A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.

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Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…

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But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.

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You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.

Jarmusch goes vamp: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive,

Dir: Jim Jarmusch,

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

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Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve are vampires, husband and wife, lovers for centuries, but sometimes spending long periods apart, she currently living in Tangiers, walking the night-time streets of North Africa and paying visits on a very old friend (John Hurt), who happens to be the playwright Marlowe. Adam, a gifted musician, has a touch of the Byronic about him, now living in a decaying mansion on a deserted street of an abandoned neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by his instruments and his music, but slipping into a brooding melancholia, withdrawing from the world, refusing to even release any of the new music he’s created, hiding from fans who try to seek out his hiding place. His depression at the world after centuries, of the masses of humanity (who he refers to as “the zombies”) who seem oblivious to the wonders they could create and instead seem hell-bent on poisoning both themselves and their world. His ennui has driven him to consider a possible method of suicide before Eve, sensing his depression and need crosses the world to be with him (no small thing when you can only risk travelling on planes which fly and arrive during the hours of darkness).

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But this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and as such the narrative really isn’t the most important element; like the Coens movies Jarmusch creates films where a synopsis of plot (like the first paragraph here) only tell you a tiny bit about the film – as with the Coens these are films to be experienced, not just watched. There’re some beautifully crafted scenes and shots, the cinematography is, as usual for Jarmusch, beautiful, often luscious, some scenes posed almost like an old oil painting, beautifully composed, others employ unusual angles and tracking shots (such as slow, close up following the characters as they drink blood and sink backwards in pleasure, the camera moving with them), the nocturnal streets of Tangiers lit by streetlights are intoxicating, promising exotic wonder but also danger, even the abandoned streets of whole deserted neighbourhoods around Adam’s home in Detroit have a sad crumbling beauty as he drives through them in his vintage Jaguar XJS by night.

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The pace is relaxed, languid even, frequently moving like a slow, hashish-inspired dream (again not unusual for Jarmusch of course). What’s the rush when you have centuries? Art and culture and the importance they play in making life (even long, immortal life) not just bearable but worthwhile play a major part – for Adam it’s his music, Marlowe, unsurprisingly writing (there’s some nice dark humour about his mutterings about Shakespeare), Eve seems to soak up everything around her in the most sensual manner, Swinton evincing almost childlike delight at all manner of things, from the howls of feral dogs in abandoned Detroit streets to Adam’s old instruments (she has an uncanny ability to date them just by their touch) or soaking in literature (a beautiful scene sees her devouring pages of books at rapid speed, hand tracing down the lines rapidly as her vampire senses take in a page in a couple of seconds, the fingers moving left to right, then on to Arabic and Chinese, reading the other way, the expression of pleasure on her face and in her eyes). Her home in Tangiers is littered with books everywhere (reminds me of my own home on that score…).

This could have been a gloomy, brooding piece – something that’s perhaps been done too often in vamp fiction in recent decades, the oh so weary immortal tired of it all – but actually it’s romantic and frequently touching. Adam and Eve’s centuries-long romance is rather lovely; she senses his depression and knows she needs him, as she explores his current home she notices a very early photograph of the pair of them from the 1860s, a wedding photo – their third wedding, she comments with a smile, and the scenes of them wrapped around each other slumbering through the daylight hours is very romantic (both preternaturally slender and pale – good use of Swinton’s ethereal presence and quality). There’s also a seam of gentle, playful humour – he shows her a vintage guitar he purchased, she runs her hands lovingly, slowly, over it – a 1905 LePaul, Eve tells him. Oh, she’s an old one, Adam comments. Darling, your dressing gown is a century older… And there’s a nice scene where Eve, to cheer up Adam, freezes some Type O blood he got from the hospital on sticks to eat like ice lollies.

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And for all their immortality it’s clear that really they are as vulnerable as mere mortals, rarely sinking their fangs into victims anymore, partly because unlike a few centuries ago you can’t just drain someone and throw the body away in the street or river, it will be investigated, partly because of that poisoning Adam so despises, the contamination also in the blood of many, which makes them ill. They rely on specialised medical sources who can provide pure blood for a price, anything which might reveal them to authorities or threaten their food source and turns out they’re as vulnerable as anyone else… It’s a lovely, soft, slow, languid, sensual piece – if you’re not a Jarmusch fan then it won’t convert you, but you’re missing out on a lovely film from one of our consistently interesting directors, not to mention some luscious visuals and an intriguing soundtrack that stays in your head long after the film finishes.

