Tag Archives: vampires

Illegals, Part 4






A new problem: What are we to say about stories that feature both allegorical and literal versions of the same thing, of the same class of object or type of person—about True Blood, for instance, whose vampires code comprehensively as queer even though the show also includes among its characters several mortal, day-walking gays and lesbians? This is a real problem, because the show seems to be drawing a distinction, prompting a rigorous reader, one perhaps suspicious of allegory, to insist that the vampires can’t possibly be in some general way stand-ins for queer folk because the show already possesses these latter, and they are not coterminous with the vampires. Placing an allegorical construct in the same room as its literal equivalent doesn’t, as one might suspect, make the allegory stronger or easier to explicate. Quite the contrary: The allegory and the literal referent are going to be locked in a struggle for the relevant name or meaning, and it’s not entirely clear which is going to have the upper hand in that fight. You might think that the literal term has home turf advantage. If a gay person and a vampire are standing next to each other, and I only get to call one of them “gay person,” I’m going to choose the gay person. That’s what it means to say that the presence of the literal term can prevent the allegory from coalescing, like the trace amounts of yolk that ruin your every attempt at meringue. But then hyperbole is at the heart of allegory—you create an allegorical version of x by exaggerating certain features of x—and in that case, the non-literal construct can easily seem like the better version of the thing, more fully and vividly itself, purer, pushed further away from the imaginary average against which all specific difference is gauged. If Dracula and Oscar Wilde double each other, I might decide that it is the vampire who is really queer, whereupon gay and lesbian people will find themselves outflanked, normal by comparison, conceptually maneuvered bank into the ranks of dull humanity. The allegory can poach from the literal term its very name.

If we’re going to make sense of this particular deviant variety of allegory, it will help to have the terms provided by an unreformed structuralism, whose core insight was that all stories begin by generating some opposition or another: A and B, cowboy and Indian. The idea, then, is that since most of us experience oppositions as cockeyed and agitating, the business of nearly any story will be to stabilize its antithesis, though there are different ways a movie or novel or folktale might do this: by subordinating one term to another and perhaps by eliminating it altogether (cowboy defeats, expels, or guns down Indian); or, alternately, by fusing the two together into some unforeseen third (cowboy marries Indian). Storytelling can become more complicated, of course, as it begins shading in intermediate steps that already contravene the central opposition (the half-breed, say, or the white Indian) or as it appends secondary oppositions to its core one: (cowboy and East Coast railroad interest). But nearly all storytelling is at heart a play with oppositions, and the trick when considering a complicated story is to discern the master antithesis (or small set of antitheses) that underpins its many more local conflicts. The remarkable thing, then, about stories that contain allegorical and literal versions of the same thing is that they sabotage this most basic feature of narrative; they monkeywrench the binary by plugging the same term into each of the opposition’s slots—once nakedly and then again in disguise—and thereby create reflexive stories that are not, however, immediately recognizable as such: cowboy and cowboy, teasingly and with the air of paradox.

That such stories pose special challenges should be clear from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, released in 2005. Nearly every newspaper and magazine reviewer—and, I suspect, most ordinary fans—thought that the movie was about terrorism or that it was 9/11’s conversion into science fiction: It was “the first serious post-9/11 sci-fi movie,” “a 9/11 allegory,” a reminder that “terrorists can take out a big chunk of the Manhattan skyline,” a surprisingly solemn tour of the nation’s “worst terrorism nightmares.” The New York press took to warning its readers off the movie: “merciless,” they called it, and “shocking”—35mm PTSD. And it is certainly true, as the reviewers all mentioned, that the film is crammed with “allusions” and “parallels” and “references” to 9/11: civil emergency in greater New York, panicked urbanites sprinting down city blocks, overwhelmed beat cops, airplane wreckage, a wall of the missing, and—least generically, most jarringly—a rain of ash.

That War of the Worlds is not about terrorism one knows all the same, because it tells you as much, and in so many words—except, of course, one doesn’t know it; everybody missed it. The movie’s hero has two children, and as they escape from the attack, the younger one screams: “Is it the terrorists?”—and gets no answer. Then a minute or two later the older one repeats the question, more calmly this time: “What is it? The terrorists?” “No,” the father says, “this came from someplace else.” All the more remarkably, the film has already by this point identified that Someplace Else or Other Thing, the thing that isn’t terrorism. Some four minutes into the movie, Tom Cruise’s ex-wife instructs him to stay on top of their teenaged son over the weekend, because he has a research report due “on the French occupation of Algeria.” And there it is: The malicious gag underlying the movie is that the invading Martians give a high-school student all the material he needs to write a really bang-up paper about occupation or that they turn his assignment into a family project: This is the weekend everyone learns about empire.

War of the Worlds was thus a thought experiment or indeed a political education—one specific to the middle years of the Bush era: Can you imagine a force powerful enough to do to the US what the US has done to Iraq? Can you imagine, via analogy and extrapolation, a military wielding technological superiority over the US of a kind that the US currently wields over the world’s other nations? Or as one character says of the invaders: “They defeated the greatest power in the world in a matter of a couple of days. … This isn’t a war any more than there is a war between men and maggots.” What the reviewers inexplicably overlooked was that terrorists do not occupy entire countries. And that’s all you need to bear in mind to realize that Spielberg’s movie was is no sense an homage to 9/11—just the reverse—it was a deliberate and principled insult to the instant sanctity of that day, a way of putting 9/11 back into perspective by staging on the same terrain an event of incomparably greater magnitude, a way, that is, of showing the New Yorkers who were told to skip the movie just how much worse it could have been: Baghdad.

This is the sort of thing that becomes possible when allegory doubles its referent; such doubling is, indeed, one of the only ways that narrative can place the same term on both sides of an opposition; X fights X; the US invades the US; Americans as colonizers, Americans as colonized. This is the structure we’ll need to carry forward with us if we want to make sense now of Attack the Block, which is Super 8’s English twin, the other alien-invasion movie from 2011 that pulls in equal measure from ET and the Goonies: more adventuring tweens, more BMXs, more aliens that seem visible only to the pubescent. But then Attack the Block is also the first movie I’ve named that is openly about race in some entirely literal and earthbound sense. This is first of all a simple matter of casting: Almost none of the movie’s heroes are conventionally, ethnically English; all but one come from African or Caribbean immigrant families. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not enough to imagine The Goonies with English accents. You have rather to imagine The Goonies as new-model Cockneys, black and mixed-race and speaking grime patois. But then it’s not just the characters: Attack the Block is also telling a story about race; indeed, it is telling perhaps the most familiar racial story of the last few generations, the one about integration and enfranchisement. All you need to know is the bare outlines of the plot: Once they start fighting the movie’s aliens—and fight they do, to the death; the movie’s resemblance to ET and Super 8 ends there—the boys are transformed from the piece’s villains to its heroes. They begin the movie by mugging a young white nurse, but they end it by saving the day. In other words, it’s not just that Attack the Block is one of the most extensive pieces of black British pop culture yet produced, and in that sense some kind of landmark. The movie is actually walking you through a reassessment of black Britain and can, to this extent, easily seem like an advance on that recent crop of movies that make the English poor seem like the worst people on earth, though it has to be said that those films’ chosen technique for communicating their sour insight is simply to remake Hollywood movies on English soil: Harry Brown, for instance, which casts Michael Caine as an East End vigilante and aitchless Eastwood—it’s there in the title, if you squint: “brown” = “smudged” or “unclean” = Harry Dirty; and especially the remarkable Eden Lake, which is Deliverance transplanted to a not-so-rural Buckinghamshire, with hoodie-wearing poor kids in the place of Georgia hillbillies: 13-year-old proletarians carving up their betters. These movies and others like them leave the impression that the British working class has simply gone feral—the impression, that is, that class relations in the UK have by this point simply snapped or that basic modes of sociability or decency or respect have disappeared, with dehumanized workers and lumpens stuck living in perpetuity on the far side of their old traditions. To a considerable extent, then, Attack the Block asks to be read as a polemical response to this cinema of broken Britain. The movie begins in the mode of Harry Brown and then simply demands that viewers revise their judgments. The respectable white audience’s designated proxy obtrusively changes her mind. At the beginning of the movie she and an older white neighbor commiserate: “They’re fucking monsters.” But by the end of the movie, she is telling the cops to back off from the bruvs: “I know them. They’re my neighbors.”

One way to summarize Attack the Block, then, would be to say that it is a story of uplift and interracial friendship, in which Britain redefines itself in order to make room for its newest members. Nor is it overreaching to mention Britain in this context; the film has the nation unmistakably on its mind. It is set on Guy Fawkes Day, for one, and so asks to be read as a redo of 1605—England’s second saving!—with West Indian yardies performing the patriotic gallantries once reserved for Protestant knights. More to the point, the movie’s 15-year-old hero, propelled in one scene from out a high window, saves himself by un-metaphorically clinging to the Her Majesty’s flag.

The movie, in sum, revises British nationalism by pushing it in a liberal and multiethnic direction, though we will want to note that this observation is dogged by two persistent instabilities.

