Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chapter 38: In Which the Duel Subplot Becomes Even More Contrived


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Everyone challenges Varney to a duel. Oh, the hi-larity.

Chapter 38 (MARCHDALE'S OFFER. -- THE CONSULTATION AT BANNERWORTH HALL. -- THE MORNING OF THE DUEL.) starts out with Dr. Chillingworth and Jack Pringle meeting Varney on behalf of Henry and the Admiral, respectively. They fret about Varney not having a second, and I have to admit that while the situation itself seemed more forced than humorous to me, I did crack a smile at Varney's nonchalance.

Anyway, Varney argues that he cannot find a second because he has no friends. Chillingworth stands his ground, and finally Jack offers for the Admiral to be Varney's second in the duel with Henry. (Really, JMR? Could this conflict become any more manufactured?)

They agree on a place and time, but as Jack and Chillingworth are leaving, who should they come across but Marchdale! I'd hoped he had left the story entirely, but apparently he's just jealous that Henry broke up with him and got with Chillingworth on the rebound upset that Henry chose Chillingworth as a second instead of him. Chillingworth refuses to trade places without Henry's consent, so Marchdale tags along back to Bannerworth Hall.

The Admiral, learning of Jack's plan, is totally fine with it except for the fact that he won't get to face Varney first. Marchdale begs Henry to be his second; Henry asks the Admiral if he cares, and I rather love the reply: ""Oh, I! -- Yes -- certainly -- I don't care. Mr. Marchdale is Mr. Marchdale, I believe, and that's all I care about."

We return briefly to Varney and learn that he has avoided the duels so far because he just really doesn't want to hurt anyone. But now he's backed into a corner and can't avoid it! Poor, poor Varney, first forced by his vampire nature to attack helpless women, then forced by a society he isn't really a part of to accept pointless challenges!

But finally we come to the duel, and Varney takes the Admiral aside to explain what to do if he gets shot. If my suspicions are correct, this whole scenario seems like a very ill-thought-out way to finally reveal a bit more about Varney's vampiric nature and what exactly happens to him when he "dies." Which gives me something to look forward to in the next chapter, at least.

Chapter 39: In Which the Duel Goes Awry

Thanks for joining me for the Blog 30 challenge. It's been fun, but I can't sustain this pace forever. Regular posting will resume on Wednesdays and Sundays, with perhaps a few digressions in between.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Digression: What Makes a Good Vampire, Part 2


Now that I've discussed some traits of vampires in a few fictional works I enjoy (see Part 1 and Part 1.5 of this series), I'm finally ready to answer my own question: what makes a good vampire?

A good fictional vampire -- whether it is sympathetic or villainous -- has a balance of three type of vampiric traits: the benefits, the drawbacks, and the catch.

The Benefits


Vampirism must have some benefits, or no one would want to be a vampire. (In a story where vampirism is an epidemic, vampires are the risen corpses of evil people as in folklore, or vampirism is otherwise not generally a choice, however, the benefits may be slim.) Typical vampiric benefits include:1
  • Immortality.2
  • Super strength.
  • Super speed.
  • Extreme sexiness.3
  • Flying.
  • Hypnotism.
  • Cured diseases.4
The Drawbacks

Vampirism must have drawbacks to balance out the benefits, however, to prevent vampires from becoming overly powerful. Typical vampiric drawbacks include:
  • Cannot abide garlic, holy objects, silver, running water, or sunlight.5
  • Violent urges.
  • Become unconscious and corpse-like during the day, leaving them weakened.
  • Infertile.
  • Cannot ingest food except for blood.
  • Cannot have sex.6
  • Cannot see their reflections.
The Catch

Still, the drawbacks do not often make the vampire's supernatural power less appealing. Would you give up food7 for the ability to live forever? I know I would.

So what we need is a catch: a drawback so major that it serves to make vampirism a lot more complicated and less appealing. Basically, the catch is what neatly answers the question, "If being a vampire is so awesome, why doesn't everyone do it?"

The catch, in my experience, falls into five basic categories (although there is some overlap):
  • Uncertainty of success (it's difficult to become a vampire -- e.g., because the vampire must stop feeding just before the human is dead, as in Forever Knight, or because the process is painful, as in Twilight -- and there is a strong possibility of death).
  • Loss of personality (e.g., losing one's soul, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or suffering potential drastic personality changes, as in Forever Knight).
  • Eternal bondage (becoming attached to one's sire and even compelled to obey them, as in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries).
  • Separation from other vampires (e.g., the urge to attack other vampires and defend one's territory, as in Tanya Huff's Blood Books).
  • Compulsion to kill (either a need to kill while feeding, as in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, or a need to kill someone within a certain time limit, as in Der Vampyr 8).
Bottom Line

In my mind, a good vampire must have a catch as well as regular old drawbacks and weaknesses. The catch makes vampirism go from sounding like a good deal to something more complicated than human life, and adds a real conflict to human/vampire romance instead of just Generic Angst.

I honestly don't care about any other traits. I have some preferences, but I'll accept a lot of "non-traditional" benefits and drawbacks -- and even non-traditional vampires, like the emotion-sucking rather than blood-drinking White Court in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files -- as long as they make sense in context. What I won't accept, however, is a story that regales me with how awesome and consequence-free vampirism is and then tries to convince me that the average human wouldn't choose it.

---

1 Items on this list are not necessarily compatible with each other or with the other lists. Each one must be taken individually. ^
2 Technical immortality, at least; fictional vampires do not generally die of old age, but in many stories can be fairly easily killed. ^
3 Does getting vamped make one sexy, or do only sexy people get vamped? ^
4 That is, becoming a vampire cures the diseases one had as a human, not that vampires can cure diseases themselves. ^
5 The reasons and effects of sunlight vary: most commonly they burn, although some powerful vampires are merely weakened. And sometimes they sparkle. ^
6 If only this drawback were not so rare in today's overly saturated vampire romance market. ^
7 Vampires have no physical need for food, so it just means giving up a sensual pleasure rather than a necessity for living. ^
8 I mention Der Vampyr so much not because the concept is well-executed -- rather, the whole "must kill three people in a day" thing is mostly a way for the hero to kill the vampire on a technicality, by delaying the third victim, instead of attacking him outright -- but because I think it's a concept with much potential for ambiguity. While a person might reject super powers if they had to kill every time they fed, for example, it's easier for a well-intentioned vampire to make the ends justify the means if it's just one person (or three people), once a year. ^

Monday, June 28, 2010

Digression: What Makes a Good Vampire, Part 1.5: Blood

Club Vampyre: Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse, and Circus of the Damned

I realized soon after I posted Part 1 of this digression that I hadn't mentioned an important aspect of vampirism: what kind of blood is necessary. The way vampires have to feed in order to sustain themselves is not only a potential drawback of vampirism, but a way to separate the good vampires from the evil ones.

Let's start with an example I didn't mention in the last post: the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton. In one of the books, a vampire tries to drink animal blood in order to avoid harming humans, but as it turns out, only human blood can sustain vampires. On a steady diet of animal blood, their bodies start to break down.

Because of this limitation, feeding on humans in Anita Blake's universe is not an inherently immoral (or morally questionable) act. Rather, the issue is consent. All vampires must feed on humans to live, but only evil vampires feed on humans without permission -- an illegal act, as well as immoral.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete Sixth Season (Slim Set)

Contrast the limitations on vampire feeding in Anita Blake with those in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vampires in the Buffyverse can sustain themselves just fine on animal blood, with no negative physical or psychological effects. Only evil vampires feed on humans, and they almost always kill their prey. Because feeding on humans is not necessary, it is not something that good vampires do.

