My top ten favourite vampires…

I’ve started watching True Blood. A bit behind the times I know. One of my friends said it was shameful, but honestly I’m enjoying the series. It’s extremely entertaining low-brow nonsense.

One of the main complaints people make about vampires, fantasy, or any genre writing really, is that it’s always the same old tropes, over and over again. That seems pretty silly and reductive. After all, highbrow literature is just the same old stuff over and over again, and you don’t even get a plot with that. And with vampires, there’s endless possibilities to play with: plot, setting, characterisation and tone provide so much variety. Here are my top ten Vampire themed things. Just don’t mention Tw*l*ght.

Only Lovers Left Alive

This movie was directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, two tall, thin pale people who look pretty vampiric in real life. They’re Adam and Eve and they’ve been alive for hundreds, or possibly thousands of years, and have spent most of that time noodling about reading, playing music and generally behaving like intellectual teenage goths, until they’re interrupted by Eve’s much more normal vampire sister. They prefer discreet arrangements with blood banks to actually killing people. It’s arch and fey, but humorous and self aware. If you’re going to have a triumph of style over substance, you might as well make it a proper triumph, like this.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The original(ish) and still the best! I’ve written about my love for Dracula before, but it’s well worth revisiting. Dracula has a complex, epistolary style, and has great characters and some incredible scenes. Dracula’s enchantment of asylum inmate Renfield, who feeds on insects, is deeply unsettling. His dramatic arrival in Whitby during a storm, on a ghost ship, is amazing: only the dead captain is left strapped to the helm. Plus, in an unusual gender twist, it is Jonathan Harker, a man, who is trapped in a Transylvanian castle and menaced by sexually predatory female vampires. It doesn’t get any more goth than that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I watched this series – all 144 episodes – endlessly while I was at university. It was one of those cult things, that spread more slowly before the internet proper. We watched it on VHS! It was a cool postmodern mash-up of American High School drama, romance and horror, at a time when that still felt new. It was also pretty feminist. Cute little Buffy was super strong and beat up endless vampires and saved the world from destruction, with her crew of misfits and their English, tweed-clad librarian ‘watcher,’ more times than I can remember.

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

The ultimate in Southern Gothic. This is amazing writing, with complex characters, a strong plot and an eerie eye for detail. It’s not exactly scary, but properly macabre and twisted, with plenty of horrifying elements: the misery of eternal life, the perils of never growing up or old, existential suffering. Vampires have heightened senses and Rice really suggests what that might be like: one long, erotic, psychedelic trip to the dark side.

The Lost Boys

A teenage cult classic from the 80s, The Lost Boys is a comedy horror with an amazing soundtrack – it was probably the first time I ever heard The Doors. It also has some very cool 80s rocker teenage vampires, who live a hedonistic life hiding in a fun fair. Shades of Ray Bradbury, but then I probably hadn’t read anything by him when I first watched this. Definitely one for a nostalgia trip with a bucket of popcorn and a few drinks.

Let the Right One in

A Swedish horror film that’s properly nasty in a creepy, understated Scandinavian way, complete with some real shocks. It features a bullied, isolated young boy who is befriended and protected by a ‘teenage’ vampire girl. So much of what’s horrible about this is the tone and the implications, never spelt out. Our vampire girl is cared for by an adult man, who assists her with her extremely bloody kills – is he a paedophile, or was he once a lonely young boy as well? Who exactly is preying on whom? The Scandinavians just seem better at making things properly grim than other people.

Thirst

Then again, you could do vampires the Korean way. This film is just mad and disturbing. It features a Korean Catholic priest who becomes a vampire after volunteering for a medical experiment somewhere in Africa that gets a bit voodoo. He then begins a tempestuous affair with his friend’s wife, moving into his house and then killing him. The mother in law remains in the house, but is paralysed with shock. As you would be. He soon makes his girlfriend into a vampire too, and the two of them go on some crazy killing sprees and abuse the mother in law for fun. Meanwhile the police are catching up with them, and they have a terrifying love-hate relationship. Everything about this is bonkers and baffling and bloody.

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

This book is a much more sedate affair. It’s a cerebral quest for the real Dracula that riffs on Bram Stoker but manages to add much more to vampire lore and the history of Vlad the Impaler. It’s a properly pseudo-Victorian style novel: long, slow-burning, and written in epistolary style. It’s eerie rather than horrifying. It has a lot to say about the nature of history and evil, the conflict between Christianity and Islam, and is as much about the joys of academic research as anything else.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

King’s second novel is very King and very 70’s Americana. A writer returns home to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine, only to find that the residents are becoming vampires. The writer and a group of locals, including a priest and a doctor, do battle against the forces of evil. The themes are of social disintegration and the death of the small town, and the carefully-drawn setting, social realism and perfect character development all blend seamlessly with the taut, exciting, scary plot. Nobody does this kind of thing better than King. It’s perfect.

Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)

I’ve reviewed this before, in my 2014 reading list, but I really enjoyed it so here it is again. It’s an alternative steampunk history, in which Queen Victoria has married Dracula and the Jack the Ripper killings are actually vampire slayings. It’s an amazing bit of intertextual postmodernism, or decent fanfiction, with references crammed in to pretty much every other vampire that’s ever been written about or filmed. In style it’s horror-action-thriller, and it would make a really good movie.

I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

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The Forgotten Memorial

As some of you may know, I went on a creative writing course for history writers last week. One of the exercises we were set was to write about the history of the nearby village of Clun. There weren’t any books about it, so we had to get creative: visiting the place, talking to the locals, or in some cases just making up a bit of fiction. Here’s my effort. As you can probably tell I was feeling a bit fed up that day, but honestly I have nothing against Clun, it’s quite a lovely place to visit in fact!

Clun castle

The worst thing about history is that there’s just so much of it. Take the little town of Clun, for instance, nestled snugly in the Shropshire hills. Clun has a seventeenth century alms house; an ex-water mill; an ex-smithy; an ex-cottage hospital; two Churches; a war memorial; and a ruined castle, dramatically silhouetted against the low winter sun. That’s an awful lot of history for a town with only 680 inhabitants. That’s almost more heritage than people.

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What did the Victorians drink? A guide to boozing in the 1800s

One of the things I find most delightful about history is that, while the people of the past wore funny clothes and sometimes thought about the world in a startlingly different way, many things remain the same. I like a drink, and it gives me warm and fluffy feelings to think that British people 200-ish years ago also liked a drink. Or several. Like all aspects of Victorian culture, drinking was strictly segregated on class and gender lines, partly on account of the expense of booze, partly through custom and preference. Working class boozers Working class men and women partook of two beverages: beer and gin. Wines and other drinks were not widely available and were out of their price-range, as they were imported. Beer has been brewed in Britain for centuries, and until recent times formed a vital part of the British diet. It really was a staple food. Water was unsafe to drink, especially in towns, giving people everything from an upset stomach to cholera. Since water could be deadly, everyone drank beer. This was brewed at home, by women, or in small breweries. Even as a commercial concern, brewing was traditionally one of the few professions open to women. Typical beer had a low alcohol content – maybe 2 percent – and was drunk all day long from breakfast to bed-time by men, women, children, babies, pregnant women, everyone. It was often thick and nourishing, filled with vitamins and minerals from the grains.

Typical boozers

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Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

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Archives and History News: Jack the Ripper Museum Special!

It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.

The ripper ‘museum’

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The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?

yum!

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Mad Max: Fury Road and two rules for making great drama (plus some other reviews)

Spoilers alert!

I recently saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I must say I wasn’t too excited at first. Another tired old remake/sequel/prequel I thought – why can’t Hollywood come up with something new and original? But in fact this movie is really original! It’s about 2 hours long, and 1 hour 45 of that is one mighty car chase, in which monster trucks race across the desert and they all try to kill each other. The bad guy is accompanied into truck-based battle by a lorry full of drummers and a dude playing a frenzied guitar solo on a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower, swinging around off the top of a truck on a bungee rope. Insane guitar dude was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I mean, what evil apocalyptic warlord wouldn’t want a flame-throwing guitar player to accompany him into battle?

Mad Max’s crazy guitar dude

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A Very Victorian Valentine’s Day

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable.  For some, its the ultimate chance to treat your loved one, to kindle or re-kindle romance. For others, it’s a tacky, over-commercialised, over-priced, inauthentic display, making a mockery of true love.  For some its even worse – a painful reminder of their single status.

Where did this festival of romance originate? Valentines day’s roots are obscure, and stretch back into the mythic past. There are several Saint Valentines, but none of them has an obvious connection with romantic love.  Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ notes that birds choose their mate on Saint Valentines day.  As birds do not mate until the spring, some have suggested that the romantic St Valentine’s day might have been celebrated in March or April in the medieval period. Continue reading

Fight! Fight! Fight! – Victorian Style!

Everyone loves a good fight, right? But how did the Victorians do it? Predictably, they turned good old-fashioned bare knuckle prize-fighting into the proper sport of boxing, with the introduction of the Queensberry rules. Less predictably, they loved female fighters and invented their own wacky martial art called Bartitsu.

A spot of fisticuffs

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