REVIEW: New Decade, New Blood: Vampires Never Get Old

Vampires Never Get Old UK cover

For several years now, various internet wags have provided statistics indicating that the comparative popularity of zombies and vampires correlate with US political administrations: zombies have peak periods when Republicans are in power, while vampires have their boom years when the Democrats hold the White House. How seriously this data should be taken is debatable; but should the phenomenon be anything more than coincidence, then we should be due for a new wave of vampires under the Biden-Harris administration.

If this is the case, then a workable and thorough blueprint for the next generation of cape-and-fang literature has already been provided by Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite, a book that was published last September and received a UK release this May courtesy of Titan Books. Here, editors Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker team up with a bevy of authors from the young adult scene to give vampires a reinvention for the new twenties.

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales With a Fresh Bite

Zoraida Córdova, Natalie C. Parker, Samira Ahmed, Julie Murphy, Dhonielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Mark Oshiro, Julie Murphy, Rebecca Roanhorse, Laura Ruby, V.E. Schwab, Kayla Whaley
Imprint (US)
September 22, 2020
Titan Books (UK)
May 25, 2021

Covers of the US and UK editions.

One story that encapsulates both the up-to-date ethos of the anthology and its general tone is “Vampires Never Say Die”, written by Córdova and Parker. This is the tale of two Instagram friends arranging to meet in person for the first time: Theolinda is a Goth girl in her late teens who enjoys the roleplay fantasy of becoming a vampire, while Brittany is the opposite – a genuine vampire who escapes the pressures of her existence by masquerading as a mere mortal online.

During its course the story touches upon social media (Brittany tags photos of empty cityscapes with #selfie), genre-awareness (“Vampires are so 2005” remarks one character) and sexism (“I have chosen women like me” says Brittany; “Women who were told they were less than, unworthy, weak. Women who were hungry for the world”). The premise, while humorous, also allows for plenty of tension. In gathering Brittany’s contacts together for a surprise party, Theolinda has no idea that she is surrounding herself with honest-to-God vampires, many of whom are less benevolent than he friend.

A similarly plugged-in story is “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro. The main character is a young vampire born to a pair of undead parents, who strive to keep him away from the world of hostile mortals. He is able to access the Internet behind their backs, hover, and keeps a Tumblr blog under the name of “Invisibleboy”. The story plays with the concept that a vampire has no reflection, which is treated as figurative rather than literal – a symbol of adolescent self-identity.

As the protagonist’s house has no mirrors (we are told that vampires have a taboo against these objects arising from how mirrors were formerly made with silver) the computer screen provides the only reflective surface in the house. Determined to get a clearer look at his own face, the young vampire tries various tactics from breaking into a house in the hopes of finding a mirror to ordering a digital camera online.

Not all of the young vampires in the anthology have to make to with mortal social networks like Instagram and Tumblr: some have access to specially-made vampire apps of their own. ”A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire” by Samira Ahmed is written as an online article, complete with hyperlinks, that ties in with a fictitious social-networking app called Vampirsand. Rather than the mere technical matters of biting necks and staying out of sunlight, this primer is geared heavily towards the cultural implications of being both Indian and a vampire.

The story brings up folklore (one section distinguishing vampires, a Western import, from more localised supernatural beings like rakshasas and vetala), modern technology and, above all, colonialism. This last element takes a number of forms, from the still-lingering influence of the British Empire through to modern sex tourism: the article is written on the assumption that the reader is a teenage girl turned by a vampire visiting from the UK. “The harsh truth is that you are an underage vamp, and an Angrez British tourist likely turned you”, it says. “Ever since Brexit, there’s been a surge in illegal sirings.” The conclusion is that, having had their blood sucked by colonisers, newly-sired Desi vampires are entirely justified in feeding on their oppressors in turn.

The postcolonial culture clash of “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire” is far from unusual for this anthology. Vampires Never Get Old diversifies the undead in more ways than one, with each of its stories displaying an intersectional aspect. Theolinda in “Vampires Never Say Die” is the daughter of Ecuadorean immigrants; “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” ends on a note of overt homosexuality; and this trend continues throughout the book.