Forever Knight - The Trilogy, Part 1 (1992 - 1993)

Forever Knight is perhaps somewhere in between. As in Buffy, it is not necessary for vampires to feed on humans. Vampires can sustain themselves on the blood of animals or even other vampires, or drink stored blood from human donors rather than biting a human outright.

However, drinking animal blood does have a few drawbacks. First, vampires sense human memories and emotions through their blood. It's not necessary for vampires to gain these memories in order to survive, but it's part of the thrill of the hunt and the rush of drinking blood.

Second, drinking blood is closely tied to sex. In fact, if you take the word of the show's creators, male vampires cannot have sex (the whole "no/slow circulation = no erection" problem), so biting symbolically takes the place of sexual intercourse. Drinking animal blood, then, is akin to sexual deviancy. Some vampires (carouches) prefer it, but they are looked down upon.

On the other hand, the issue of morality is a bit more fuzzy. Most modern vampires in the show drink bottled human blood not because they don't enjoy killing humans, but because they think it's stupid to endanger vampires by killing too many humans in the same area when bottled blood works just fine. Nicholas drinks animal blood not because drinking human blood is objectively wrong, but because animal blood is lesser, and he's trying to wean himself off blood entirely.


I'm glossing over a lot, and I'm ignoring a number of fictional vampires with different restrictions on blood drinking, but otherwise this post would go on forever. (It still turned into an entirely separate post just on blood drinking, rather than a conclusion on what benefits and drawbacks vampirism should have.) But once I started writing, I realized that blood was an important enough subject to address separately.

On the one hand, allowing vampires to live on animal blood seems to focus on the technicality of vampires needing blood, rather than the symbolism associated with blood drinking. It also makes the vampires less ambiguous: if it's not necessary to drink from or kill humans, vampires only do it because they like to. (This is not to say that the idea can't be handled well, and I think Forever Knight does that.)

On the other hand, requiring vampires to feed on humans allows them an easy way out for bad behavior: "Oh, you poor vampire, you couldn't help hypnotizing that person and feeding without their permission, or killing that human by feeding on them; it's just in your nature." This isn't bad when it's addressed in the story as part of the vampire's struggle against his instincts, or when the issue of non-consensual feeding has intentional creepy and morally ambiguous overtones. More often than not, however, the connection between blood and sex has Unfortunate Implications amounting to "it's okay to rape someone if it's In Your Nature."

So what's the best way for vampire stories to handle the issue of blood drinking? More on that in Part 2 of the series on What Makes a Good Vampire (consider this Part 1.5).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Digression: What Makes a Good Vampire, Part 1

Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4)

After I wrote my post about Twilight, I got into a conversation with a friend about Twilight vampires compared to vampires in other stories. Her main complaint was that vampirism in Twilight doesn't have enough drawbacks.

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven't read the books. However, I think that whenever "just vamp her and everything will be okay" is a reasonable solution to a romance between a human and a vampire, vampirism doesn't have enough drawbacks. Basically it just causes a humongous plot hole: if the only drawback for vampirism is Generic Angst, why doesn't everyone do it?

I've mentioned Tanya Huff's Blood Books before, because I think they're a great example of how to create realistic obstacles for a vampire who wants to be with his human love forever. Essentially, there cannot be too many vampires in any one place in order to avoid suspicion and keep the food supply up. Therefore, vampires have developed an instinct to fight any vampire who enters their territory, regardless of how well they got along when one or both of them were mortal.

(Spoilers for Blood Pact and Blood Debt follow.)

Blood Pact (BLOOD SERIES)

In Blood Pact, Henry -- the vampire -- vamps Vicki, his human lover, to save her life. After briefly teaching her how to hunt and survive as a vampire, he leaves to stake out a new territory. In Blood Debt, however, he needs her help on a case, and so they must learn to resist their instinct to kill each other.

Eventually, they realize that, with the growth of cities giving vampires more food sources and better places to hide, vampires' instinct to kill each other is no longer relevant in modern times. While this works well for rekindling a romance between Henry and Vicki, it negates much of the conflict in the previous books.

(End spoilers.)


Marschner: Der Vampyr


Let's look at another very different obstacle for the vampire, laid out in Heinrich August Marschner's 1828 opera Der Vampyr. The libretto, by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, was adapted from John Polidori's short story "The Vampyre" and J.R. Planché's theatrical adaptation, The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles.

The vampire in Der Vampyr, Lord Ruthven, is clearly the villain, but a sympathetic one. The "catch" to his vampirism is that he must kill three woman once a year in order to remain a vampire. (The idea that the vampire must kill once a year to survive is implied in "The Vampyre" but not stated outright.) Like Varney, he attacks humans not necessarily because he wants to, but because his existence compels him to -- which is not to suggest that he doesn't enjoy it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete First Season (Slim Set)

Let's look at a more well-known vampire story: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vampires in Buffy drink blood, but don't experience most of the usual drawbacks: not being able to eat human food, needing to stay in a coffin all day, being allergic to garlic, or not being able to have sex.

On the other hand, the "catch" to becoming a vampire is huge: you lose your soul entirely, and your body becomes an unambiguously evil killer. This works well in Buffy, because vampires are, for the most part, the enemies. There are a few sympathetic vampire characters, but they have something different about them: Angel has his soul, and so is moral, and Spike has a chip in his head, so he can't hurt humans even though he wants to (and then eventually gets used to the idea).

Of course, this falls apart as the story goes on and vampires as a whole start becoming more developed. In particular, why is Harmony suddenly fine to work at Wolfram & Hart in Season 5 of Angel, when she has neither a soul nor a chip? The main problem with vampirism in Buffy is that soulless, unambiguously evil vampires work fine when they're your enemies, but are difficult to handle, without increasing numbers of "special exceptions," when they become main characters.

Forever Knight - The Trilogy, Part 3 (1995 - 1996)

Let's contrast this with an earlier TV show: Forever Knight. Some of the vampires are sympathetic, while some are just plain evil, and some are well-intentioned but misguided. Any change in personality is not a result of the vampirism per se, but the fact that power corrupts, and that most humans who suddenly gain immortality and superpowers will use them unwisely.

To balance this out, vampires in Forever Knight have more of the drawbacks that Buffy vampires lack: problems with garlic, not being able to eat human food, and (according to the show's creators, although not explicitly stated in the show itself) not being able to have sex. In Nick Knight's eyes, the simple fact that he isn't human is enough of a drawback in and of itself, but I don't count that because it's a personal preference, not an objective limitation.

Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood

Now that I've given an overview of vampire traits in just a small handful of my favorite vampire stories, it's time for the big question: what makes a good vampire? Unfortunately, I've gone on a lot longer than I originally intended. So stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, wherein I conclude my thoughts on the best balance of benefits and drawbacks for fictional vampires.

Part 1.5: Blood

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chapter 37: In Which JMR Fails at Dramatic Irony


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Flora is a badass (to stay this time, I hope).


At the start of Chapter 37 (SIR FRANCIS VARNEY'S SEPARATE OPPONENTS. -- THE INTERPOSITION OF FLORA.), we learn that, while the Bannerworths miss Marchdale, they appreciate the Admiral's generosity and steadfast optimism. (The fact that the Admiral threw an ink desk in Marchdale's face goes unmentioned.)

Flora worries that Varney has killed Charles. Henry tries to reassure her but, not really believing it himself, goes to confront Varney about Charles's disappearance.

Do I really have to go on about how he's holding the Idiot Ball here? "Oh, yes, let me venture out alone to confront the vampire who has attacked my sister several times and possibly killed her fiancé, and who, to the best of our knowledge, cannot be killed. What a splendid idea that couldn't possibly put my life in danger!"

