Monday, May 25, 2009

Interview: Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller

If you watch the History, Discovery or National Geographic channels around Halloween, when all things vampiric and Draculoric are fair game, you’ve probably seen and heard Dr. Elizabeth Miller. She is an expert on Bram Stoker and the novel Dracula, including its history and inspirations. Her many published books include Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, and Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. Professor Miller was kind enough to answer some questions for me regarding vampires in folklore and literature.

Alex: It seems as if the vampire in traditional folklore was seldom a fully conscious, will-directed creature. At what point did they become so in the popular imagination?

Dr. Miller: This started to happen as the vampire migrated from folklore to literature. The 18th-century reports about vampire sightings in central and eastern Europe coincided with (and may have contributed to) a rising interest in Gothic literature, first in Germany and later in the century, in England. The Gothic movement was part of the broader period of Romanticism, with its challenges to rationalism and its shift of philosophical emphasis to subjectivity, emotion, intuition and the imagination. The adoption of the figure of the vampire was inevitable. Appearing first as a type of "demon lover" in German poetry, the vampire made its way to England where it was embraced by the Romantic poets and shapeshifted into a full-blown aristocrat.

Dracula is the gold standard, but not the first "aristo-vampire." What prompted this shift from peasant revenent to high-born demon?

The first vampire fiction in English literature was The Vampyre. Published in 1819, The Vampyre was written by John William Polidori, who had served as Lord Byron's personal physician for a time until disputes brought an end to the relationship. Polidori clearly modeled his vampire, Lord Ruthven, on Byron. That, along with the fact that many thought that Byron had written the story, gave it instant popularity. It began what was essentially a "vampire craze" in the theatres of London and Paris during the 1820s. Lord Ruthven is the prototype of the aristocratic vampire.

During the 19th century, interest in the vampire continued, with Polidori's Ruthven as the model. By the time Bram Stoker started Dracula, a number of literary conventions for the vampire were already in place: the vampire is of an old, aristocratic (and usually foreign) family; the vampire is tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black; the vampire possesses sharp fangs which leave two bite marks on the victim; the vampire is a creature of unusual physical strength; the vampire has a strong seductive power over women; the victim's response to the vampire is ambivalent, revealing both attraction and repulsion; and the most effective way to destroy a vampire is to drive a wooden stake through its heart.

In my research folkloric vampires seem to be solitary creatures often linked to their families, yet the film version of In Search of Dracula (based on the landmark book by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu) says vampires meet on St. Andrew's Eve (November 29). Is this legitimate folklore? If so, why did the vampires meet?

I have no idea of the source of the statement re vampires meeting on St Andrew's Eve. I know that it is widespread in general folklore that evil is at its strongest on the eve of a saint's day. Indeed, Stoker encountered such a piece of lore in Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard (1885). She stated that St George's Eve was believed to be a time for the gathering of witches. No mention of vampires, however. Stoker uses this in his novel, with reference to "all the evil things in the world". I suspect the statement in the film was "wishful thinking."

There are many odd ways to identify and/or repel vampires. What's the strangest you've come across?

There are two that Stoker listed in his notes for Dracula but decided not to use in the novel:

"Painters cannot paint him - their likenesses always like someone else," and "Insensibility to music"

Vampires are now not just appealing to teenagers, but in the wake of the Twilight series they are teenagers. What do you see as future trends for the popular image of the vampire?

Vampires are likely to become so commonplace that they will lose much of their appeal. The down-side of romanticizing the vampire is that it loses the grip on that part of our imaginations that are attracted to horror.

Thanks to Professor Miller for answering my questions. You can find her newest work, Notes for Dracula, here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My WisCon schedule

If you're attending WisCon 33 in Madison, WI this coming Memorial Day weekend, you can find me at the following:


Panel: Where is the Goddess These Days?
Sat 8:30 - 9:45AM in the Capitol A room.
Rhianna Moore, Melodie Bolt, Catherine Anne Crowe and me.
Description: Previous WisCons had many program items about Goddesses and Goddess spirituality. These have been rather lacking the last few years. Is the Goddess passé, or is She so accepted there is no reason to talk about her any more? Is there any new Goddess–oriented fantasy and science fiction we might be interested in discussing?

