Krys on Wilson, 'The Bite, the Breast and the Blood: Why Modern Vampire Stories Suck Us In'

Author: 
Amy Williams Wilson
Reviewer: 
Svitlana (Lana) Krys

Amy Williams Wilson. The Bite, the Breast and the Blood: Why Modern Vampire Stories Suck Us In. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. x + 253 pp. $29.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-3183-7; $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6613-6.

Reviewed by Svitlana (Lana) Krys (MacEwan University) Published on H-SHERA (August, 2020) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54338

In the modern world, rapid changes are common in all spheres of life, leaving humans with an existential anguish (disorientation, confusion, alienation, loneliness, anxiety) and a desire to find meaning and purpose, connection, and a sense of belonging. The vampire, a cultural symbol known for its longevity, is one of the most popular characters in the contemporary pantheon of fantastic creatures because of its ability to cater to contemporary human needs and appease humanity’s existential angst. The vampire enters literature in the eighteenth century, reemerges on the brink of modernity in 1897, and almost a hundred years later, enters the literary discourse again on the pages of Anne Rice’s vampire series, now in a new guise of a God-like, everlasting lover and companion. Despite its life-threatening nature, the vampire and its actions—in a postmodern representation—could be seen as mimicking a secure bond established between a mother and a child, or a God and its devotee. A vampire might allow a human to drink its blood (to protect the human, to save the human’s life, or to turn the human into a vampire, often at the human’s request). The vampires of young adult and adult (often erotic) fiction are rich, beautiful, and caring individuals—a far cry from their Slavic and East European folkloric forebearers—who offer the gift of eternal life, and their bite brings sexual pleasure instead of doom.[1] They partner for life, fiercely protect their own, and provide a supportive and accepting family environment for their chosen human mates. This, in essence, is the source of the contemporary vampire’s fictional appeal—its ability to “suck the reader in,” as the subtitle of Amy Williams Wilson’s monograph under review aptly puts it—and it is the main argument that Wilson puts forward in the book.

The Bite, the Breast and the Blood: Why Modern Vampire Stories Suck Us In is an interesting book and an enjoyable read. Written with (or even for) a general audience but based on academic analysis and methodology derived from attachment theory in the field of developmental psychology, Wilson’s study of vampire representations in contemporary, post-Rice literature and film touches on topics as vast as the blood rituals in ancient Egypt, the Greek and Roman periods, early Christianity, the Bible, and the teachings of the apostles. Its primary sources are the TV series True Blood (HBO, 2008-14, seven seasons), Vampire Diaries (The CW, 2009-17, eight seasons), and the paranormal romance series by three female authors: Lynsay Sands (an Argeneau series about a modern family of vampires), J. R. Ward (a Black Dagger Brotherhood series about a vampire warrior clan), and Larissa Ione (a MoonBound vampire clan series). While these texts represent the core of Wilson’s corpus, her monograph occasionally draws examples from Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire (and the 1994 film based on it), the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB, 1997-2003, seven seasons), the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and several other films. The book’s most important aspect is the creative connection Wilson establishes between the vampire’s behavior/actions, the process of birth and breastfeeding (and the role of a mother in infant and early child development), and religious (here, Christian) conversion. Wilson states that all are based on the idea of nourishment, healing, closeness, and the promise of (eternal) life, sealed by a blood covenant.

The Bite, the Breast and the Blood consists of nine chapters, an introduction, and an appendix (the latter lists the names of the main actors in the vampire films and TV series under analyses). The monograph starts with an insightful discussion of the concept of blood covenant—its use in ancient religious practices, in Jewish and Christian religious traditions, and later in fiction—and then offers a summary of the main perspectives on the vampire in scholarship (the vampire as a mirror of political and social issues, of the marginalized Other, of taboo and forbidden sexuality, of AIDS and addiction, and of rebellion against the norm). The novelty of Wilson’s approach lies in the fact that her monograph then turns attention away from the vampire in favor of the human characters in vampire stories. She looks into a less-studied aspect of vampire fiction—a human drinking the vampire’s blood (instead of vice versa). Wilson sees in this a parallel to a baby receiving food from its mother’s breast and a new convert receiving spiritual nourishment from God. Chapters 2 to 9 cover various aspects of the bonding established through this action/nourishment, such as its healing benefits; a sense of identification with and unconditional belonging to a community; protection, comfort, and safety that such belonging brings; pleasure and intimacy resulting from such bonding and belonging; and, finally, an uplifting and a reaffirmation that improves the mental health and secures the identity (that is, discovering the inner self) of human characters. Three pairs of relationships are examined in each chapter: human-vampire (via the abovementioned primary texts); baby-mother (via scholarly literature on attachment theory, breastfeeding, and early childhood development); and Christian-God through the intermediacy of Jesus Christ (via citations from the Bible and secondary literature on biblical studies, Judaism, and Christianity).

