Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland and twenty minutes from Nutbush. He’s been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Alex now lives in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls, writes before six in the morning and tries to teach his two sons to act like they’ve been to town before.
He’s the author of the Eddie LaCrosse high fantasy/hardboiled mysteries (“The Sword-Edged Blonde,” “Burn Me Deadly,” “Dark Jenny”), two novels about vampires in 1975 Memphis (“Blood Groove” and “The Girls with Games of Blood”) and the first Tufa novel, “The Hum and the Shiver.”
Anne Rice, whose status in the world of vampires is secure whatever drek she continues to publish, recently raised a ruckus from the notoriously humorless Twilight fans by saying, in part, that compared to Edward Cullen and company, “My vampires possess gravitas. They can afford to be merciful.”
There’s no doubt that in the beginning, certainly in Interview with the Vampire and its epic follow-up, The Vampire Lestat, her statement is true. Her ongoing saga has, alas, diminished that accomplishment. But the loss is not entirely hers alone. The vampire as a cultural figure has suffered a tragic loss of gravitas, and now occupies a space somewhere between Marlon Brando in The Wild One and the Count from Sesame Street.
This isn’t a result of romance novels, although it’s manifested mostly in that genre. It’s instead a symptom of our society’s refusal to acknowledge real, spiritual evil. Ask anyone to name an evil person now, and you’re likely to get one name: Hitler. The evil of the moment might be mentioned (i.e., pedophile coaches, terrorists, dishonest bankers) but for evil with a name, there’s generally only one. It’s as if we as a society decided that Hitler was some weird inverse messiah, taking all the true evil onto his shoulders. What we’re left with are pseudo-evils: mental illness, sexual perversity, religious intolerance, unrestrained greed.
The first landmark vampire, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is evil. No doubt, no ameliorating circumstances. It’s implied he was an evil man, and that his evil has only grown exponentially after he’s become a vampire. And because of this evil, he has gravitas.
Rice gave us a vampire who felt guilty about his actions in Louis, but she also gave us the (initially) gloriously unrestrained Lestat. He was evil, but joyously so, delighting in abhorrent actions because he believed his existence held no “higher purpose.” But it’s tricky to maintain that level of nihilism with a character you come to understand (and I’m speaking from experience with my own vampire, Baron Zginski). Eventually your identification becomes sympathy, and then evil becomes merely the result of some external cause, not an internal sickness of the soul. And with that sympathy comes an inevitable loss of gravitas.
The vampires of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and of course Twilight lack this gravitas because we’re meant to sympathize with them. They become, not embodiments of evil, but unfortunates suffering from a “condition.” There’s nothing wrong with this as an idea–Dark Shadows milked it for untold hours of daily drama–but it’s also a very overused one. It reduces the need for blood–once a symbol of draining the very life from a victim–to the level of insulin shots for diabetics, something that carries no moral weight at all. And it leaves this great genre figure as pallid and bloodless as any of its casualties.
Gravitas is a result of certainty. Superman has it because he’s certain of his goodness, and he’s an icon. Dracula, another icon, is certain of his evil. Lestat is certain of it. Barnabas Collins, however, is not. Edward Cullen is not. Bill Compton is not. They’re perfectly acceptable as characters, they just lack the weight of certainty. And without it, they’ll never be anything but mere acceptable characters.