“The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton is a Southern Gothic story that makes African-American history and folklore key to its worldbuilding. Racial strife is paralleled by tension between different species of supernatural entity, the main characters being a Black mother and her daughters who are saved from white vampires by becoming Eternals:

“Maybe I’ll get a vampire, then.” Cookie pranced around, mimicking how white vampires walked as if they owned every place their ancient feet touched.

Baby Bird gasped. Bea bit her bottom lip. That would never be allowed.

“Mama doesn’t want us mixing with them. You know the history.”

These Eternals share their world with other beings rooted in African-American folklore, including boo hags, conjure women and – most dangerous of all – Shadow Barons: “They’d always been told that the only thing that could kill an Eternal woman was the men who walked the roads of the dead and tended to the crossroads. Not garlic, not holy water, not the sun, not werewolves, not silver, and never any stakes. Only the Shadow Barons.”

One of the anthology’s most striking treatments of oppression and marginalisation is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley. Here, a man gives his disabled daughter Grace a lethal dose of morphine and tries to pass this off as a mercy killing: the police decline to press charges, and he is given favourable coverage in the press. Grace is then given a new form of life by a passing vampire; much of the story is narrated from her perspective as she offers a sardonic commentary on the community that failed her in the run-up to her bloody revenge.

The stories in Vampires Never Get Old are not necessarily as confrontational as this. Julie Murphy’s “Senior Year Sucks”, for example, is a little gentler (but nonetheless determined) in nudging the reader to reconsider assumptions as to who is allowed to serve as the protagonist of a vampire story. The plot occurs in a Texan town known to the public for its annual culling of rattlesnakes, but known to a select few for a different sort of extermination: vampire hunting. The protagonist, cheerleading captain Jolene, belongs to a family of vampire slayers and has held this occupation since the age of thirteen, but in physical terms would never be mistaken for Sarah Michelle Gellar: “I’m what some people would call meaty or fat. My body isn’t trim or slender like most people would expect of a slayer.” When she ends up sitting next to a vampire on a school bus, the situation is naturally tense – but the vampire pleads that she merely wants to finish off her high school year like any mortal.

Although a number of stories make a point of subverting the gene’s norms, others are more traditional in terms of plot – even if the perspectives may be from outside the straight white mainstream. “The Boys from Blood River” by Rebecca Roanhorse is similar in tone to popular teenage vampire films like The Lost Boys (it even has two characters called the Toad Twins, apparently in homage to that movie’s Frog Brothers) and also touches upon familiar modern folklore by placing its vampires into the context of a Bloody Mary-like urban legend.

The setting is Blood River, named after a massacre that took place in its history and more recently the site of a mass-murder involving a famous baseball player; here, certain locals believe that a gang of vampires can be summoned by playing a particular song. The protagonist, 16-year-old Lukas, has little to live for at Blood River: his mother is terminally ill, his cousin died of a drug overdose, and he is viciously bullied at school – all of which gives him a yearning to summon the Boys of Blood River for help in escaping into a new life (or undeath). Lukas is Native American and, although the story does not spell this out, his people may well have been victims of the massacre that gave Blood River its name; he is also gay, and his relationship with the lead vampire has a homosexual aspect that might have raised eyebrows in a 1980s teen film.

Heidi Helig’s “The Boy and the Bell” harks back still further for inspiration. Set in New England during the period in which grave-robbing played a vital role in medical progress, the story is full of Gothic atmosphere. The protagonist is a young body-snatcher who comes across what he believes to be a live burial, only to find (of course) that the body in question is not exactly alive; much ghoulish humour ensues, with the vampire characterised as crotchety and impatient. The plot could easily have turned up in a publication from a hundred years ago, were it not for the fact that the main character is a transgender man (he is even going through his menstrual cycle during the story) while the vampire is defined as a villain not only because he sucks blood, but also because he insistently misgenders the grave-robber.