I'm sure this is on TV Tropes already and I've just forgotten the name, but Henry's actions (and similar actions in poorly-written stories) are less "Idiot Ball" and more "I Don't Understand Dramatic Irony Ball." That is to say, it doesn't occur to Henry that he won't be safe because the readers know he'll be safe. The first few times characters challenged or confronted the vampire, it was just stupid; but by this point, when we've gotten a better picture of Varney's character, we understand that he's not going to just kill for s***s and giggles.

Anyway, Varney denies having killed Charles and then goes back to his smug old self, toying with Henry:
"If," resumed Henry, "such was your object in putting Mr. Holland aside, by becoming personally or by proxy an assassin, you are mistaken in supposing you have accomplished your object."
"Go on, sir," said Sir Francis Varney, in a bland and sweet tone; "I am all attention; pray proceed."
"You have failed; for I now here, on this spot, defy you to mortal combat. Coward, assassin as you are, I challenge you to fight."
"You don't mean on the carpet here?" said Varney, deliberately.
So Varney accepts the duel, Henry storms out ("I may not detain you, I presume, to taste aught in the way of refreshment?", Varney calls after him).

Meanwhile, the Admiral decides to challenge Varney to a duel himself, although his challenge is much more direct and profanity-laced; Henry asks Chillingworth to visit Varney the next morning; Chillingworth shows up at the same time as Jack Pringle; and I'm suddenly afraid that the story turned into a comedy of errors while my back was turned.

Chapter 38: In Which the Duel Subplot Becomes Even More Contrived

Friday, June 25, 2010

Digression: Why I Don't Read Ahead

I don't know if it's always clear from my posts, but I'm not just commenting on Varney the Vampire one chapter at a time -- I'm reading it one chapter at a time. Usually my posts start out as a running commentary as I'm reading the chapter from my print edition, after which I edit it and add quotes from an online version.

This sometimes puts me at a disadvantage because I don't know how the story is going to turn out (except for the oft-spoiled ending). I'm sure I've made myself look silly more than once by complaining about a plot point or apparent plot hole that got resolved in the next chapter or two.

I write this way because I wanted to experience Varney as the original readers would have -- taking each chapter as a separate episode of a story, rather than judging Varney as a traditional novel. It makes a fun concept for a blog, sure, but really it's for me. I wanted to read Varney badly, but couldn't push myself past the first few chapters. Writing commentary on each chapter gives me motivation to push forward.

Do ignore the four-month gap in my blogging.

I think I started out a bit more consciously over-the-top than I have been lately, with more flippant plot recaps and fewer block quotes. More and more lately, I'm not particularly trying to be funny or sarcastic or deep or anything. I'm just reacting chapter by chapter, and since the quality and content shifts around so much, my reactions are constantly changing.

I guess all I'm trying to say here is that I'm having fun. I'm not certain that my recaps and rants make a whole lot of sense to people not familiar with the story and characters, and maybe I should consider that more. But at this point, I'm just happy to exercise my nitpicky brain for a little while each day.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Chapter 36: In Which the Admiral is Clearly Rubbing Off on Flora

Previously in Varney the Vampire: The Admiral tries to shoot the vampire. With an arsenal.


Chapter 36 (THE CONSULTATION. -- THE DUEL AND ITS RESULTS.) contains two of my absolute favorite things in Varney the Vampire: Marchdale getting told off and Flora standing up for herself.

I'll spare you the usual recap about Flora, mainly because I'm too lazy at the moment to dig up old links. Suffice it to say that her character development has been rocky, and I'd ordinarily complain that her sudden strength in this chapter is too much, too fast except that I have nothing consistent with which to compare it.

Anyway, after a bit of narration about how awfully poor the Bannerworths are, we learn that Flora isn't as anxious after her bizarre -- and yet, oddly reassuring -- meeting with the vampire. She wants to leave Bannerworth Hall. Henry (finally) looks to her for an answer as to how they should proceed, and she responds:
"I will discover the fate of Charles Holland and then leave the Hall."
Marchdale rants on for a bit about how silly this is before flouncing, leading the Admiral to exclaim:
"You're a d -- -- d lubberly thief... the sooner you leave it the better. Why, you bad-looking son of a gun, what do you mean? I thought we'd had enough of that."

"I fully expected this abuse," said Marchdale.

"Did you expect that?" said the admiral, as he snatched up an inkstand, and threw at Marchdale.
I LOVE THIS GUY. THAT IS ALL.

But then Flora gets in on the action, too, with:
"No, let him go, he doubts Charles Holland; let all go who doubt Charles Holland."
So Marchdale goes off, Jack voices what we were all thinking ("Huzza! that's one good job"), and the Bannerworths agree to sell the hall to the Admiral, who is apparently about to team up with Flora on her search for Charles. Things are seriously looking up.

Chapter 37: In Which JMR Fails at Dramatic Irony

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chapter 35: In Which the Admiral's Awesomeness Overshadows Everything Again


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Varney tries to seduce Flora and fails.


The Admiral isn't even in Chapter 35 (THE EXPLANATION. -- MARCHDALE'S ADVICE. -- THE PROJECTED REMOVAL, AND THE ADMIRAL'S ANGER.). His offscreen presence is merely discussed by the other characters for a few paragraphs as they chase after the fleeing vampire. But how can one possibly ignore this line:
"It comes from the admiral's room," said Marchdale. "On my life, I think the old man must be mad. He has some six or eight pistols ranged in a row along the window-sill, and all loaded, so that by the aid of a match they can be pretty well discharged as a volley, which he considers the only proper means of firing upon the vampyre."
I don't care how ineffective that is (as the characters themselves point out, rather calmly, in the next few lines of dialogue). It's f***ing awesome.

I don't have much else to say about this rather short chapter. Varney briefly visits Flora again after giving Henry and the others the slip, promising that she'll soon see Charles again, and Henry decides to do what he should have done from the very beginning, which is listen to Flora. Finally.

Chapter 36: In Which the Admiral is Clearly Rubbing Off on Flora

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chapter 34: In Which Varney is Adept at Blame Shifting

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Varney reveals deeper aspects of his character.


I am a nitpicker at heart, as I'm sure my reader(s?) have noticed. It's just how I read and enjoy things. It takes a good deal of effort to step back and analyze something more holistically, and even my reviews of things I enjoyed tend to read like "this was bad and this was bad and [extended rant on this one sentence that was bad] but otherwise it was awesome and you should read it." These chapter-by-chapter analyses are perfect for me, because I can zoom in on a small aspect of one small part of Varney without feeling that I'm neglecting the work as a whole.

I mention this now because I spent most of my analysis of the last chapter on one small paragraph, and in Chapter 34 (THE THREAT. -- ITS CONSEQUENCES. -- THE RESCUE, AND SIR FRANCIS VARNEY'S DANGER.), I immediately zeroed in on a single line.

The gist of the chapter is that Varney, finding a sleeping victim no fun at all, wakes Flora up and begins to torment her in a horrific seduction. She resists, and he tells her:
"Flora Bannerworth, you are persecuted -- persecuted by me, the vampyre. It is my fate to persecute you; for there are laws to the invisible as well as the visible creation that force even such a being as I am to play my part in the great drama of existence."
In his first attack on Flora, he is just a monster. In this attack, however, he explicitly distances the supernatural forces that make him a vampire from himself. He did not attack Flora by his own will, for his own gain; rather, he is compelled to by forces beyond his control.

