Remembering Charlee Jacob: Vampires in Reflection

Cover of The Indigo People

Mihail Baranga, teenage son to a family of circus acrobats, is surrounded by glamour and extravagance. But he yearns for a darker existence: he wants to become a vampire.

Between the folktales told by his Romanian grandmother and the fashion sensibilities of the contemporary Goth scene, he is surrounded by vampiric imagery. He daydreams about his estranged mother returning as a vampire so that she can turn him into one of her own kind. He tries to kill himself, remembering the belief that those who commit suicide become vampires, but his attempt fails and leaves him neither dead nor undead. He allows a black-clad sexual predator to molest him, only to find out – when the man is hit by a car – that this dark mentor was no vampire, merely a perverse roleplayer. He begins incorporating a vampire theme into his circus acts, to his family’s dismay. He embarks on a procession of blasphemy, murder and degradation in search of the gravest damnation. All the while, Mihail is obsessed by his own reflection.

Charlee Jacob’s novelette “Immortality” was published alongside a story by Mehitobel Wilson in the 2002 chapbook Skins of Youth. It is not simply a vampire story: it is a Charlee Jacob vampire story, reflecting some of her personal interests and preoccupations. The author’s love of circuses and sideshows is evident, with a clown and bearded lady amongst the secondary characters. But more significant is how the “Immortality” reworks the popular association between vampires and mirrors.

We learn that Mihail has received a new mirror for each birthday since the age of six, his collection reaching the fateful number of thirteen by the end of the story. He periodically stares into them, hoping to see a sign of vampiric transformation, in one scene subjecting himself to a Lon Chaney-esque facial mutilation in an effort to appear more like a typical vampire.

There is an irony in play here. Vampires, in a convention established by Bram Stoker, cast no reflection, and so Mihail can only be satisfied when his self image when his image is no longer visible:

He saw the other twelve mirrors. They didn’t even show the young man trapped in the thirteenth, trying to break through the barrier which barred the soulless. And, of course, he wasn’t reflected in them.

This, at least, was immortality.

Charlee Jacob wrote a large amount of vampire fiction, being a regular contributor to such publications as The Vampire’s Crypt, Prisoners of the Night and Dreams of Decadence. Over the course of her career she wrote enough vampire short stories and poetry to fill an entire collection: The Indigo People, published in 2007. The usage of mirrors in “Immortality” is a typical example of the way in which Jacob took established motifs and conventions associated with vampires – reflections (or lack thereof), shapeshifting, immortality, death by sunlight, sexual temptation – and found unexpected new interpretations of them.

Cover of The Indigo People

Life Eternal

Authors like Bram Stoker and J. Sheridan Le Fanu granted their vampires immense longevity, but it was modern authors like Anne Rice – authors presenting vampirism as a state that readers might actually envy – who made fuller use of the promise of immortality. Becoming a vampire, fiction tells us, guarantees eternal youth and beauty, a theme touched upon by Jacob in her story “The Jazz Club” (1996). Here, a richly-ornamented New Orleans is visited by a vampire matriarch invisible to those over the age of eighteen. She turns four teenage girls into vampires, sentencing them to an existence in which they never grow old, but never grow up; forever young, forever infertile.

Stories of immortal vampires also explore the implications of living across different eras. The title character of Jacob’s “Renaud” (1996) is a citizen of post-revolutionary France who claims to be descended from crusaders, and yearns for a romanticised era in which medieval gallantry mingled with Arabian Nights exoticism. Renaud turns out to be no mere day-dreamer but a centuries-old vampire, a true veteran of the crusades, and his romantic portrayal of the era is rudely disrupted by the revelation of his gruesome trophies:

The heads continued to roll from the open cabinet, by dozens, hundreds, thousands.