First: The film’s visuals might be plenty nationalist—all fireworks and Union Jacks—but its dialogue is not. Anything but: The film’s teenagers routinely say that they are fighting only to defend their housing project, their block. Where the movie is John-Bullish, the characters are instead intensely localist: “We wouldn’t have mugged you if we’d known you lived here.” That’s a sentiment available only to someone whose sense of the imagined community stops cold at the corner shop. And to this jingoism of the neighborhood the characters add a working-class or black ethos of self-policing—the code, in the US context, of Stop snitching and jury negation and Walter Moseley novels: “This is the block. We take care of things our own way.” It might be possible, when trying to make sense of the movie, to simply superimpose these two terms—the nation and the locality—in which case we would conclude that Attack the Block is proposing a council-estate nationalism, a black-white alliance of the distrustful and cop-hating poor. There’s something to this idea, and yet the individual components remain visible and not fully resolved into one another.

Second: The movie does almost nothing to revise one’s perception that its heroes are sadistic predators. It merely concludes that sadistic predators are sometimes useful to have around. The film’s few white men are by contrast all emasculated. “I am registered disabled” one of them says; “I’m a member of fucking Amnesty!” shouts another; and the movie’s gibe is that these amount to the same thing, just two different routes to castration, physical and ideological—twin softnesses. This will obviously complicate our sense of the movie as liberal, since even as the movie is promoting a kind of racial liberalization, it is deciding that liberal men aren’t good for much, and the burden of British masculinity will thereby pass over to the nation’s young Trinidadians and Congolese, fourteen-year olds with knives and swords and bats and explosives, a nine-year old with a handgun, announcing that his new warrior name is “Mayhem.” Attack the Block sometimes gives the impression that it is recruiting the child soldiers of South London.

But then those two instabilities are nothing, mere tremors, compared to the movie’s central and defining instability, the oscillation around which it is constructed. I’ve been describing the role of race in the movie at the literal level, but then there is also an allegorical level, in which everything I’ve just described is taken back. This makes for a vast and, I think, unsolvable puzzle, though in many ways Attack the Block’s racial allegory is unusually bald and not in the least puzzling and amounts to this: The aliens are also black—hairy, subhuman, grinning, and black. I don’t actually want to put too much emphasis on the color in isolation. Racial allegory, after all, is not automatic. Lots of black things are not black. Darth Vader is not black. If all we had to go on is that the creatures are inky-dark, I’d say we could let it slide. But that’s not it: The movie is entirely upfront about how it wants us to understand the aliens’ ebony. The kids stand over the first adult monster they kill, and two of them speak out loud what they see: “Wow, that’s black, that’s too black to see. … That’s the blackest black ever, fam. … That’s blacker than my cousin Femi”—which moniker is Nigerian and usually followed by names like Ogumbanjo and Kuti.

The movie, in other words, openly places the creatures on a spectrum of African-ness. What’s more, it has various ways of expanding on this tactic. Only once does Attack the Block’s dialogue turn openly nationalist, when a gang member sticks up for the home country at the expense of Africa, pouring contempt on a white philanthropist off doing aid work in Ghana: “Why can’t he help the children of Britain? Not exotic enough, is it?” Or there’s this: One teenager warns another than an alien is about to attack by shouting “Gorilla!”—and then that’s another clue. Attack the Block is, at the level of its allegory, an inversion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a second film about berserking primates, and with the meanings from that other movie largely intact—the meanings, not the judgments. If Rise stages a latter-day slave rebellion—an insurgency against the mass incarceration of black men, an uprising that is at once prison break and revolution—then Attack the Block stages a related event, a bit of colonial turnabout, but asks us instead to cheer its suppression. Anyone who goes into this movie hoping that the Jamaican newcomers are going to battle the white dragon of the West Saxons or cut down the English aristocracy’s heraldic wyverns is going to have to swallow hard. For Attack the Block offers to enfranchise black Britons only by giving them creatures to kill who are blacker than themselves. A group of mostly black teenagers earns its citizenship by systematically cutting down the new crop of even darker arrivals. Conceptually, this is rather astounding: The film is telling two antithetical stories at once—and not via a multiplot—there is no main plot and contrapuntal subplot; it is telling two contradictory stories, but it only has one plot; the same story, then, but susceptible to two radically opposed constructions: a parable about learning to like black immigrants that is at the same time a fantasy about wiping them out—“Kill ‘em! Kill all them things!” The creatures in Attack the Block are so very jet that they often blur into the shadows, but the filmmakers, in what must have seem like an inspired touch, have given them glow-in-the-dark fangs, which means you can only see them when they bare their teeth. There’s an ugly old joke in the American South — something about hunting at night — to which this image is the reinvented punchline.



Staying Alive, Part 2.3



Three Theses on Fright Night






•THESIS #3: John Travolta must die.

There are three bits of evidence we need to line up. First, the vampire in Fright Night is played by Chris Sarandon, given name Sarondonethes, which means he’s Greek, the darker side of white, not easily confused with Robert Redford or Owen Wilson. Second, the vampire ensnares the hero’s young girlfriend on the main floor of a throbbing disco, wading into the crowd to dance his gorgon’s boogaloo. Third, he is almost always wearing a man’s dress scarf, which generically marks him out as a swell and specifically, in 1985, seemed to insinuate the ultra-wide collars that had just gone out of style: an amplitude of color spreading out from the neck.

More precisely, it was the combination of scarf and popped collar that approximated the polyester wingspan of a few years back. And approximation is very much the point, since Chris Sarandon was plainly cast in Fright Night because he made a passable surrogate for John Travolta. One of the names for the demon-seducer who engrosses to himself all the women is “father,” but his other is “Tony Manero.” And you can, if you like, think of this figure—the Travolta vampire-dad—in terms of a precise historical moment: The entire movie takes shape in the headspace of a child of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, someone who has grown up under the strains of “You Should Be Dancing” and “If I Can’t Have You” and who has therefore latched onto Vinnie Barbarino and Danny Zuko as the standard of the masculinity that he will never meet. All of Fright Night is premised on a bowel-shaking fear of John Travolta, the dreadful realization that no American man will ever have sex again until Travolta is destroyed. The struggle that Fright Night stages is in this sense something more than Oedipal; it isn’t just a conflict between an under-ripe masculinity and a fully adult one, since its junk Freudianism has been given such an obvious ethnic overlay: a whitebread masculinity squares off against sheerest Ionian potency. The movie’s adolescent fear of older men is intensified by a worry that a preppy, suburban kid—a 15-year old in a tweed jacket!?—is never going to be able to compete with Travolta’s goombah swank. And this obviously brings us back to Valentino and the Lugosi Dracula. Something we said earlier we’ll want to repeat now as a general point: Not just that Lugosi tapped into a fear of Valentino, but that vampire movies as a genre periodically inculcate a fear of Italian actors. And with this in mind, we can return to the clip from Ken Russell’s Valentino and gawp again at its unlikeliness: Nureyev is playing Valentino as Dracula, but Travolta is the scene’s third term, or, if you like, he is proximate double to its devil-sheikh. Lugosi gives us Dracula + Valentino, and Chris Sarandon Dracula + Travolta, but only Nureyev delivers Dracula + Valentino + Travolta in one. The Russell biopic came out in October of 1977, Saturday Night Fever two months later. And Fright Night, at eight years remove, is Disco Demolition Night restaged as a vampire story: A Mediterranean fop dies so that his WASP neighbors will sleep better. A crate of records explodes on a baseball field.

Staying Alive, Part 2.2

Three Theses on Fright Night 





•THESIS #2: The Oedipus complex isn’t quite as stupid as you probably think it is.

Of course, there is a stupid version, the one-sentence rendering, the one that says that you want to sleep with your mother and kill your father. You can put that truncation to one side without much cost. But then there is a slightly less dumb version, which argues that almost every boy child is initially close to his mother, close to her body, at her breast, pressed up against the mother’s nakedness, forming some kind of primal emotional bond against which all others will subsequently be measured. And in this utterly common scenario, the father will usually figure in the child’s mind at some point as a rival, especially if the father sends out any kind of jealous vibe, which often happens, at least in subtle ways: You have to sleep in your own bed. Freud’s point is that this family triangle is a recipe for psychic trouble—and the best thing that could happen for a boy child is to learn to separate from the mother (at least physically and quasi-erotically) and identify with the father instead—and the cleaner the break and the cleaner the identification, the better. So maybe you think that still sounds goofy. But it won’t sound as goofy if you don’t make it a chamber drama with only three players. Maybe the Oedipus complex makes more sense as a general point about anxiety between generations. We could say that Freud is trying to describe the puzzlement and fear that boys feel when looking up at adult men, unsure how to measure up, unsure that they will ever measure up. Young men have to establish their masculinity in competition with older males and father figures. It doesn’t much matter, for our purposes, whether you buy any of this. Even if in your thinking life, you consider the Oedipus complex  just a twentieth-century psychosexual myth, the point is that Fright Night is trying to get you to experience it as compelling—to stage the myth in all its corny grandeur. The central conflict in this movie is as entertainingly overdrawn an example of the Oedipal scenario as you are ever going to find, as witness one more piece of evidence: The teenaged hero in the movie doesn’t have a father—he’s never even mentioned, not even as dead or absent—which creates a pristinely empty slot into which the vampire can slink. In Fright Night, Dracula simply is the father figure. And in this sense, the entire movie occupies—and wants you to share—the mental universe of a befuddled thirteen-year-old boy, psychotically lashing out against an older man whose cocksmanship he both dreads and envies. The vampire is the Oedipal nightmare father who wants all the women for himself—the Father of Enjoyment, some of the Freudians call him. This is hardly the most novel feature of Fright Night — rather more important is its outrageous specification, which we’ll get to next — but it is a step we won’t want to skip: The other name for the Byronic vampire seducer of Gothic fiction is “Dad.”



