Tales of the living dead

Stephanie Meyer may have turned vampire tales into sappy love stories. But in the old literary tradition, Vampires have always represented the sinister other.

Nandini Ramachandran June 06, 2011 18:19:18 IST
Tales of the living dead

If you cast a glance upwards, you will notice I have the kind of nose for which the word protuberant was invented. It is prone to flaring even further in moments of high drama. Perched upon a tapering face, my nose is my deterrent from a life of crime. The disloyal appendage would instantly identify me on grainy satellite photos once I am a fugitive on the run from justice. When I read Nikolai Gogol's The Nose, therefore, I am always bewitched. Here, finally, is someone who understands the agony of owning an unwieldy nose.

The Nose is the story of a vagrant nose. Modestly becoming as we begin the story, the Nose proceeds to falls off its face and crawl away, only returning post many hysterics. For weeks, spare moments in school were spent imagining what I would say were I to encounter my nose on the street. What kind of a person would she be? Imperious, I assumed, and boisterous. Unable to shut up. Monstrously social, energetic, well dressed. The exact opposite of the face which first gave her life. The Nose, after all, is transformed when bestowed with personality. Mine, given such freedom, would wreak havoc. As horrid as one’s nose is, even worse would be the “absurd smooth flatness” of her absence. This nose, if nothing else, occupies an obscene quantity of facial real estate.

Like many Indian readers of my generation, I was formally introduced to Gogol by way of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. When I first read The Nose I didn’t know who Gogol was, or that he was a famed storyteller. I even thought I was finally developing that most prized of literary qualities — personal taste— until I re-encountered The Nose in the Italo Calvino anthology Fantastic Tales.

It was one of two stories I had already read as I found the book (the other was by Hans Christian Anderson). Oppressed within this book bustling with The Masters, I was relieved to scuttle back to a familiar face. Fatefully, the story right after Gogol’s is Théophile Gautier’s The Beautiful Vampire. Unlike The Nose, which entices its reader with frankly impossible things happening to entirely normal people, Gautier’s story is directly inspired by Hoffman’s interest in nightmare creatures.

Tales of the living dead

Vampires are meant to evoke the sinister side of society, not the shiny side of it. Image: Photo by ABC Television/Courtesy of Getty Image

Vampires, besides, are a breed of miscreants I have an unhealthy passion for. Dracula hypnotises me every time, and Nosferatu is the creepiest movie I have watched yet. Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was the light of my adolescent life. I am a Buffy cultist and a Being Human fangirl. I even attempted Pyaar ki Ek Kahani, Ekta Kapoor’s hilarious take on the American show  The Vampire Diaries.

The only line I draw, to be honest, is Twilight. Edward Cullen is sad mockery of vampires. As I argued in my epic essay about Joss Whedon— behind the television shows Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse— vampires are meant to evoke the sinister side of society, not the shiny side of it. They are the Other that literature so adroitly transforms into evil monsters. Consider Guatier’s own description of the impulse behind fantastic fiction in Tableaux du Siège:

"Under every great city there are lion cages, caverns sealed with thick iron bars that contain wild animals, stinking beasts, poisonous beasts, all the refractory perversities that civilisation hasn’t been able to tame: those that like blood, those that enjoy stealing, those for whom attacking decency represents love, all the monsters of the heart, all the deformed souls; it is a filthy population, unknown during daylight, that move sinister in the depths of underground dark. One day, a distracted keeps leaves the keys in the cages’ doors, and the beasts invade the frightened city. From the open cages emerged the hyenas of 1793 [the year the Terror overtook the French Revolution] and the gorillas of La Commune."

Gautier was one of the earliest proponents of speculative fiction in France, and The Beautiful Vampire (1836) is a landmark of the genre. I couldn't introduce it better than Calvino himself:

"The theme of the living dead is and vampires (a female vampire in this case) is found here in a realisation of the highest quality, one that deserved Baudelaire’s praises… The temptation of Romauld, the newly ordained priest who meets the beautiful Clarimonde; the vision of the city from the towers above, with the palace of the courtesans illuminated by the sun… the uncertainty as to whether the dream is his days as a poor priest or his nights in Renaissance orgies; the discovery that Clarimonde is a vampire who drinks her lover’s blood: there are so many great passages that create a tradition. A tradition as well in second-class literature and film: for instance, the exhumation of Clarimonde’s cadaver, intact in its coffin with blood on its lips, which suddenly turns into a skeleton."

In honour of the beautiful Clarimonde and her dusted corpse, thus, a poem by the wry Roger McGough, who infuses his macabre subject with light humour and great empathy:

Vampire

Blood is an acquired taste
‘tis warm and sickly
and sticks to the teeth
a surfeit makes me puke.

I judge my victims as a connoisseur
A sip here, a mouthful there.
I never kill
and am careful to cause no pain
to those who sleeping nourish me
and calling once never call again.

So if one morning you awake,
stretch, and remember
dark dreams of
falling
falling

If your neck is sore
A mark that wasn’t there the night before
Be not afeared ‘tis but a sign
I give thee thanks
I have drunk thy wine.

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