Are vampires scary? Though by all rights they should be, they’ve never really frightened me. Or even been that compelling, really: I read Dracula once and stopped there.
Pop culture, on the other hand, loves vampires. But most of its vampires aren’t frightening either. From The Vampire Chronicles to Buffy to True Blood to Twilight, vampires can be seductive or they can be ridiculous, but they don’t seem to provoke fear in the audience or even seem to be designed to. (Articles I’ve never seen: “Scary moments from last night’s True Blood.” This sort of article, on the other hand….) Indeed, the vampire who kicked off this whole trend back in 1819 was modeled on Lord Byron; a striking figure, to be sure, but not really a frightening one.
I am, of course, not really a vampire expert. To become such an expert would require reading a rather large stack of books and watching more television and movies than bears thinking about (just the number of media that feature an appearance by Dracula is enough to make one flee). And then there is the largish stack of literature dedicated to asking why we care about vampires so much. (A recent entry is this year’s Vampires Are Us, by NPR’s Margot Adler: “Perhaps, Adler suggests, our blood is oil, perhaps our prey is the planet.” Perhaps.)
But if you are the kind of person who doesn’t desire expertise but does, every once in a while, sit up and ask, What is the deal with vampires, anyway?, you can now pick up The Delicate Dependency: A Novel of Vampire Life, by Michael Talbot, a long out-of-print cult classic. But two weeks ago Valancourt Books put it back in print, and it’s worth reading, even though it is, at times, a little infuriating. As an examination of why we like vampires so much, it almost certainly has Margot Adler beat.
“When I was very young,” begins John Gladstone, the book’s narrator and protagonist, “I had a vision of an angel, or at least I thought it was an angel then.” Out of this initial encounter, hauntingly described, the rest of the story slowly spills out. Young Gladstone runs to his father to tell him he has met an angel; his father publicly humiliates for saying such a self-evidently incorrect thing. But then forty years later—after Gladstone has built a career, married, had children, and lost his wife—he runs over that same angel in his carriage.
That angel, or Niccolo (as he calls himself), hasn’t changed at all since Gladstone first met him. And Niccolo’s youthfulness is one of many curious traits he seems to possess. He also heals unusually quickly, has a super-heightened sense of smell, won’t go out in the sun, and refuses to eat food. Eventually, Niccolo takes Gladstone in to his confidence and tells him what the reader already knows: he’s a vampire.
Gladstone, a doctor and man of science, is intrigued by this revelation, and offers Niccolo a steady stream of rabbits and protection from the sun if he’ll provide Gladstone with information about vampires. Niccolo agrees, but the arrangement quickly deteriorates, and eventually the vampire disappears—taking Gladstone’s younger daughter, an idiot savant who can only play the piano, with him. Gladstone gives chase, tracks Niccolo to Paris, and it is there that the story really begins. Well, sort of.
A third of the book is dedicated to setting up this story, to the point where a vampire-impatient reader begins to see possible vampires everywhere before one actually shows up. Gladstone fills this first third of the book with his thoughts about his father, his relationship with his wife, and his position in society. Even after Niccolo enters the picture, Gladstone is always being distracted by something; he can break into and search a vampire mansion and still be worrying, in the back of his mind, that his ne’er-do-well colleague is going to steal his research while he’s gone. He is often petty, often incorrectly suspicious, and often simply not paying attention.
While the title suggests that this is a book about vampires, Gladstone starts to fill it up with his own life story; he can’t help it. He’s too limited by his self to tell a story about something else. That limitation makes him a frustrating narrator, but it also makes him a human one. Not just generically, but specifically human, as opposed to vampire.
For Talbot’s vampires are completely limitless; they’re smarter, stronger, even more ethical. They know everything and they excel at everything. They live off blood, but they have a horror of death, and avoid harming people directly. Better and smarter than any man could ever be, they reveal themselves to be invisibly wound up in human affairs. Gladstone takes issue with their behavior, because he thinks they could do more to alleviate human suffering. But the reader might well be surprised that these completely superior beings involve themselves in human life at all.
But of course they do. What else can they do? These vampires are so accomplished and so transcendent that if left to their own company, they have little to do. So they watch over mankind, even though they require it for nothing, except the creation of further vampires. In their conversations with Gladstone, they profess their superiority to mortals, but we are still the center of everything they do. Gladstone may be limited by his human outlook, but ultimately, the vampires are too; because ultimately, the very superiority of the vampire creates in this book a world in which everything revolves around human decisions.
Though they’re neither malicious nor frightening, Talbot’s vampires are compelling. Not because we get a pleasant shiver at the thought of them, but because it would be awfully nice if they existed. And even if they were nastier—if they preyed exclusively on people, for example—there’s that relationship. Vampires require that human beings continue to exist. Perhaps they really aren’t very scary; but maybe that was never the point. Maybe there are some monsters we like to believe live in our closets.