If you think you’ve got it bad
Try having Dracula for your dad
See how that looks on you!

The Decemberists, “Dracula’s Daughter”





Staying Alive, Part 2.1




Three Theses on Fright Night


•THESIS #1: It’s harder than you might think to script a straight vampire.

I don’t normally go in for literary biography, but here’s one case where it can actually help us refine an argument. Some background: Bram Stoker grew up in the same circles as Oscar Wilde, on the fancy side of Dublin, and the two were roughly the same age, close enough at least to evidence an affinity. One year, after Wilde left to go study in England, his parents invited Stoker to spend Christmas Day with them, as though he were a substitute son—as though, that is, Stoker were a plausible stand-in for Wilde. And the Wildes clearly weren’t the only ones who thought this: Stoker went on to marry a woman, a legendary local beauty, whom Wilde had already courted. That Stoker’s most famous novel is by any ordinary measure anti-queer—the sexually peculiar characters are hunted down and killed; it doesn’t get much more anti-queer than that—would seem to give us the key to interpreting the relationship between these men. We would want to say that they were rivals, and this in some sharp and antithetical key: the queer and anti-queer alternatives in the same Anglo-Irish scene, though if that’s the case, then it becomes harder to see how they could so effectively pinch-hit for one another. Here, at any rate, is Oscar Wilde, looking like one of Virginia Woolf’s sisters…

…and here is Bram Stoker, whom one could easily mistake for Ulysses S. Grant.

The eye, in other words, tells us that these were very different men. One begins to suspect that the Dracula story was locked in a death struggle with Oscar Wilde; that the original novel already had its own vexed relationship with male celebrity; and that its plot is at some level an unedifying fantasy about people like Stoker eliminating people like Wilde. But then what do we do with the information that the grown-up Stoker was obsessed with Walt Whitman, writing the poet long letters in which he described himself as a “strong healthy man with a woman’s eyes and a child’s wishes,” confessing to Whitman his longing for a man who could play wife to his soul? Or that the adult Stoker eventually found such a man, a special friend and soul-wife, the alliance with whom was, he said, “as close, as lasting as can be between two men”? Or that he quit his day job to take a position in the London theater, in order to be near this companion, who was an actor? In the wake of those questions, a rather different rendering of Dracula becomes available—not that vampire stories are homicidal fantasies about eradicating queer people, but that it is in vampire stories that queer people begin working out their complicated feelings about their own outlandishness.

I’ve already said that vampire movies are an ongoing meditation on Nietzsche; if I say now that they have been, from the very start, an open-ended reflection on queerness, then that’s almost the same thing anyway. In the 1931 Dracula, the vampire takes as his minion a trim, flustered Englishman who spends much of the movie gazing longingly at the Count; he describes how the handsome foreigner “came and stood below my window in the moonlight,” as though carrying a lute or a dubbed copy of “In Your Eyes”; he goes to pieces when he finds his master carrying a woman matrimonially down a long flight of stairs. Around 1970, there was a bubble of lesbian vampire movies, of which a Belgian joint called Daughters of Darkness, from 1971, is easily the best. Tony Scott’s The Hunger, from 1983, is in this sense a rather belated contribution to the form, and True Blood, which is probably the most extravagant, extended queer allegory that pop culture has ever produced, in which the male vampires gloss as gay even when they’re dating women, achieves its effects only by compiling and concentrating in a single arena eight decades’ worth of camp and code and capes: “God hates fangs.”

So ask yourself again: Could you, even if you wanted to, make a vampire straight? The question is worth lingering over, because Fright Night is an easy movie to underestimate, and that question names the funny little task it has set itself. For Fright Night has, indeed, figured out a way to (mostly) straighten its Dracula figure; it has sent the vampire movie into conversion therapy. The movie devises at least three techniques to this end:

i. It makes the vampire killers queer in place of the vampire. Or if not outright queer, then at least scrawny and boyish and sissified. We’ll want to bear in mind: The movie is remarkably faithful to the Dracula plot, which it self-consciously restages in suburban Los Angeles. A teenaged boy works out that a vampire has moved into the creepy house next door, and he spends the length of the movie recruiting a gang of hunters to help him chase the demon back to its lair, overcoming the skepticism of potential allies, parrying Belial’s preemptive attacks, &c. It’s the devil-tracking posse that most pointedly recalls Dracula, though with a difference. Stoker’s band of brothers were, of course, all kinds of sturdy and sea-captain-ish, but the movie has assembled a team of milksops and pencildicks in their stead. Fright Night’s opening scene shows its main character failing to get his girlfriend into bed—or worse. He eventually does get the girl into bed and then loses interest. First: “Charlie, I said stop it!” Then: “Charlie, I’m ready. … Charlie? … Charlie???” The very first thing the movie wants us to know about its protagonist is that his sexuality is unsteady. That point is then reinforced by two other characters: first, by his best friend—short, twerpish, with a tweedly, still-breaking voice and the shrieking laugh of a girl on a playground; and then by the group’s eldest member and nominal leader: The film’s affectionate joke is that its Van Helsing figure, sought out by our young protagonist, is an aging English actor who used to play a vampire hunter in bad horror movies. Fright Night thus has a certain null value in its central position—not a hero, just a man paid to mime heroism; not a man of action, just an actor—and the movie effortlessly compounds that idea by making the actor a coward to boot. More interesting: The character is clearly modeled on Peter Cushing, who played Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula series and whose first name Fright Night has lovingly borrowed—Peter Vincent. And yet here Cushing’s place is taken by Roddy McDowell, who is a different actor altogether, entirely devoid of the former’s sonorous and hatchet-faced English machismo. Cushing played Van Helsing the same way he played all his roles, as an ill-tempered headmaster, wielding a wooden stake the way one might a pandybat or a birch switch. But McDowell, from his very first appearance, projects shades of the old queen, dandified and elfin, and he sounds like no-one so much as Winnie the Pooh. The movie thus manages to attribute a functioning heterosexuality to its vampire simply by rejigging the other end of the antithesis. The Dracula figure is a seducer and loverboy, but then that’s almost always been true in vampire movies—nothing remarkable there—and nothing about that role has ever prevented a vampire from functioning as queer. The position, indeed, usually spills over with excess and omnisexual energies. Strictly speaking, this is true even of Fright Night. The vampire lives with another man; we watch him intergenerationally recruit at least one teenaged boy over to his way of life. It’s just that the obtrusively fractured masculinity of the vampire’s enemies will tend, in this one case, to muffle our perception of the monster as queer. None of the men in this movie are typical guys. The vampire, unusually, comes closest.

ii. It borrows from werewolf movies. It’s tempting to put this point in technological terms: The movie was produced in the golden age of the bladder effect, in the aftermath of The Howling and Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London, all of which came out in 1981, the Year the Moon Never Waned, and Fright Night cannot resist the temptation to wrap its actors in hairy, bubbling latex, delivering not just one, but two distinct transformation scenes—werewolf scenes in a movie that isn’t about werewolves. One recently bit human simply metamorphizes into a wolf, and even the Dracula figure, when preparing to feast, turns demonic and feral and at least demi-lupine.


I don’t need to tell you: More recent movies typically conceive of vampires and werewolves as sworn enemies. What’s distinctive about Fright Night, then, is that it completely collapses them together, and this involves rather more than special effects. Werewolves, after all, are the butchest of the canonical movie monsters; they put on display a beserking, hungry, animal male sexuality, brawny and comprehensively bearded. Fright Night is, in effect, trying to borrow the werewolves’ unbridled heterosexuality and re-assign it to the vampires.

iii. It borrows from ‘80s teen sex comedies. Fright Night’s teenaged hero stands at a window watching through binoculars as a bra unclasps. The camera pans over his cluttered bedroom, disclosing a Playboy casually spread across the floor. He is made to speak lines like: “Jesus, Amy, we’ve been going together for a year, and all I ever hear is ‘Stop it!’” The movie lets its viewers briefly think that it’s going to be another Losin’ It or Last American Virgin and then maliciously mutates into a horror movie instead. But then there was always something malicious about teen sex comedies, which were routinely marketed as raunchy and semi-pornographic, but were, in fact, the opposite of porn, precisely so: movies about people not having sex. The shared plot of all these film is that some men want to have sex but can’t, and if you’re going to find such a story diverting, you will have to be able to sign onto a certain understanding of sex: that it’s really hard to get laid—or, more precisely, that some versions of male sexuality are so stunted and hapless as to be a kind of acquired infertility. Sex eludes us. The point is clearer still in the throwback movies that have been made since the ‘80s, like American Pie and Superbad, since in those later films, the women are even willing—eager and squirmy—no longer the self-chaperoning matronettes of the Reagan-era—and the boys still can’t hack it. It will matter, of course, that we’re talking about a particular kind of boy: American Pie wants you to stand up and sing the Hallelujah chorus every time a middle-class white guy manages to maintain his erection.