“My treasure!” Renaud cried out, ignoring his wound to stand and stagger toward the open armoire. Grisly heads – some in varying stages of decomposition, others as fresh as the moment they were chopped off (even if centuries before) – spun across the carpets and silks on the floor. He snatched one and tucked it under his arm, dropping it to grab at another. “No! You’ve spilled them out. It’s taken me years to collect them. Years!”

Despite their offbeat touches, “The Jazz Club” and “Renaud” hew comparatively close to conventional depictions of vampire immortality. “Once More, Before My Star Burns” (1993), on the other hand, inverts the concept by establishing that vampires are not immortal after all, and are in fact going extinct, their mass deaths described using language that evokes the AIDS epidemic. The story posits that vampires embody a sense of wonder that is integral to the survival of the human race, meaning that the extinction of vampires could lead to the self-destruction of humanity: “Only mystery kept the world innocent enough to survive, did it not?” In a twist of dream-logic, the few remaining vampires attempt to secure a less literal form of immortality by creating replacements for themselves: a race of robots, with veins of diamond, flesh of crystal and hearts of chalk, to take on the role once filled by vampires.

The Vampire as Elemental

Vampires are typically thought of as having an ethereal, insubstantial aspect. In folklore they were able to rise from buried coffins without disturbing the earth, and authors have made much of their shapeshifting abilities: according to Bram Stoker, a vampire has the power transform into mist or “come on moonlight rays as elemental dust”. In Charlee Jacob’s hands, this conception of vampires as beings of air and dust took on new life.

Jacob’s story “Dust” (1994) takes place during the dust bowl of thirties America, and depicts homestead owners Jake and Martha being faced with drought. The aridity is personified by a dust woman who periodically visits, Jake dismissing her as a mere mirage before coming to accept her reality. The dust woman is joined by a dust man, the two brittle spirits dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts. “Dust” has obvious similarities to another Jacob tale, “Dust Dancer”, but where that story adapted Lovecraftian cosmic horror “Dust” instead follows the pattern of a vampire narrative: the dust man tempts Martha, draining (or drying) her of life until she herself becomes a dancing dust woman.

Another story that treats vampires as elemental nature-spirits is “The Wind of Harmattan County” (1997). Here, we visit a community in which those who want to commit suicide do so by dancing in the strong winds, a process that – according to local folklore – causes them to be spirited away by vampiric beings. The protagonist’s wife does this, and is killed in a cyclone; her spirit then returns to tempt the couple’s daughter towards a similar fate.

Vampires in the Sun

The idea that vampires are killed by sunlight is relatively recent, having been introduced in the 1922 film Nosferatu, but it became one of the best-known conventions of vampire fiction and film. When the concept turns up in Charlee Jacob’s fiction, it is again filtered though a kind of dream-logic: Jacob associates sunlight with vampires, but in deeply unorthodox ways.

“Under the Tangible Myrrh of the Resonant Stars” (1995) depicts vampires who, with the aid of a non-lethal method of feeding, have joined mortal society and become accepted as a fact of life – a scenario later used, with wildly different results, by Charlaine Harris. But then Earth is hit by global warming, giving mortals and vampires an unexpected level of equality as both are now in danger of being killed by the sun. Humanity blames this on vampires on the grounds that the climate change is God’s punishment, and form murderous pogroms against peaceful vampires.

Meanwhile, the death-by-sunlight convention is turned on its head in “The Blood of the Sun” (1996), which situates its vampires in a sun-kissed French Riviera beach. As per usual, vampires are portrayed as being more beautiful than us mere mortals; but instead of pallid, Gothic figures, they are sun-tanned beach bunnies and surfer dudes. The story ends with protagonist Gidget being converted into a vampire, in the process transforming from a scrawny, sunblock-slathered individual into a curvaceous beach babe.

