Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Oh, what a wealth of sorrow in a few words
In our society, we do not deal well with death. I remember when my grandfather was dying, standing beside my sister, my mother, my gran, with the sick harshness of grief like a wall between us all. I closed my hands to fists and wished that we had a etiquette to deal with it, a form of words to express the chaos, the loss that began to skirl about inside me.
Death is sanitised, closed away in the hushed environs of the funeral home or the hospital ward. It’s no longer the village midwife who lays out the body, no more the sickbed in the household, the ceremony in the village church. Our families are scattered, friendship groups in knots that make a web cast over the whole world. You hear almost instantaneously, but spend the day walking among those who can have no idea of what you have lost, of what beloved friend has gone from your world.
Death no longer belongs in our days, it isn’t on our streets or our houses. It pushes us apart, turns us inwards, makes us alone.
The myth of the vampire began in very different times, comes from the very real fear of contagion, of the dead dragging the living in to the grave. For these people, death was a fact - in childbirth, in infancy, by accident, by infection, by hunger or by cold. Diseases that are now trifling, or immunised against were fatal. There was no way to hide from it, to wash it from view - death was visible, the great equaliser, a fact of life. And sometimes, it was inexplicable.
In a world without germ theory, sicknesses that tore through settlements must have seemed the act of some malevolent entity, wasting diseases that took first one family member, then the next, and the next evidence must have appeared as though a revenant returned to usher their loved ones in to death. So, myths arose of the vampire, as the bringer of pestilence, of the lover who would not let their chosen victim go.
This death, though, seems to be set against a greater backdrop of indifferent mortality. The vampires in older vampire fiction are not especially prolific killers. To take the most famous example, aside from the crew of the Demeter (as it’s difficult to assess who he actually kills, and who jumps overboard), Dracula himself only murders a handful of people directly: Lucy, Renfield, Skinsky. He does, admittedly, frighten a couple of people to death - Mrs Westenra, Mr Swales - and there is the vexed question of the baby-in-the-bag, but in terms of eating people, he shows remarkable restraint. It is a knife wound that finishes poor Quincy. Old Lord Godalming and Mr Hawkins cannot be laid at his door - nor, indeed, do they do anything to advance the plot. Then again, nor does Jonathon and Mina’s status as orphans, Van Helsing’s dead son.
In fact, not killing off the entire crew of the Demeter would have made the novel been simpler, insofar as the Captain or First Mate would have been able to give a report to the newspaper himself, rather than having to print the entire patchy log. However, all these deaths help to establish life as frail, as embattled, as something easily overwhelmed by the darkness which Dracula brings with him. It makes our heroes burn the brighter, their strength so much less than the certainty of death.
A far cry from Lestat’s desperation to meet humanity on the battleground, to drag vampires in to the light so that the strong, hale children of the 20th Century can battle with them. He envisions American youth as a generation of demigods, heroes who have never known hunger, sickness or want. Death - as represented by the vampire - becomes only life’s dark shadow, a peripheral society, something against which it can play itself out. Even death becomes no barrier, when one sickens, is injured, abandoned, then vampirism offers not wasting and imprisonment, but possibility - a fix which makes you better, faster, stronger. These corpses may be doomed, even damned, but they are incorruptible, inexpressibly powerful.
But as life becomes stronger - and death more like life - the vampire becomes more voracious. No more the slow wasting sickness, the single victim over weeks or months. They kill with a flippancy, feeding becoming more like consumption - divorced both from love and obsession. Yet, even as this happens, their victims vanish from the page, just as we have tidied death away from our lives. We do not see the collateral of their murder, the effect on the community - the mother frightened to death, the fiancee dragged away from mourning his father to another loss, the unopened letters from her best friend, the besotted suitor saying sadly and without hope, “Finis” to the romance of his life.
Instead they are isolated events, unconnected, without consequences beyond the conscience of the vampire themselves. Instead it is sudden, something separate from the condition of mortality, than something intrinsic to it. Life will triumph - before death, or after it.
We cannot accept the reality of death. Our myth is of immortality, perfect and unbreakable - of the fact that things like this do not happen to people like us. When it inevitably does happen, we are frozen by it, not knowing what to say, how to stand, how to comfort each other. Twice in recent years I have said, “I thought he’d live forever” - and had to correct myself yet, that no, no, I had only hoped that was the case. We are not Lestat’s fierce and invincible soldiers of life - but we wish so desperately to believe that we are, rather than breakable humans whose bodies and passions can betray us. We invest our idols with that longed for immortality, be they fictional or real. When they prove us wrong, we are faced - as the characters of Dracula were - with the terrifying frailty of life, and the knowledge that however much of a light we might be in this world, death comes to us all.
1947-2016. Rest in Power, Starman.