This matters. If you work out the ways in which Fright Night is and isn’t like Spring Break or Private Resort, you should be able to specify what’s at issue with this particular vampire, what it is that makes this one monster so terrifying—his own singular brand of menace. At the beginning of the movie, our teen hero gawks shyly as a hooker in a mini-dress pulls up in front of his new neighbor’s house—that’s another one of those scenes pilfered from sex comedies—something out of Risky Business or The Girl Next Door. But then the neighbor moves in on the hero’s tenth-grade girlfriend, who has already sized up this new arrival and said: “God, he’s neat.” And worse, his mother, with the keen stammer of an aging lonelyheart, has already said the same thing: “It’s so nice to finally have somebody interesting move into the neighborhood.” Fright Night, in other words, turns the neighbor into the hero’s sexual competitor, and this to an almost ludicrous degree. Your typical teen sex comedy doesn’t feature any enemies; the pipsqueaks just keep getting in their own way. But Fright Night is, as it were, a teen sex comedy with a vampire-werewolf in the middle, which means that it has furnished the virgin with a nemesis, someone he can blame for his sexual impasse. Such is the movie’s particular construction of the vampire, the reason its gives you to beware the fiend: Vampires are to be feared because they hog all the women. The film hijacks the fear that has typically been directed against queer people and directs instead at a certain exorbitant straightness, a heterosexuality so consuming that it has become indistinguishable from its opposite. Fright Night is the movie in which the stud gets f*g-bashed, and how you feel about this is going to depend entirely on your tolerance for turnabout. Dracula, we need to keep in mind, is the guy who will bang your mother and then steal your girlfriend.





Staying Alive, Part One


What I have to explain this time round is a little strange, and the road we’ll have to walk to get there is, I think, even stranger. I should note first that I’ve been thinking a lot about vampire movies, about which we might, after rooting around, be able to say something that no-one else has ever said. And if you are to understand this New Thing About Vampire Movies—except it’s not a New Thing; it’s an Old and Secret Thing—then you are going to need to watch a short clip from a movie you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and when you watch it, you’re not going to think that it could possibly hold the key to anything. The movie is so obscure that I could only find the relevant scene dubbed into Russian, and even that sentence, once written, requires two intensifying corrections: I didn’t find the clip so much as fluke upon it while chasing down some other hunch. And the movie isn’t exactly dubbed into anything. It features some Russian language-school dropout—one guy; alone; an unaided Petersburg grumble—spot-translating all the dialogue, with the original soundtrack still running audibly in the background, such that he has to shout. Running this clip will be like trying to watch television in the company of a mean drunk. Plus it’s not even a vampire movie, which is what you were just promised. This is all pretty discouraging, I realize, but you’ll see: The clip does weirdly speak.

The film is Ken Russell’s Valentino, as in Rudy, as in hair anointed with jelly and liniment. It’s a biopic released in 1977, and starring Rudolph Nureyev as Rudolph V. At issue is a short scene in which Nureyev takes Carol Kane out onto a ballroom floor to dance the tango. Give it sixty seconds, and you’ll have seen everything important:

A spare cinematic minute—and yet the clip demands our attention by putting on display three things at once, three things that are intertwined even outside of this movie but whose intertwining is here oddly visible, as though lifted up for our examination. I’ll just count them off.

#1) The first thing you’ll want to bear in mind is who Valentino was. The basic facts will do: that he was Hollywood’s first superstar; that he was considered the prettiest man of his generation; and that he wasn’t American—he was born in Italy. The important point is that nothing in this thumbnail is wholly innocuous. A lot of people were unnerved by Valentino. Each of those bare data can and did yield something uncanny. That he struck so many American women as desirable was unusual precisely because he was Italian. He was the first non-Anglo man, after the big wave of southern and eastern European immigration, that large numbers of Americans deigned to think of as beautiful. People remarked on that a lot; the term “Latin lover” was apparently coined for him, even though, given the racial ductility of early Hollywood, he was most famous for playing an Arab. And there was if anything even more handwringing about Valentino the lover than there was about Valentino the Latin. Lots of male commentators said he wasn’t manly enough to represent their kind: that he was a dandy; that he was too polished; that he looked too soft; that he was a screen David sculpted out of talcum and pomade—and this, not as compared to John Wayne or Clint Eastwood—but as compared to Douglas Fairbanks, who agreed not to wear tights only when offered pantaloons.

But then the resentment of the nation’s swashbucklers did nothing to dent Valentino’s popularity. We’ve become accustomed, I guess, to how overtly libidinal the culture of female fandom is; we don’t much pause to remark on the orgiastic qualities of Justin Bieber’s every public appearance, their improbable pre-teen staging of the Dionysian Mysteries, but it might help to pretend that you’ve never seen archival footage of the Beatles and are thus having to face the squalling girl-crowds for the first time. When Valentino died unexpectedly in 1926—he was 31—there were riots in the streets of New York City. Lady fans started smashing windows and battling the hundred or so cops who were called out to restore order. Reports went out that women were killing themselves. That someone also ordered four actors to dress up as Italian blackshirts and tromp around the Upper East Side, to make it seem as though Mussolini himself had personally sent over an honor guard in Valentino’s memory, begins to sound like one of the day’s more pedestrian details.

#2) This should all help explain what anybody who’s just watched the clip will already have noticed, which is that Ken Russell has plainly instructed Nureyev to play Valentino as though he were Dracula: He silences the band just by raising his magical, mesmeric hand, tearing the sound from the very air…

…he activates what seem to be laser eyes; he leads a transfixed woman away from her circle of helpless male guardians and onto the dance floor, where he strut-hunches over her, arcing his shoulders into an insinuated cape…

…he mimes various attacks upon her neck.

A complicated series of observations follows on from this: We’ll want to say that the figure of Valentino has been filtered back through Dracula, and we can feel the force of that revision if we point out that Valentino was actually half-French and generically Continental-looking—you would not pause if someone told you he was German—and seems to have been typecast in Moorish roles only on account of a Mediterranean accent that no silent-moviegoer would ever hear anyway. Nureyev, on the other hand, is sweltering and Slavic and basically looks way more vampiric than the man he’s playing ever did. This could all easily seem like Ken Russell’s inspiration—to recreate, for audiences in the 1970s, the lost effect of Valentino’s magnetism by wrapping it in the easily read conventions of the vampire movie, with which, after all, it was roughly contemporaneous. You make one icon of early Hollywood intelligible by translating him into a second. It would be like deciding to make a movie about Greta Garbo, but then scripting her as Steamboat Willie.

There’s clearly something to this. But if we adhere tenaciously to that line, what are we going to say about the following images?

There is no mistaking the issue. Tod Browning’s Dracula came out in 1931, just five years after the Sheikh’s passing, and the stage versions that the movie was based on were running throughout the 1920s, when the oversized head of Valentino was first smoldering greyly down upon the bodies of American women. We can say that Nureyev was, in 1977, playing Valentino as Dracula, but we have to set against this the observation that Lugosi was already, in 1931, playing Dracula as Valentino. This is itself strong evidence that people were once scared of Valentino, but then we already knew that people—some people—were scared of Valentino, because he flaunted that off-white and insufficiently rugged form of masculinity, and because American women were really into it—or they weren’t just into it—they seemed hypnotized and made freaky by it. So the 1977 movie makes Valentino look more like a vampire than the real man actually did, but that’s because someone involved in the production intuited that Valentino had been one of the inspirations for the screen vampire to begin with. Heartthrob could be the name of a horror movie.

This all matters, because it helps us specify the contribution of Lugosi’s Dracula to the vampire mythos. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Nearly everything that makes the 1931 movie tick was taken over directly from Stoker’s 1897 novel, and for most purposes, you would be better off bypassing the movie and going straight to the source. The most efficient, if not perhaps the most perspicuous, way of naming Stoker’s achievement would be to say that he turned the vampire story into an ongoing referendum on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. For real: Nearly every vampire movie that has ever been made is in one way or another a meditation on Nietzscheanism, deliberating on the idea that some people, the rare ones, might yet overcome morality and thereby form a new caste—or race or even species—a breed that never even pauses to consider what ordinary people think of as right and wrong.  Here’s all the Nietzsche you need:

•The great epochs of our lives come when we gather the courage to reconceive our evils as what is best in us.

•Every exquisite person strives instinctively for a castle and a secrecy where he is rescued from the crowds, the many, the vast majority; where, as the exception, he can forget the norm called “human.”

•We think that harshness, violence, slavery, danger in the streets and in the heart, concealment, Stoicism, the art of seduction and experiment, and devilry of every sort; that everything evil, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and snakelike in humanity serves just as well as its opposite to enhance the species of “man.”

