Inanna Arthen is the author of The Vampires of New England series and founder of By Light Unseen Media, a publishing company specializing in vampire fiction and nonfiction. She's also a regular contributor to Blogcritics Magazine. An expert in vampire folklore, Arthen is here today to talk about her series, her new press, vampires, and their endless appeal through history since the release of Bram Stoker's Dracula. She also shares with us the titles of some of her favorite vampire books and movies.
Thanks for this interview, Inanna. When did your fascination with vampires begin?
When I was eleven, back in the 1960s. I vividly recall the very first vampire movie I ever saw, The Brides of Dracula, on TV during the afternoon. (My mother was not home at the time.) In the sixth grade, I decided to dress as a vampire for Halloween, and I designed my own costume. Rather than the stereotype caped, Goth or sexy look, I worked up a costume from stained, ragged sheets, like a tattered shroud, latex fangs that I made with one of those "plastigoop" molding kits and a blood-smeared face. I have absolutely no memory of where I got this impression of a vampire as a ghoulish revenant, but it was a rather effective costume.
In 1968 I joined the teeming hordes of Baby Boomers who watched Dark Shadows every day, but I was already mad for vampires, so it didn't start with Barnabas Collins. That same year I began collecting vampire fiction and anthologies, read Dracula in one sitting and discovered Montague Summers' seminal compilation of vampire folklore, The Vampire In Europe. My passion for vampires has only intensified in the years since then. When I was in high school, one friend and I coined the word, "vampiromaniac" to describe ourselves. "Vampirophile" wasn't strong enough.
Tell us about your New England Vampire series. Why did you choose New England as the setting? Is it because you're from there? What is it about small New England towns and horror stories?
The Vampires of New England series was born when I decided to link together three sets of characters I'd created for different stories in progress and connect their narratives and history into one fictional universe. All the stories were based in New England primarily because it's where I live and it's a region that I'm familiar with. The characters will wander quite a bit as the series goes on, but they'll always come back home. More information about the series is on my author website, http://inannaarthen.com.
There's an obvious advantage for a writer to set stories in locations that you know well, and can easily research and fact-check because you're right there. I was born in Springfield, Vermont, and I've lived all but ten years of my life in New England. I plan to retire in Maine. I've always had a deep love for this region. After all, it's my native earth.
New England has a convenient combination of characteristics as a setting for horror stories. It has a long and deep history, more like Europe than most of the United States. It's not empty and remote like a wilderness area, but it's not too densely populated to be mysterious. Many people automatically associate New England with witchcraft and the paranormal, because of Salem. Some of the best known horror writers, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King, set many of their stories in New England because they lived here. I think New England is often associated with a pleasant, genteel facade that hides a lurking dark side, and that is a classic pattern in horror fiction. Other regions of the United States don't carry that association. If you think of places like Chicago or New York or New Orleans, the dark side is right out in the open.
You're also the mind behind the company, By Light Unseen Media. Tell us about this venture and its mission?
My lifelong passion for vampires is matched by my fervent love for books. Since I started reading at the age of four, I've loved books, writing, libraries, bookstores, and the whole process of making books from start to finish. I had a fantasy of running my own small press, with a print shop that would run only at night, combining my two loves by publishing books about vampires. But I never thought I'd be able to afford it.
In 2006 I came into some money, and I started researching the publishing industry seriously to see what my options were. I found that digital printing technology would allow me to have my publishing company without the large capital outlay upfront that I'd always assumed I would need. I also realized that I'd been collecting relevant skill sets all my life, such as graphic design, web design, editing, typesetting, page layout, and small business management, to name a few. It seemed like the universe was finally giving me a chance to do the work I was born to do.
Unfortunately, the universe then threw all kinds of hurdles into my path. My mother and one of my authors passed away from cancer, and now the economy is going into a recession. In consequence, By Light Unseen Media has had a slower start than I originally planned. I'm not discouraged. Creative problem solving is my gift. I think the future of publishing will include much more electronic and audio media, and I'm staying right on top of that. I'll be releasing titles in multiple formats, including print editions, e-books and audiobooks. Mortal Touch was among the first batch of books to be available for the Amazon Kindle last year.
My mission is to publish high-quality vampire fiction with strong characters and great stories that avoid camp humor and cliches, and non-fiction works with primary source research and new ideas. I'm accepting queries, and authors are welcome to check the submission guidelines.
How has the vampire evolved through the decades since the writing of Stoker's Dracula?
As Nina Auerbach describes in Our Vampires, Ourselves, every decade gets the vampire fiction that it deserves. Bram Stoker changed everything when he wrote Dracula, to begin with. He freely invented a number of the vampire traits that immediately became fictional canon, including vampires not having reflections, having to be invited into a dwelling before they could enter, and needing special soil or earth to rest in. Those are all inventions by Stoker, they have nothing to do with "legend" or earlier fiction.
In 1922 silent film director F.W. Murnau invented the idea that vampires are destroyed by mere sunlight for his movie, Nosferatu. That original notion, which isn't found in folklore or any earlier fiction, became the most lasting "vampire trait" of the Twentieth Century. At first sun-struck vampires just withered into ashes. Now they explode into flames or even blow up like bombs in some movies. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it looks dramatic onscreen and sets up all kinds of potential story conflicts, so most writers use the incendiary sunlight device.