The rest of the chapter is basically an extension of this idea. Varney begs Flora to love him in order to save him. She refuses. Now his attack on Flora is no longer the fault of supernatural forces -- rather, the blame transfers to Flora. The attack is her fault for not being selfless enough to love him (as is a woman's responsibility, obviously).

Finally, Varney assures Flora that she will not become a vampire just from a few bites, but that if he keeps attacking her over a long period of time, she will turn. Here he resorts to the "she was wearing a short skirt" defense: if Flora is within his sight, he cannot help himself, but if she leaves Bannerworth Hall he will forget about her and she will be safe.

Let's go back, for a moment, to my post about sexy vampires -- because this is exactly the type of attitude I see in a lot of fictional vampires. The blame shifting, the separation of their "real self" and the evil deeds their vampirism compels them to,  the sense that the objects of their affection are to blame for their staying around such a dangerous creature.

Except in most of those stories, the vampire is supposed to be the hero. Here, Varney is sympathetic, but I haven't get gotten the impression that we're supposed to view him as some kind of alpha male, romantic hero, rather than a well-developed, well-rounded villain. That's why this chapter works for me as an intense and frightening scene -- because I never get the sense that it's not supposed to be.

Chapter 35: In Which the Admiral's Awesomeness Overshadows Everything Again

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chapter 33: In Which Varney's Sympathetic Nature Comes to Light


Previously in Varney the Vampire: The stranger arrives and disappoints the reader greatly.

It's been an awfully long time since Chapter 1, both for this blog (sorry, guys) and for JMR's contemporary readers. When Varney first appeared, he was an inhuman monster, mysterious and undeveloped. He isn't formally introduced until Chapter 13. By the time we get to Chapter 33 (THE STRANGE INTERVIEW. -- THE CHASE THROUGH THE HALL.), it's tempting to dismiss the explicitly sympathetic portrayal as something JMR started suddenly because he forgot Chapter 1 -- or hoped that the readers would.

To which I say: there are so many bad things in Varney the Vampire, ranging from the boringly mediocre to the laughably awful to the just plain horrible. Why don't you pick on one of those, rather than knocking down one of the few good things Varney has going for itself?

Even with considerations for the sluggish pacing in Varney, JMR's portrayal of the title character in Chapter 33 is anything but sudden. Rather, Varney has been revealed gradually as the perspective shifts from the Bannerworths to the vampire himself. He is a monster at first because they know nothing else about him, save that he must fit into the vampire myth. He is a threatening figure to Henry and the others once he is explicitly introduced. He lets slip, perhaps, a bit of emotion or weakness when he confronts Flora.

I stand by my analysis that Chapter 32 goes too far in the direction of "make Varney seem sympathetic by giving him human fears and concerns." Chapter 33 rectifies this somewhat, bringing us back to the Varney we know and love, but with the sympathetic parts and the frightening parts back into balance.

The most important bit, in this respect, is when Varney witnesses Flora sleepwalking. Not realizing that she is asleep,
...he was terrified -- he dared not move -- he dared not speak! The idea that she had died, and that this was her spirit, come to wreak some terrible vengeance upon him, for a time possessed him, and so paralysed with fear was he, that he could neither move nor speak.
Curt Herr, in his annotated edition, notes the symbolism of sleepwalking in Victorian culture and its connection both to eroticism and to being outside of societal control. But I think the effect on Varney has more to do with the fact that he doesn't know she is sleeping. (In fact, once he realizes this fact, he no longer fears Flora.) Rather, he is afraid because his victim, who had panic attacks the last time she was in his presence, is no longer reacting to him. He is afraid that he has lost his power over her.

Taken together, Chapters 31-33 show us something very important about Varney: despite his age and experience as a vampire, he lacks confidence. He can act suave and secure when he's dealing with someone who's clearly beneath him, but someone he perceives as more powerful than himself -- or someone who puts on an unexpected show of confidence -- is enough to frighten him into inaction.

This is a balanced and interesting vampire character. It is Varney's fear that makes him worlds more interesting -- and more human -- than a thousand chapters of Generic Angst could accomplish. Aspiring vampire fiction writers, do take note (but do also be a bit less uneven about it than JMR is).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chapter 32: In Which Varney's Fear Makes Him Look Silly, Not Human

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Varney awaits a visitor and forgets how to tell time.


If I had to sum up Varney the Vampire so far in a single word, it would be "anticlimactic," and Chapter 32 (THE THOUSAND POUNDS. -- THE STRANGER'S PRECAUTIONS.) is no exception. First, JMR tries to build up suspense by introducing the situation in the previous chapter. Then he gives this introduction, which showcases Varney's fear of the stranger very well:
"Yes! yes!" gasped Varney; "admit him I know him! Bring him here? It is -- an -- old friend -- of mine."
He sank into a chair, and still he kept his eyes fixed upon that door through which his visitor must come. Surely some secret of dreadful moment must be connected with him whom Sir Francis expected -- dreaded -- and yet dared not refuse to see. And now a footstep approaches -- a slow and a solemn footstep -- it pauses a moment at the door of the apartment, and then the servant flings it open, and a tall man enters. He is enveloped in the folds of a horseman's cloak, and there is the clank of spurs upon his heels as he walks into the room.
Varney rose again, but he said not a word; and for a few moments they stood opposite each other in silence. The domestic has left the room, and the door is closed, so that there was nothing to prevent them from conversing; and, yet, silent they continued for some minutes. It seemed as if each was most anxious that the other should commence the conversation first.
But then what do we find out? He's just this old guy, and the scary part is that Varney is forced to pay him one thousand pounds a year.

Okay, okay, so he has something to do with Varney's resurrection as a vampire, although JMR tries so hard to be coy about the fact ("Whether or not this man... knew him to be something more than earthly, we cannot at present declare..."). But... that's it? No more explanation of how Varney became a vampire? No scary vampire or other supernatural creator who made Varney, just some regular old human who gets his jollies by blackmailing vampires for large sums of money?

Even Varney isn't nearly as interesting in this chapter. His monologue sounds like a stock horror villain, more mad scientist than vampire. Maybe it's just the sudden fixation on money, rather than the supernatural, as what's keeping Varney alive that's making me draw that conclusion.

I do realize we have 200 chapters still to go, so I shouldn't get too impatient to learn about how vampirism actually works. But it would be nice if the setups in the next 200 chapters didn't all lead to huge letdowns.

Yes, I changed my blog design and layout again. I liked the flames, but they made it hard to read link text. I haven't really found a good background image that is both relevant and interesting, so we're stuck with whatever strikes my fancy.

Chapter 33: In Which Varney's Sympathetic Nature Comes to Light

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chapter 31: In Which JMR Isn't Even Trying

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Flora gets treated like a person, for once.


Chapter 31 (SIR FRANCIS VARNEY AND HIS MYSTERIOUS VISITOR. -- THE STRANGE CONFERENCE.) starts off with the most awkward segue into an irrelevant story-within-a-story in the book so far. I know there have only been three, so there's not much competition, but this just isn't even trying.

The chapter starts off great, with a very deep and humanizing portrayal of Varney as he awaits a visitor who is clearly more frightening than himself. Even the awkward exposition seems to fit, for once:
"It is near the hour," he muttered "it is now very near the hour; surely he will come, and yet I know not why I should fear him, although I seem to tremble at the thought of his approach. He will surely come. Once a year -- only once does he visit me, and then 'tis but to take the price which he has compelled me to pay for that existence, which but for him had been long since terminated. Sometimes I devoutly wish it were."
And then the clock strikes eleven. Varney freaks out, thinking it was twelve, and stresses over the fact that he has to wait another entire hour. So he picks up a book and reads a stupid little story, and we don't get to meet this mysterious stranger until the next chapter.

