The 19th century’s most infamous party-girl is undead and on the loose in the Big Apple.
When 23 year-old Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis succumbed to consumption in 1847, Charles Dickens showed up for the funeral and reported the city mourned as though Joan of Arc had fallen. Marie was not only a celebrity in in her own right, but her list of lovers included Franz Liszt – the first international music superstar, and Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the creator of The Three Musketeers. Dumas fils wrote the novel The Lady of the Camellias based on their time together. The book became a play, and the play became the opera La Traviata. Later came the film versions, and the legend never died.
But what if when offered the chance for eternal life and youth, Marie grabbed it, even when the price was the regular death of mortals at her lovely hand?
In 2014, Marie wonders if perhaps nearly two centuries of murder, mayhem, and debauchery is enough, especially when she falls hard for a rising star she believes may be the reincarnation of the only man she ever truly loved. But is it too late for her to change? Can a soul be redeemed like a diamond necklace in hock? And even if it can, have men evolved since the 1800′s? Or does a girl’s past still mark her?
Blood Diva is a sometimes humorous, often dark and erotic look at sex, celebrity, love, death, destiny, and the arts of both self-invention and seduction. It’s a story that asks a simple question – Can a one hundred ninety year-old demimondaine find happiness in 21st century Brooklyn without regular infusions of fresh blood?
Vamps NOT Like Us
Somewhere in my virtual travels I came across feedback another author had gotten on her as yet unpublished vampire novel. The story involved a not so youthful, somewhat hefty, lady-vampire, who was also a mom. The reader loved the idea of a vamp with whom she could identify.
I get it. Some readers like characters who are “like” them. They love, especially in escapist fiction, to imagine themselves in the place of the protagonist. It’s why so many young girls took Bella into their hearts while older women looked at Twilight and shook their heads.
Certainly, Fifty Shades owes some of its popularity to the blandness of its characters. Anastasia is generic virginal 20-something girl-woman in love with a handsome mysterious stranger. Kink is a gimmick. It’s the romantic formula that sells, and the way a reader can imagine herself as Ana. Will she tame the wild beast and win his heart?
There is something to be said for this approach. It’s been popular a very long time. Jane Austen was writing for well-brought up young ladies like her, who hoped to marry both well AND for love. Her audience understood the pitfalls and perils that her heroines faced. They liked Elizabeth Bennett because they wanted to believe they were Elizabeth Bennett.
Vamps – as in female vampires – don’t have to be just like us. We might secretly wish to be like them or to be them for a weekend, or a few hundred years, but that’s because they get to do things we wouldn’t do even if we could. We get to revel in their badness as we read. We get to vicariously enjoy their transgressive natures. They walk by night and the night is a filled with debauchery and mayhem. They aren’t good mothers. They aren’t mothers at all except maybe to other vampires they sire, and that may be an incestuous relationship. If they’re constantly feeling guilty about their urges, or not feeling those urges at all, if they can survive on animal blood or bottles from the blood bank — then we’d all be clamoring for immortality. Sunshine wouldn’t be too much to give up for eons of youth and beauty, would it? Eternal damnation however, that’s something else. We really wouldn’t choose that? Would we?
Who was the first female vamp? Hard to say, but a case could be made for the mythical Lilith (not to be confused with the True Blood version). She has been credited with walking by night, leading men to their doom, and stealing children. Rumor has it, she was Adam’s first mate, but got kicked out of the garden and Genesis because she liked to be on top.
In terms of the literary predecessors of modern day vamps, the first was Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. (Seen in the first illustration on this post.) Carmilla is a mysterious young woman who shows up and becomes friends with the sweet and innocent Laura, but Carmilla isn’t like Laura. She sleeps late, loves the night, disdains religion, and oh yeah, wants to be more than friends. She’s Laura’s dark twin, but Laura is the one with whom we are meant to identify.
Twenty-five years later, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker is attacked by the title character’s debauched “brides.” When Lucy goes vamp she takes children, and the fears around Mina involve her chastity as much as her life.