Wilson’s overall argument should be of interest to vampire aficionados in all spheres, be it general readership or academics. However, the book could be improved by broadening its corpus of primary texts and adjusting its overall narrative trajectory. It is unclear why the popular Twilight (2005-8) saga by Stephenie Meyer was left out of Wilson’s corpus and analysis, for it fits much of the book’s argument. Another contemporary series, Justin Cronin’s vampire trilogy, The Passage (2010-16), opens in book 1 with a touching scene of a mother rocking her baby daughter to sleep. Due to her innate hybridity, the baby will later become a cross between a messiah (someone who can save the world from the vampire virus and the resulting apocalypse) and a vampire, a discussion of which could have bridged the three topics that Wilson pursues in the monograph: vampirism, mother-child attachment, and religion. In terms of religion, Wilson’s analysis, perhaps inadvertently, seems to dwell on the advantages of converting to Christianity, creating almost an eschatological narrative that portrays Christian conversion as the ultimate benefit to humanity (and as something that is within human control, as opposed to the bond with the vampire, which is in the realm of fantasy, or a connection with a mother, which might not have happened in childhood). A more balanced and in-depth discussion is needed here, one that would consider the historical connection between the vampire and Christianity (and Christianity as a tool or at times even a weapon of imperialism). The vampire of Victorian gothic literature was depicted as the anti-Christ, whose symbolism was often used to spread the imperial ideology that portrayed Christianity and the West as the civilized Self versus the periphery (read as “colony”), from which the vampire originated, as the barbarian, monstrous Other that needed to be hunted and eradicated at all costs.[2] The vampire’s remake, and its almost savior-like status in contemporary paranormal romances, complicates the historical vampire-Christ dichotomy and discloses the imperial and patriarchal connotations that it carried with it (for example, in depicting Dracula as the West’s ultimate threat[3]). Such comprehensive discussion could have helped throw more light on the primary texts that Wilson chose for her analysis and diversify the narrative of the chapters. (Indeed, throughout the book there are some unfortunate repetitions of examples and scenes portrayed in the referenced texts.) Instead of offering a string of often similar examples from primary texts of the same type/subgenre, a more engaged discussion that would move from vampire scholarship to primary sources and draw comparisons to texts from other genres (beyond the paranormal romances) and earlier periods could have remedied such issues.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, The Bite, the Breast and the Blood should engage specialists in popular culture and scholars of English and film, but its interdisciplinary connections between horror literature, religion, and the psychology of early childhood will appeal to a broader readership. As a rare academic study of paranormal romance and erotic literature, it contributes to the evolving scholarship on this popular genre and on the vampire’s place in it.

Notes

[1]. On the origins of the vampire myth in Slavic folklore and its original, core characteristics/description, see Jan Louis Perkowski, Vampire Lore: From the Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski (Bloomington: Slavica Publishers, 2006); Bruce A. McClelland, Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); and Thomas J. Garza, comp., The Vampire in Slavic Cultures, rev. ed. (San Diego: Cognella Academic Publishing, 2010).

[2]. See Raphaella Delores Gomez, “Dracula Orientalized,” in Dracula and the Gothic in Literature, Pop Culture and the Arts, ed. Isabel Ermida (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2016), 69-89; and Johan Höglund, “Catastrophic Transculturation in Dracula, The Strain and The Historian,” Transnational Literature 5, no. 1 (2012): http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/26432/1/Catastrophic_Transculturation.pdf.

[3]. I refer here to Bram Stoker’s titular character from Dracula (1897). For a reimagined, sympathetic portrayal of Dracula and his love for Mina (who was Dracula’s victim in Stoker’s original novel), see Dracula the Undead, a sequel to Stoker’s Dracula written jointly by Stoker’s descendant, Dacre Stoker, and Ian Holt. Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, Dracula the Undead (New York: Harper, 2009).

Citation: Svitlana (Lana) Krys. Review of Wilson, Amy Williams, The Bite, the Breast and the Blood: Why Modern Vampire Stories Suck Us In. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54338

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