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February 8, 2004

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View Present Guestbook Michael Crichton?

I've always had a thing about vampires -- a good thing.  Back in my high school days, I wrote a one-act play about a kind of Bladerunner future where, instead of replicants, I used vampires.  I called it Haemo.  Later, I wrote a short story set in the same reality and won the Toronto Star Short Story Competition. I've always wanted to write more stories about the "Haemos", and maybe someday I will.  At the same time, the basic idea behind that play and that story wasn't really original.  There is a long tradition of stories which take the supernatural mythos of the vampire and marry it with a modern, science based sensibility, the result being, hopefully, a more convincing tale for modern readers.  The author plays a sort of world building game where the object is to come up with convincing sounding scientific explanations for as many of the supernatural aspects of the vampire mythos as possible.  Inevitably, vampirism itself is portrayed not as some mystical curse, but as a disease like any other, spread from person to person (or rather vampire to person), either in saliva or blood.

A recent example of this sub-genre was found in the very short lived British television series, Ultraviolet.  While I haven't actually seen Ultraviolet, from what I've heard it took the science based vampire tradition to the ultimate extreme.  It was about very modern police forensics experts trying to track down a vampire and the result sounds like a lot of fun.  We learn, for example, that a baby vampire in the womb doesn't register on an Ultrasound.  Who'da guessed, eh?

I started thinking about this essay when I picked up a book at my local bookstore called The Science of Vampires by Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.  That book claimed that the idea of treating vampirism as a disease which can be understood in scientific terms probably started with Richard Matheson's very famous 1954 novel, I am Legend.  In Matheson's novel, the entire human race is turned into vampires except one man, Robert Neville, who then spends all his time (and the length of the book) a) trying to understand and thus cure vampirism, and b) trying to kill the vampires during the day when they are asleep.  Eventually he figures out that the reason a wooden stake through the heart kills a vampire is because the bacteria which cause the disease are anaerobic, meaning they don't like oxygen.  Punch a hole in the vampire's chest and you let in oxygen.  Result, scratch one vamp.

Certainly, ever since Matheson's novel -- which was made into two movies, The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omego Man (1971) -- it has been common to at least try for a little bit of scientific plausibility in vampire stories.  The made-for-TV-movie Nick Knight (which was made into the successful Canadian series Forever Knight) featured a vampire as hero working for the police department at night who spent his days at a tanning salon in an effort to acclimatize himself to sunlight while his coroner friend sought scientific ways to alleviate his condition.  The movie Sundown, staring David Carradine, had vampires resisting sunlight through a heavy layer of sunblock.  The gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, at one point had a storyline in which a doctor tried to develop a medical cure for vampirism.

At the same time, there are still plenty of the more traditional vampire stories around, stories in which vampirism is basically supernatural and not explicable in scientific terms.  For example, Stephen King's Salem's Lot comes to mind.  Anne Rice's ultra-influential vampire novels, beginning with Interview with the Vampire, are pretty traditional.  And the two television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (now canceled) and its spin-off Angel, make no effort to explain vampirism in other than supernatural terms.

In fact, you could probably argue that all vampire stories fall into one of two categories: science based stories like I am Legend and supernatural, "traditional" vampire Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Which brings me to my main point.  When we think of the "traditional" vampire story, most of us would say that tradition harkens back to Bram Stoker's original novel.  Stephen King claimed his very traditional, supernatural story, Salem's Lot, was meant as a homage to Dracula...what he called "a bounce". It was meant to be a good, old fashioned vampire tale.  As I have already mentioned, in The Science of Vampires, Ramsland suggests the science based vampire tradition goes back no further than I am Legend.  And why not?  It was the novel Dracula which gave us most of the supernatural aspects to the mythos which we then try to rationalize in our science based stories today.  In Dracula, the legendary blood sucker had so many powers and weaknesses that you needed a scorecard to keep them all straight!  He didn't cast a shadow, he couldn't see his reflection in a mirror, he was weakened by sunlight (albeit not fatally), he couldn't stand the touch of a cross or a communion wafer or holy water.  Yea Gods, Dracula had so many marks against him it was no wonder he was so cranky!  At the same time, he could control the weather, control animals, change into a bat and a wolf, crawl up walls, hypnotize unwilling victims, live forever and, best of all, he was filthy rich!

So, sure, there's no doubt that there was a very traditional, Old World aspect to the novel Dracula.  At the same time, we are looking at that novel through modern eyes. 

