Category Archives: Vampires

How I Built My Vampires — Part One, Apex Predators

Two weeks until Generation V is on the shelves! This is amazing, because I can try and work it into conversations in a very fake-casual kind of way. “Oh, week after next? Well, I have that dermatologist appointment, and then I thought I’d swing over to the bookstore. No big deal. Thought I’d buy Munchkin Chtulhu… and MY OWN BOOK THAT GETS PUBLISHED THAT DAY!”

Very exciting times right now. Advance copies of Generation V have gotten three really nice reviews on Goodreads, which everyone should go and read. Here’s a snippet of what David Caldwell wrote about Generation V:

This isn’t your typical vampire/shapechanger novel.The author has come up with a new and creative take on vampires.The idea of the host is great and gets rid of a lot of the problems presented in most vampire tales.Vampires aren’t immortal, just very long lived.They continue to grow strongeras they age.They also gain many of the weaknesses(like having to avoid the sun) as they age.

And Matt Lunn:

M.L. Brennan develops a very likable hero and excellent surrounding characters to go with an interesting new take on old vampire myths.

And Django Wexler (full disclosure, I know Django, and his first book The Thousand Names is incredibly cool and amazing and I reviewed the crap out of it already.):

It’s always nice to see an original take on the vampire mythos. (Including, for once, a reason why vampires haven’t overrun the world!)

I’ll brag a little here – all three of those reviewers also gave me five out of five stars. (fact: I am going to bawl my eyes out the first time someone give a nasty review)

But what all three reviewers were talking about was the way that I reimagined and rebuilt vampires in this series, so I thought that this could be something useful and interesting to blog about today.

Firstly, I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the vampire myth as it usually plays out, for pretty much the same reason that Django refers to – if vampires are immortal and all they have to do to make more of themselves is bite someone, have that person drink a little bit of blood, and then you have another vampire? You have a massive population control problem that will fairly quickly result in the entire world being covered by vampires!

You can actually see this play out by watching The Vampire Diaries. At this point, basically all the original humans are now vampires. Or dead.

You can actually see this play out by watching The Vampire Diaries. At this point, basically all the original humans are now vampires. Or dead.

I knew before I even started planning the series that I wanted my vampires to have a lifespan. Because, let’s face it, immortal characters are boring. They have no life cycle, they have no particular stake in doing anything. But then there was the question of what kind of life cycle? I didn’t want this to be a thousand years kind of thing, because then you’re only ever within two generations of the time of Christ, and honestly, that’s a little weird to think about. “Oh, that guy? Yeah, my grandpa was drinking buddies with him. Man, did that Nazarian like to put back a few bottles of wine.”

I also really didn’t want a protagonist who was a few hundred years old. Unless I made it a completely separatist society, the vampire would have a really tough time rolling with the constant changes in time. And half of his memories would involve women in corsets, a lack of flush toilets, and the days when Mozart’s music was banned for being too racy.

When I started constructing my vampires, I wanted them to make sense in a biological way. Not a lot of sense, granted, since this is still fantasy and my field of study was in the humanities, but just enough that I felt like I could work with it.

My first step was to think about how vampires would fit into the natural world. Essentially we’re talking about an apex predator in its ecosystem – big, in charge, eats what it wants and no one eats it.

Vampires are basically Great White Sharks.

For reference – in this parallel, humans are that seal

For reference – in this parallel, humans are that seal

Now, Great White Sharks are amazing, and badass, and the entire reason behind Discovery’s Shark Week. But like all apex predators, they are also inherently vulnerable because of this important fact – prey species must reproduce quickly, because it’s through sheer numbers and fecundity that the species can continue, since just about everything eats them (think bunnies here). But apex predators are different. For one thing, it usually takes them much longer than their prey to reach maturity – both physical maturity and then sexual maturity. After all, nothing is eating them, so what’s the rush? Secondly, they tend to reproduce less often, and in smaller numbers, because, again, no one is eating them, so no worries.

Which is fine… as long as nothing effects that ecosystem.

Here’s the thing about an apex predator – they are far more vulnerable to changes than their prey species. They are also far easier to wipe out, because of those important traits – slow to mature, slow to breed, and then they produce small numbers of offspring.

This takes us back to the badass Great White Shark. We don’t know a whole hell of a lot about them, but we do know that they live 30+ years, and that they don’t reach sexual maturity until around year 15. They also have an eleven-month gestation cycle, and deliver between 2 to 14 live pups, which then swim off and have to fend for themselves while they get bigger.

That long maturation period and relatively low amount of young makes them very vulnerable. For example, if suddenly another species comes along with boats and the interest in sport-fishing them and/or making tasty soup out of their fins, a huge dent can be made in the population, and this is a population that can’t bounce back very quickly.