Reading: Boll Weevils Advance From The South, Eating Everything That Tries To Stop Them Sat 1:00 - 2:15PM in Conference 2 room.
Forrest John Aguirre, Mark D. Rich, Robert F. Wexler and me.
I'll be reading from Blood Groove and The Sword-Edged Blonde; if time permits, I might squeeze in something from the next Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly.


Panel: Is Regionalism Dead?
Sun 8:30 - 9:45AM in the Senate A room.
David J. Schwartz, Catherine Cheek, Rich Novotney and me.
Description: Modern publishing technology (e.g., the Internet, desktop publishing) seems to have created a global village and shrunk the distances between major cultural centers and the far–flung places where some writers live. Yet some Canadian writers who submit to U.S. markets are regularly warned not to focus too much (if at all) on Canada, and rural writers in any country are given similar warnings about writing about their actual milieux, yet reader appetites for fiction set in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo or thinly–disguised versions of these cities are presumed to be unlimited. Let's discuss whether reality matches this perception.

Panel: The Care and Feeding of Your Vampire Sun 1:00 - 2:15PM in the Caucus room.
Fred Schepartz, Suzy Charnas, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jordan Castillo Price and me.
Description: How do our favorite undead heroes come to life? Vampire writers reveal their dark secrets and give a blood to fangs description of how they create unforgettable vampires.


The SignOut
Mon 11:30AM - 12:45PM in the Capitol/Wisconsin room.
I'll be available to sign books and chat about pretty much anything. Even if you don't have a book for me to sign, stop by and say hello.

Hope to see many of you there next weekend!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Me and Freakshow

A special guest at my Blood Groove reading and signing on May 2 at Ravenworks: Freakshow, host of Bordello of Horror.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Interview: Katherine Ramsland, author of The Science of Vampires

Vampires are illogical, impossible creatures of superstition and ignorance. So when Katherine Ramsland approached them scientifically in The Science of Vampires, she faced an uphill battle to find plausible explanations for the various bits of common knowledge about bloodsucking fiends. Using the most up-to-date technology and forward-thinking theories, she actually brought some reality to these unreal beings, and I found her book very helpful as I worked on Blood Groove.

Dr. Ramsland was kind enough to answer a few of the questions about the reality of vampires, and their place in our popular consciousness.

Alex: If Anne Rice had not come along, would the popular image of the vampire post-Barnabas Collins still have developed into a mostly sympathetic character? In other words, did Rice create the moment, or was the moment inevitable and simply coincided with her work?

Dr. Ramsland: The moment was inevitable. No one creates a phenomenon by themselves; it all happened as the convergence of many forces. You're seeing something similar now with the Twilight series.

The Twilight series seems, culturally speaking, to simply move the idea of the sympathetic vampire into the teenage realm, which logic says would be a meaningless distinction to an immortal, whatever his chronological age when he's turned. What about the Twilight series makes it a fundamental change in the popular image of the vampire?

I see nothing in the Twilight series that advances or changes the image. It seems fairly stereotypical, but it's reaching an audience that hasn't seen much vampire substance in a while and just wants more vampire.

Is there any possible scientific validation for the concept of resurrecting a vampire by removing the stake from his/her heart?

No. The notion is a myth, with the superstitious folk idea of pinning a corpse into the coffin, to keep it from leaving. Fiction writers then gave it a spin. To say that science would support re-animation means you think an immortal vampire is possible.

If we accept that sunlight can destroy vampires, why wouldn't moonlight--reflected sunlight--do the same?

The notion of the sun's destruction comes from the sun being symbolic of God. The vampire's soul is supposedly damned - or actually, nonexistent - so exposure to God would destroy the vampire. It's not actually about exposure to light per se, or they'd explode in any lighted arena.

Is there any way to extrapolate what the long-term psychological changes might be in a consciousness capable of existing and maturing for longer than a single human lifetime?

Yes, of course. As with all of us, to sustain passion for life we must develop a sense of momentum into the future. That would mean a healthy dose of curiosity, a sense of challenge, and a sense of accomplishment as a satisfying reward. It also means the ability to plan and implement it, and an inner drive that has a self-renewing factor from the sheer energy of being alive. We see people who can barely sustain this into their 20s before they fade away into substance abuse and boredom. Others live to be over 100, with plenty of life-sustaining energy.

