Gothics, vampires, and and l'écriture-femme

The Vampire Tapestry

by Suzy McKee Charnas

Harriet Backer (1845 - 1932), By Lamplight (1890)

Part 2: 'The Land of Lost Content'; Kinky Reversals; A.E. Housman poem; The Land of Lost Content; Homosexuality, The Vampire and the Boy; Unicorn Tapestries

To Litalk-l

December 15, 2001

Re: Vampire Tapestry, Part II: Kinky Reversals

This is my second reading of this section; the first time I speed-read it in order to be able to answer questions from students who had read "The Unicorn Tapestry". This time I took two nights. I found it intriguing.

Laura asks if we thought it realistic that a student be asked to write an essay on the A. E. Housman poem. It is to me. I remember being assigned poems by Emily Dickenson which when I read today I realize were presented in ways that wholly distorted their content and turned them into banal conventionality. That would be easy to do with the Housman. However, it seemed to this reader that the homosexual content of the "Shropshire Lad" was relevant to this part of the novel even if it is not picked up by Mark in the slightest (though we don't know that) and not alluded to anywhere in the text.

The first time through what I remembered best was the tutor-as friend and student-child relationship that emerged between Weyland and Mark. I was aware that Mark gave himself to Weyland (on which see below) but I remembered best how it was Weyland alone who seemed to respond to Mark's real inner life (he paid attention to the boy's drawings, remarked on the library "how pleasantly old-fashioned, considering that so much information is already kept on microfilm and in computer memories rather than in print", 1994 Living Batch Press reprint, p. 89). My favorite line in the whole novel thus far remains:

Mark was mutinously silent (p. 80).

Today I was trying so very hard to get my younger daughter to write an essay for her application to a college -- one in which I knew that any minute now she would turn mutinously silent. How many times I have had to cope with this response. I remembered how Weyland appealed to the boy as the one he knew might just feel sufficient compunction to spare him. And I remembered his kindness to the boy in walking him to the subway. As a native New York City person I know how rare and appreciated the offer to walk you to the subway is.

This time I was alive to something else: Weyland, the vampire, takes the place of Radcliffe's Emilys and Adelines; he takes the place of Mina in that extraordinary scene where Dracula forces her to drink his blood from his breast which is an unmistakeable substitute or metaphor for fellatio (see the "climax" -- pun intended -- in the 1992 reprinting of Dracula, pp 193-94). In other words, where in just about every Dracula story I had read the vampire was the sadist and the maiden the masochist and server, in this book the roles are reversed. Weyland drinks; Weyland kneels; Weyland knuckles under. As I read I remembered a French film my husband and I went to one evening at the Kennedy Center: it was about a Dominatrix: well here the male vampire took the role of several females and males in that film. It was made even more transgressive because it was observed by a boy and it was a boy from whom Weyland drank at the end of the part. So fellatio is performed upon the boy.

And yet Weyland is not -- as Radcliffe's heroines -- openly vulnerable. He maintains a carapace and frozen face (so to speak), his dignity to the point that were we not allowed into Mark's observation and not allowed to overheard his occasional tense desperation, on the surface as sheer observation, it seems Weyland is not the victim -- at least not quite. After all, he is feeding. A curious light is thrown upon the person who enacts the fellatio: he or she gets something out of this too; is oddly in control, is the eye watching. And once Weyland gets a lead pipe, once his bars are broken, when he proceeds to suck we feel his power. He is murderous.

I see Weyland as a Dominatrix momentarily at bay, momentarily put into the masochistic stance, momentarily endangered. But the moment has its _frisson_. I did enjoy the film about the Dominatrix. Some of us are on Victoria and will remember how excited people get over the threads that emerge about Lewis Carroll's relationship to the young girls he photographed. Perhaps to some readers what is most transgressive, queasy, is Weyland's relationship to Mark in this regard. Mark is after all a victim -- the actual realistic victim of this part, the one we believe in, his situation and the use made of him by his parents being utterly probable.

It is done all through metaphors and is far more discreet -- I would use the word tasteful -- than in a book like Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire where the vampire tells of his sexual relationship with a young girl. That was raw; here we are kept at a distance. But we ought not to ignore what is in front of us -- as did Stoker's audience. One finds plenty of essays today which are candid about what Stoker's startling scenes of feeding and driving a stake through the heart of a woman stand for. However muted it is in this novel it is part of its power and meaning (says Mark: "No body could be that cool about such degrading exhibitions"). Human beings in this part of the tale are made sordid, vicious, coarse, stupid, irrational, presences which like freak shows, like the most ludicrous of rituals (no matter how inadequate the equipment), will do anything, anything for money or if they won't simply turn away in indifference rather than have to challenge the Reeses of this world. I would say Weyland emerges as just about the best presence about -- with the single exception of Mark who becomes something of a companion and helpmate.

