Ed. note: Jason Henderson probably knows more about vampires than we do. We’re a bit in awe. We’re happy to see him bringing slayers back into current YA lit with his Alex Van Helsing series. As such, we’re handing this post over to his expert hands. Enjoy. (We did.)
When I was a kid I loved vampires, but I loved Van Helsing more. Not just the doddering German professor of Stoker’s Dracula, but the version of Van Helsing that Peter Cushing played in movies I caught on TV and video—athletic, resourceful, clever. Always weaker than his opponent, with far less experience and resources. Van Helsing was my Batman—you could be Van Helsing, as far as what he was capable of. You’d likely never become a vampire, but take enough survival courses and do enough pull-ups and you could probably become Van Helsing. Take enough classes and you can learn Chinese.
This mattered to me as a kid, to think you could make something of yourself. You could change the kind of person you were, make good choices and bad ones and learn, and get better. Van Helsing was that for me.
So for me, pitching a series based around the classic hero of Dracula was a no-brainer. There was never a chance that I would write a story with the vampire as the hero. The real question is—why was this even unusual?
Now, there are a lot of vampire hunters out there—Vampire Princess Miyu beget Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Dracula beget Blade beget Van Helsing again.
We hear all the time that producers and editors and therefore the writers who feed them material think in “like X but Y” formulations. “It’s like Wizard of Oz but with Dolphins.” “It’s like Twilight but with Sentient Tractors.” And it’s true, we do that. But it’s not as mercenary as it sounds. “Like X but Y” is the way you describe in a conversation what writers do anyway. It’s the kind of game we played when we first started writing; the very first writing formulation for me when I was, “I want to write a story like the one I just read in Twilight Zone magazine, but here’s how I will make it mine.”
There are very few stories that have almost no jumping-off point to get the mind going. Sometimes the “switch” that you make is just the reversal of some dynamic in the story. The Wizard of Oz, but the witch is the heroine. Twilight, but the genders are reversed—or the genders are all one.
So by the time I was pitching Alex Van Helsing about a year and a half ago (Book 1, Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising just came out this Summer; Book 2, Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead comes out in July 2011), I had to formulate the pitch this way: “it’s a YA vampire series—where the vampires are the bad guys.”
It turns out that we are living in a period when the fictional vampire trend has a certain pro-vampire tenor. It’s not as though this happened overnight, of course—the very popular game Vampire: The Masquerade held the vampires to be the heroes. I liked Vampire because it was unflinching; the vampires presented there were out to get us mere mortals. The intrigues between them were the court battles of a greater race, and we were food. But amidst that, Anne Rice’s cycle of books began way back in the late 70s, about the time Chelsea Quinn Yarbro started writing her lush, romantic Saint-Germain books. These books started a different theme—the vampire as brooding victim and persecuted perfection. They were better than us, but suffered at our hands. Eventually they killed us, and we deserved it.
I think those weren’t the norm at the time because they were popular enough but flowing along the same river that was currently serving up Count Yorga, Dracula ’79, Nosferatu ’79, and then in the 80s, bad-vampire and anti-hero vampire stories like Lost Boys, Near Dark, Fright Night, etc. Even in the 90s we got bad-guy vampires, with Blade and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.
Along the way, you’ll note that the hero vampires have won. What we have now in the most popular vampire literature is a world where anyone who doesn’t think vampirism is the greatest, like Anne Rice’s vampire Louis, is basically a weenie.
And why not? Vampires are everything we’re supposed to want to be, seductive and thin and powerful. Anne Rice’s vampires—and those that followed, all the way to Twilight– finally said, why beat around the bush? The vampires aren’t evil, so why pretend we think they are: why not just make it sexy and go all the way? In Rice, and now Twilight, the vampires are the heroes, and we follow them as they learn to embrace their immortal coolness. The decision whether to join them is more like the temptation to go join a famous rock group but having to leave behind the small town you love. That’s a great story that can be told over and over, but it’s basically a question of “do I dare become very very cool?”
Why did this happen? The main reason is this business of evil. You have to establish that evil exists in order to have bad vampires. In Dracula, vampirism was evil at its core because it was anti-Christian, subverting the biblical order of things. A lot of people today don’t actually think in those terms, and they’re uncomfortable forcing their vampires to live in such a world.
The vampires of today are not caught up in a spiritual argument about whether they will be punished by God; they are a different race, and their arguments lie in how to responsibly co-exist with humans. That’s all great but you don’t have to accept that. Why not have a world where vampires are evil… because they are? This is fiction, after all, so it doesn’t really matter whether you personally believe God would be upset with vampires. It’s an absurd thing to think about, like worrying whether Batman cares what color his costume is. He cares if the writer says he does and the readers find the writer believable. Why? Because be of good cheer; Batman does not exist except in the story.
Stephen King notes in my favorite writing book, “On Writing,” that novels don’t have to reflect your actual beliefs. You don’t have to believe in the immortality of the soul or in God or Satan to write a story that does believe in those things. But your story has to believe it for it to work in the plot. The idea of evil is available for use if you need it.
In Alex Van Helsing, I’ve stacked the deck against the vampires on the goodness side. We establish that turning into a vampire burns out your empathy and makes you what we might call a sociopath. Try as you might to get through to a vampire, chances are they will be tricking you, and they will kill you. They’re not just drawn that way; they are bad.
But… but. Even in Alex Van Helsing’s world, temptations could occur. The one good vampire, I’ve often said, would probably not live long in my world, but it could happen. I don’t know if it will happen, but there’s a lot of story time out there.
Personally I prefer a world that’s troubling in this way—where the vampires are evil but they’re attractive. If vampires are the serial killers of the world, could you befriend one? Could you fall in love with a vampire who spared you, but tortured others? This would be a world where giving in to temptation brings about destruction. Making them basically persecuted super-heroes just kind of takes the tension out of it. (Will you give in? Um… yes.)
To be sure, it’s a big world. We can sustain all of these stories.
But for my part, I think vampires were more interesting when we seemed torn about it all. It’s more interesting in a world where choosing between Van Helsing and the vampire is a real dilemma, rather than one where Van Helsing is regarded as silly. What, you don’t want to be a hero?
Here’s what I believe: heroes are not silly. They show us what we can be. Do enough pull-ups and you will get stronger. Take enough classes and you will learn Chinese. You can become a better human, and our heroes show us a version of ourselves that we can strive for. I believe we need heroes, and it’s why I’ve created one. And I leave the monsters to be hunted.
(Jason Henderson is the author of Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising (Summer 2010) from HarperTeen. He is also the writer of the all-female-hit-squad miniseries Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow from Marvel. His next book, Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead comes out in 2011.)