Enhanced and predatory un-humans living in castles, exquisite people who have turned wickedness into a virtue or an accomplishment—if you’re in an intro philosophy class, and you’re trying to make sense of The Genealogy of Morals for the first time, the easiest way to get a handle on Nietzsche will be to realize that he wants to turn you into a vampire, which is superman’s nearest synonym, another word for Übermensch. Or other way around now: Modern vampire stories work by mulishly literalizing Nietzsche’s language, making you stare the superman in the face on the expectation that you will be sent running by his anaconda grin.

This should all become clearer if we break Stoker’s Dracula back into his component parts. What are the several things that the classic vampire story wants you to be scared of?

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of aristocracy. This is perhaps the most glaring point—that vampire stories are the one horror genre driven by naked class animus. The novel makes Dracula seem wiggy even before he starts doing anything supernatural, and it does this simply by making him lord of the manor. His comportment is excessively formal. He is, the first-time reader is surprised to note, seldom referred to as Dracula; the novel almost only ever calls him “the Count,” as though the key to understanding the character lay in his title. It is the very existence of the old-fashioned nobleman that has come to seem unnatural, which no doubt has something to do with his literally feeding upon the blood of the poor, peasant children stuffed into sacks. The movie updates all this, in some pleasingly goofy way, by putting the vampire in ’20s-era evening wear, the lost joke being that he never wears anything else, that he sports white tie everywhere—a tail-coat to play softball in, an opera cloak for when he’s bathing the dog—as though tuxedos were the only threads he owned. Dracula is the character who, having once put on the Ritz, can never again remove it. The vampire, we are licensed to conclude, is our most enduring image of aristocratic tyranny, generated by a paradigmatically liberal and middle-class fever-dream about the character of the old peerage, and anchored in the simple idea that it isn’t even safe to be in the same room as an aristocrat, so driven are such people to dominate others, so unwilling to tolerate a partner or co-equal. “Come here!”: A duke is the name for the kind of person who barks orders at free men as though they were his subordinates. That’s a routine observation, and it’s what ties Dracula back to the early Gothic novel or even to Richardson’s Pamela. But what’s peculiar all the same about Stoker’s novel is its timing, since by the 1890s, the traditional aristocracy in England was, if not exactly obsolete, then at least much weakened. The novel actually registers this historical turn, since the vampire famously lives not in a castle, but in the ruins of a castle, in the rubble of a superannuated class hierarchy, and—this really is an inspired flourish—he has no servants: he drives his own coach, carries his own bags. The Count is what they used to call come-down gentry, accustomed to apologizing to guests for serving them dinner on chipped porcelain. And the threat he poses is therefore not the menace of one who actually possesses power—this is how he is unlike Richardson’s Mr B or William Godwin’s Falkland—but of one who might yet regain it, the name for which regaining would be “reaction” or “counter-revolution.” Stoker’s Dracula is the greatest of right-wing horror stories, scared of foreigners and queer people and women and sex in general, but it nonetheless harbors a certain curdled Jacobinism, the exasperated sense that the European aristocracy should be dead but aren’t, and that the French Revolution is going to have to be staged over and over again.

So much for aristocracy. About those others…

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of foreigners. This goes back to a simple plot point: Dracula sneaks into England from abroad—hides on a ship—slips past customs officers and curious locals. The vampire, in other words, is an illegal immigrant. You might object that this last is a late twentieth-century category, illicitly projected back onto the 1890s, and that’s true—but “stowaway” isn’t an anachronism, and neither is “smuggling.” What’s more, Stoker expressly aligns vampires, via their bats, with colonies and the Third World. Such creatures come from the “islands of the Western seas” or from South America. One character is pretty sure that this is no English bat! It “may be some wild specimen from the South of a more malignant species.” Perhaps most important, the screen Dracula is the figure who has single-handedly made life miserable for generations of Eastern European immigrants, who have had to endure endless rounds of “I vant … to sahk … your bludd!” in roughly the same way that teenaged Asian-American girls have been, since 1987, routinely subjected to obnoxious white boys quoting “Me so horny.”

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sex in general, though we can also make the point via the film: The first time we see Dracula attack a woman, all he really does is lean in for a kiss, though the street is dim and London-ish, and his victim is a flower-girl-for-which-read-prostitute, and these details inevitably summon overtones of Jack the Ripper, especially if you think Jack was a gentleman or the Prince of Wales.

The point is extended when, later in the film, one weeping survivor uses rape language to describe her evening with the Count:

Survivor: After what’s happened, I can’t…

Fiancé: What’s happened? What’s happened?!

Survivor: I can’t bear to tell you. I can’t.

At this point we need to make a careful distinction. Those scenes both trigger images of sexual violence. And yet one of the vampire story’s more remarkable features is that it communicates a fear of sex even when that violence is largely removed. Indeed, an encompassing fear of sex—and not just of rape—is coded into some of the genre’s most basic conventions. Nothing in the entire history of the horror film is more iconic than the vampire bite, which, if you pause to think about it, is entirely peculiar: Imagine that vampire stories didn’t already exist … and now imagine trying to convince a Hollywood executive to greenlight your new movie about a creature who kills people by giving them hickeys, an honest-to-Christ Cuddle Monster, but scary, you promise him, enemy of scarves and turtlenecks. Or ask yourself for once why so many movies allow vampires to be repelled by garlic. That’s a simple extrapolation from the idea that if you eat too much spicy food—if you go to bed fetid, the reek of sofrito still on your ungargled breath—no-one will want to sleep with you.

But there’s more…

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sexual women in particular. There’s an underlying point here that is worth reviewing first: Most viewers think that vampires are foxy, which makes them really unlike other classic monsters. If that point is the least bit unclear to you, you might take a moment now to close your eyes and pretend briefly that you are making out with a zombie. But the most clarifying difference is the one we can draw between the vampire and the werewolf, both of whom are canonically shown perpetrating savage violence upon the bodies of women. What I’d like to bring into view is that both werewolf movies and vampire movies deviate from what is perhaps the most routine scenario in a horror movie—a rampaging monster lumbering after a panicked victim—but they deviate in opposite directions. Werewolf stories are the one horror genre that has a certain reluctance or regret or stop-me-before-I-kill-again shame built right into them. Slashers, who otherwise resemble werewolves, never wake up the next morning hating themselves for what they’ve done. No-one casts a chainsaw to one side in self-loathing. But in a werewolf movie, not even the monster is wholly willing. In a vampire movie, then, the point just gets flipped, in that not even the victim is wholly unwilling. Vampire victims collaborate in their own destruction, for the simple reason that men in capes have game. This means that certain types of utterly common horror sequences are largely excluded from the vampire film: People almost never flee from vampires, which means that the vampire flick is the horror subgenre least likely to borrow from action movies; most likely, in other words, to commit to a languid pacing—no chase scenes!—or rather, if a vampire movie does for once break out into a chase scene, you can be pretty sure it’s the vamp and not the victim who is on the run.

What we can now say is that this little myth about willing victims is most often told, in the vampire classics themselves, about women. The form’s conviction that highborn men are predators is counterbalanced by its confidence that this is exactly what many women want—to be preyed upon. The he-vamp awakens the woman to sexual rapaciousness, and the audience is expected to find this creepy. The survivor does sob and say “I can’t bear to tell you what happened,” but she has also just said: “I feel wonderful. I’ve never felt better in my life.” In Stoker, the woman who proves most susceptible to Dracula’s advances is the one who has already asked, even before the vampire has made his move: “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her?” More important, the novel makes it clear that becoming a vampire is one good way of getting that wish granted. Once she turns, the sexual woman does indeed get all the men—every major male character in the novel willingly opens his veins to give her blood transfusions—she becomes a kind of sponge, allegorically loose, soaking up all this male donation: a “polyandrist,” one of the men calls her. When the men, bearing whale-oil candles, go to visit her in her crypt, they “drop sperm in white patches” across the floor, like pornographic bread crumbs. They finally put her to rest by assaulting her as a group, standing in a circle while one of their number “drives deeper into deeper” into the “dint in [her] white flesh.” In the novel’s opening sections, three women stand over a young Englishman in the Carpathians: “He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.”

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of deviant sex above all. One point can be made without qualification: All the vampires in the original Dracula are gender-benders. That this is true of those kiss-hungry Transylvaniennes should be immediately apparent, since it will be true of nearly any she-vamp—these lady-penetrators busting the jugular cherries of straight men.

The vampiress is how the very possibility of a certain rather sweeping gender reversal comes out into the open—becomes visible in everyday life, available for the contemplation of suburbanites and middle schoolers. She and her male victims are pop culture’s only iconic image of pegging. In Stoker, the man “waits in languorous ecstasy” while he assesses for the first time the feeling of “hard dents” against his “super sensitive skin.” The point will seem accordingly less clear with regards to Dracula himself, since a man-vamp sinking into a crumpled woman preserves orthodox sexual roles. That Dracula’s manhood is nonetheless unstable discloses the intensity of the novel’s preoccupation with sexual confusion: In one of the book’s more striking scenes, its several heroes bust into the bedroom of a woman they’ve been guarding and find Dracula clasping her head to his naked breast, which he has just gashed open so that she can lap at his blood. The image is not only a riff on oral rape—though it is that, too: a forced blow job. It is also—and rather more literally—a breast feeding, a demonic nursing, with the vampire willing to set aside all his usual male roles in order to take up the position of the monstrous mother, with a chest that runs red and a child at his bosom struggling to be reborn.