And that led me to an idea I really liked – that vampires were a species that was barely hanging on, because the long maturation period and the low birth rate had been a disaster once humans began developing technology that could offset the natural power imbalance between them. Imagine a rabbit vs. a wolf. Now imagine if the rabbit is carrying a rabbit-sized AK-47. Those big teeth don’t make such a difference now, do they?

So vampires are strong, and powerful… but it takes them a while to get that way, just like baby Great White Shark. And if normal humans (the rabbits) traditionally reach sexual maturity around 15-18, then my vampires don’t hit it until they’re around 250. And the birthrate is very low – usually between one or two offspring in a regular vampire’s lifespan.

Now my primary vampire, Madeline Scott, is unusually fertile in the vampire world. Her oldest is Prudence, who was born in 1775. Then Chivalry in 1864. Then Fortitude, who is now 26. And none of her children are old enough to either leave home or start a family themselves, though Prudence is getting close.

To me, that seemed both interesting and plausible that this was a species that A) hadn’t overrun the entire world, and B) could be pushed right up to the edge of extinction.

But most importantly, C) would be neat to write about.

That was how I imagined I used the idea of vampires as apex predators to construct my species. But I also had a second way of interpreting vampires, which I’ll go into more next time –

Vampires are apex predators. But they also are very specific predators, feeding solely on the blood of another species. Which to me made them…

Parasites.

And this was when the vampire lifecycle started getting interesting...

And this was when the vampire lifecycle started getting interesting…

On Vampires: Anne Rice and the Vampire Chronicles

Anne Rice is the person who made one of the biggest recent changes to the vampire myth. Namely, her work made vampires homoerotic.

Yup. We’re just two dudes. Two tooootally heterosexual dudes. Just bro-ing out here. In a straight way.

Before Rice hit the scene, Dracula bit pretty girls while gal vampires heaved menacingly at human guys. Then the gal vampires were usually staked by those guys, because that was always the trial run before going up against Dracula.

But notice the pattern – Dracula either hung out completely by himself (maybe with the occasional wolfman if this was a mash-up movie), or had kind of a back-up chorus of three or fewer bosomy vampire gal-pals. And the biting always fell along very strict hetero-normative sexual lines. Boys only bite girls! Girls try unsuccessfully to bite guys!

Rice’s first book, though, is about a guy named Louis who is bitten and turned by a vampire named Lestat. Just two guys biting, ya’ll. They then live together for years, biting other people merrily regardless of gender, until one day they adopt a little girl named Claudia, and show everyone that family is about love, not sexual orientation.

You know, it wasn’t until I was actually thinking about the movie to write this blog entry that I started getting all “Claudia Has Two Daddies” about it. This makes sense, since it was also not until YEARS after I’d read it that I realized that The Chronicles Of Narnia has an entire Jesus sub-text to it.

Okay, and maybe that “adopt a little girl” last part was that Lestat makes a bone-headed decision to turn a six-year-old girl into a vampire, which ends badly first when Claudia is, you know, kind of pissed about being forever trapped in the body of a six-year-old when her mind kept developing. She tries to kill Lestat, but six-year-olds can’t do anything right, and he lives. Then there’s some running around in Europe, and the vampires over there are creeped out by Claudia and burn her.

Little girls are always creepy. It’s why horror movies love having little girl ghosts or little girl psychics. But little girl vampires are even creepier, especially when they have hair like that and start trying to totally hit on Brad Pitt.

My first exposure to Rice’s vampires was when I saw the movie. It came out in 1993, but this is another one that I saw on video, so I’m going to hazard a guess that I saw it around 13 or 14. Notable about the film is that this was done back when Brad Pitt was known as a total pretty-boy actor (remember those days?), and that Kirsten Dunst played the six-year-old. And that I think that ¾ of the movie’s budget must’ve been spent on hair-care products, because everyone looks like they are in the middle of a Vidal Sassoon ad. The vampire as played by Fabio had totally just arrived – note that old-school Draculas always have very slickly pomaded hair a la Legosi.

Yeah, no one was taking him seriously as an actor back then. Probably because he looked like Fabio’s understudy.

I read the book Interview With The Vampire a few years later, probably around 16 or 17. The Vampire Chronicles were pretty big in my high school at the time, which is kind of funny now that I look at high schoolers and Twilight. Did my generation’s parents look at us and wonder what the hell was up with all the vampire humpery? Probably. At least our vampires were post-high school Eurotrash, though. And they never sparkled.

True fact: I had a friend in high school who would very seriously tell you that she was a vampire. It was pretty weird. So I shouldn’t claim too much high ground over contemporary high school kids – after all, we were pretty stupid at times too.