Just as whiplash is not the same thing as conflict, padding is not the same thing as suspense. Varney's "oh no, it's only eleven!" speech just sounds ungodly silly, especially after the good bits at the beginning of the chapter. I suppose one could argue that it only being eleven humanizes him more, since he's so scared he can't even keep track of time, and I'd find it plausible that this was JMR's intention. But it doesn't work, because the scene is just so contrived.

I'm still on the edge of my seat waiting for the next chapter -- and I'm not being at all sarcastic -- because I presume we're going to meet Varney's maker and start to really sink our teeth into the vampire mythos in Varney, and I'm excited for that. But it has nothing to do with your writing style, JMR, so wipe that smug grin off your face.

Chapter 32: In Which Varney's Fear Makes Him Look Silly, Not Human

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chapter 30: In Which the Blogger Observes a Pattern

Previously in Varney the Vampire: We encounter a strange prisoner and obvious foreshadowing.


I keep harping on Flora. It's the curse of mediocrity: harping on the bad points of good works seems nitpicky, and harping on the bad points of bad works just seems mean, but mediocre works inspire the most harping because you see what they did well and are flooded with disappointment when the rest of the work doesn't live up to the same standard.

Or maybe that's just me. But I get that feeling with Flora constantly. JMR vacillates constantly between presenting her as a strong and well-developed character and as a silly, negatively stereotypical woman.

In Chapter 30 (THE VISIT OF FLORA TO THE VAMPYRE. -- THE OFFER. -- THE SOLEMN ASSEVERATION.), I think I finally figured out why. It all just depends on who she's with and how they treat her.

When Our Heroes treat her as if she's insane, as in Chapter 27 and Chapter 28, her reactions are presented and observed through that lens -- and yet her reactions are completely realistic. They are not the ramblings and rantings of a madwoman, but the desperate attempts of someone who is never taken seriously to finally be heard.

In Chapter 30 (the title of which is typically misleading), the Admiral treats Flora as a normal human being and an equal, not as someone who needs to be sheltered and headpatted. He talks about Charles with her as a friend, he offers her money (which is clearly highly improper), and he even swears around her (to which she shows no reaction).

Flora reacts with emotion, but not the exaggerated type of emotion which is meant to appear mad or irrational. It is the same in Chapter 20 when she encounters Varney -- he talks to her as a person and treats her almost with respect.

It's still problematic that Flora's moments of pseudo-empowerment are only briefly granted to her by the male characters. Is it better than Flora being a stereotypical, disempowered character all of the time? I suppose, in that it gives me more jumping-off points for this blog. If her character were all bad, I probably would have made a few jokes and gotten tired of it quickly. It would be too easy to make fun of -- just as I almost feel bad mocking JMR's writing style except for the bits that really stand out.

Chapter 31: In Which JMR Isn't Even Trying

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Digression: In Which the Blogger, Having Threatened Fanfic, Makes Good on Her Promise

I wrote back in Chapter 16 that I really wanted to write a Flora/Charles fanfic. That will have to wait, of course, until I finish finding out what happened to Charles. (I don't like reading ahead too much as I write these posts; it makes my reactions feel inauthentic.)

In the meantime, though, have a Flora-related drabble (fic of exactly 100 words). I guess I just suddenly felt nostalgic for the bite-sized, angst-ridden fanfic I used to write in high school and didn't have a ready fandom to apply it to other than Varney, so this is what came out. Takes place around Chapter 28.

---

They don’t know me. They don’t know what I’ve been through, or they’d be afraid, too. They wouldn’t treat my fear as something strange and unnatural.

They haven’t seen it as I have. They’ve seen its human side, heard its smooth and confident speech. They haven’t been trapped in its grasp -- haven’t felt its teeth.

I sense their whispers. I know they’re trying to keep things from me, as if I’m too weak and frail to understand what’s happening.

Perhaps I am. I can feel myself wasting away. Maybe I’m not becoming a vampire -- I’m becoming Death itself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Digression: Regarding Twilight and Sparkly Vampires

Twilight (The Twilight Saga)

How can I possibly have a blog about vampires and not mention anything about Twilight?

Well, first of all, I haven't read the entire Twilight series, so you may take my comments with a grain of salt. But from what I've read, it doesn't seem considerably better or worse than a lot of typical "girl meets vampire and finds True Love" paranormal romance novels. Not really interesting enough for me to finish except to snark, and the snarking has been thoroughly covered by a lot of people already, most of whom are more interesting than me.

What I do want to comment on is the one thing everyone knows even if they don't know anything else about Twilight: the vampires sparkle. (Link is NSFW, by the way.)

People's main complaint seems to be that making vampires sparkle goes against all the traditional vampire tropes. To which I say: isn't that a good thing?

Don't get me wrong: I have my beef with Twilight vampires and similar fictional creations. The main issue is that there don't seem to be any drawbacks to being a vampire, other than a severe case of Generic Angst. Getting rid of the usual tradeoffs one must make for immortality, such as losing one's soul (a la Buffy) or not being able to be around other vampires (a la Tanya Huff's Blood Books), makes the vampire's existence way too simple. It also provides an easy way for the vampire to be with the one he loves forever -- because vamping the human girl will have no ill side effects whatsoever -- thereby removing the romance's essential conflict.

But, problems aside, I think it's a great thing when authors do something original with how the rules of vampirism work. I also find it frustrating when people treat the laws of Hollywood vampires as if they were the real traditional vampire, rather than old and varied folk legends -- or even early vampire fiction. If someone made a film of Varney the Vampire, for example, people would be pissed at how he's not super attractive, he can enter homes uninvited, and he can go out in the daylight.

Sparkly vampires seem silly on the surface, and it hardly has the same symbolic significance as vampires needing to avoid the sunlight because it could kill them. But it is an original twist and an interesting explanation for that particular vampire trope. It's a pity that Stephenie Meyer stopped there, because in the hands of a better author, sparkly vampires could have been the beginning of an intriguing deconstruction of the "traditional" vampire.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chapter 29: In Which a Digression is Actually Welcomed


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Flora is still the only reasonable one and everyone else is still insufferably dull.

I complained about the previous digressions because I thought they distracted from the story -- even the ones that provided awkward exposition necessary to understand later story points. So is it hypocritical of me now to be glad that Chapter 29 ( A PEEP THOROUGH AN IRON GRATING. -- THE LONELY PRISONER IN HIS DUNGEON. -- THE MYSTERY.) is another digression?

Probably, but I just don't think I can handle more of the Bannerworths right now.

Chapter 29 concerns a mysterious prisoner in a mysterious dungeon and is narrated by William Shatner:
Some distance from the Hall, which, from time immemorial, had been the home and the property of the Bannerworth family, was an ancient ruin known by the name of Monks' Hall...
Ostensibly for religious purposes, but really as a stronghold for defence, as well as for aggression, this Monks' Hall, as it was called, partook quite as much of the character of a fortress, as of an ecclesiastical building.
All (most, at least) kidding aside, even if I weren't in need of a break I would genuinely enjoy this chapter. It's this really odd mix of over-the-top and subtle that is the exact same awesomely bad writing style that I loved about the first chapter of Varney, before inconvenient things like characters came into play.

JMR addresses the reader way too much (probably the trope I dislike the most about 19th century fiction) and goes on way too long about the ruins and how ruiny they are and oh by the way did I mention there are ruins, of course, in classic JMR fashion. But the scene with the prisoner is genuinely creepy, probably the creepiest scene in the book so far (including the appearances of Varney himself). If JMR hadn't felt the need to tack the "this is important, by the way, I will show you how important this is later" note at the end, he would have had a decent chapter instead of another unintentionally humorous one.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chapter 28: In Which Our Heroes Begin Their Search

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Flora trusts Charles and is therefore obviously insane.

