Gothics, vampires, and and l'écriture-femme

The Vampire Tapestry

by Suzy McKee Charnas

Part 4: 'A Musical Interlude'; Art as Vampire/mediation; East/West; Landscape, War, Jacobean Revenge Tragedy; Academic Satire; Christopher Frayling's Vampyres

Subject: Vampire Tapestry, Part IV: A Musical Interlude
Sender: balexand

January 2, 2002

Greetings, lit-talkers:

This section of the novel feels more like a digression, before plunging into Part V. It feels like an episode, rather than the natural outcome of the previous chapters; the connection of moving West to escape the scandal East is minor.

Yet the richness, playfulness, and speed of thematic exploration makes this an index to the book, or a dance mix, if you prefer a different musical analogy.

The plot: Weyland has moved to New Mexico and taken, with an ease appalling to a 2001 reader, another nice academic job. Colleagues and interested parties take him to see a fine performance of Puccini's Tosca. Charnas combines descriptions of key scenes from the opera with glimpses of Weyland's reactions, as he admits to being affected deeply by the art. After, and because of, a historical flashback, Weyland attacks and kills a singer, then covers up the excessive act. Feeling a bit pleased with himself, and introspective, he leaves the play, and the section.

Thematic notes in next post...

Bryan Alexander

From: balexand
Subject: Vampire Tapestry, Part IV: A Musical Interlude: thematics and details

As one might expect from a sustained musical parallel, this section riffs on Puccini's themes, while mixing in concepts from the rest of the novel. 188: "So the music structures everything that happens."

The Tosca links are fun, and usually explicit. I admit to enjoying Charnas' brief, evocative descriptions of this, one of my favorite operas. (Reminds me of Mann's imagined music in his splendid _Doctor Faustus_) The themes are rich, and not simply allegorical, as hunter/prey, legal authority/rebel, murder/fake murder map onto the framed story in variable, switching, playful ways.

(Full disclosure: I haven't read Sardou's story yet. Don't have a copy. :( )

Some examples and details, with page numbers from the Living Batch edition:

-the opening scene sets up three key themes. First, the hunt as process of savagery nested within civilized veneer. Second, the dual purpose and fetish of the throat: singing and feeding. Third, a polarity of history and geology, or time/memory and the Earth (this is via exam topics). The rest of the passage will pick up each.
  1. Weyland sees himself in both sides of the hunting relationship, empathizing with villainous, predatory Scarpia (196), then with pursued Tosca (207). This is akin to Scarpia's lust theme being "inverted" into a dirge (204). Scarpia as beast, monster, animal within civilization is a steady theme.
  2. The throat's a major fetish and focus, here. Obviously important for the vampire, and a prominent feature before now (different from Stoker, who prefers lips and teeth), the throat's critical for singers, and often discussed. A neat emblem of culture succeeding, or overwriting, barbarism.
  3. Weyland plunges into memory, which is history for the rest of us. Along with following Napoleon's army in 1800 (208), he reveals having occupied lesser social positions (204-5). His attack on Tremaine frames itself in historical simulation, with the victim in period garb (208).

-west/east. Most of this section points west, towards the typical direction (in this culture, and some others) of decline and death (187, 207). By the end, Weyland walks east, towards the rising sun and its positive associations, having experienced catharsis and some self-knowledge (223).

-Gothic architecture: the opera house serves this role, briefly, as the site for memory, death, deviant sexuality, and secrets. Charnas flags it right away: "'This building is really a fantastic labyrinth.'" (187)

-Gothic history: the brief nod to Jacobean revenge-tragedies in _Gonzago_ (189) links to that bloody genre's protoGothic nature.

-art as vampire/human mediation. This balances neatly with psychiatry, which plays that role in the preceding section. It's a strong claim, a bit like Kant's (careful experience of art lets us into others' minds and their freedom), and undercuts itself when poking at *Tosca* (the silly folks in the crowd, the play's trashy plot nature in some eyes). We've seen this connection in the novel's first paragraph, when art (film) leads Katje to see the vampire as such. Another undercutting: the catharsis Weyland feels is partly due to actual violence! Further, that catharsis depends on dredging up the viewer's memories, rather than allowing a more conceptual identification with one's life. In that case, this model of interpretation is more like Gadamer's, which insists on the act of perception being historical and about time.

Bryan Alexander

Re: Vampire Tapestry: A Musical Interlude

I was all set to write about this part as much thinner than the others, and even had a rationale: in Parts 2 and 3 we had embedded in the narrative focused on Weyland (from a distance) the private experience of real life exploitation and anguish of individuals within families who find themselves powerless either by virtue of their lack of authority and independence (Mark, the child) or their greater need for someone than he or she has for them (Floria's daughter). I don't know which is more touching: the exploitation of the child who moves into a fantasy world, back to the land of lost content, or the clinging and fear of a young woman faced by a society which has little use and less respect for her biological and psychological womanliness.