This contrasts to the pessimism we noted in Possession. After all Byatt stays on the safe side. Is there anything really queasy going on in Possession? Is not Leonora as hearty and healthy as all get-out? And what are we shown but her in heterosexual sex, awakening poor Blackadder who has thus far spent his life crossing out words lest they offend? The missionary position is the one that dominates Possession. What happened between Blanche and Christabel is kept from us? Only RHA suspects something he turns from quickly. And Ellen Ashe-RHA and Beatrice Nest are seen as finally strange, anomalies; so too Roland. People who didn't quite come up to stuff. Not part of the usual which is what it is here.

I daresay my fundamental response to this section of the novel is not quite what the fiction expects. In the first part we are shown a sexually strong aroused woman caught in the car turning her gun on the vampire: reversal one. Now we are shown the vampire as the anima until the closing scene: reversal two. It is gratifying for a feminist who has read Dracula and been bothered by it. A revenge. But I identified with Wyeland and Mark at the moment Mark though to himself in terror lest Weyland's composure crack: "don't do it, don't do it in front of them ...", p 87) -- as I most of the time identify with the anima in most of these fictions.

As to conventionally observed social ironic maxims, there are the sudden utterances that articulate social truths. Says Weyland:

"You live in a culture that treats childhood as a disadvantage; make a strength of that weakness ..." (p. 109)

"I must assure you scientists would be no improvement ..." (p. 93)

I was interested by the use of May Eve, the night of April 30th: I believe that is the date of Walpurisnacht (spelling?) -- which I last read about in Goethe and in one of the appendices to the Norton Dracula. I wasn't sure that I was supposed to make anything of that: one does need to set a date for things and why not the traditional?


To Litalk-l

December 14, 2001

Re: Vampire Tapestry, Part II: A. E. Housman poem

In case people don't have the poem Mark writes his essay upon, here are the verses:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

It is No XL in A Shropshire Lad, and like Loren Eiseley's work sheds a different perspective on this book -- and this section -- than stories like Stoker's.


From: "Laura Jean Carroll"
Subject: VT, Part II: The Land of Lost Content

Hi everyone, and thanks to Ellen for posting the A.E. Housman verses featured in this week's chapter.

Did others think it slightly unbelievable for someone to assign an essay on such a poem to a boy?

Having narrowly escaped from Katje, Dr Weyland in this claustrophobic chapter allows himself to be captured by some pretty unpleasant people.

Clearly if you are a vampire it is not a good idea to attract attention to yourself in the emergency room by drinking straight from the blood transfusion bag, but when we see Weyland in the cell Wesley and Roger build in Roger's New York apartment, it is obvious that he's in a bad way - all the poise and sophistication has fallen away and what's left is both pitiable and chilling, inhuman. Mark, the boy who is the central consciousness of this section, is moved to 'help' Weyland (by telling him stories, keeping him awake) even as he is very careful to keep a safe distance from the bars in the doorway.

All the feeding done by the vampire in this chapter is done under the observation of other people; he really is imprisoned, under surveillance, and there is no humanising privacy for him. He gets stronger, and then weaker, but at no time does it seem to me that he quite recovers that crucial, preserving distance from the messy humans. The succession of individuals offering up their veins to Weyland - whether expediently, to keep him alive, or in search of titillation for their jaded palates - look to me just like so many foolish cattle. This is how the vampire thinks of his victims, and Charnas gives us an opportunity to understand how he sees them. Yet when Mark shares his blood with Weyland, at the end of the imprisonment, it is not the same thing at all, is it?

But Weyland's captors are almost as creepy as him. They are holding him, and nursing him back to health, in order to make money out of him. I think in Roger's and Wesley's case this is a half-baked and short-sighted bit of conniving - though they do not doubt he is a vampire, and clearly see what is involved in maintaining him, they don't appear to take him very seriously. It is the charlatan/cult leader/satanist Alan Reese, who attempts to take control of the scheme, that is (in my view) the most unpleasant figure in the whole novel. You get the impression that he believes just enough of his own hocus-pocus to be dangerous to other people, and isn't in the least scrupulous about what he does to get more power and money.

Mark is an interesting boy to find in amongst these people, or on the fringes of their group. How he manages to get any sleep, ever, in the room across from Weyland's, is beyond me. I was particularly struck by his taking the quarters from among Weyland's possessions in payment for 'services rendered' (talking to Weyland to keep him awake), and his thought about the girl he's writing the essay for: she'd been getting too friendly, and the essay (for cash) will put the relationship back on businesslike lines. His parents give him cash, which he perceives as bribes and hush money. I suppose it is. I enjoyed his drawings, and his whole concept, for Skytown: it's the kind of thing an independent and slightly unsettled child will do. I also liked that he found 'A Voyage To Arcturus' boring (me too), but still managed to salvage something from reading it.

That's all for this post. I haven't said anything much about the relationship between Weyland & Mark: someone else will, though, I hope.

Yours, Laura

ps - I do apologise if this is inconveniently late for Nth Hemisphereians, though as I write I realise probably nobody is that bothered! It's late Sunday evening in Australia as I write. On Sundays I sell clothes in a shop (horrible) to build up the running-away-from-home fund, & only got home a little while ago.