Sexual Temptations

Historically, the motif of the vampire has been used to indirectly explore taboo topics of sexuality. Jacob, with her enthusiasm for the transgressive and fondness for no-holds-barred depictions of the most depraved sexuality, had little need for such coyness. In her fiction, abject horror and sexual highs tend to be to aspects of one experience, and the vampire – an embodiment of sexuality and horror – becomes a valuablemeans to articulate this theme
“The Bloom” (1994), one of the stories in Jacob’s anthology Guises, is about a gay couple with a vampire fetish. Narrator Michael, the dominant half of the relationship, confesses that he is bored with this “standard moderate vampirism” and derides “mincing pseudo-Draculas”; but a decadent young man named Fig introduces him to new levels of Bacchanalian pleasure and pain. Associating vampires with gay subculture was nothing new by the time the story was published, but “The Bloom” remains notable for its unabashed carnality:
Michael makes no attempt to hide his preference for semen over blood.

A very different exploration of vampire sexuality, one striving for a less physical treatment of the theme, can be found in “The Starry Night” (1997). The main character of the story is Vincent van Gogh, who is visited by a vampire temptress in an asylum the year before his death. Initially appearing as a black-haired beauty “nothing like the vampires of Buadelaire’s poems”, she shapeshifts into various women from van Gogh’s past relationships.

The Face in the Mirror

Of all aspects of vampire iconography, it is mirrors and reflections that seem to have held particular fascination for Charlee Jacob. Her vampire stories abound in mirrors, often used as a means of exploring the theme of self image. We see this in “Immortality”, where Mihail Baranga’s coming-of-age transformations are centred on his thirteen mirrors. We also see it in Jacob’s debut novel, This Symbiotic Fascination, where Tawne’s voyage of self-transformation involves repeated visits to the mirror.

In the popular imagination, the matter of vampires and mirrors is a simple binary: mortals have reflections, vampires do not. But Jacob’s fiction is more playful, once again coming up with original variations on the theme.

In “The Marvelous Raven Image” (1993) the vampire Alicia has the ability to conjure an illusion, making herself beautiful as a lure to male victims. The story implies that when she is not using this glamour Alicia is intangible, insubstantial – almost as though she only exists when being looked it. Then, she makes the mistake of looking upon her own reflection in the mirror:

Eyes form the basis for all obsession. Magic begins with them.

Alicia had always avoided her own anytime she looked in the mirror. Ah, that was the real reason vampires avoided mirrors. For fear they’d glimpse their own eyes. She gazed upon her body of lithe dusk, her hair of magnificent extinction.

Her corporeal form fading, Alicia knows that she must go in search of more victims – yet she ends the story frozen, captivated by the reflection that still shows her at her most beautiful.

Never a literally-minded author, Jacob sometimes used the motif of the reflected face while bypassing mirrors altogether. “Carved in Ice” (1995) is about a female vampire named Japan who visits a party and tempts away the lover of the narrator. The main character is filled with jealousy, an emotion that turns to horror when he sees his lover’s face appear on Japan’s skin:

I looked over at the woman again, and she was doing a listless pirouette. I almost cried out when I saw your face there, on the skin of her bare back, rendered perfectly in – what? body paints? inks? colored chalks?

In dreams?

Sensing the Vampire

Jacob’s repeated use of mirrors and reflections underlines just how visual her vampire stories are. Another aspect of this is her vibrant use of colour – something not typically associated with vampire fiction, much of the genre’s iconography using a limited palette of black, white and red. Her 1997 poem “The Indigo People”, after which her 2007 collection is named, associates vampires with various shades of blue, from the purplish blue of the night sky to the turquoise mask of Death (an allusion to the Aztec death-god Tezcatlipoca). Other colours, meanwhile, are merely the subjects of longing:

We lie in beryl graves

And try to dream of marigolds and mikado moths,

of caretakered grounds of sumptuous jade,

of pink clefts and carnelian veins,

But we are the indigo people; we do not dream…

Throughout her stories, Jacob paints vampires in enough colours to fill a rainbow of undeath. “The Jazz Club” includes rumination on the conflicting symbolism of colours – for example, how back represents death in some cultures and fertility in others. In “Under the Tangible Myrrh of the Resonant Stars” the vampires hiding within mortal society disguise themselves using rouge, lipstick and pastel-hued clothes. “The All-Night Café” (2000) – another story with van Gogh as a character – is daubed in yellow: yellow paint, yellow flowers, the yellow hair of the temptress, making all the more contrast when a splash of red blood hits the page.

