What’s this doing here? Oh yes, now I remember.
Sorry I’ve been away for so long, ‘twas a long bitter January rife with academic soul-searching and not a little food poisoning. But I have done some reading, research, and reflection which I shall relate right now.
On the evening of January 30th (or a midnight of the 31st, given the vagaries of our round planet), I listened in on a lecture at UCI given by Jeffrey Wilson and Thomas Varga on the topic of Richard III and how his disability has been interpreted and represented through centuries of Shakespearean performance.
Now, my interest in this topic is not just because it’s in my OMR wheelhouse but also because I’m interested in the study of monsters and monstrousness, and few human traits throughout history have been monstrified like physical deformity. Richard III may have been a ruthless Machiavellian tyrant, but his enemies still thought that outlandish tales of his two-year gestation period or full set of teeth at birth would better illustrate the blackness of his soul than describing any of his actions.
Since his death, Richard III has enjoyed a gradual rehabilitation of his reputation as more than a black-hearted semi-human devil. It may be simple contrarianism, but there’s something about literally dehumanising language that makes the conscientious person instinctively seek to contradict it, and there exists more than one society of Ricardians who seek to rehumanise the last Plantagenet king.
Given how frequently I read, write, and think about monsters of all stripes, the gradual humanisation of monstrous characters is a phenomenon I find interesting and sometimes frustrating. The vampire is the most well-trodden example, with a clear progression from pure villainy to pure heroism throughout centuries of media adaptation. In Greek and Romanian folklore, vampires are under no circumstances considered to have any good qualities, being harbingers of pestilence and death with no redeeming values. Our first literary vampire, Lord Ruthven, is similarly vile, as is the famous Dracula and his superior knock-off Nosferatu.
Yet when we look about the modern landscape of vampire fiction, we find very few depictions of the vampire as a unilateral villain. They can be misunderstood antiheroes, broody love interests, or tortured by their curse. Even when we do see villainous vampires, they’re often contrasted by our pointy-toothed protagonists. Vampires have essentially become as people; some are good, some are bad.
Good writing is a complex thing, and giving characters multi-layered personalities and relatable motivations is considered a hallmark of mature storytelling. It’s a very natural progression to consider the internal lives of what we term “monsters”, to try and put ourselves in their shoes and examine how we would deal with the unnatural powers and weaknesses they carry. In this way we rehumanise creatures that were never intended to be human and gain a degree of depth for what were, by modern standards, shallow antagonists.
However, there is a trade-off, which I rarely see discussed or acknowledged; purity of purpose. Purity is a vanishingly rare quality in actual reality, as hardly anything or anyone is wholly any one thing. Any good person has their secret shames, if only in thought, just as every scoundrel of the blackest dye balks at some arbitrary line. But in fiction, such crude realities can be distilled, harnessed, contemplated, and feared. To posit that the vampire has an internal life like you or I, however twisted, bridges this gulf; it strengthens them as characters but weakens them as symbols. Pure evil has little place in contemporary fiction. It can only exist as either a spiritual force, if one is a believer, or a conceptual one.
Artist unknown, King Richard III, The National Portrait Gallery, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw05304/King-Richard-III
Poster for the film Twilight, vive moi, https://blog-city.info/fr/yonna.php
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