Decider.com has published an article in its ‘Cult Corner’ entitled ‘”Dark Shadows” attacked Gothic Romance with Pulpy Plots’ which pays homage to the Gothic soap opera ‘Dark Shadows’ (1966-1971). Whilst the article is relatively solid fare – essentially a potted history of the series and its storyline – the title is misleading. By placing Gothic romance in opposition to ‘pulpy plots’, it ignores the overlap between the two genres. Moreover it suggests that the series was a reaction to Gothic romance rather than feeding off its success. ‘Dark Shadows’ is Gothic romance for a television generation. The article does mention the importance of the character Barnabas Collins, an ancient vampire, who re-invigorated the series when he was introduced to viewers and become a ‘housewife’s favourite’. In his work Twilight of the Gothic (2014), Joseph Crawford puts forth the idea that the sympathetic vampire finds its roots in ‘Dark Shadows’. If you are interested in this idea, you can read more about it in Sam’s blog post ‘The Emergence of the Sympathetic or Reluctant Vampire in Twentieth-Century Culture’. In his talk of the same name given at the University of Hertfordshire, Crawford connected Collins success with the growing field of paranormal or dark romance novels which over feature supernatural protagonists such as vampires or werewolves.
Later this year, I will be speaking on the subject of sympathetic vampires for the event ‘Vampire Hearts, Modern Killers’. Whenever I am asked to talk about vampires, especially sympathetic vampires, I find myself in the Twilight-conundrum. Given the popularity of the series, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the text – similar to ignoring Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976). Moreover Meyer’s depiction of vampires strays from the canonical vampire to such an extent that it marks an important point in their evolution. However Meyer’s novels have also been derided to the extent that the mention of ‘sparkling vampires’ is byword for the ridiculous, saccharine and domestication of our favourite blood-sucking fiend. In my talk, I have chosen to concentrate on the multiple strands that feed into the Twilight series and its presentation of the sympathetic vampire. And, to return to ‘Dark Shadows’, one of the aspects I consider is the power of serialisation in creating complex monsters.
One of the earliest vampire protagonists is Varney from Varney the Vampire (1845-47), a Victorian penny dreadful. Though he is introduced as a cruel monster, physically unattractive and with murderous intent, the narrative introduces elements that allow the reader to feel sympathy towards Varney. Other texts from this period tend to follow human protagonists as they attempt to destroy the vampire who is almost always portrayed as monstrous. However within a serialised text such as Varney which needs to extend its storyline, a storyline which follows the history of its vampiric anti-hero, this narrative arc would be too simplistic. Instead Varney is shown to be more complex and his evil nature is more nuanced – indeed he is as much victim as perpetrator. Ultimately he cannot accept his nature and destroys himself. Varney’s story includes romance elements to humanise him further.
I would argue that the impetus of serialisation continues to shape our supernatural (anti)heroes today. Barnabas Collins, though cursed to be a vampire, is not simple antagonist and as his sexual appeal became obvious so too did his character lend itself to romance. It is noticeable that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) started as a film released in 1994. However the ‘girl kicks vampire-butt’ story was not successful until it could be given more space to be explored – which included the possibility that Buffy could fall for a vampire, in this case the emotionally-tortured Angel. Even Spike, introduced as a ‘Big Bad’ in Season Two, is redeemed and the slow reveal of his back story shows him to be a nuanced antagonist.
Within contemporary YA Gothic, series of novels have become a popular trope. Though I would not deny the influence of monetary factors involved in serialisation, I think the desire for multiple volumes looking at the histories of supernatural characters is more complicated. (Following the success of Harry Potter (1997-2007), Twilight (2005-2008) and The Hunger Games (2008-2010), it would be hard to suggest that the possibility of franchise is not tempting). In part the creation of other worlds has a draw for readers’ imaginations and this can be more easily expressed over multiple volumes. But, considering my previous debates, I think it is also a sign that we want our monstrous protagonists to be complicated. In ‘Crush’ (Buffy, S5: E14), Buffy refuses to believe that Spike can truly love her as he is a vampire and lacks a soul. Drusilla tells Buffy: “Oh, we can, you know. We can love quite well … If not wisely”. Though her words reference Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), I think there is also an echo of Dracula’s claim: “Yes, I too can love”. In Stoker’s novel, this statement is never explored and the narrative ends in the death of the monster. A hundred years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer allows its vampiric protagonists the possibility of both love and redemption.
(On the subject of sympathetic ‘monsters’ and serialisation, Sam wrote a blog considering how the role of programmes such as ‘Bewitched’ (1964-1972) affected the portrayal of witches. It’s interesting to note that the time frames for ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Dark Shadows’ are relatively similar).