Vampires, with insidious stealth, have taken over the popular imagination. The steady flow of vampire movies -- Robert Rodriguez' new "From Dusk til Dawn" joins Abel Ferrera's "The Addiction," Eddie Murphy's "A Vampire in Brooklyn" and the art film "Nadja" in general release, and "The Vampire Lestat," a sequel to the 1994 hit "Interview With The Vampire," starring Tom Cruise, will shortly begin production -- is only the surface. The Horror sections in bookstores nationwide are packed with fat vampire novels sporting glossy black spines, their titles spelled out in gothic lettering as red as the sanguine trickles that, inevitably, course down their covers. This is where hardcore vampire fanciers reign.
It was not always thus. Once, Dracula shared the apex of monsterdom in a three-way tie with Frankenstein and the Wolfman (the Mummy a distant, shuffling fourth), just one among several things that went bump in the night. Anne Rice changed all that. With her bestselling 1976 novel "Interview With The Vampire" and its immensely popular sequels, she single-handedly initiated a new genre in commercial fiction. Now scarcely a week goes by without the publication of a new vampire novel, usually part of one series or another. Bloodsuckers have come a long way since Bela Lugosi.
Dracula's kin may crave our hemoglobin, but the human appetite for vampires and vampire stories seems almost as insatiable. What's the attraction? The modern fictional vampire is a far cry from Lugosi's pudgy, middle-aged Count with his rolling eyes and bad housekeeping, although there is a family resemblance (vampires still overdress). Anne Rice revived the genre by tapping into a rich lode of contemporary pop fantasy, and the heart of that fantasy is pretty homely, despite its Baroque trappings.
Rice's first innovation was telling the story from the vampires' point of view, capitalizing on our identification with beautiful outsiders. And beautiful they are, the vampires created by Rice and her pulp fiction heirs. Most monsters arouse fear (the Wolfman perhaps a grudging sympathy -- we all feel like beasts at times), but modern vampires inspire envy and admiration. The vampires of popular fiction are often rich, invariably idle, travel a lot, have supercilious tastes in books, music and art (patently matching the author's) and gorgeous clothes. They are never fat, and are usually favored with high cheekbones.
Everyone seems to have a theory regarding the real meaning of Rice's vampires and their derivatives. The mythos is "really about" homosexuality, or sexual submission. Or it's really about drugs, or AIDS. Or it's about artists, or gangs, or rock 'n' rollers.
Well, yes. Vampire-mania is about all of these things and much more, because what it's really about is family.
In a world where families fracture and mutate into new configurations, where parents desert children and grown children drift hundreds of miles away and never telephone, Rice and her acolytes offer tales of powerful and -- especially -- lasting relationships. The one trait that all the new fictional vampires share is longevity (if not outright immortality), and it's no coincidence that perhaps the most popular horror TV series of all time was "Dark Shadows," a vampire soap opera. The endless lives of vampires proved ideal for the complex intrigue, tortured regrets, and buried secrets -- the sheer historical bulk -- of that genre, a genre about families.
But the no-budget, videotaped milieu of Barnabas Collins lacked the loopy grandeur of Rice's books (where special effects and wardrobe cost nothing). In the trilogy-ridden universe of modern vampire fiction, the stories span centuries, the locations ooze glamour and the fate of the world often hangs in the balance. These are sagas, in truth, our oldest and most compelling form of story-telling, the thundering biographies of tribes. Not surprisingly, the popular role-playing game that influences most vampire discussion groups on the Internet, White Wolf's "Vampire: The Masquerade," revolves around an array of vampire clans. In Tanith Lee's strangely static series of novels, the Blood Opera Sequence, the vampiric Scarabae family have almost entirely thrown over blood-drinking for the sake of sitting around the mansion ruminating on their ancestry.
The old saying observes that you can't choose your relatives, but vampires beat the system. According to convention, they can "turn" a favored human by offering their own blood for consumption, engendering a brand new vampire, selecting their own children. Vampire fiction depicts this mingling of fluids as an erotic swoon, and the ecstasy is more than merely sexual; it's procreative. How do you form a blood tie with someone who isn't your actual kin? Vampires know how.
Therein lies the appeal of vampire fiction for gays and lesbians, who struggle all their lives with the same dilemma. The secret heart of the genre, however, is adolescent. The alienation, the tormented brooding on identity, the obsession with style and taste, the melodramatic posturing, the intense emotional attachments, the fetishization of youth combined with elaborate world-weariness, all so common in these novels, speak to the teenage yearning to escape our family of origin and find a new, better kind of belonging. No one captures this better than novelist Poppy Z. Brite, whose books throb with so much raw, aching adolescent desire that it's ultimately impossible to hold their florid romanticism against them (Rice, by contrast, has long since gone right over the top).
The polymorphous perversity, aestheticism, outlaw attitude and ritualism characteristic of contemporary vampire fiction appeal to a wide range of people seeking to define themselves as part of something that's separate from mainstream culture. (What's surprising is how many people see themselves this way.) These books assure them that loyalties forged on the fringes can be as fierce, if not fiercer, than those created in traditional ways. In that, the modern vampire is truly Dracula's descendent. The Count was, after all, a Balkan, and under that spotless white shirtfront and smooth satin cummerbund beats the heart of a savage clansman. The lure of the vampire is a tribal thing, a thing we all understand.