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Film: Byzantium

Byzantium

Directed by Neil Jordan

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton

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I’ve loved Neil Jordan’s films since the Crying Game and the fascinating Company of Wolves. He has a lyrical quality in the way he structures the stories and the cinematography of the scenes, and he is adept at layering stories and characters, most especially (as he demonstrated with Company of Wolves years ago and again in Interview With the Vampire) when dealing with mythic and folkloric subject matter. I was a little worried about Byzantium as it had some very mixed reviews, some lavishing praise, others saying it fell badly short. On viewing it myself a few days ago I have to say my worries vanished and I was absolutely absorbed into this intriguing and different take on the vampire mythos.

Gemma Arterton’s Clara turns tricks and performs in lap dancing clubs to bring in money while staying off the grid, living a secretive life with Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who, given the fact that Clara still appears very young, she passes off as her little sister, who she is the legal guardian of after their parents were killed. In fact the quiet and thoughtful Eleanor is her daughter, born under less than ideal circumstances and then raised in an orphanage some 200 years ago, while her mother paid for her board but was forced to keep her distance. After Clara’s vampirisation she returns to claim her daughter, the legacy of her mortal life, and for two centuries the pair have had to live a secret life, not just hiding their immortal, blood drinking nature from society but also from an unspecified threat, that Clara is clearly aware of but will not tell her daughter about.

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It’s clear that Clara is protecting her daughter from some group and at first we’re not sure who – vampire hunters? An organised team of other undead who object to their freelance lifestyle? But Clara, stuck in repeating the same routine – evade, hide, turn some sexual tricks to make money, move on, hide, repeat – doesn’t realise her daughter, eternally 16 years old, has matured within and is questioning why they live as they do, especially since she’s lacking any real history from Clara on why they are as they are. She repeatedly writes down her life story on paper, in beautiful copperplate handwriting, but not for anyone to read – symbolically she tears up the pages after she finishes and scatters them to the winds…

This brings us to one of the first kills and the modus operandi for the women, when a kindly, very elderly gent in the apartment block they are living in talks to Eleanor one day about the pages – he has picked some up, enough to start putting a little of her story together. He knows what she is and more than that, he welcomes her – he is old, alone, ready to move on. And Eleanor is only drawn to feed on those whose time is done, the old, the dying, the suicidal. To them she is not a blood sucking monster but an angel of mercy, and she speaks a benediction of peace to them as she takes them and lightens their passing. In one scene the horror of a vampire feeding on a helpless old victim in a hospital is transmuted as the woman looks at her and whispers, you came, my angel – she welcomes the release…

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Which is not to say they can’t kill for other reasons – Clara is perfectly prepared to kill, but in her case it tends to be evil people, such as an arrogant pimp in the seaside town they flee to (the world is a better place without you in it, she tells the surprised pimp as she overpowers him). Or to attack a mysterious pursuer (I won’t say any more on that for fear of spoilers). These are no innocents (in fact Eleanor makes no claim to be especially good), but they do have a moral code and despite their circumstances they are in many ways moral creatures, given their situation.

Of course eventually we find other vampires and it links back to how both women became immortals, an ancient society, a Brotherhood, which is not terribly keen on the idea of a woman joining when Clara is reborn, much less when she wants to make her daughter the same – women are forbidden to create, one brother intones. Just as the vampire is the inversion of natural life, here their immortal club is also inverse, the men are allowed to create new vampires (all men they deem to be of the right quality, like a perverse gentleman’s society) and women are forbidden – the power of birth, of the creation of new life, is here in the hands of men.

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The film is replete with references to some of the 19th century Gothic classic novels, and layered with symbols and many allusions to – and disruption of – gender expectations and roles. It’s a fascinating and spellbinding film, from the gritty, seedy underground life the women have to live to keep themselves hidden, on the edge of society forever to the flashbacks to both of their earlier lives and (eventually) their genesis as vampires (I won’t ruin it for you, suffice to say it is much more mythologically satisfying than the old being bitten and turned, and involves some beautifully composed and memorable shots). Saoirse’s performance in particular is exceptional – in the Lovely Bones (disappointing misfire of a film but she was good in it) and Hannah she’s showcased not only an especially refined gift for acting for such a young woman, she also has a wonderful, ineffable, otherworldly quality to her – like Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings you find it easy to take her as different because she radiates that quality quite naturally, and it is used to huge and sympathetic effect here as she questions her life, her immortality, the world around her that she can’t really be part of, and finally romance with a seriously ill, very sensitive young man, who is himself very different from most of society.

