Let’s Talk About Vampire Literature

So at IU, where I’m a graduate student, I give an undergraduate course on vampires in literature. When I tell people what I’m teaching, I get reactions like:Penguin Book of Vampire Stories

“You must be a big fan of vampires.” Penguin Book of Vampire Stories

“Wait, vampire literature? Is there such a thing?”

“Do you teach Twilight?”

“Oh my, I bet you get so sick of the same thing over and over.”

I’ll tackle these responses one by one to give you a glimpse of how I approach the course.

“You must be a big fan of vampires.”·

Actually, before deciding on the theme of the course, the only novel on vampires I had read was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (This is a great book, by the way, and it’s fantastic on audiobook.) But I was aware of all the hype around Twilight and other vampire-themed novels, and I wondered, what’s the prehistory of this phenomenon? I also talked to students about what topic they’d love taking a class on, and vampires kept coming up.

So on day one of the vamp lit class, I come clean to my students: I’m no expert on the vampire literature. We work together to come up with interpretations and to trace recurring themes, attend to differences among the text, and figure out how we got from folkloric representations of vampires as animated corpses to the glittery-skinned vamps of Twilight.

Is there really such a thing as vampire literature?

Well, there’s a wikipedia article with the title “vampire literature.” (The article is actually quite good.) For the purposes of the course, I wanted “literature” in the title to make clear that we would be looking at the vampire in written texts, not in movies, TV, or other popular culture.

As for “literature” in the sense of “great literary feats,” I like pointing out to my students that while Bram Stoker’s Dracula is now taken quite seriously and written about by prominent literary critics, it wasn’t intended as high art. Stoker wanted to write a page-turner, a thriller; he was an Anne Rice figure, not a typical “literary” writer. We read Dracula and think that the references to steamboats, phonographs, and trains are quaint, but this was all cutting-edge for 1897, stuff Stoker threw in to make his tale seem high-tech (the same sort of strategy we see in thrillers by Crichton and company).

In addition to other classic vampire tales like Goethe’s “The Bride of Corinth” and Le Fanu’s Camilla, we read extensively from The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. In my book, if a text lends itself to multiple interesting interpretations, it “counts” as literature worth teaching.

“Do you teach Twilight?”

I tell students on the first day of class that we will not be reading Twilight. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, I try to teach texts that I can really get excited about, and—while I’m happy for anything that gets folks reading—I didn’t likeTwilight much. (True story: while I was listening to Twilight, I accidentally skipped three CDs, but it took me over half an hour to realize it. That’s how little I had missed.) Secondly, most students have already either read the book or seen the movie anyway, so it’s still a useful point of reference for us.

“Oh my, I bet you get so sick of the same thing over and over.”

I, too, feared that this would be the case, but my experience (and that of my students) has been quite the opposite. I’m teaching the class for the second time now, and I’m still not bored. The figure of the vampire has been put to many, many uses, none of them quite the same. We look at how writers have used vamps variously to write disguised sex scenes, explore alternatives to standard gender roles, figure monstrosity, create humor, and more.

One thing I love about the course is how students keep coming up with original perspectives on the vampires we read. One of my favorite student interpretations likens the vampire of one of our stories to an “eternal adolescent” endlessly searching for his identity.

Vampire fiction in my writing future? Nope, I’m keeping it real for now. But I have been drinking a lot more tomato juice…

Looking for a way to sort through all the vampire fiction out there? Check out:http://www.lovevampires.com·or·http://www.vampirelibrary.com/

Happy Monday.

 

2 Comments

  1. If you get a chance and you haven’t already do check out Tananarive Due’s Vampire series. The first one is My Soul to Keep

    Also Octavia Butler’s Fledgling is very good. I will always wonder where Butler would’ve taken this series and how and if it would have impacted how readers see Vampires today.

    Do some of the students drop the course after you inform them, they won’t be reading Twilight?

    Reply

  2. Ashley Hope Pérez

    Hi Doret,

    Thanks so much for your comment! I know Butler by reputation, but not by my own reading. I admire her from afar as a woman of color who has succeeded in the white-dude-dominated sci-fi world. I will read Fledgling before teaching the class again to see if I can incorporate it.

    I’ve never had anyone drop the class because we weren’t reading Twilight. I don’t disparage Twilight at all, and we do use it as a shared point of reference as we develop our concept of the vampire and of how vampires can function in literary texts.

    Reply

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