As Chapter 28 (MR. MARCHDALE'S EXCULPATION OF HIMSELF. -- THE SEARCH THROUGH THE GARDENS. -- THE SPOT OF THE DEADLY STRUGGLE. -- THE MYSTERIOUS PAPER.) begins, Our Heroes begin the search for Charles and I begin to wonder what happened to the beloved Admiral character I found so entertaining in past chapters.

He's still there, of course, but the general dullness of the rest of the cast seems to have worn off on him. That's the problem with JMR's characters in general. A few of them are interesting on their own (like Flora, when she's taking care of herself instead of being patronized by Our Heroes) or in pairs (like Henry and Flora or Charles and the Admiral). But I think JMR has trouble balancing scenes with more than three characters, or something, because so often when the characters are together in a group they just turn into a giant ball of bland. Even Varney isn't nearly as interesting in a crowd than he is with just one guest.

Oblivious to my boredom, Our Heroes search for Charles, but only find an unreadable note, covered in mud. They return home with some delightfully condescending advice for Flora:
"They have killed him! they have killed him!" she said mournfully. "Oh, God, they have killed him! I am not now mad, but the time will come when I must surely be maddened. The vampyre has killed Charles Holland -- the dreadful vampyre!"

"Nay, now, Flora, this is frenzy."

"Because he loved me has he been destroyed. I know it, I know it. The vampyre has doomed me to destruction..."

"Hush, sister, hush!" cried Henry. "I expected not this from you. The expressions you use are not your expressions...."

"Calm! calm!"

"Yes. Make an exertion of that intellect we all know you to possess..."
I'll say this about Flora, despite JMR's inconsistent handling of her character: she's the character who most consistently displays human emotions appropriate for the situation, and yet is consistently treated as if she's the only one not doing so.

Anyway, Henry leaves the Admiral to protect Flora, and finally someone tells off Marchdale:
"Amen to that," cried the admiral; "and now, my dear, if you have got half an hour to spare, just tuck your arm under mine, and take a walk with me in the garden, for I want to say something to you."

"Most willingly," said Flora.

"I would not advise you to stray far from the house, Miss Bannerworth," said Marchdale.

"Nobody asked you for advice," said the admiral. "D -- -e, do you want to make out that I ain't capable of taking care of her?"

"No, no; but -- "

"Oh, nonsense! Come along, my dear; and if all the vampyres and odd fish that were ever created were to come across our path, we would settle them somehow or another. Come along, and don't listen to anybody's croaking."
That's the highlight of the chapter, really, so it's good that the chapter ends there.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Chapter 27: In Which the Contrived Obstacle is Conveniently Resolved


Previously in Varney the Vampire: I rant a bit more than usual.

I already kind of covered Chapter 27 (THE NOBLE CONFIDENCE OF FLORA BANNERWORTH IN HER LOVER. -- HER OPINION OF THE THREE LETTERS. -- THE ADMIRAL'S ADMIRATION.) in the last chapter, albeit briefly, which leaves me in the awkward place of not having much more to say about it, except to repeat "stupid" over and over while banging my head against a wall.

As I've mentioned before, I'm reading from the annotated edition by Curt Herr, who is at a great advantage over me not only due to being a scholar of this sort of thing and not just a bored fan with a blog, but due to not having committed himself to commenting on every chapter.

The essential problem with Varney the Vampire is not that it is good or bad, but that it is inconsistent. I rant for a few chapters about how bad it is, giggle delightfully for a few chapters about how entertainingly cheesy it is, and then read a legitimately good chapter or two and feel genuinely bad for making fun of it. The good parts are more interesting to read, but the bad parts are more interesting to comment on.

As to Chapter 27 in particular, the two main problems here are the whiplash, which I mentioned in the last post (and which I'm sure there's a literary name for that I've simply not learned) and the problematic portrayal of Flora, which just keeps rearing its ugly head. Once more, the story is All About the Men. Henry and the Admiral share the letters with Marchdale before deigning to excite poor Flora over their contents, and when she dares to react with emotion they declare her mad. After she asserts that the letters are forgeries (forged by whom and why? it doesn't matter, apparently), Marchdale doesn't even seem to believe her:
It was quite clear that he considered Flora had spoken from the generous warmth of her affection as regarded Charles Holland, and not from the conviction which reason would have enforced her to feel.
Because, as we all know, Our Heroes' reaction to the vampire has always been the epitome of reason...

But it doesn't matter. Flora entrusts the men with the task of finding Charles, and I'm left wondering where this story is going and why.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chapter 26: In Which Charles Is Kind Of a Dick (Or So We Think)

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Story time!

I kind of want to take my original "tension, not whiplash" post and beat JMR over the head with it. I know it's only a few kilobytes of HTML code and therefore not very heavy, but it's the principle of the thing.

See, because we know Charles loves Flora, and we know he wanted to duel the vampire, and we know that now he's off to meet the vampire. And yet in Chapter 26 (THE MEETING AT MOONLIGHT IN THE PARK. -- THE TURRET WINDOW IN THE HALL. -- THE LETTERS.), he sneaks out of the house at night, leaving letters to Henry and the Admiral about how Flora is becoming a vampire and he can't possibly marry her.

Yes, I skipped ahead to the next chapter, and (SPOILER ALERT!) it was just as I suspected: Flora sees the letters and proclaims them forgeries, and everyone is happy again. But that doesn't change the fact that it's not dramatic tension. It's a random out-of-character scene that provides a brief moment of unrealistic tension and then is immediately rectified in the next scene.

I guess it kind of works if you're reading the story chapter by chapter, which was the entire point of this blog in the first place -- but then again, in a way it's much worse, because you have to wait a week or however long for the next chapter only to discover that what appears to be the next big plotline is suddenly and conveniently resolved with no problems whatsoever.

Man, there are a couple of unintentionally funny quotes in this chapter, but they are not good enough to distract me from the fact that Varney is seriously pissing me off.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Chapter 25: In Which the Admiral Tells a Story


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Charles resolves to do something stupid.

Chapter 25 (THE ADMIRAL'S OPINION. -- THE REQUEST OF CHARLES.) is the second digression in six chapters. Really, JMR? But to be fair, this one kind of has to do with the story, in that rather than someone reading an unrelated tale, the Admiral relates it to Charles. I'm not going to quote because I didn't really find much to nitpick, but the gist is that a giant stranger appears, seemingly out of nowhere, on a ship during a sea voyage. He summons up a storm, drinks all their coffee, and disappears again.

In his annotated edition of Varney the Vampire, Curt Herr notes that there are parallels between the Admiral's story and the episode on the Demeter in Dracula. I haven't studied the texts extensively, so maybe there are more intricate details I'm missing, but "they're both creepy stories about a supernatural figure on a boat in books about vampires" comes across as more coincidence than anything.

When I read the footnote, I expected the twist at the end to be that the stranger on the boat was Varney. The storm thing is hard to explain for a vampire, but as JMR hasn't fully established the rules of vampirism at this point in the narrative, I can't discount anything for sure. But the eating and drinking definitely proves that the stranger on the boat isn't a vampire.

So in the end, the story is really not related to Varney any more than the penny dreadful Flora read in Chapter 19 -- merely better integrated, and (I think) an overall more interesting story. Entertaining enough, but I'd like to get back to Varney.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chapter 24: In Which Charles Prepares to Meet His Doom


Previously in Varney the Vampire: The Admiral's awesomeness cannot withstand the presence of Varney.