Many writers describe the "good guy vampire" as a modern innovation. In fact, vampires in folklore always had a strong element of ambiguity to them. These were your friends and family members returning home, and they weren't always unwelcome. I talk more about this in my paper on Greek vrykolakas folklore. When Dracula was first presented on stage, women were fascinated by the Count, regardless of the fact that he was depicted as irredeemably evil. The "bad boy" has always had appeal, and the vampire is too complex an archetype to have only one aspect. The real change since Dracula is the depth and complexity of vampire characters, so they're now more likely to be good with a bad side, or bad with a good side.
Two other major fictional conventions have become ubiquitous since 1980. The first is the concept of vampire "clans" that have an elaborate underground society, with leaders, hierarchies, enforcers, outcasts, feuds, politics, an independent economy with their own night clubs and hangouts, and so on. This idea owes a lot to Anne Rice and White Wolf's role-playing games, but many authors and filmmakers have adopted it. The second is the vampire as superhero. Vampire characters, especially in television and film, now have super strength, super speed, super senses, and are impervious to harm. They bound through the air, stop cars with their hands and kung-fu fight like Neo in the Matrix movies. The 21st century vampire is defined more by his or her superpowers than by immortality or blood drinking. Along with this trend, vampires are interpreted less often as the walking dead and more as an alternate species or victims of a virus.
What is it about vampires that strikes such a deep core in young people? No other supernatural creature has had such an effect on society. Or am I wrong?
You're not wrong. You could fill an entire book with a discussion of the vampire's universal and timeless appeal. It's not a simple question, because the fictional vampire is so complicated and multi-faceted. Whether you like noble heroes, tortured antiheroes, romantic leading men, average joes, stone-evil villains or ravening mindless monsters, there are vampire tales for you.
The stories that earn the broadest popularity, however, definitely have common elements. A big part of the vampire's appeal is the initiation fantasy. The most popular vampire stories either have sympathetic vampire characters or are told from the vampire's point of view, and they feature humans who are chosen as special and then are transformed. By being "turned," humans are inducted into a secret society where they belong by right. They leave behind the boring mundane world for an exotic subculture where everyone knows them and they don't have to struggle to fit in. In some popular stories the human character never takes the step of being turned, but the possibility is always there. You can see the attraction of this fantasy for anyone who feels "different" or awkward or lonely.
Vampires also are superior beings who nevertheless need humans to survive. They don't age, they're immune to diseases, they heal from almost any injury and they have superpowers, but they're dependent on humans for blood, if nothing else. This makes them different from other supernatural creatures, such as werewolves or zombies. Vampires are the dark twins that look back at us from the mirror–they're "other" but they're not completely alien. They're ourselves transformed in ways that are enviable and desirable, at least in the most popular stories. Even "vampire hunter" stories like the Blade series or Buffy the Vampire Slayer can't get away from this appeal. Both series were drawn into depicting more sympathetic vampires and playing with the idea of humans transforming into vampires without becoming irredeemably evil.
The most popular vampire stories affirm that death is not the end of existence, and suggest that we can transcend human frailties, if we're willing to pay a price. At the same time, the vampire retains more of its humanity than any other supernatural creature. It's hard to imagine being a ghost or a zombie, or a werewolf in animal form. It's not at all difficult to identify with a vampire character. We all know what it’s like to hunger for something that we can’t have.
What are some of your favorite vampire novels and/or movies?
One of the main reasons I wanted to launch By Light Unseen Media is that I was so often disappointed by the vampire fiction and movies that were out there. I'm not a fan of most of the "big name" vampire writers. I don't care for the fiction of Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton, for example. But I'm addicted to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain series, and I own all of the Jack Fleming and Jonathan Barrett series by P.N. Elrod. Those would be among my favorites. I love Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I think is the greatest thriller in the English language.
I'm still waiting for a really good vampire movie to be made! But I do enjoy a number of them, with various reservations. I still like the first one I ever saw, The Brides of Dracula. Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Shadow of the Vampire, and an odd little 1959 movie, Curse of the Undead are among my Top Ten vampire movies. But my favorite filmed vampire story isn't a movie, but a British miniseries–Ultraviolet starring Jack Davenport. I'll never stop sulking that they only made six episodes. I have it on VHS and DVD.
What do you usually do on Halloween? Do you dress as a vampire?
I've dressed as a vampire a few times, many years ago. But I'm a Pagan, so Halloween, or Samhain, is a sacred holiday for me. I don't party on Halloween, I'm usually doing something much more solemn. I almost always carve a vampire jack o'lantern, though.
If supernatural vampires were for real and one offered you immortality in exchange for your soul… what would you do?
It would depend a lot on the circumstances, but honestly? The odds are pretty high that I'd accept the offer.
Anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
I'd encourage people who are interested in fictional vampires to delve into the history of the genre, including folklore and reality. There is a lot of misinformation circulating around, and you'd be surprised what's true and what isn't.