• Researching the ancient world’s accomplishments is a humbling experience. Turns out that the Greeks beat us to countless firsts, from computers to the secrets of surround-sound. They also clobbered us when it came to imagineering the most horrific monsters and undead bogeymen. If that weren’t enough, long-ago Greeks also pioneered the first corpuscule-craving bogeywomen.
• In How to Mellify a Corpse, I wrote about these early vampire females, some of whom changed into come-hither form to attract males, supping on their flesh as well as their blood. There was Mormo, a queen in a prior life who’d lost her children and developed an eating disorder and a taste for Type O-positive; and Lamia, who stole kids and ate them—quite an athletic feat, since she resembled a giant shark. The most fearsome vampire femme-fatale, however, was Empusa, who sported a donkey leg and another made of brass. To have any sort of social life, Empusa took on the bodies of living women from time to time. The star of the earliest “meet cute” story in history, Empusa hooks up with a young philosopher and deftly drags him to the marriage altar until a famed egghead named Apollonius of Tyana stages a vampire intervention.
• After my book came out—and always on the lookout for more
in-depth information about women, bloodsucking or not–I decided to pick a vampire expert’s brain on the topic. Karen Essex seemed the ideal victim. A bestselling historical fiction author of Leonardo’s Swans and other works, her newest book, Dracula in Love, launches this week.
Vicki Leon: Welcome, Karen. People have believed in vampires for thousands of years. Why do you think they remain such a part of our 21st-century culture?
Karen Essex: Vampires used to reflect our fears. Now they reflect our fantasies. No longer monsters who corrupt and destroy, they have become magical creatures who have what we lust for— immortality. My theory is that while every generation has longed for a fountain of youth, today we have tools that enable us to reject the very idea of aging. Humans today downright abhor the idea of mortality! Who can blame us? We live in a youth-worshipping society—on steroids. We have stem-cell treatments, hormone therapies, cosmetic surgery both invasive and non-invasive, and medicines that can keep us alive beyond our expiration date. I sometimes run into people who look younger than they did twenty years ago! We are vampirizing ourselves; and at the same time, we are humanizing the monsters.
Vicki Leon: As in the current avalanche of movies and books, where the emotional thread that runs through all is the ancient Greek sense of pothos, or longing. Karen, what about the male-female vampire issue? Does it represent male fears or demonizing women? A way to portray women as willing victims? Or fantasies of powerful women?
Karen Essex: Vampires have a long rich history dating to pre-Biblical times. Many mythical blood-drinkers were female, symbolic of feminine magic and power. These are the true bad girls of mythology. The Hindu goddess Kali who punished and possessed her enemies by drinking their blood. The child-eating Lamia of Greece and North Africa who so captivated the pre-Raphaelite artists of Bram Stoker’s day. Lilith, Adam’s first Mesopotamian wife, who drank blood in vengeance. The blood-lusting warrior fairy queens of Ireland. I wanted these sultry sirens in my book, and by God, I did get them in there!
Vicki Leon: How did we get from those full-bodied female terrors to the Victorian notion of vampires, who all seem to be males?
Karen Essex: The Victorians lived in fear of unleashed female sexuality. To their minds, women were pure and innocent creatures who must remain protected from worldly life. If women succumbed to sexual lust, ordered Victorian society would combust. Consequently, in stories like John Polidari’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was the male vampires who roamed the streets of London and threatened lovely young ladies.
Vicki Leon: Being a historical research freak, I’m always interested in how others do research. Can you clue us in?
Karen Essex: The gruesome (details) in Dracula in Love come
out of my own head, my own imagination, which I guess makes it even more disturbing.
Vicki Leon: (hair on back of neck now standing on end). Wow. Would you look at the time. Karen, thanks for talking to us. You have given new meaning to the term “undying love.”