Anyway, back to the Vampire Chronicles. After I read the first book, I kind of limped through The Vampire Lestat. Okay, I skimmed it. Truth: Lestat spends so much of that book covering his ass for shit that went down in book one that I seriously wonder whether Anne Rice had any original plans to write a sequel. Plus, Lestat whines. Worse than Louis in book one.

Note this other new addition to the vampire mythos: The vampire as brooding whiner. And Anne Rice completely pioneered this. I mean, sure, Dracula will periodically get chatty, and he spends a lot of time wandering around Castle Dracula in his bathrobe with his hair still in curlers, but the man doesn’t whine. He turns around and says, “Dude, I need to get out of my rut!” Then he buys property in England and starts biting British girls – problem solved! He could write his own self-help book.

This is the face of depression.

Not so with Rice vampires. Pretty fluffy hair, brooding and whining. Interesting to note is that her vampires are pretty damn eroticized, but become basically impotent when they are changed. It’s a neat trick, and probably part of why the Rice vampires were so popular with high school girls.

There’s no staking with Rice vampires. They can be burned with sun or fire, and I sort of remember some beheading chatter at some point (this was a while ago), but that’s it. Fundamentally, Rice also shifted the playing field in her books. Dracula is about when the vampire comes into contact with people, and how they have to drive him back. Rice vampires hang out together, live together, play together, comb their shiny shiny hair together, and get super political. Humans aren’t involved. In fact, when humans do get involved, they are invariably turned into vampires. They don’t say, “Shit! You’re killing people! I need to get my Jonathan Harker on!” They say, “Immortality, increased hotness, and shiny hair? Dude, sign me up.” There isn’t even any brooding about it – the thing that I always found both off-putting and interesting about the Rice universe is that vampirism itself is presented as the natural thing to desire. The vampire state has shifted, then, from the Dracula presentation of The Fate Worse Than Death to The Fate That Will Totally Save Your Life And Clear Up Your Skin. It’s a pretty significant change.

My involvement with Rice was always problematic. I actually never finished The Vampire Lestat, and instead skipped forward to Queen Of The Damned, which I had heard from a friend was better. It totally was, by the way. Queen Of The Damned is absolutely my favorite Rice book, because she starts working on a really large canvas, brings in larger than life characters, and because I was able to completely skip over the Lestat bits and still keep up with the story.

I never read The Tale of the Body Thief, and I skipped around in Memnoch The Devil, which to be honest I only picked up in the first place because I’m Catholic, and no Catholic alive can resist a book that mentions the Veronica’s Veil story.

By this point, Anne Rice was entering a really prolific period, and new books were actually coming out at the same time that I was now old enough to read them, but I did call it quits around then. I did read Pandora when it came out, but that’s notable in that it was a pre-history vampire saga with a lot of emphasis on the days of the Roman Empire. It was a good one, and I think was one of the times when I was really able to appreciate Anne Rice’s writing in a venue where I wasn’t having Lestat-related issues.

But, without a doubt, The Vampire Chronicles really changed the vampire scene. Most importantly, vampires in those books had gone from monsters to heroes – they weren’t something that the characters encountered, they WERE the characters. My next two big influences were ones that really built on the foundation that Rice put down.

Next time, Anita Blake (the early years).

On Vampires: Dracula

My main character in Generation V is a vampire. This is in no way a scientific declaration, but I’d say that vampires are probably the most used fantasy creature, with werewolves sliding into the number two spot. After that are probably witches and, far in the distance, elves.

There are actually a huge amount of vampire myths, and when you go back into the original stuff you’ll notice a fairly massive difference between how we view the classic vampire now and how they were originally conceived. For one thing, they were generally not looked on as particularly sexy, while that is practically the guiding principle now. Bram Stoker’s Dracula changed a lot of stuff (though if you read it, he doesn’t exactly come off as particularly attractive).

But here are the things that is pretty much the dogma for the modern vampire:

• No sunlight.
• Issues with garlic.
• No reflections.
• Nourished solely by blood.
• They were all once human, and had to die to become a vampire.
• Once a human becomes a vampire, they cease aging entirely.
• They can be warded off by crosses, and holy water will burn them.
• A vampire can make a human into a vampire. (this process is permanent)
• The only way to kill a vampire is to drive a stake through its heart.

Are those the only things? Definitely not. Here are a few others that are less common, but still pop up:

• Vampires cannot cross running water.
• Vampires are completely OCD, and if you leave a pile of rice, they have to stop and count each grain. (okay, that one doesn’t come up much, but in the classic vampire myths this one came up a lot)
• Decapitation can also work for killing a vampire.
• Vampires like to wear leather (seriously, tell me this isn’t a thing)

Now, every person who either writes a vampire book, TV series, or movie plays around with these things. Take sunlight – sometimes they can go outside in it as long as they wear sunglasses (are there are any Moonlight fans in the house?), but other times they are actually rendered completely helpless and have to hide out in coffins or basements.