So that’s a dense set of associations—aristocracy, foreigners, sex, women, and queer people—and the film does a reasonably good job of preserving this tissue of meaning, a much better job than, say, Whalen’s Frankenstein does at protecting the many-sided allegory that had originally been built up around its monster. But the movie isn’t just a translation, because to those established associations it adds one of its own. The screen Dracula isn’t just an aristocratic holdover. The vampire is the movie star himself, and in all the famous images of Lugosi we see early film beginning to mediate on itself and on its own eerie power. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not that Browning’s Dracula has simply added a new association to Stoker’s list, but that it has found an innovative way of encapsulating that list’s concerns. The Valentino vampire isn’t just a supplement to or replacement for the queer and foreign aristocrat; he is the queer and foreign aristocrat, issued in a new format. What we see in Dracula is film recoiling from its new modes of supercharged male charisma, and you can begin to make sense of Lugosi’s performance if you think of it in terms of any film set’s hierarchy of actors: Van Helsing kills Dracula; Edward Van Sloan, who you’ve never heard of, kills Bela Lugosi; a character actor kills the leading man on behalf of the drab, male masses for the overriding reason that the women who’ve come to the theater with them find him too dishy.

#3) So those are two of the things that the Nureyev clip intertwines: Valentino and vampires. The third thing has everything to do with Carol Kane’s hair.

There’s real a problem here. The movie has been careful to give Nureyev a tallowy comb-back; he would hardly be credible as Valentino without it. But what’s striking about his partner’s tresses is that they are so obviously of the 1970s. The movie, after all, is set in the 1920s, whose iconic hairstyles for women were all short—bobs and Dutch boys and such—but Carol Kane’s hair has been frizzed and teased into fiberglass—it is simultaneously long and fro-like, a headdress of cotton candy. For comparison…

Valentino with Natacha Rambova

The biopic dancer’s most unflapperish do, in other words, breaks the movie’s historical frame, anchoring the production in its own present of 1977 and allowing that decade to worm back into the Coolidge era. More precisely, it tends to transform the ballroom into a disco and the tango into a proto-Hustle. Look again at that shot of Carol Kane and especially at the lighting: One doesn’t typically think of the 1920s as spangly. What we can say now is that Nureyev isn’t just playing Valentino as a vampire—that idea, at least, we’ve been able to explain; he is playing Valentino as a disco vampire, and this is going to reopen the puzzle of the clip. We know that some people really hated disco, but was anybody actually scared of it? This brings us to another movie—the movie we actually need to be thinking about—which is 1985’s Fright Night. Disco, they once said, sucks.



A Passage to What?


If you stick with this one, I think I’ll be able to explain how it is that fascism can be made appealing to ordinary Americans, and no fooling. I want to be clear that by “ordinary Americans,” I do not mean Birthers and Teabaggers. I mean the rest of us: suburbanites, semi-sophisticates, people who sometimes vote for Democrats, carriers of canvas tote bags. And by “fascism” I don’t mean any politics to the right of my own; I don’t mean traffic cops and my gym coach. I mean unpleasant Italians in the 1920s, Teutonic ghastliness, the Spanish clampdown. I’m not saying that I can show you how a generically right-wing politics appeals to the American Right; there’s not much that needs explaining on that front. I’m saying, rather, that I can show how something rather like National Socialism can be made appealing to you.

It all starts with Salon.com, which is, I grant, an unlikely place to begin a conversation about fascism. Salon, after all, is an unmistakably “progressive” undertaking: based in San Francisco, founded by a former editor at Mother Jones, temperately anti-war, feminist, queer-friendly, &c. The site represents a kind of publication that has never really existed in print form or on glossy paper: a lifestyle magazine for middle-class liberals, a site where you can get in one click from some fairly trenchant analysis of the US government’s misplaced “imperial priorities” to recipes for “the best burger I ever had” (and in the event, also pretty good). Salon is perhaps the closest thing Statesiders now have to an American version of the UK Guardian, the sort of magazine that will occasionally let itself engage in utopian speculation, when no idiom is more foreign to official writing about politics than that. One recent article introduced its argument with a brief thought experiment about an “imaginary classless society.” But if you look just a little bit harder at that same article, it turns out that such a society would have a “universal middle class.” Socialism as the apotheosis of the middle classes, their driving of all other players from the field: that’s Salon.

Earlier this summer, Salon decided to start a book club: the magazine’s readers would all read the same long novel, at roughly the same time, and would have a public, on-line discussion about it over the course of three weeks. The first book that Salon chose was The Passage, a new vampire apocalypse by a writer who teaches at Rice named Justin Cronin. It’s a little misleading to single out Salon for pushing The Passage this way. The novel has been getting all sorts of attention: declarations of love from Time and The Guardian, a book deal so big that it was reported as a news item in its own right in 2007. Ridley Scott has already bought the rights. There has been touting. Salon was making sure it kicked things off with a novel lots of people were going to be reading anyway.

They were also making a clean break with Oprah, by throwing boy-readers a book they could gnaw at. There are at least two different ways of telegraphing what it’s like to read The Passage. One way is to note its literary affiliations: The novel basically just takes the premise of Richard Matheson’s slender, economical I Am Legend—vampires have taken over the world—and bulks it out to a length that is prolix and Tolkienian: so not just one survivor, as in Matheson, but an entire village of survivors, then a quest narrative, which eventually ramps up into an out-and-out war story, a cage match cosmic and Manichean, between the men of the West and what are really just bioluminescent orcs.

The other way is easier: The Passage is a fast-zombie movie in prose. One suspects that Cronin has called his monsters “vampires” only because, in the fashion cycle of collective dread, vampires are back. Gone, mostly, are the zombies of the last decade—the dilatory, the dawdling, the pointlessly milling dead. Pop culture once again prefers its ghouls to have purpose and penetrating stares. Cronin’s cannibals resemble bloodsuckers in some respects, and the walking dead in others; five years ago he would have called them zombies; but it’s 2010, so he calls them vampires. I want to be careful here. At some level, it’s pointless to try to segregate out from one another Hollywood’s vampire and zombie populations. Monsters routinely intermarry. There have been lots of vampire-zombie splicings, not the least of which is I Am Legend itself. Or rather: I Am Legend was, via its first film version—not 1971’s The Omega Man, but a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price—one of the major sources for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which means that the zombie movie as we know it actually began as a mutation in the vampire code. But we can just as well leave that history aside. The broader point is that any time a movie, 30 Days of Night, say, has its vampires attack in numbers—any time it deploys them against humans in formations larger than three or four—it’s going to start looking, whether it means to or not, like a zombie pic. Humans will board up their windows and huddle in locked rooms. They will fall to multiple, scrabbling hands.

So vampires often look like zombies. And then there’s the simple point that filmmakers and especially novelists have woven so many variations on the vampire that they, like the queer people they are often made to resemble, come in all possible forms: vampire politicians, vampire mechanics, the vampire homeless. It seems useless to insist that vampires are really one way and not another. One wishes to say all the same that the genre’s anchoring works—the stories and novels that have set the horizon for the form: Polidori, Stoker, Anne Rice—have always given special emphasis to aristocracy, etiquette, seduction, intelligence. For a creature to register emphatically as a vampire—for it to be recognizable as something other than a zombie—it needs to seem like a superior being, Luciferous and more than human; and it needs to be something you could possibly make the mistake of falling in love with. All I mean is that a certain Byronism is pretty well wired into the thing.

Cronin’s “vampires,” meanwhile, are dim and scavenging herd animals, not superhuman but rather the opposite: degenerate and cretinous. Rigor commands that I also list the ways they are not like zombies: They are light-sensitive; they don’t turn everyone they bite; a very small number of them emit their memories and commands in a manner extrapolated from antique vampire mind-control or mesmerism; they are fairly hard to kill. But these are secondary characteristics, whereas the monsters’ zombie traits are central to one’s experience of the novel: They don’t have manners, and they (mostly) don’t have minds. Most important: They come in nests and pods and swarms and packs and scourges and hordes.