Chapter 24 (THE LETTER TO CHARLES. -- THE QUARREL. -- THE ADMIRAL'S NARRATIVE. -- THE MIDNIGHT MEETING.) begins with the Admiral advising Charles to forget the duel entirely:
"D -- n it all, Jack, I don't know how to get out of it," said the admiral. "I tell you what it is, Charles, he wants to fight with swords; and what on earth is the use of your engaging with a fellow who has been practising at his weapon for more than a hundred years?"
The vampire's age really only came into play in the last chapter and was rather glossed over, so I'm glad that this is becoming a pattern. It also provides an interesting -- and again, bizarrely rational -- twist to things: they're not afraid of the vampire because he can use his teeth, but because he's become an expert at ordinary, human weapons.

It suddenly occurs to me that perhaps I'm reading the subtext wrong -- ignoring the sexual component to the vampire attacks a bit too easily. Varney's attacks on Flora are sexual -- not nearly as sexual as the vampire bites in Dracula or in much modern vampire fiction, but the undertone is there nonetheless. In my frustration at the fact that the men aren't frightened enough of the vampire, I'm ignoring the fact that the vampire attacking one of the men would be homoerotic. Perhaps in the men's minds (or JMR's), such an attack would therefore be unthinkable.

I'm sure this theory will be contradicted by the end of the book, but for now it satisfies me.

At any rate, Charles and the Admiral fret for a bit when they are interrupted by a letter from Varney:
"SIR, -- Your uncle, as he stated himself to be, Admiral Bell, was the bearer to me, as I understood him this day, of a challenge from you. Owing to some unaccountable hallucination of intellect, he seemed to imagine that I intended to set myself up as a sort of animated target, for any one to shoot at who might have a fancy so to do..."
God, I love Varney. Perhaps if he'd shown up in the first few chapters, the story would not have seemed so tedious and I would not have become inspired to start this blog at all.

So Varney offers to meet Charles alone at night to clear the whole thing up. Worried that admitting fear will rob him of his manhood, Charles resolves to do so. First, of course, he has to say farewell to Flora, all but shouting "I'm going to do something terribly stupid!" He kisses her -- a significant act, considering the sexual mores of the day -- and then goes off to meet the vampire:
"What can this be," he exclaimed, "that thus oppressed me? What feeling is this that seems to tell me, I shall never again see Flora Bannerworth?"...

"Oh, this is weakness," he then added. "I must fight out against this; it is mere nervousness. I must not endure it, I will not suffer myself thus to become the sport of imagination. Courage, courage, Charles Holland. There are real evils enough, without your adding to them by those of a disordered fancy. Courage, courage, courage."
I think this is one of the few chapter endings so far that actually feels suspenseful. For the most part they either sort of dick around until JMR decides he has enough words down or leave us with overdramatic, contrived cliffhangers. Charles has not been a consistently human or believable character -- though he's better than some of the others -- but here, I really get a glimpse of true emotion, and it makes me want to continue reading.

Chapter 25: In Which the Admiral Tells a Story

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chapter 23: In Which a Duel is Arranged


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Henry considers renting the Bannerworth house to Varney. I... smell... SITCOM!

Chapter 23 (THE ADMIRAL'S ADVICE TO CHARLES HOLLAND. -- THE CHALLENGE TO THE VAMPYRE.), which is really much longer than it has any right to be, begins with the Admiral advising Charles to fight the vampire. Says Charles:
"...Should I overcome Varney, there will most likely be at once an end to the numerous and uncomfortable perplexities of the Bannerworths as regards him; and if he overcome me, why, then, at all events, I shall have made an effort to rescue Flora from the dread of this man."
Or you'll be dead because you're fighting a f***ing vampire who has survived bullet wounds and... oh, I give up.

So the Admiral agrees to be Charles's second and goes to deliver a note to Varney, leaving Charles to consider "the best means of preventing the resuscitation of the corpse of a vampire." After considering the various means of killing a vampire, Charles has a sudden revelation about what vampirism -- and immortality -- really entails:
"What changes he must have witnessed about him in that time," thought Charles. "How he must have seen kingdoms totter and fall, and how many changes of habits, of manners, and of custom must he have become a spectator of. Renewing too, ever and anon, his fearful existence by such fearful means."
It's a short paragraph, but it's the first real exploration of Varney's age and how immortality has affected his character.

Meanwhile, the Admiral visits Varney with Charles's offer of a duel. Once again, I absolutely adore Varney. His dialogue is just so subtly creepy. (I suspect that is often unintentional, since subtlety is not generally JMR's strong suit.) It's just so casual and calm; for example:
"I have no particular objection. Have you settled all your affairs, and made your will?"

"What's that to you?"

"Oh, I only asked, because there is generally so much food for litigation if a man dies intestate, and is worth any money."

"You make devilish sure," said the admiral, "of being the victor. Have you made your will?"

"Oh, my will," smiled Sir Francis; "that, my good sir, is quite an indifferent affair."
They agree to duel with swords (guns being too modern and barbarous for Varney). And I'm sorry for quoting so much, but Varney just keeps being wonderfully calm and downright smug:
"Oh, I beg your pardon there. I never challenge anybody, and when foolish people call me out, contrary to my inclination, I think I am bound to take what care of myself I can."

"D -- n me, there's some reason in that, too," said the admiral; "but why do you insult people?"

"People insult me first."
So the Admiral leaves in a huff, and in the end the chapter didn't seem nearly as long as it appeared. Varney's presence in the story for which he is the title character does that to one's interest, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Digression: Regarding Sexy Vampires

Man, I am just not feeling good today. So in place of our Regularly Scheduled Program, here's a confession:

I don't understand why vampires are supposed to be sexy.

I mean, I get the whole sex-and-death connection, but the way vampires are presented in literature usually seems more unintentionally creepy than sexually attractive. More often than not, vampires are a hundred years old or more, hailing from the Good Old Days before men were generally expected to not be chauvinistic assholes. Yet they look young forever, which usually leads them to women in their teens as love interests. Combined with the fact that vampires are monsters and therefore can't control their actions, this leads to a host of behaviors that are at best unattractive and at worst emotionally abusive.

The best vampire stories, romances or not, present the vampire as a sympathetic yet problematic figure, and vampirism as a condition with downsides more severe than a chronic case of Generic Angst. Off the top of my head, I enjoy the portrayal of the vampire in Tanya Huff's Blood Books. Henry is a balanced character, intense and sexual but also genuinely frightening, and the relationships are more complicated than "sexy vampire = true love."

I prefer vampires as balanced, developed villains than woobiefied, misunderstood figures or generically supernatural love interests. But no one seems to write them like that anymore.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Chapter 22: In Which a Convenient Obstacle Appears

Previously in Varney the Vampire: For a short while, I have a difficult time finding things to make fun of.

At the beginning of Chapter 22 (THE CONSULTATION. -- THE DETERMINATION TO LEAVE THE HALL.), Henry heads "the most seriously reasonable meeting which had been held at Bannerworth Hall on the subject of the much dreaded vampyre." I find this a completely fair assessment, considering how stupidly everyone acted in the first several chapters. It was funny while it lasted, but now that the vampire has been singularly revealed, it seems that most of the characters have rediscovered their capacity for rational responses.

There's a tradeoff, of course, in that they perhaps become too rational, too suddenly. The vampire that was both frightning and wonderfully humanized in Chapter 20 doesn't seem to inspire quite so much fear in the Bannerworths & Friends as it should. They could be discussing a real estate deal, for all that... Oh, wait, they are. Nevermind.