While Bram Stoker depicted Dracula changing into a bat, a wolf and a cloud of mist, a Charlee Jacob vampire is more likely to change colour. An example of this is “Badefol’s Ruby“ (1994), a comparatively traditional story, albeit one closer in form to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale than to anything from the Gothic tradition. The tale involves two brothers setting off to slay the titular Badefol, a Portuguese nobleman who was cursed to become a vampire after stealing a ruby from a chapel; the brothers hope to use his jewel to cure their ailing sister. The jewel in question is embedded in Badefol’s tongue, and its colour indicates his appetite: when he is thirsty, it is drained to become a pearl; when he is sated, it becomes a ruby once more. In “Starbox” (1998), a story set among the torched plantations and haunted battlefields of postbellum Georgia, the vampiress Tai’el shows a similarly chameleon-like aspect when she claims a victim:

He trembled as she traced the weals on his shoulders and thighs. And as she knelt in front of him, cleaning every trace of outrage, he saw her gray skin darken to become near the shade of her own. He wondered if his skin had been white, would she have become white also. Her hair was still red, her tongue black as coal. The roseflower eyes reminded Jack of the garden he’d tended. Tai’el’s breasts had become bloomed roses as well, not solid mounds of softness but petaled, in fragrant sepals with blood red centers.

Charlee Jacob’s vampire stories are deeply sensual – not in the meaning of the term as a euphemism for eroticism (although they are, of course, overtly sexual) but in that they evoke sensory stimulation, ranging from the make-up and perfume of “Night’s Organ” (1998) to the Arabian Nights-inspired opulence of “The Moonlight Bride” (2001). Her bold palette of colours play on the sense of sight, but the senses of scent and sound also have roles in her vampire stories.

“The Scent of Roses” (1998), a story about the death of Vlad the Impaler, mingles the stench of decay with the odour of sanctity – the sweet scent said to be given off by deceased saints. “Something Dark and Soaring” (2000) features a musician-vampire who treats his victims as instruments: “The sound of her ribs exploding added percussion to her scream… In a haze she watched fingers coming out from beneath the shirt cuffs, iron claws capable of spanning a full octave or a throat.”

Sometimes Jacob allows different senses to mingle together, synesthesia-like; this is particularly true where sex is concerned. “The Bloom” opens with the attention-grabbing passage “His semen was purple. It smelled of wisteria blossoms and fennel seed soaked in vintage dark wine.” In “The Starry Night” Vincent van Gogh’s encounter with the vampire temptress leads to him reaching sexual ecstasy “in an explosion of gold, of orange, a moment of ecstasy where he could smell the heated fields of Aries, framed in cloisonne.” Meanwhile, the Native American protagonist of “Singer” (2000) meets a seductive vampires, turquoise-nippled, hair woven with pine branches and rodent bones, and eyes shifting from dark brown to red:

He’d seen such things in the skies during his seizures, the sun or the moon or even only the luminous bodies of spirits in a blood-colored haze. And he would awaken to the taste of hard rain on his tongue, the flavour of tender violence such as the skies and earth mother made.

Charlee Jacob’s Vampires

Jacob’s career began at a time in which the market for vampire fiction was facing saturation. Anne Rice had reinvented the genre, but the imitative works that followed in her wake ensured that further reinvention was necessary. Charlee Jacob responded to the call with a body of vampire fiction that is both varied and idiosyncratic. These stories were fresh when they were first published – and today, they remain a collective example of the vampire genre at its most innovative and delicately-crafted

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.
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