Suzy McKee Charnas
Tor/Forge – Trade paperback – August 2008 – ISBN: 0-7653-2082-7
Discovery. Capture. Psychoanalysis. Opera. Demise.
Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Vampire Tapestry weaves five segments of her main character’s life, or at least one of their lives, into a compelling study of the vampire in contemporary (1980) society. Attempts at legitimising the vampire or removing them from their traditional gothic or romantic personas are not, of course, new ideas – the vampire is after all one of the more malleable of literary supernatural creatures – but Charnas takes a logical approach to the practicalities of being a vampire and creates a far more plausible figure than the penny dreadful creatures or immortal lovers that have had a tendency to blight the genre. The vampire in question is Dr. Edward Weyland, a respected anthropologist who happens to need blood, preferably human, to survive. He uses his position and a cover-up of research into sleep to suck the blood of his victims, all of whom forget the experience. He is generally careful to ensure that he covers his track and certainly doesn’t want to leave a trail of bodies – that would provoke too much suspicion. But provoke suspicion he does when Katje, an inquisitive woman with masterful gun skills, chances upon what she believes is the good doctor feeding his hunger. Rather than dismiss her feelings as irrational she seeks out the truth behind the distant, some would say aloof, lecturer.
What makes The Vampire Tapestry work so well is the way that it treats its subject with the kind of anthropological fascination that Dr Weyland is meant to give to his own work. You learn about the vampire’s character through the people he comes into contact with. Devoid of any romanticism Charnas gets on with the process of deconstructing the vampire as a credible being in a modern society rather than a caped pursuer of buxom beauties. In this respect the book has survived nearly three decades of technological advances extremely well – bar the absence of mobile phones and the internet, it still feels contemporary in the way that its characters are rounded and developed. Weyland is a vampire in the traditional sense in that he drinks blood but, as with any novel on the subject, there are is a list of traditionally accepted vampiric traits that need to be confirmed or dispelled. Charnas does this in a very elegant way, by having Weyland give a hypothetical lecture on the subject at his university early on in proceedings. For example, Weyland does not have fangs, retractable or otherwise, but a spike underneath his tongue – which enables far more efficient feeding. He can wander in the daylight but does, occasionally, go into a form of hibernation. During these periods Weyland loses his memory (and, one presumes, identity) to emerge once more, stalker of men. His general lack of human emotion – he looks like us but is not one of us – makes him a dispassionate central character and all the more chilling as a result. There is no rationale behind his actions beyond the instinctive need to feed. In this way Weyland becomes a mirror into which society must gaze – a reflection of the mores of the humans who come into contact with him, although he himself lacks extremities of emotional behaviour. In the second section the relationship between the vampire and humans creating myths for their own purposes are examined when Weyland is captured and turned into a freakshow for a dangerous Satanist who intends to profit from him. This section examines the preconceptions that people have about vampires and their powers without actually coming to a conclusion based upon empirical evidence. Even more compelling is the next section, where Weyland finds a therapist in order to recover from his ordeal, and their relationship begins to blur the boundaries between patient and doctor. The fourth section is possibly the weakest. It is a brave attempt to juxtapose the emotion of an opera, Tosca, with the thrill of a kill, but the intricate description of the opera without the benefit of the music renders the reader swamped in detail. The final chapter winds the pace down to the conclusion of this story’s arc…
The Vampire Tapestry is an intelligent dissection of the vampire myth that is as compelling to read as it is chilling. By removing the vampire from the fairy tale and treating the violence inherent in any such narrative as a matter of record rather than a titillating excuse for grand guignol excess, Charnas has created a truly terrifying monster, one that doesn’t elicit sympathy but, because of its nature, doesn’t garner hatred either. If there is a quibble (and it is a very minor one) the fact of Weyland’s perceived position as a unique creature is something that seems too arbitrary to fit in with the rest of the book’s methodical approach to its subject. Overall, though, an essential read and a welcome re-issue for a classic text.
If you wish vampire films look here.