Bryan has stopped me in my tracks. I had not noticed the references to the 18th century and Weyland's earlier existences. Ah. Therefore I didn't get the larger dimensions of war: after all Tosca is also about civil revolt and state tyranny in the hands of ruthless corrupt people.

I thought Gonzago was a joking reference to a typical villain name in Jacobean tragedies. It turns up in Shakespeare's Hamlet (the name of the play within the play?). Now I am wondering if there is a modern pastiche Jacobean opera with this title?

Probably the thing which threw me off was the academic satire. I usually find this sort of thing shallow and self-serving: the author is getting off his or her (probably justified) anger. But for me I say, "So what? If this is what you wanted, what did you expect?" Like Bryan I noticed the ease with which Dr Weyland gets another position. It takes more than being a well-publicized bastard. (This reminds me of Gore Vidal's quip: "Having no talent is no longer enough".) Intimations of the Corinne syndrome which we first saw in Diana of the Crossroads: the central figure with almost no trouble whatsoever gets her books published, is praised by all, and the envy does not get in the way of the (left vague) money-making. Where is the teaching itself? We saw in Part 2 that Weyland has some experience of this, but it's not enough. Probably this would turn the book into domestic realism and since we are in the world of fantasy, we shouldn't probe this kind of thing too much. Still ... it's thin.

I did like the wonderful sweep of landscape, the sense of wide open air, the west yes.

To turn back to Part 2, Bryan commented on Judy's posting:

"-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 use of the word "voyeurism" helps us see why readers can feel queasy. We are the voyeurs too. I wonder no one has thought to make this novel into a film. It has a certain "fame": "The Unicorn Tapestries" is reprinted in anthologies, won a prize. It moves forward; it could allow for much exciting doings (grinning) and also lend itself to serious treatment.


Re: Vampire Tapestry: A Musical Interlude

I, too, initially thought this section a less-than-useful digression, upon first reading. Following the discussion of the book's first half in my lamentably lurker-ish way has brought some key issues to mind, which now appear quite functional, and charming, in this section.

A few minor notes towards Ellen's fine composition:

-on war: notice, as well, that the only named conflict is Napoleon's wars for Europe. Furthermore, the dating - 1800 - is pre-Empire, when there's still a revolutionary impulse in the French expansion (knocking over monarchies, setting up republics in Germany, Italy, the Low Countries). This is a small detail, but it resonates interestingly with the revolution/reaction of South Africa in the novel's first section. Revolutionary politics are also very present in Charnas' dystopian fiction. Given the focus on Scarpia as bestial predator ensconsed within legitimate power, there might be a revolutionary theme here indeed. (I'm reminded of Shelley's depiction of Frankenstein's Europe as a class-hierarchized dystopia, or Godwin's portrait of a nightmarish, surveillance-crazed England in Caleb Williams (a/k/a Things as They Are): Gothic revolutionary politics)

-Jacobean revenge tragedy: a minor, and not very popular aspect of Renaissance theater, broadly, this form concerns brutal plots, extravagant violence, and, often, the driving of a good person to acts of horror. This horrific world was created by the likes of John Webster (of whom Eliot remarked that he "saw the skull beneath the skin") (and the kid in Shakespeare in Love, incidentally), and one Will Shakespeare (cf Macbeth, especially the long version, and the deranged Titus Andronicus).

Ellen wrote:

"I thought Gonzago was a joking reference to a typical villain name in Jacobean tragedies. It turns up in Shakespeare's Hamlet (the name of the play within the play?). Now I am wondering if there is a modern pastiche Jacobean opera with this title?"

I don't know for sure, but Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 has a parody revenge tragedy, and it might be called Gonzago. Hamlet's is The Mousetrop, isn't it? (This is what I get, working away from my books)

More notes:

-landscape: we're back in classic Gothic country, as it were. Radcliffe's the great innovator, using travelogues to foreground psychological details and complex thematics. Many Gothics follow this up, from the American (cf Brocken Brown's amazing mindscapes, Poe) to the Brontes.

Again, note the first page of this section: a geography exam. Charnas is clearly enjoying herself. :)

-academic satire: I hear you, Ellen; it's painful to read, in the days after the college boom.

We'll see some teaching, and bad, in the last part.


From: "Judy Geater"
Subject: 'Vampire Tapestry': Musical Interlude

Dear all

I just wanted to say many thanks to Suzy for the detailed reply to many of the points made during our discussion of 'The Vampire Tapestry'. It is very interesting to hear from an author about the thought and work that go into creating a novel.

