Done to Undeath:
Vampire Clichés that Suck the Life From Your Stories
By Carter Nipper
Fiction is an effective way to explore new territories. Walking the same old paths to the same old destinations seldom, if ever, produces good fiction. We cannot be afraid to branch out in different directions, to experiment, to explore new territory. We can amaze our readers and ourselves with the treasures that we find along the way. Vampire stories are one group that frequently fall victim to clichés. Below are some time-worn monsters that lie in wait to prey upon the unwary.
Central European Count
Stoker and Lugosi introduced us to the mysterious Count from the haunted regions of Central and Eastern Europe. By making the Count so fundamental a part of the story, they may have done us a disservice. When most of us think of vampires today, we automatically conjure up the sights and sounds of the ancient castle in barely-explored mountains, the exotic accents, rustic villagers huddled behind barred doors after dark.
Vampire legends are not limited to Central or Eastern Europe, though these are the settings best known to Western horror readers. Vampires of different kinds have a long and rich tradition in most cultures throughout history and across the world. How would Polynesian culture interpret the vampire mythos? What about Amazon rain forest natives? Inuit? Bedouins? Less familiar cultures provide us with fertile ground in which to grow new and more terrible monsters.
Vampires need not be limited to the nobility, either. Though higher classes may have more money and privacy and are also given more leeway to be eccentric, the everyday populace could be more vulnerable than the well-protected well-to-do. Common people might make much more fascinating vampires. Since they lack the wealth and resources of a noble, their early existence would be extremely dangerous. They would have to learn to live by their wits and would become very resourceful. To me, that makes a much more dangerous enemy. I also believe that a monster that is like you and me is far more frightening. What can be worse than looking at a vampire and seeing yourself?
The cross has long been an effective weapon against vampires. However, it is far past time to let go of ethnocentrism and religious chauvinism. Christians are a definite minority in the world, and there is no reason to assume that the symbols of this particular religion would have any universal effect on monsters.
Let's try a different scenario: what about a pre-Christian vampire, maybe Sumerian or Hittite? What effect would a cross have on a Jewish vampire? Or a Buddhist? What symbols would have an effect? Different religions have different philosophies for defining and dealing with evil. There are enormous untapped reserves here for us to exploit.
While we're on this subject, let's bury another cliché at the crossroads. Crossed sticks don't make a cross. Does the power of a religious symbol lie in its consecration or the belief of the holder? If crossed sticks make vampire repellent, what about crossed index fingers? Following that line of thought, why should water have to be blessed in order to have any effect? Why not any water that a believer uses?
The effect of this fallacy is that any mundane object could defeat the monster if used properly. This defangs the beast and renders it impotent, thus removing any fear or horror that it might once have generated. What is the point in writing about a monster with no power to harm? Our monsters must be fearsome, dangerous, almost impossible to overcome. This what generates the conflict and suspense that drives a story.
Vampire as Cop
A night shift cop, usually a detective, uses his supernatural powers to get the bad guys. He is stronger and faster than the crooks. He is virtually invulnerable to bullets, knives, blackjacks, etc., and crooks are not likely to go armed with crucifixes and wooden stakes. He can see in the dark and turn into a bat to fly to the scene of the crime. Again, there is no conflict, no suspense. What real danger is this character ever going to be in? Even if the bad guys are also vampires, he is on an equal footing with them, and it's just another cop story.
Vampires do make excellent good guys. The possibilities for internal conflict and moral dilemmas are almost endless. To find the real story, we must put ourselves into the vampire's mind. What scares you? Chances are, that would scare me, too. What are the moral implications of having to kill to survive and how would a more conscientious vampire resolve them? Blood banks and farm animals as sources of blood have also been worn out. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro explored the idea of a person who voluntarily donated her blood to keep the Count Saint-Germain alive. Can we ring some changes on this and explore it more deeply? Why would someone do such a thing? What are their motivations, and what do they gain from this relationship?
Drunk Vampire, Vampire Infected With AIDS, etc.
A vampire feeds on a wino and gets drunk, or feeds on an HIV-positive person and gets AIDS. Both of these ideas fly in the face of the supernatural nature of the vampire. If they were subject to the mundane ailments of mortal humans, we could capture a vampire using a tranquilizer dart or kill one by injecting it with any everyday poison. Again, this renders a potentially fearsome monster impotent.
Though the humorous potential of a drunk vampire is enormous, it has been used so many times that many editors are now specifically excluding this story from consideration. Again, we must move beyond the ordinary in order to create interesting creatures. One question we might consider is: what would an immortal being do for entertainment or distraction? After several hundred or thousand years, he must be terribly bored. What new and inventive (and horrible) games would he play? That's something to sleep on.
Potential Victim is Vampire
Mea culpa. I've done this one. Most horror writers do at least once. The basic story is: serial killer/stalker tracks victim. Victim turns out to be a vampire and turns the tables on the attacker. This is deus ex machina at its worst. It is at least on a par with "and then I woke up." It's easy and attractive, but stories like this don't play fair with the reader. Above all else, we must not cheat our readers. They don't like it and we pay for our transgressions through a loss of audience. Once a reader is disappointed in one story, the chances are very slim that he will ever read anything else by the same author. One thing I have learned is that twists in the tale can often turn all the way around and bite the writer.
These are just some of the creaky old vampire clichés that we should avoid. How do we avoid them? Good stories require work, especially worldbuilding and character building. We are always tempted to follow the old and the usual paths, since the hard work has been done for us. We must not give in to temptation. The easy way is very seldom the best way.
We must bring our monsters to life, make them real. By building original monsters that do not succumb to the ordinary tricks, we can create fearful characters that will haunt our readers long after the tale is done. And isn't that the point?