So there really isn’t a “right” kind of vampire right now. Everyone who writes vampires ends up putting some kind of different spin on the idea to create “their” vampire. I’m pretty much the same – I took a basic modern vampire idea, then started making adjustments until I ended up with a vampire that was interesting to me. Some things I changed a lot – for instance, my vampires have no problems at all with running water! Okay, that one has pretty much been abandoned. But think about that one for a second – if someone wrote a vampire story where vampires couldn’t cross running water, does this mean that you’d be safe if you hid out in a shower? Characters would be all, “Oh noes, vampires! Quick, get into the shower!

So for the next few entries, I’m going to write about my vampire influences. For kicks, I’ll even try to keep this relatively chronological. Should be fun, and if anyone is reading along, feel free to chime in down in the comments section!

The first vampire influence I can remember is….

Dracula. The 1992 movie.

The one with Keanu Reeves. (yes, the horror!)

I was ten the year that it hit theaters, which means that this actually isn’t really my first vampire influence (I saw it on video). But I really don’t want to spend an entire entry ruminating about Count Chocula cereal commercials and what I remember of Count Duckula cartoons.

If you remember Count Duckula, though, mental high-five.

According to IMDb (because I refuse to watch that movie again, even for the sake of this blog) that also starred Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, and Gary Oldman, which is blowing my mind completely, because I actually do not remember any of those people, who I know I’d seen in other stuff by that age. And apparently Cary Elwes was in this thing! That is amazing that I actually didn’t remember that, given that I should’ve recognized him from The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. (side fact: I know that I saw Robin Hood: Men In Tights before I saw Dracula, because that movie was the first Mel Brooks film I ever saw, and was basically my personal benchmark for humor for many, many years.) (another side fact: The IMDb photo of Cary Elwes? Dude, I know you couldn’t stay looking like Guilford Dudley or Captain William Boone forever, but, seriously, that just made me sad)

But back to Keanu Reeves. This was maybe not the best casting decision, and it has stuck in my mind for years and years. Basically, at one point Keanu (playing Harker, kind of sucking at it) has been abandoned at Castle Dracula and is imprisoned by the female vampires. Here’s half of my big long-term takeaway from this movie: the female vampires were really, really slutty. They were also interchangeably attractive, but mostly slutty. Also noticeably, they really don’t have characters. While Dracula has lots of dialogue and motivation, the female vampires are mostly there to add heaving cleavage. You could credit part of that to the original book (Bram Stoker clearly had some era-appropriate problems with female sexuality, with the result being that women who show arousal and desire are either evil vampires or on their way to becoming evil vampires.), but Lucy’s transition from modest English rose to heaving, pawing, British man assaulting creature of the night doesn’t stand by itself in the canon.

The other half of my takeaway was Gary Oldman’s hair as Dracula. Seriously, look at this shit:

Yeah, you can tell that he casts no reflection.

Relevant to the book? About 50%. Color and creepy old-man, yeah, but, really, those are Madonna hair tits on top of that! Remember when Leslie Nielsen riffed on that hairdo in Dracula: Dead and Loving It? (which is completely one of my other great influences, which will probably go unexamined, lest I just spend an entire post quoting awesome lines and linking to YouTube videos)

Oh, what the hell. Watch this, and if you don’t laugh, you’re a cylon.

Then, of course, there’s the whole thing where coming to England has returned Dracula to his youth, where we get this:

Now who does this remind me of…

And suddenly I know who Johnny Depp’s personal style icon is. Good grief!

Noticeable both here and in the original text is that the sunlight issue is really flexible. Dracula is strolling around on the streets of London, which at least suggests that foggy days are okay. Also, once he starts looking like Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman’s Dracula does start showing some strut, but this kind of vampire doesn’t have that very blatant sexuality that started happening later. Okay, okay, yes, you can always make the vampire bite = sex comparison, but this is more about presentation.

Vampires weren’t that complicated in this movie. Yeah, there’s the old-to-young thing, and we definitely have that strong establishment that male vampires are of the classy and debonair school of monster-dom (as opposed to wolfman or Frankenstein), but his motivations do basically boil down to: meet pretty girl, bite pretty girl, pretty girl then becomes kind of like a hooker who I no longer pay attention to. The heroes here are the guys trying to save the pretty girl and kill the vampire. My next influence would really change a lot of these basic elements.

Next time, Anne Rice, and the vampire craze of the 1990s.