Am I being overly nitpicky and critical? Well, yes. But that's just how I have fun.

...I don't get out much.

Anyway, we learn, in a few rambling, run-on sentences, that getting rid of the vampire isn't quite as easy as selling the house. Most of the family's fortune is drained by the late Bannerworth father's gambling debts. Thankfully, Victorian creditors weren't as vicious as the ones today, and let the family keep the house -- but Henry knows that they can take it away at any time.

So they start discussing what to do about the Vampire Problem and, for the love of God, they still aren't sure that the guy is a vampire!
"Have circumstances really so far pressed upon you," said Charles Holland, "as at length to convince you that this man is really the horrible creature we surmise he may be?"

"Dare we longer doubt it?" cried Henry, in a tone of excitement. "He is the vampyre."

"I'll be hanged if I believe it," said Admiral Bell! "Stuff and nonsense! Vampyre, indeed! Bother the vampyre."
Okay, okay, the Admiral has an excuse. Charles, though, who just got through that whole "is that the vampire? is it really the vampire?" conversation with Flora? What is even going on? This goes back to the whole "whiplash, not tension" problem we've had from the beginning: having the characters go back and forth between "he's a vampire/vampires exist" and "he's not a vampire/vampires don't exist" doesn't make the story scary, or tense, or interesting. It just makes your characters f***ing annoying.

Eventually, Marchdale suggests that if they can't sell the house, maybe they can rent it to Varney. They've just finished deciding to take some time off to think about it when George arrives with Chillingworth. So I guess that last line in Chapter 21 wasn't a throwaway, after all.

Chillingworth reveals that he treated Varney for a bullet wound. He noticed the resemblance to the infamous Bannerworth portrait, but:
"It was all one to me whether he was a vampyre or not, professionally, and however deeply I might feel, personally, interested in the matter, I said nothing to him about it, because, you see, if I had, he would have had a fair opportunity of saying at once, 'Pray, sir, what is that to you?' and I should have been at a loss what to reply."
Even in context, Chillingworth is so calm it's hilarious. He's basically the strawman skeptic of the group, staunch in his disbelief that Varney is a vampire even in the face of solid evidence, without the kind of doubt and turmoil that the other character experience.

Then the chapter ends on this great cliffhanger:
"Then this consultation is over," said Henry, "and we quite understand that to leave the Hall is a matter determined on, and that in a few days a decision shall come as to whether Varney the Vampyre shall be its tenant or not."
Oh, man. I'll be on the edge of my very seat for, I don't know, the five or ten chapters it takes to get to a few days from now.

(Does anyone even read this anymore? I know I haven't been good with my update schedule in the past, but I got better! Anyway, just drop a comment so I know you're listening. I'm having lots of fun on my own but it's always nice to have an audience.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chapter 21: In Which Varney Clearly Should Have Been a Comedy


Previously in Varney the Vampire: Varney makes Flora an offer she can't refuse.

The first half of Chapter 21 (THE CONFERENCE BETWEEN THE UNCLE AND NEPHEW, AND THE ALARM.) is, without a doubt, the best scene JMR has written so far in Varney the Vampire. It consists entirely of tagless dialogue between Charles and the Admiral, and every moment of it is hilarious.

Say what you will about JMR's dramatic writing (Lord knows I do), but he has a great sense of comedic dialogue and timing. The pacing is lightning-fast and I could actually hear the conversation play out in my head, which almost never happens when I'm reading. I had trouble picking out just one part to quote, but you can read it all yourself here.

But then Charles hears Flora's scream from the end of the last chapter, and the pacing slows abruptly as we return to drama (with just a few more comedic interjections from the Admiral). Charles vows to defend her, but she begs the men to just give up the Bannerworth house so that Varney will leave them alone. Rather than listening to Flora outright, of course, they decide to hold a council to decide what must be done.

Only the last line of the chapter really jumped out at me:
George had gone to call on Mr. Chillingworth, so he was not present at the first part of this serious council of war.
Since JMR seems to gradually forget that George exists throughout the course of the story, that line just seems like a random afterthought to me. Like he needed one more sentence to meet his word count and suddenly remembered that he'd forgotten George. As a reader, I honestly don't care what happened to George. His character was never distinct enough to make an impression on me.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Chapter 20: In Which Varney Makes a More Threatening Offer than Last Time

Previously in Varney the Vampire: JMR got tired of the story and wrote something else instead.

I've mentioned the problematic portrayal of Flora before. Even though it's practically progressive for the time in a number of ways -- such as Flora having enough agency to attack the vampire herself -- the story is still framed around the men. The problems the vampire causes are problems because they hurt the men, and Flora, despite being the victim of the attacks, is too weak and female to worry her pretty head about it or to be informed about what's going on.

Chapter 20 (THE DREADFUL MISTAKE. -- THE TERRIFIC INTERVIEW IN THE CHAMBER. -- THE ATTACK OF THE VAMPYRE) is another one of those mixed, positive-yet-problematic portrayals of Flora. It begins with Flora, having finished reading the story from Chapter 19, hearing a knock at the door.

First we have an awkward paragraph justifying why Flora isn't nervous about answering the door as she was when Henry arrived last time, which is foreshadowing in the same way that bashing someone over the head with a large vase is a nice subtle way to get their attention. Obviously, she opens the door and it's not Henry, but the vampire!
He had drawn up his tall, gaunt frame to its full height, and crossed his arms upon his breast; there was a hideous smile upon his sallow countenance, and his voice was deep and sepulchral, as he said, --

"Flora Bannerworth, hear that which I have to say, and hear it calmly. You need have nothing to fear. Make an alarm -- scream, or shout for help, and, by the hell beneath us, you are lost!"

There was a death-like, cold, passionless manner about the utterance of these words, as if they were spoken mechanically, and came from no human lips.
I just love that introduction. "Don't be afraid, and I'll kill you if you scream!" I think it sums up the essential conflict in Varney -- and any character of a vampire wanting to be human, really -- which is the struggle between wanting others to treat one as an ordinary human, but not wanting to give up the power and danger that comes with being a vampire.

This chapter is great for showing us more of Varney's character. While his dialogue has been mostly laconic during his previous appearances, here he really opens up to Flora, even implying that he loves her:
"Charles Holland loves me truly."

"It does not suit me now to dispute that point with you. I have the means of knowing more of the secrets of the human heart than common men. I tell you, Flora Bannerworth, that he who talks to you of love, loves you not but with the fleeting fancy of a boy; and there is one who hides deep in his heart a world of passion, one who has never spoken to you of love, and yet who loves you with a love as afar surpassing the evanescent fancy of this boy Holland, as does the mighty ocean the most placid lake that ever basked in idleness beneath a summer's sun."

There was a wonderful fascination in the manner now of Varney. His voice sounded like music itself. His words flowed from his tongue, each gently and properly accented, with all the charm of eloquence.
But I said I was going to talk about Flora. Basically, Varney explains to her that he wants the Bannerworth house, and offers not to kill Charles or Henry, nor attack her anymore, if she convinces Henry to sell him the house.

The fact that Flora is finally in charge of her own fate is what jumped out at me. The choice Varney gives her is coerced, not free or good -- but while Flora's brothers tried to hide the reality of her attack from her, Varney gives her what she needs to protect herself from him. In a way, he treats her more respectfully, more as an equal, than any of the human men we've encountered in the story so far.

Of course, Flora falls right back into negative feminine stereotypes at the end of the chapter, screaming and fainting with little provocation because That's What Women Do. But for a moment there, things were getting very interesting.

Chapter 21: In Which Varney Clearly Should Have Been a Comedy