Do you think there's any special, specific mental or emotional quality, unique to this sort of creature, that would be especially necessary to sustain this inner drive over, say, centuries of conscious existence?

Perspective. The more you see and the more opportunities you have to broaden your sense of the world, the more perspective you acquire. Sometimes this also delivers wisdom, and wisdom generally feeds curiosity, which is the basis of passion. Someone with perspective understands that contentment is about appreciating what you have and paying forward to others when you can.

How do you see a vampire “paying forward?"

Not as a generous gesture but as a means of making their existence more interesting. I don't have specifics. Each one will do whatever his or her personality and situation dictate, which is also true for non-vampires.

Thanks to Dr. Ramsland for taking the time to answer these questions.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Winner of signed copy of Blood Groove

Last Friday, anyone who commented on a particular post was entered to win a signed copy of Blood Groove. And the winner is...


Please send your mailing address to me at:

alex at alexbledsoe dot com

If you'd like the book personalized to someone else, let me know as well.

Thanks to everyone who entered! Keep an eye out here for more contests.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Book, the Movie: Casting Blood Groove

Over at My Book, the Movie, Marshal Zeringue interviews me about the "ideal" cast for a hypothetical film version of Blood Groove.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview: Kim Newman, author of The Man from the Diogenes Club

Like my novel Blood Groove, Kim Newman's hysterically funny, thrilling and affecting short story collection, The Man from the Diogenes Club, is set in the Seventies. In Newman's case it's England in the early part of the decade, where the titular club (originated by Arthur Conan Doyle) is now the headquarters of an organization that battles supernatural and out-of-the-ordinary crimes. The agent at the center of the stories is Richard Jeperson, a gaudy clotheshorse and brilliant investigator who appreciates the absurdities around him, much as Newman does in the situations he contrives.

Newman, also a noted film critic and author of the classic vampire novel Anno Dracula, was kind enough to answer some questions about recreating such an oft-despised era.

Alex: Why did you pick the 70s for Jeperson's adventures?

Kim: It wasn’t quite that way round – I needed a 1970s character for this long piece (Seven Stars), and picked one I created in the early ‘70s in my first attempts at fiction. Of course, first time round, he wasn’t a ‘70s’ character but a contemporary one - that aspect became important in recreating him, his supporting cast and the world. I was a teenager in the ‘70s, remember it well and had a lot of formative experiences then. When I wrote the first few Jeperson stories (‘The End of the Pier Show’ was first), the ‘70s wasn’t particularly often used in genre fiction as a period setting; since then, it’s become more common, though not always in the ways I’ve highlighted.

You get a lot of great mileage out of Jeperson's fashion sense. How did you decide on his outfits?

A combination of memory, research and imagination. I admit that in the 1969-set story I’m writing at the moment, I dressed the heroine in the outfit that Linda Thorson is wearing in the March page of the Avengers calendar that hangs over my desk. This aspect of the stories has become a lot easier with broadband internet (also useful for things like period cars) to help with the research.

You imply that a lot of today's issues had their origins in the 70s, when many contemporary movers and shakers were young. Was this a dramatic device, or do you truly see that era's narcissism as the prelude to today's cutthroat culture?

That’s exactly the point of the stories – beyond generally having fun. I wanted to look at the origins or analogues of modern ills (I’ve done that in 19th Century-set stories too) in the past. I also think the contemporary reader needs a hook beyond nostalgia to get much out of the stories.

Was there any aspect of the time period you wanted to incorporate, but couldn't manage to work into a story for this collection?

Not really. I’m wary of doing too many stories in this series (though, as I said, I’m writing one now – about the moon landings), and have hung some of them on things that were features of the 1970s or types of stories common in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve a vague sense that I ought to do a blaxploitation or kung fu story (I’ve not done one set in America, even), but think that a white British guy writing Harlem dialogue might come across very poorly.

