Louisiana is strange but deliciously atmospheric, what with its mind-altering heat, ghostly Spanish moss and ominous tombstones blooming in lichen. That so many vampire novels are set there is not surprising. What self-respecting vampire would choose to hang out in, say, Oklahoma? So when a friend and I, in an unaccustomed fit of pragmatism, decided to write a vampire novel, Oklahoma did not occur to us as a setting. It had to be Louisiana, a choice seething with convenience since my co-author lives there. Plus I’d already written a serialized short story for Lands’ End (“The Hollering Tree”) that was set there. “Why not?” we said, and then spent weeks writing those necessary character histories 95% of which never make it into the book. I was thrilled, because, frankly, I love vampires and I get to write the vampire character! Joy.
I mean I love real vampires, not the current avalanche of sweetly fanged teenage-boy vamps – mystical, doe-eyed vegetarians who’ve waited centuries to find the right girl with whom to thwart werewolves and thereby establish world peace. No, my vamp has his roots in those Tales from the Crypt comics I was forbidden to read as a child, although my cousin Ralph was not. Ralph had a vast collection of them in the attic playroom where his sister Rosalyn and I played trampoline on an old mattress until we got tired of jumping and settled in to read. I devoured Tales from the Crypt up there, never missing an issue while my mother drank coffee below, oblivious. And even now among the Halloween decorations just pulled from the shed is an illuminated crypt-keeper who will take his place tonight atop a bookcase in the living room. Some childhood enthusiasms, mercifully, do not fade.
But on to research and the framing of a halfway coherent theory of vampirism.
I could give a three-day symposium by now on the theories churning out of various academic contexts (psychological, theological, medical, sociological, political, blahblah…) to account for the current obsession with vampires, except that the current obsession isn’t mine. Yes, we’re in a huge paradigm shift considerably more comprehensive than the last paradigm shift (the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era, all that), in which there was a resurgence of interest in vampires. Clearly, there is a documentable correlation between paradigm shifts and vampires. Change terrifies many people, creating a need for something fictionally concrete through which to channel all that free-floating terror. Vampires work well, apparently.
However, by now “change” is hardly a source of terror for me. Who could live this long and not notice that it’s, basically, endemic? I remember my childhood fondly because everybody remembers their childhoods fondly, but I love being able to find obscure information on the Net at 3:00 a.m. and have no desire to go back. So I can’t mine some subconscious fear of change for vampire material; I like change. What I can mine is – voilà! – original data. Enter The Book that I must have – Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures and Fancies from Transylvania (1888), widely believed to have inspired Bram Stoker’s penning of Dracula. I’ve read fragments of this work available on the Internet, and now list Emily Gerard among those whose style and erudition are so charming and compelling as to make of her a friend. She was a marvelous writer with a biting wit, and she knew her stuff!
There are 127 copies of this out-of-print book available in U.S. libraries, five of these copies in California. However, the university inter-library loan service at my disposal (and undoubtedly all inter-library loan services) can only access books that are in circulation. The Land Beyond the Forest is 113 years old and thus hardly circulating among the grimy hands of all and sundry, including mine. Two librarians at public and university libraries fought (and still fight) valiantly to get me a copy, but in the meantime it seemed efficient to wallow in the other original source – Louisiana.
The specific vampire image Stoker immortalized has its roots in Eastern Europe and nobody loves Prague more than I do, but the contemporary American vampire, thanks to Anne Rice, has its roots in Louisiana. So there I was only weeks ago, recording the creepy choir of frogs and cicadas, snapping photos of tombstones and loving the fact that friends’ now-adult children still call me that soft-spoken “Mizz AYuby.” I plotted my vamp’s grotesque movements in those first hours after his disinterment, the stake driven through his heart during the Civil War now a rotted shred in his bony fingers. A water moccasin and several rodents perished in the frenzy of his hunger, but that was only the beginning. I knew the crypt-keeper applauded my efforts, and I would have stayed longer except that I had to get home in order to fly someplace else. But I got what I needed – atmosphere!
Now the real work begins, even though I still haven’t got hold of The Book. (If worse comes to worst I’ll just break down and buy a reproduction copy of it for an inflated sum.) My vampire, Stéphane Grimaud, isn’t the only character, and we have our hands full with a traditional mystery and love story set in the dark heart of Louisiana’s maximum security prison, Angola. Angola, that was once an obscure plantation on the Mississippi River. Where a vampire driven from New Orleans by his own kind in 1863 was shot and thrown overboard by a riverboat captain, only to crawl from the river to wait out the war amid Angola’s cotton. But a shrewd and courageous old slave saw the vampire for what he was, and… fast-forward to now.
The only problem so far is the title, or lack thereof. We can’t think of one sufficiently evocative, so if anybody has suggestions, please send them on!