Part II: The Land of Lost Content & Homosexuality, The Vampire and the Boy

When I first read the novel through, I found this section very disturbing and found I could only read it in short bursts. I wasn't quite sure why this was, and could only think perhaps I was shocked by the fact that we were seeing these strange events through a child's eyes. But after reading Ellen's comments I suspect I was also more disturbed than I possibly realised by the sexual content. In a way as readers we are turned into voyeurs in this section, queuing up to see the vampire suck the blood in Roger's apartment, although we do not actually have to pay Alan Reese. It seems as if quite often in vampire stories the actual blood-sucking happens out of sight, as it does in the opening section of VT - we see the victim staggering out of the sleep laboratory, the tall pale man (cast in the Dracula mode as regards appearance) wiping his lips. But we do not actually witness the vampire in action until he goes in for the kill at the end of the chapter, and instead is nearly killed himself - the shots are our first sight of blood.

However, in 'The Land of Lost Content', there is no escape from the central fact of what the vampire does, how he drinks the blood. There is something unnerving about the way that this Gothic horror is brought into the present day, in an everyday setting, with people arguing and flirting and doing homework around the vampire. There are also none of the layers you usually get in an older vampire tale- the epistolary narrative or diaries, elements which are used in 'The Unicorn Tapestries'.

There's no distancing, no doubt about what is really happening - we are forced to see the vampire sucking blood from a series of people who pay for the privilege, a form of Gothic prostitution. Charnas brings out the sexual undercurrents which go unexplored in earlier stories and makes what is happening more explicit - no reader could overlook the fact that the vampire's sucking is a type of sex, and gives a strange illicit thrill to his willing but uneasy victims.

I still think the fact that a child is viewing all this makes it even more disturbing. Most of us would like to protect children from the harsher facts of life, but there is no protection for Mark.

Anne Cranny Francis suggests in her essay on VT that the vampire is male in 'The Ancient Mind at Work', but then, when he is wounded, he changes and becomes identified with the female - he changes from rapist to powerless victim. I feel there is something in this but somehow it doesn't seem to go to the heart of the section, which surely lies in the growing attraction between Weyland and Mark and the way Mark in the end offers himself up to save the vampire.

I'm still thinking over VT III and will hopefully post on that too in the next day or two.Can anybody tell me how similar Floria's diaries are to Freud's notes on his famous cases? I have read 'The Interpretation of Dreams' but it was a while ago now and I don't remember it mentioning the cases which Floria and her friend discuss, such as the Wolfman.

Judy Geater

Re: VT: "Land of Lost Content" and "Unicorn Tapestries"

I have read this week's section but will wait for Bryan's thoughts. I have seen Tosca but have never read the libretto and am probably missing some significant tie-ins between the heroine of "Unicorn Tapestries" and the action of "A Musical Interlude".

I wanted merely to make a comment in response to Judy's.

She wrote:

"Anne Cranny Francis suggests in her essay on VT that the vampire is male in 'The Ancient Mind at Work', but then, when he is wounded, he changes and becomes identified with the female -- he changes from rapist to powerless victim. I feel there is something in this but somehow it doesn't seem to go to the heart of the section, which surely lies in the growing attraction between Weyland and Mark and the way Mark in the end offers himself up to save the vampire."

As alluring and unsettling (or off-putting) as is the incestuous material of "The Land of Lost Content" -- it's also homosexual and pederast (spelling?) -- the material is also one of the rare moments in the novel thus far where Weyland has acted ethically, truly kindly. He behaves in a disinterested courteous way to the boy; treats him with respect; does not try to exploit his emotions or use him as an emotional tennis ball. He does not hurt him at the end, but guides him back to the subway. Similarly in his relationship with Floria, he comes off very well -- at least I think so. More than a little humane. It would have been in his interest to do away with them; he does not. In this week's segment, he does not act in the least ethically: to use Judy's allusion, he returns to the assault, to the behavior of a werewolf/vampire. The satire which emerges from his behavior to the people who drive him to the opera is partly an academic one: the phoniness and disregard of human qualities that are likable and truly admirable are to the fore when Weyland is presented as arrogant, unpleasant, cold &c&c. But it's only the surface of what happens on the parapet.

In other words in the two scenes where open and socially acceptable love-making (with Floria) and surreptitious and transgressive love-making (with Mark) go on, Weyland comes out positively. He can love or simulate some version of love, can have personal intimate relationships, understands the bases of these. It's the public impersonal creature who is the monster.

I have read about Freud's paper on the Wolfman but have not read the paper so can't help her there.

Ellen Moody

From Byran:

Excellent post. A couple of followups:

-That dizzying voyuerism, watching characters watching, is a fine Gothic film trope, from *Frankenstein* through to the present. Charnas plays with this, constantly positioning point of view characters explicitly in perspectives, constructing us as viewers in a reflective context. The novel's opening foregrounds that, with Katje looking and thinking about looking.

-The reversal is right on, and reappears in the *Tosca* passage.

-The Gothic's persistent concern with war and militarism appears here, with one character being an ex-Marine (57) wounded in Vietnam (59).

Laura (Thérèse Epps) Alma-Tadema (1852 - 1909), Sunshine

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