulgar over-the-hill ex-hippy from Jersey rather than San Francisco, or miserable housewife from a Toronto suburb facing empty-nest-syndrome if not a second divorce, writing about youthful characters who are ideal for equally immature storylines. We crowsfooted hags on fruitless diets, & love-handled dudes burping beer-gas at conventions, haven't faced our mortality & can't stand the scary possibility of writing about ourselves. Cowardly is not "hip." But such books are supposed to be escapist, not exploratory or emotionally real, so why not make them about youth & market them to the bewildered middleaged.

I don't mean to pick on Kilpatrick unduly. Her book just happened to be in eyeshot, providing a handy target or example, much as Ursula LeGuin meant no injury to Katherine Kerr who provided the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsy" an easy example for her essay on the banality of commercial fantasy. In a less specific sense, I'm talking about myself as much as anyone else. Though I don't write vampire erotica (heaven forbid!) I would nevertheless have to admit my own Anthony Shriek (for large example) was about characters a lot younger than I; it had a love story element; it incorporated weird sonnets of a Victorian type; it was quickly forgotten & replaced by identically packaged books; but with a similar sense of superiority I believe I wrote it as an expressionist novel with more in common with Gustav Meyrink than with Anne Rice. So I could well be no less guilty than anyone of all the misdemeanors & delusions enumerated in the above paragraphs. Except I don't delude myself that I'm the salvation of literature; for all I insist upon is, if it's all junk, at least it's our junk, so it's okay if we love it.

When Regency Novels were at their height in the 1970s, several women I knew wrote them, took themselves & their books quite seriously, & my own agent told me if I would stop writing what I wanted to write & agreed to write some Regencies in a hurry, she could get me a four-book contract instantly (I declined). Yet after a few years, several of my friends found their third or forth Regency Romance was not salable, & they'd wasted a lot of research & writing time on manuscripts that no longer had any marketability whatsoever. Which is the nature of a fad & they shouldn't have been nearly so surprised. Those who had deluded themselves into believing they would be permitted to write "serious historicals" if they conceded & wrote Regencies for a while, well, they had particularly rude awakenings. Similarly, the vampire romance went from being a dominating feature of many horror lines, to horror lines being canceled entirely or market reports actually stating in no uncertain terms: "No vampire novels please!"

As something of a footnote, the 1990s will have been the last decade for which so much genre fiction was dominated by baby-boomers. The boomer generation has gone through the last fifty years of history like a huge "bulge" in the population. Boomers called themselves "young urban professionals" well into their fifties & are not even today willing to think of themselves as the geezers & carlins they've truly become. Entering their sixth decade, boomers are on the brink of further rude awakenings, still believing that they (or we), unlike all previous "older generations," can never be discarded. However, the downward spiral for the child population reversed some years ago, so that by the end of the 1990s, there were more teenagers alive than ever before in history, & they remain a driving force commercially & increasingly so in the arts. As these kids really come into their own culturally & economically & creatively, the faux-youth literature of fantasy & science fiction may well become more authentically by & about the young. Whether a new generation can age more gracefully with their literature than boomers managed is a harder thing to predict, but it's easy to see that boomers are already being displaced by younger imaginations. And I would be surprised indeed if cheesy vampire erotica, a literature for self-loathing inverts & aging housewives, ever again dominates the bookracks.

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