I could write screeds more on the symbols and myths invested into this film, the performances, the beautiful shots and the narrative structure which also draws you into this hidden world, but I think if I write any more I’ll risk spoiling some key scenes for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, so I’ll wrap up. Suffice to say for those who like something deeper, more folkloric and  with more bit to it (sorry) than the dreadful modern Twilight teen-girl friendly film vampire tale this is it, deeply steeped in folklore (the transformation scenes owe much to Celtic culture and myth rather than Transylvanian counts) and Gothic lore but laced with the real world and gender issues, it’s intoxicating. As with Jordan’s superb Company of Wolves I know I am going to have to get this on DVD when it comes out so I can watch it again and again, because I know there will be elements I missed the first time round. And when I find a film I want to rewatch numerous times and still expect to find new moments and insights, well, that’s about as high a compliment to a film-maker as I can pay.

Vamping it up in Toronto – Forever Knight

Sooo busy lately, working with my colleagues on the latest version of the web site for FPI. It’s a much more flexible site bringing everything under one virtual roof. It’s a lot of work to get the thousands of graphic novels ready and moved over of course. Still running the existing site but I’ve got a good chunk of stuff up on the new site now and I’m pretty pleased with the way it is shaping up, I think its well worth all our efforts.Still, I’ve been spending so much time relentlessly entering graphic novels onto it that I started hallucinating a couple of dwarves on my screen, one dressed as Adolf Hitler and one a miniature Winston Churchill. Both were juggling kiwi fruit for some reason, while behind them a chorus of penguins in blond wigs sang Lily Marlene… At least I think it was a hallucination, perhaps my colleague buried a bizarre screensaver into his code for the site.

So I was pretty pleased when a DVD box set arrived from America for me to relax with a bit. The whole first series of Forever Knight on 5 discs. Anyone else remember Forever Knight? Used to be hidden away on the midnight showing (appropriately enough) on Sky back in the 90s. It was about an 800 year old former Crusader knight called Nicholas who was trying to make amends for his evil vampiric life by serving humanity – in this century he had become a homicide detective (working the night shift, naturally) in downtown Toronto.

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It ran for three seasons and stories varied from some which were very much cop-crime tales to some which drew more on the vampire mythos (which I enjoyed more). Like the rather good Highlander TV series which was running at a similar time (FK’s leading man Geraint Wynne Davies was a guest star in one episode) many of the events in each week’s story would trigger memories from the lifetime of past centuries. FK was also one of the first shows I can recall being the subject of an internet campaign to keep it going – the Kick-start the Knight campaign and had quite a number of websites back in the Olde Days of the Web (the 90s, when we had to wind up the telephone crank similar to those seen in U-Boat movies to make astonishingly fast connections of 28.8KBS, less broadband more rubber band).

Despite that I’ve hardly ever met anyone who knows of the show – a chum at my old work watched it and a couple of friends in the States and that was it. Never saw it mentioned in any of the UK SF magazines either, which is why I had no idea it had ever been released on DVD, even if only in the US. Since I picked up a nifty multi-region player recently I thought I’d treat myself to it and it arrived for a decent price reasonably quickly.

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The only sting was that HM Customs and Excise stung me for import tax – fair enough, it was over their £18 threshold for personal imports, but if the government is serious about pushing internet commerce in the UK they need to look at this – but this tax was doubled by the bloody post office who charged me a handling charge even higher than the import tax. Handling charge??? They’re the sodding post office!! Handling goods is their business!!! They’ve been paid postage then charge you even more to finish delivering it? Is this some scam between Customs and the GPO? What a rip. Certainly something I’ll have to consider before ordering the second volume.

Well, that’s given me something to relax with after a hard day of adding new graphic novels to the site and I’m really enjoying it, especially as I haven’t seen Forever Knight in years. I also got out for a few hours at the weekend to go the RoyalMuseum with Mel, who wanted to see an exhibition on Scottish textiles and design. Not bad, but not really my cup of tea, but it did afford me the spectacle of a pair of Harris Tweed Nike trainers and pink cashmere hot pants! Now there’s something you don’t see everyday…