Having taken a trip into the past, we later visit the future with Laura Ruby’s “Bestiary”. This story locates vampires in an era when technology has allowed people to get cybernetic pots in their heads, but corporate greed prevents them from getting tap-water during a drought caused by climate change. The protagonist is an employee at a run-down Chicago zoo, who has recently been turned into a vampire by “the golden boy, the one who had worshipped fairy-tale beasts, the one who was a beast himself”. Her transformation has given her both an ability to communicate with the animals and an inclination to bite the necks of those who fail to appreciate the grim state of the world.

The stories in Vampires Never Get Old depict clashes along a number of different axes – culture, race, gender, even body type – but above all, the book reflects a conflict between ages. Irs tales generally capture a sense of youthful enthusiasm and a desire to reject old assumptions; this is underlined by the two stories that bookend the anthology.

The first story, Tessa Gratton’s “Seven Nights for Dying”, is about a 17-year-old heroine who is mentored by two older vampires, one male and one female. Both believe that teenage girls make the best vampires, but for very different reasons: the woman, Seti, argues that “teenage girls are both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries” while the man, Esmael, says they are best suited to the role because of the art they produce. The soft-focused narrative follows the girl as she decides whether or not to become a vampire, the dark romance mixing with the grey mundane of taxes and body-image issues. During the course of the story we meet a female-to-male transgender vampire whose undead status allowed him to avert puberty; the heroine, meanwhile, is faced with the prospect of eternal belly-fat, although the tone remains wry rather than camp.

At the very end of the book is “First Kill” by V. E. Schwab, the story of high-school classmates Juliette and Calliope. The former is insecure, self-conscious, socially awkward, and a vampire; her supernatural traits are an annoyance, as enhanced senses distract her during lessons while her thirst for blood must be supressed with a special medication (“aspirin that isn’t aspirin”). Her sundry flaws contrast with both her sister – Elinor, also a vampire – and with Calliope, the outwardly perfect vampire hunter who is the subject of Juliette’s lesbian desires. Halfway through the story shifts perspective and we see the world through the eyes of Calliope, rather than Juliette: the vampire becomes not a mass of imperfections, but an alluring figure in her own right. Both vampire and slayer are preoccupied with finding their first kill, a concept framed as a coming-of-age moment like the loss of virginity:

She remembers Elinor before, of course; it’s only been a few years, and the truth is, she’s always been delicate; beautiful. But there’s no question that now she’s more. As if that first kill took who she was and turned up the volume, made everything sharper, stronger, more vibrant.

Each story in Vampires Never Get Old is followed by a brief non-fiction piece in which the editors discuss aspects of vampire mythology, from their folkloric origins to their various props and motifs (coffins, bats, mirrors, slayers and so on). In terms of scholarship these are fairly superficial and sometimes misleading – the book claims that “one of the oldest myths about vampires is that they cast no reflection at all” when, in fact, this is a relatively recent concept invented by Bram Stoker – but then, the point is less to inform the reader and more to make them contemplate common assumptions and conventions.

One article questions whether vampires’ superhuman healing erases the portrayal of disability; another points out that vampire slayers “aren’t always cheerleaders, but they do tend to be thin (or vibrantly muscled!), cisgender, able-bodied people”; and each one ends with a specific prompt for the reader: would you choose to live forever, and if so, what would you sacrifice in exchange? If you could shapeshift into an animal, what species would you choose? Would you rather be a vampire or a slayer, and which of these figures is the true villain? What concepts might a vampire symbolise? All in all, this aspect of the book is a good way of encouraging younger readers to think more deeply about the stories that they have just consumed.

Vampires Never Get Old makes little effort to reinvent the vampire genre from the ground up. In narrative terms, its stories generally hew close to convention – if not the conventions established by Stoker and Le Fanu in the nineteenth century, then the more recent conventions emerging from the post-Twilight YA vampire boom. Instead, it pushes to broaden the genre in terms of the passions and anxieties that can be symbolised by vampires and their associated paraphernalia: the emotions and concerns that vary sharply between cultures and subcultures. Throughout its length, the book constantly nudges the reader to contemplate what can be expected from their escapism – a worthy achievement for a young adult anthology occupying such a well-trodden genre.

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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