Inanna Arthen is the author of Mortal Touch, the first in The Vampires of New England Series. Book 2, The Longer the Fall, will be released in 2009. Inanna is an expert on vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media, an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of Broad Universe and New England Horror Writers, and a contributing writer for Blogcritics.org.
Imagine, if you will, your family and friends sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner table. The room is warm and full of soft light from candles surrounding the autumn-themed centerpiece. The tablecloth is covered with dishes of fragrant food, china, glittering silverware and glasses of wine. At the end of the table is the gleaming roasted turkey. Everyone you care about most is sitting around the table, laughing, teasing, flirting and sharing memories. Some of them have traveled a long way for this reunion, and won’t be here again for another year. As the plates are filled and passed around, someone rises to propose a toast. You’d like to join them…
…but you’re not there. You’re outside, in the cold and dark, looking in. The table has one empty chair with an untouched place setting before it. It’s your place, but you can’t enter and take it. You’ve left that happy camaraderie now, and you can never go back. The empty place has been left for you out of respect, and fear. No one wants you to return, but you’re stuck, trapped between life and death, belonging wholly to neither. You desperately desire all the pleasures of life that you’ve left behind, but if you try to join the gathering inside, you know they’ll flee in horror.
Vampires may seem about as relevant to Thanksgiving as Valentines are to the Fourth of July. But the connection isn’t as tenuous as you might think. Thanksgiving is the modern harvest festival, celebrated when the year is rapidly descending to the dark and cold of Winter Solstice. In the cultures where the true vampire legend was born, such feasts were exactly the time when vampires would be attracted to their former homes. Ceremonies such as leaving one empty place at the table, or a plate of food and a candle on the hearth after everyone retired for the night, were a means of appeasing the hungry dead–which is what vampires were. In the modern world, holidays can be a time of sadness when those who have passed on are poignantly missed. But centuries ago, the dead were both mourned and feared, because they didn’t always stay away.
To understand the core meaning of the vampire legend, you have to recognize that it’s specific to European culture, especially those parts of Europe dominated by Orthodox Christianity. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, folklorists George.R. Stetson, Dudley Wright and Montague Summers argued for a Universal Vampire Myth, claiming that “every culture in the world has a type of vampire.” They were quite wrong. These writers fell into the same Eurocentric fallacy of many scholars of their era, such as Sir James Fraser. They added up superficial similarities and decided that any folk belief with any one of the characteristics of vampires as described in the Eastern European panics was “a type of vampire.” If it drank blood, returned from the grave, was a supernatural creature that preyed on children and babies, or pestered people for sex, it was “a type of vampire.” Everyone has seen the long catalogs and encyclopedia of “vampires” from every known country and era.
But each of these creatures has its own cultural context and origin, and they’re no more “types of vampires” than the native peoples encountered by Columbus were really misplaced Hindus. The true vampire is our unique legacy, as children of Western culture. As such, it has a connection to all of our social traditions, because the vampire is interwoven with the tapestry of life and death itself.
Vampires in Europe could be living or dead (Bram Stoker invented the word, “undead”). In either case, they were former humans who had stepped outside the Right Order of Things. Living vampires like the Romanian strigoi vii had abandoned the mores of their human society and couldn’t really be trusted. They used magic to get an unfair advantage–you could tell living vampires because they were suspiciously lucky and successful, while their neighbors’ fortunes and health declined. But far more frightening were vampires who had died but refused to go where the dead go. Bound to the earth and their physical bodies, such vampires were believed to wander from town to town. They had insatiable appetites for food, drink and sex, as well as blood. Sometimes vampires achieved an imitation of life, even marrying and having children. A vampire could only be stopped if its body was destroyed as soon as possible, before the vampire escaped its grave in physical form. Burning the body to ashes was the sole sure method–staking and dismemberment were usually fruitless, but were tried anyway because the Orthodox Church forbade cremation.
This is the vampire legend that became our literary vampire tradition. The vampire was the eternal outsider, whether he was the alien or the prodigal son. He had been human and was no longer, even though he looked and acted human. He was feared because he couldn’t be trusted to obey the rules or recognize humans as his kin (even though some reported vampires did not seem very malign). The modern shift in vampire fiction came when we looked past our automatic mistrust of anyone apart from our tribe, and started to wonder what it was like to be that outsider, never welcome anywhere, always looking in from the darkness. “Sympathetic” vampire characters spoke to people who felt like they themselves were outcasts and wanderers who were excluded from the world of “normal people.” As immortals, vampires outlived everyone they loved and everything they knew. They were doomed to be strangers everywhere they went, forever. Such loneliness could make a villain out of almost anyone.
This is the tradition I invoke in the Vampires of New England series. My fictional vampires are few and isolated and live invisibly among human society. Their tragedy is that they can never completely participate, because they can’t allow others to know the truth about them. They yearn for the pleasures and companionship that humans take for granted. If you’ve ever felt alone and disconnected at a happy gathering, if you’re an “odd duck” in your birth family, if you’re ambivalent about Thanksgiving because you don’t seem to “fit in,” then you know how my vampires feel. They have to learn to find meaning in existence because the life passages humans take for granted are now closed to them.
I’m sure many of you reading this are a lot like me: you could associate vampires with just about anything, because vampires are a minor (or major) obsession for you. But pairing vampires and Thanksgiving isn’t a bizarre stretch. When we sit down to a feast, it’s appropriate for us to think of those who can’t share the bounty with us. Our ancestors shared symbolic meals out of fear. But we know that vampires are the reflections we see when we look into a dark glass. By stepping outside of life, vampires teach us to appreciate how precious and fragile life is. My vampires would tell you: drink deeply and take nothing for granted. The rules are more flexible than we think.
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