I've had some criticism for writing black characters in my vampire novel who spoke the way I remember (I was a teenager in the 70s as well, in the American South where I set my novel). Do you think that's a legitimate position? Or is it a line that will always cause offense if it's crossed? And is the risk of causing offense reason enough to avoid the topic?

I think you're on firmer ground writing from experience. In my case, I'd be drawing on having seen a lot of Pam Grier movies or - if I worked hard - reading Chester Himes novels rather than real life. I'm not saying I wouldn't do it - I've also not thought up a proper blaxploitation story worth doing in the series - but I would feel obliged to take a bit more care. I'm certainly willing to offend people, and can't really avoid it given the kind of material I like - but I'm also all too well aware that it's very easy to come off sounding silly.

Thanks to Kim for taking the time to talk to me. Watch for another Diogenes Club collection from MonkeyBrain Press next year, as well as a hugely revised edition of his non-fiction book Nightmare Movies from Bloomsbury.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Interview: Lisa Stock, director of the Blood Groove trailer

I first encountered the films of Lisa Stock, and Lisa herself, at WisCon in 2008. She was promoting her short films and multimedia work (such as the phenomenal Through the Cobweb Forest), and I was absolutely astounded by them. When it came time to do a video trailer for Blood Groove, I knew I wanted to work with a real filmmaker like her. Luckily, she was willing to bring her considerable talent to what could easily be a mere commercial. In the process, she did indeed turn it into a lot more than that.

Alex: You approach visual arts as a deliberately mythopoetic form. How were you able to bring that to bear on the Blood Groove trailer?

Lisa: One of the things I like about the book is that it doesn't fall back on the ages old vampire cliches. In fact, one of its characters spends a portion of the book dispelling those myths. And I use that for the opening of the trailer in the trial scene. You've created your own archetypes in Blood Groove and I tried to pick up on those - while bringing in elements that were meaningful to me. Take for instance the museum (I've worked in two museums before). I won't give away what happens here in the book - but it's a perfect mythic place for so many reasons - past and present face each other, there's discovery, initiation, sacrifice - all themes we deal with on a daily basis, but like to analyze in a different context.

What aspects of the novel seemed to lend themselves to a visual interpretation?

As Fauvette was discovering the world anew - so was I. Love this character! And seeing her world come to life was instrumental to the trailer I wanted to create for the book. Not only how she viewed the world (the sun, the paintings, the warehouse), but how we viewed her as well. And there are two very different Fauvettes in the trailer. She too - is very mythic to me, very visual. At once, she's a damned soul dragged up from Hell, and Persephone risen from the Underworld. And of course, just on the fun side, any chance we get to put dough and cumin in someone's hair to make it look like she hasn't washed in a year - I jump on it! LOL!

Was it difficult having me over your shoulder, metaphorically speaking?

Not at all. Believe me, I don't say that about everyone I've worked with - haha! I need to keep in mind that when I'm creating a video for someone else, I representing them and their work. So, there are some ideas I need to let go of. Nothing major though this time, if at all - you and I were pretty much on the same page. And it was really nice that you let me use my creativity as much as I wanted. That isn't always the case. However, the most important thing to me is that the person I'm working with be truly happy and comfortable with the final video - so they can put it out to the world without reservations.

This was your first book trailer; what about the project surprised you most?

Yes! Thank you for trusting me with my first book trailer. It was fun to work on. What surprised me the most was how the trailer sort of jumped out at me while reading the book. I guess I figured I'd have to write something huge - the manuscript you sent me being over 400 pages - and then whittle away and whittle away and make agonizing decisions about what to cut out of the trailer script. But again, I think it was the archetypes you created standing up and making themselves known. And it really was only a couple of drafts before I sent the script on to you for approval. And that was surprisingly nice! We've really only touched the surface of the story in the trailer. We've given your readers the motifs that are present throughout the story, but all the juicy details they'll have to discover on their own!

Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to talk to me about the trailer. It can be found on this blog here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Past vampire-related posts

For new readers who might be interested, here's rundown of some of my older vampire-related blog posts:

A look at the 1943 classic Son of Dracula, in which a great film succeeds despite a totally miscast title character.

Five cool things about the classic novel Dracula that you might not know.

Steampunk bloodsuckers: review of the film Perfect Creature.

On rewriting Dracula for kids.