I want to stick with “hordes.” It’s important to get the matter of genre right, because to opt for the fast zombie, as your particular horror niche, is to place in front of a readership a distinctive set of historical or sociopolitical concerns, concerns that are at this point built into those monsters. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: Fast zombies, as cinematic and now literary figures, are built almost entirely out of perceptions of Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans and native Americans, some of them new—fast zombies sometimes get framed as terrorists—most of them old: they are above all savages. (They are in this sense unlike slow zombies. I’ve argued out the distinction here.) This was already true of the landmark fast-zombie movies—28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake—and Cronin simply follows suit on this front. When the zombie epidemic erupts, the novel begins to incorporate all sorts of Bush-era GWOT-speak, which means that its vampire apocalypse is at some level nothing more than the War on Terror imagined as lost. But then Cronin has at the same time found a way to reactivate some very old colonial nightmares: One scene has a settlement of human survivors—the creepy survivors; the bad survivors—readying a human sacrifice, to placate the vampire-zombies, in what is clearly a replay of early Spanish lore about the Aztecs. This association is then cemented by Cronin’s notion of where vampirism comes from: It is a virus, let loose from deepest Bolivia, a kind of bat-Ebola, and its sinister work will be to make the United States equatorial. Fast-zombie stories take civilization as their highest good—that might sound like an uncontroversial proposition, but it isn’t—lots of stories don’t. They then designate the zombies as that-which-can-cancel-civilization, a baggy category that can include both al Qaeda and Zulus. Or to put this another way: Fast-zombie stories are devices for making palatable some of the old imperial beliefs, or, if you like, for manufacturing neo-imperial anxieties, though they have their own distinctive way of doing this, one that rather than flaunting the sturdy supremacy of civilization, emphasizes instead the latter’s tenuousness and so the possibility that culture and progress and refinement could collapse in their very hubs and capitals.

What I want to do at this point is list a number of things that early reviewers have said about The Passage; itemize this generic praise back into its commonplaces; and then work out what those vague and blurbish abstractions, with particular reference to this specific novel, actually mean.

•1) Reviewers have routinely described the book as “epic.” This was inevitable, because the book is long, 750 pages and counting. But for once that tag seems appropriate; it seems to indicate something more than just length. The Passage shares with the classical epics—Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the like—techniques and scenes that one doesn’t typically find even in other big, multiplot novels: above all, a vast and prophetic time scheme that, strictly tallied, covers more than a thousand years. The novel falls roughly into three sections: The first part recounts the outbreak of the zombie contagion and the collapse of the US government and American society; the second part jumps ahead a century and describes the workings of a survivor colony living behind walls in the interior of California; the third part follows a band of adventurers as they peel away from that colony and march across the American West, battling zombies, briefly joining a sinister counter-colony, and then enrolling, some of them, in the rump US Army—or rather the Army of the Republic of Texas, which it turns out has been on the ground all along and is the novel’s rootin’-tootin’ deus.

What Cronin shares with the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style epics, in other words, is their long-durée concern with the Fate of Civilizations, a concern that requires his distended and decidedly non-novelistic narrative canvas, the span of generations. It is from the epic, too, that he has borrowed his descriptions of the zombie armies, though perhaps unwittingly and at two or three removes. Epics are utterly fixated on the distinction between fully settled people and still tribal or semi-nomadic ones. The final books of The Aeneid describe a small army of Trojan survivors as they invade Italy and conquer its indigenous people. Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Adam and Eve as two dwellers in the wilderness, naked foragers in “the new world.” The first American epic, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, recounts in heroic terms a righteous people’s war of extermination against a nation of savages whose land they regard as earmarked. The affinity matters because it is in some of its epic qualities that The Passage is least like a fast-zombie movie, since the films generally have compressed time-frames; are interested only in the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath; and almost never show survivors successfully fighting back. This is how we know that Cronin is not just cashing in—because to write a fast-zombie epic is something entirely different from, say, just novelizing Dead Alive, simply by virtue of letting the novel proceed past page 250, past the nuclear explosions over Boise and Bend, Oregon—simply, that is, by allowing that there might be, even after the swarming, story left to tell.

This then brings us to the next claim that reviewers have been making, which is that…

•2) The Passage is a wonderfully hopeful book.  Time magazine called it “a story about human beings trying to generate new hope.” One of Salon’s readers remarked that “the post-apocalyptic world feels more hopeful than what preceded it.” Another reader agreed that the book’s middle and late sections are “immensely hopeful.” This hope is one of the things in the novel that most needs specifying, because Cronin has produced a full-on reconstruction narrative. It is hard to stress this point with the banging emphasis it deserves. The mood is one of settler expectancy, of pilgrims surveying a land whose savage inhabitants are dying of an introduced disease, though they still lurk ferociously in forests and canyons. The Passage, in other words, is trying to counter the despondent vibe of the long Iraq-Afghanistan decade by retelling the old America myth the way that public school textbooks are no longer allowed to tell it; by trying to get you to occupy the valiant position of the embattled pioneer, to imaginatively inhabit the geography of early settlement, what we used to call the frontier.

There are actually two major historical models that Cronin has incorporated into his book. The first is medieval Europe, especially in its early stages, the systole and diastole of contraction and expansion, the post-Roman heartbeat: villages in Normandy gathering in their borders like so much extra fabric; towns building walls; lords building castles; and then—back out into the wastelands; the outgrowth of an armed agrarianism; planned settlements for serfs beyond the Elbe, generous terms, no labor service, five years rent-free!; Teutonic Knights; Frankish machine-men with their monster-horses and their death-arrows; northern crusades into the heathen Baltic; the Spanish Reconquista—and no historical meme looms larger in The Passage than that: the Reconquest of America. The book’s survivors live in a walled city and have something like guilds and wear tunics and have all but abandoned books and carry crossbows, which were the tenth century’s great advance in military technology, a weapon  so unsportingly good at killing people that the Church tried to limit its use. Crossbowmen were briefly pariahs.

The survivors also ride horses, though this image obviously does double duty. For beyond its medievalism, The Passage is most obviously a zombie Western—Cronin himself has said as much—subcategory siege, with the California settlement doubling as fort. Survivors trek across Nevada and Colorado. They cook jonnycake. A man in a remote house pours boiling water into a tub for his pregnant woman and sits watch at night, shotgun across his lap, armed against whatever might come stalking out of the woods.

The Passage, then, generates “hope” only because it’s underlying notion is that we’ve been through this all before; it is telling, through proxies and vampire-puppets, a history whose ending we already know; and so reassuring us of a certain cycle or historical repetition. Cronin’s answer to our usual bum and apocalyptic trip is to help us envision another round of colonization. North America will get to resettle itself. Indian Wars will be refought. To this end, the novel works in five or six documents form the distant future—conference papers from some symposium a millennium down the line—which is our guarantee, from an early point in our reading, that civilization has survived somewhere and in some form.

Another claim out of the reviews…

•3) The Passage is especially interested in what one reader calls “the civic structure of the colony.” This is true—and it’s an extension of the last point—because it involves “hope” again—and not just hope, but this horror novel’s unexpected interest in hope’s proper literary form and vehicle, which is utopia. Absolutely nothing about The Passage is more surprising than the moment that comes about a third of the way through, after you’ve read hundreds of pages of an utterly routine X-Files/outbreak plot, and you turn the page, and that plot is gone, and a full-blown utopia has taken its place, which is another way of gauging Cronin’s sense of his own writerliness, since the genre-swap—from apocalypse to utopia—is among other things a shift over from a heavily cinematic form to a quite peculiarly literary one. I don’t know that film is structurally barred from attempting outright utopias; I do know that it almost never does. Cronin, for his part, goes so far as to reproduce in its entirety the survivor colony’s written constitution, which is how you know that he has the genre’s canonical texts in mind—Thomas More, William Morris, and the like—that he is actually speculating about the daily workings of an alternate political order. That list of basic laws is the token of Cronin’s utopian seriousness (and is one of the feature’s of utopian writing that a commercial film would have the hardest time reproducing). Salon’s book critic, Laura Miller, said that the utopia was her favorite section of the book, but she is professionally disallowed from using that word, so what she actually said was that she “loves stories about how people form and sustain communities.” “Isn’t life in this last city kind of ideal?” a reader asked, “—if you ignore the vampire bit.”

It is under cover of phrases like these—“sustaining community,” “ideal city life”—that the novel’s fascism rides in. This is itself rather fascinating, since utopia often seems like the special province of the political Left, in some another-world-is-possible kind of way. The term itself, officially neutral, nominally harnessed to no particular ideology, was claimed by socialist thinkers early on. Fredric Jameson continues to use it as a euphemism for “communism.” So it is all the more remarkable to watch an American novelist, in apparent sincerity, attempt a utopia with strong fascist elements. There are at least three:

a) The first thing the constitution does is establish sovereignty, a “final authority” charged with “safeguarding DOMESTIC ORDER” and empowered to declare “CIVIL EMERGENCY.” This is Schmittian boilerplate, and generically authoritarian rather than specifically fascist, but it is worth noting that Cronin’s California does, in fact, break with the main lines of Anglo-American political thought, which—with their doctrines of mixed monarchy, the division of powers, check-and-balances, institutional cantilevers and counterweights, programmed-in gridlock and indecision—have always been hostile to sovereignty of precisely this kind. Montesquieu and Madison are among the books that no-one in the future will be reading.

b) This second one will take a little more explaining. Some social historians think that modern politics came into being in the seventeenth century when European governments began allowing themselves to worry about demography, which is to say to worry about the size and health of their populations. This led, in a hundred different ways, to a politics of the body; a medicalized politics of health and hygiene and sanitation; new political initiatives around birth and death; &c. One way of thinking about fascism is that it marked the culmination and cancerous transformation of this centuries-old development, which, however, continues to shape all modern governments, and especially the social democracies, to some greater or lesser degree. The important point about Cronin, then, is that his utopian colony is nakedly biopolitical in just this way, a utopia of eugenics and euthanasia. Fully a third of the constitution’s provisions involve quarantine. There are entire chapters devoted to mercy killings; when colonists are dragged away by vampires, their closest family have to ritually keep watch on the colony’s walls and cut them down if they return. Cronin calls this “standing the mercy.” Women in his utopia are taught trades, but then forced to abandon them when they become pregnant, relegated into compulsory motherhood, in a special building they are not allowed to leave. It is Cronin’s bleak gift to make such a scenario seem reasonable to an ordinary American reader—to make plausible that old physiocratic preoccupation with demography, with keeping the numbers up—by forcing us to imagine a human population reduced to some few hundreds.

c) The colony is also pervasively militarized, which is one of the ways its order is most like a fascism and least like an ordinary authoritarianism, since yer run-of-the-mill authoritarian wants the leadership to preserve a monopoly on force. In Cronin’s future, everyone is taught how to fight. There are weapons ready in every room. This is an ethos of war and blood, a society that has regenerated itself by abandoning the pacifism and potbellies of liberal society, though on a casual read, this all registers only as a low-level Spartanism. Nine-year olds get put through their daily samurai drills: “Where do they come from?” “THEY COME FROM ABOVE!” “And what do we get?” “WE GET ONE SHOT!”