I only posted about the early sections of the novel, but, since finishing our read, I find the opera chapter sticking in my mind - especially the moment where we are told that Weyland's mouth "was full of blood". I gagged when reading this for the first time and had to put the book down for a few minutes. By this point we have seen Weyland drinking small amounts of people's blood in the voyeuristic chapter two, where he is a victim, and observed him on the prowl as a hunter in chapter three - but it is here that we really see him as a beast, killing for the sake of it. It is as though we have somehow skated over the worst of it until this point, where we are suddenly forced to look at what a real vampire would really do.

I also liked the way in which this chapter cuts to and fro between the opera and the sweating, increasingly frantic Weyland in the audience. To me this seemed to show the contrast between a romantic portrayal of sexuality and the complicated and messy reality.

May I ask Suzy (or anybody else), what was the pseudonym for 'The Ruby Tear'? I would like to read this and see the more conventional portrayal of a vampire.

Judy Geater

Date: Fri, 4 Jan 2002
From: "Judy Geater"
Subject: History of vampires

This is really by way of a test to see if I am safely back on the list again Sorry I've been out of the discussion for a bit, but I wanted to say that I've just finished reading Christopher Frayling's book 'Vampyres' and found it very stimulating.

It wasn't quite what I expected - I had rather thought the whole thing would be by Frayling, who also wrote a good short book called 'Nightmares' about the writing of 'Frankenstein', 'Dracula', 'Jekyll and Hyde' and 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. But in fact it consists of an interesting introduction by him followed by short stories and long extracts from a number of works on vampires "from Lord Byron to Count Dracula" as the subtitle has it. One thing which comes across strongly from this book is just how influential John Polidori was. I remember vaguely scoffing at his short story 'The Vampyre' when I read it first time round, but somehow on second reading it did not seem so feeble, despite the stylistic shortcomings. It is clear from Frayling's account that it did capture the imaginations of many other writers. It seems as if a horrible picture of the aristocratic vampire does emerge and stick in the mind despite the uncertain style.

Probably the tale which impressed me the most in this collection was 'Wake Not the Dead', attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck. This is a powerful story about a vampire wife which makes the connection between blood-sucking and sexuality so clear that it appears to be conscious rather than unconscious on the part of the writer. I'm sorry not to have the name of the translator who wrote the English version of this German story, because it is such poetic prose.

I was also interested in the story 'A Kiss of Judas' by "X.L.", the pseudonym of Julian Osgood Field, which is very witty and reminded me of Wilde - Field apparently had links with the same social circle. Frayling's introduction discusses how important Anglo-Irish writers were in the development of the vampire genre, with Le Fanu and Stoker playing prominent roles, Frayling writes:

"One could, perhaps, add Oscar Wilde's 'Picture of Dorian Gray' to the list : a critic has recently referred to 'Dorian' as 'from one of the sources of the Dracula myth'."

Unfortunately he doesn't say which critic, but I find this a compelling idea. I suppose Dorian does have similarities with a vampire - the picture in the attic is like the coffin in the crypt, and he is like an un-dead who can still look young in the daylight.

I'm hoping to catch up with the messages and join in again on 'The Vampire Tapestry'.

Judy Geater

Re: The History of Vampires & The Vampire Tapestry

Yes welcome back Judy. Although The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (mentioned by Bryan) is excellent, like most of the anthologies of gothics I've come across it does not emphasize the German. Yet I have read how important the German writers were. I suspect that not enough English readers also read German because repeatedly you find what is favored in anthologies which include translations from languages other than English is overwhelmingly from the French. Not only is Polidori remarkably memorable, Varney the Vampyre has some peculiarly chilling details and moments which were repeated in the 1931 film. I don't think the film-makers knew Varney; rather the writer provided salient passages which became part of the legend.

I haven't quite finished the book and was reading Part 5 tonight. I agree with Bryan that there is a playful game element in the novel. In this last part she gets a kick out of learned anthropological titles and treatises: from the perspective of the book, legend and Weyland their authors emerge as absurd and obtuse.

Harking back to Bryan's message on Part 4 the other day, I wonder if we could say that this is a reactionary novel -- despite the real radicalism and feminism of Charnas's other novels and the feminist switch that occurs in this novel? Richard Davenport-Hines argues the gothic is inherently conservative/reactionary, and certainly the idea here is men and women are atavistic, utterly irrational, science inadequate compared to myth. There is no political horizon worth the name in the consciousness of anyone in the book -- and they are very real.

I am wondering about the use of music in Part 4: obviously opera is theatrical, Dracula from the very beginning was a theatrical presence and Bram Stoker modelled his archetype on Henry Irving. But perhaps there's more to it than that? We've had freak shows, bizarrie. The opera is controlled atavism on stage?


Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 7 March 2005