If we look at it from the point of view of its original readers, in 1897, what we find is actually the very first of the science based vampire tradition.  In fact, Dracula is probably the sort of book Michael Crichton would have come up with had he written a vampire novel back in 1897.

It was the first vampire techno-thriller!

Consider the hero of Dracula.  Not Jonathon Harker but the other fellow, Abraham Van Helsing.  Given the Count's weakness where holy objects were concerned, you might have expected Stoker to make his great vampire hunter a man of the cloth.  Instead, Van Helsing is a MAN OF SCIENCE, a doctor and a specialist in brain diseases -- educated on the Continent no less.  It is true that Van Helsing repeatedly assures Harker that vampires cannot be explained by the use of science, but it is precisely because Van Helsing is a trained scientist that anyone believes a word he has to say in the first place.  Deny it all he wants, Van Helsing represents the modern world's response to the old world problem of vampirism. 

Then, too, Bram Stoker throws into the mix the latest up-to-date, state-of-the-art scientific concepts.  To us, from our modern perspective, these things seem antiquated, but at the time they were meant to impress the hell out of the reader.

When Van Helsing first arrives to find Lucy Westenra weakening daily (from Dracula's repeated nocturnal visits), the good doctor tries to halt her decline through blood transfusions taking blood from her four male suitors.  Fred Saberhagen, in his novel, The Dracula Tapes, pointed out that it was highly unlikely that all four suitors would have had compatible blood types, so that the transfusions could hardly have done Lucy any good.  But all the same, Stoker's purpose in throwing in these blood transfusions was meant to add to the air of technical authenticity.  In 1897, blood transfusions were cutting edge stuff.  In fact, although the different blood types had been recognized since 1875, it wasn't until 1901 that the part they played in successful blood transfusions was understood.  It was as if a modern vampire hunter used an MRI machine. 

Later in the novel, Mina Harker is herself bitten by Dracula, and develops a sort of psychic rapport with the vampire.  Realizing they can use this to their advantage, Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina and uses her rapport to track down their quarry as he flees for his native Transylvania.  To modern readers, hypnotism itself is only a step away from the supernatural.  But in 1897, hypnotism was the very latest in the medical arsenal against brain illnesses.  Stoker even goes a step further in his effort to impress the reader.  When Van Helsing asks Dr. Seward if he believes in hypnotism, Seward replies that Charcot has proven it well enough.  Stoker is just showing off, name dropping, referring to the very real Dr. Jean Martin-Charcot who, during the 1870s, was a leading neurologist who used hypnosis to treat female "hysterics".

Apart from these examples of scientific details, Stoker used other tricks to add an air of plausibility to Dracula.  Though the novel begins in the traditional, gloomy crags of Transylvania, the setting quickly shifts to what was then modern day London.  That doesn't strike us as significant because, from our point of view, London, 1897 is almost as alien as Transylvania, 1897.  But it is as if, in a modern vampire story, the legendary Count came to New York City.  In fact, that idea has been used in many modern vampire tales, including for comedic effect in the movie, Love at First Bite.

And how does Dracula begin?  True, from one perspective, it begins very traditionally, with a stranger arriving in the dark, brooding Old World environment of a Transylvanian hamlet.  The locals warn him to turn back, if you value your immortal soul!  He ignores them and takes a spooky carriage ride up the winding mountain road to a big, old spooky castle.  All this seems pretty standard stuff.  But now look at it another way. 

The novel begins...with a lawyer!  And a real estate lawyer at that.  It begins as mundanely -- as realistically -- as can be imagined: with a lawyer visiting a client to get his John Hancock on a few real estate documents regarding the purchasing of some property in London.  Nothing unusual about that.  Nothing to get your knickers in a knot about.  It's only later that we learn the property, Carfax Abbey, will be used to house one of Dracula's coffins.  Yikes!  But, in the beginning, the count is just like any other home buyer.  We can even identify with him.  It's tough buying a new house.  You sure don't want to make a mistake -- especially when you're making the purchase long distance from Transylvania.

So, the next time you hear someone refer to Bram Stoker's Dracula as the "traditional" vampire story, tell them to think again.  It was a surprisingly clever melding of old world superstition with modern scientific skepticism, the better to make us believe in the unbelievable.  As with so much else, Stoker was there first.  Although, come to think of it, a modern Dracula written by Michael Crichton would probably be pretty cool too.  Are you listening, Michael?  Let's do lunch...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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