That’s how The Passage looks if you emphasize its utopian qualities, hence its imagined innovations, its breaks with the established order of 2010—and it’s worth underscoring that these add up to a kind of political argument, since Cronin is trying to explain the difference between a society that knows how to survive a terrorist-savage threat and the United States, which, in the novel’s terms, mostly doesn’t. To that extent, these breaks all have the force of recommendations, what the U.S. could have done, but failed to do, to keep itself intact: Streamline the political chain of command, make sure pregnant women stop working, strictly limit the rights of immigrants, lie to the children, seal the borders, build a wall around them, shoot anyone who gets close.

But we can also run the argument in the other direction, and emphasize instead those features of our readerly present that Cronin’s settler-utopians would preserve. The novel’s medievalism, reconsidered from this angle, turns out to be something of a red herring, since its survivors see themselves as the keepers of American techno-civilization; the guardians of illumination in a vampire dark age, though that word, illumination, now refers to halogen lamps and not manuscripts; the ones who can keep running—literally; this is in the novel—the Humvees of the lost world. The novel’s premise is that civilization has collapsed, and yet it remains most interested in the people who have inherited American achievement. Civilization will only be possible again when people figure out how to re-activate its machinery. The middle sections of the novel are accordingly made up of three stock scenes regularly repeated: Characters try to improvise a patch on some machine they consider essential but no longer know, curved-arch-like, how to manufacture. Characters leave the colony to scavenge century-old goods from decaying strip malls and military bases, hunter-gatherers foraging for high-tops like they’re loganberries. Characters encounter some forgotten or never-before-seen device and wonder what it is and how to use it. This aspect of the novel becomes more and more important until it effectively takes over, since the novel’s final order of business is to fold the colonist-survivors into the U.S. Army, which is a techno-survival of an entirely different order, the novel’s strange belated admission that civilization didn’t really collapse after all, certainly not to some zero point. What destroys the first host of vampire-zombies, then, is a nuclear bomb left over from the military—a military solution, then, to a problem created by the military. Salon’s Laura Miller says she likes that the colonists come to the realization that they “need the outside world,” but taken on its own the phrase “outside world” could mean just about anything, when the novel is by necessity much more specific: The colonists need a modern military and heavy ordnance.

The one observation that Miller makes that is flat out wrong is that the novel’s idiom is not ethical or religious. She has said this more than once: “Cronin’s novel isn’t about the clash between good and evil, but about humanity’s struggle to forge a better world.” “Cronin’s characters, unlike [Stephen] King’s [in The Stand], are not caught up in a struggle between Good and Evil.” It’s true that Cronin is being a little sneaky on this front. The survivor colony is nominally post-Christian; they remember Christmas only as a rumor or a legend; they have adopted a new calendar that makes no reference to Domini. But then Cronin makes it his business, in the novel’s final chapters, to smuggle back in all the Christian language that he has up to that point carefully withheld. The Passage, indeed, is so stupidly ethical that it features not only a demonic head vampire whose name contains the word cock, but two supernaturally good characters, as well, the more important of whom is a pre-pubescent girl, and cock and girl appear to one character by turns in a dream and tell him respectively to murder and not to murder a woman in that dream, as in: Cartoon devil on your left shoulder, cartoon angel on your right. That the other radiantly moral figure is a Catholic nun should sufficiently confirm the point. In fact, by the time the novel ends, readers will have to swallow: an immortal nun, an act of heroic martyrdom, characters galvanized upon hearing Bible stories, a set of fiendish counter-apostles called “the Twelve,” and a group fighting these hellhounds led by a man named Peter, about whom sentences like this are written: “He inched his way forward, each step an act of faith.”

More generally, The Passage is packed with writing borrowed from the traditions of sentimental and domestic writing, and this, too, adds up to a kind of shadow Christianity or orthodox morality. It is also another of the ways—indeed, the most pervasive way—in which The Passage tries to make literature out of its cinematic scenario. Everything is POV, free indirect discourse, interior monologue. Events are endlessly focalized, and an intimacy is thereby obtruded on this Gibbonesque-Hobbsean story of civilizations falling and original contracts being formed. It is hard to overstate just how much family writing there is in this book, paragraph upon paragraph describing the ferocious attachments one feels to one’s closest kin: The only moment of love the colony’s leader ever felt was when his daughter was born. One woman reflects at length on how “wonderful” it was “to feel a baby moving inside her.” A tough warrior out on the quest confesses that what he misses most are “the littles.” Time praised the book for its “psychological insight.” Laura Miller said it was a vampire-zombie story “with heart.” In sentences like those we see a hard Right politics being made psychologically credible to a contemporary readership—and the psychology in play is a reassuringly familiar one, the psychology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a PTA meeting, the known term that carries you to an unknown place. Fascism is something you do for the kids.

What we can say now, then, is that Cronin’s utopio-fascism is tempered by a certain conservatism. But then fascism, of course, came in all sorts of different forms; it had national variants for one; and each fascist intellectual dreamed up a slightly different fascism, none of which corresponded precisely to any of the fascisms that actually existed on the ground. In the interests of precision, then: Cronin is helping us make our peace with an American fascism, but his is not the fascism of the intellectuals and the avant gardists, not a Nietzschean and anti-bourgeois fascism, which would, let’s face it, probably prefer the vampires. His is a fascism that has in certain key tenets—respect for Christianity and a conventional military hierarchy—joined forces with the conventional Right: a Spanish fascism, if you follow me, rather than a German one.

But then it’s not enough to name, however precisely, which particular historical variant of fascism Cronin is trying to resurrect. The important point, rather, is that Cronin is trying to imagine a version of fascism that has never existed, and this gets us to the crux of the matter: How, after all, do you engineer a fascism that will be palatable to a contemporary American audience, and not just to any audience, but to a Salon audience, a bunch of literate Lefties, the type of people who participate in book clubs? The answer, I think, is quickly given: You subtract race from the equation. For Cronin’s colonists are all multi-racial; the novel makes a big deal of this early on. Racial categories are, like the Jesus story, one of those things from Before that the survivors have heard about but barely understand. The novel is more cunning than this even. The utopian section begins with a kind of oral history recorded by the last person who was born before the vampire apocalypse. And she’s an old black woman, although the novel never out and tells you this; it expects you to hear it in her cadences. That’s a far cry from, say, Tolkien, who is sheerest poison, Wagnerite Anglo-fascism without the tunes. Tolkien’s racialism was always all but overt, just under the surface, like Norplant: all those Celtic-Viking heroes and elephant-riding bad men from the East; that scheming, greedy golem-Jew; those monstrous Urak-hai-sounds-like-Iroquois. So whatever Cronin is up to, it’s not that. Instead, he has worked out a more subtle kind of racial feint; he makes a black woman our gateway into the fascist utopia. The novel actually does something similar in matters of gender, since our colonist-heroes end up visiting two other survivor compounds, each of which treats women much worse than the novel’s central settlement, which means that readers can tell themselves that the colony, whatever its policies on pregnant women, has achieved a fair degree of gender equity. And then that’s it right there: A fascism in which people of all races and genders can participate more or less equally—that’s how one creates a fascism that will pass first-line liberal scrutiny. If you make it so that fascism isn’t primarily racial, an American reader won’t even recognize it as fascism. But then, of course, Cronin can only produce this de-racialized version of fascism because he has transferred the entire apparatus of race onto the zombies, who are sometimes just called “the Many” and who are, of course, a population of the killable. He can loosen racial categories among the survivors, because he has preserved the lethality of race at a higher and more abstract level. Not that any of this is buried in the novel, exactly, since the survivors have a series of different racial epithets for the zombies, one of which is “smokes,” which, well, if you don’t know, you should probably look it up, is all I’m saying. One of Salon’s readers said that “smokes” was “invented language” —and thought it was neat. And it just ain’t … neat, I mean … or invented.