Until very modern times, sex had deadly consequences for women – most of the time. Even sanctified unions led to childbirth, which was a dangerous endeavor. Avoiding childbirth involved its own dangers. In Europe, venereal diseases were rampant and men often brought “the harlot’s curse” into the marriage bed, but vamps can’t get pregnant and they don’t get sick. They can do as they please, and are by nature lustful. They not only weren’t mothers, they stole other women’s children. And their sexual appetites never seem limited to any particular gender. By the old standards, they were bad girls.
Hence the term, “vamps” became popular to describe not just literal blood-sucking creatures of the night, but all femmes fatales who led men to their doom and didn’t play by the good girl rules.
Women might identify with them or with some aspects of these characters, but they didn’t have to be like them.
Being mortal, however, these non-vampire-vamps often suffered consequences. In the 1929 silent film, Pandora’s Box, the free-spirited and sexually liberated, Lulu – destitute in London – is killed by non-other then Jack the Ripper. After films became more censored in the 1930s, the bad girls always had to reform or die — often both. In the 1936 film, Dracula’s Daughter, the conventional morality is grafted onto a vampire story. The infamous count’s vamp offspring is a tortured soul, trying to be good and failing, again and again. Finally, she’s put out of her miserable existence.
But, if in modern times anything goes (except the blood-sucking and killing part), then what do we get out of vampires – especially the female ones? Male vampires have become romantic heroes – men to be tamed by the love of a good woman, men who must always fight their salvage natures.
So many post-Anne Rice-vamps have been humanized, almost defanged, or metaphorically castrated. Most stories in the Twilight mode involve vampires who fight against their baser instincts and survive on other-than-human blood or get their human blood without the killing. The metaphor is not about living a libertine life, outside the normal boundaries set by society, but instead it’s about control and suppression, which become equated with virtue.
Part of what I wanted to do in writing Blood Diva was to get back to basics. The vampires of Blood Diva call themselves “divos” (gods), and imagine themselves to be above humanity. Mortals exist to sustain and amuse them. They need fresh human blood and have no qualms about taking what they need.
Is it risky to have a main character who does very bad things? Maybe not. Dexter kills and lies and he’s pretty popular. Hannibal Lector is a hero to some folks. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy still exists though the lines are blurrier. We may not
be Victorians drawn to the wanton sexuality of vamps and their ability to completely ignore propriety, but we are not so different from them. We still have to contend with and contain the beast within – our own desire to kill, to devour, to lie and cheat. Readers don’t have to love my heroine, but I hope they will enjoy being inside her head – and maybe secretly wish they could be her – at least for a crazy weekend or two.
(This post was originally published in a slightly different form on the Blood Diva website which you are welcome to check out.)
Excerpt from Blood Diva by V.M. Gautier
Her bathroom was en-suite, but could be accessed through a second door from the living room. Rosa, who came in the mornings to clean, routinely filled the bath. There was a timed heater that kept the water warm. Alphonsine slipped into the oversized tub.
She dove under the bubbles. While her kind needed to breathe, they could control respiration and stay under for hours. She enjoyed soaking this way in very hot water, allowing herself to think and dream. Her morning kill had been so unusual, so exciting, she wanted to relive every detail.
She hadn’t been planning to feed that night, though it had been almost four weeks. She could go five, even six in a pinch, but after that long she felt so fatigued it was hard to distinguish day from night. Pierre and she were planning to get out of town to feast together. He often chided her for her recklessness, pointing out it was not like the old days. Trains, planes, and automobiles made it easy to place distance between oneself and one’s prey. No reason to kill where one lived, but sometimes, one couldn’t help oneself.
She had left the party feeling a particular restlessness. At first believing sex alone might be enough to stave off the hunger, her plan had been to head downtown or back to Brooklyn to find some pretty thing to hook up with. Then she caught a scent, felt something unique was waiting. Violent images flooded her mind as she entered the bar. It was coming into focus – a mortal who killed, not in war, but for fun. While her telepathic powers were weak – she was after all still quite young, she could sense emotions, especially strong ones, and he had been a seething caldron of barely suppressed rage.
Under the warm water, she could still taste it on her tongue, his blood, his essence – all of that delicious hate, and yet in the intimacy of the death-grip, she felt more, his humanity, as though they both were spiraling backwards in time to a moment when even he was innocent.
She’d given him peace. It had been a good death for him. True, she had frightened him when she jumped out. They said in the best hunts the prey never suspected, never felt a moment of unease, but allowances had to be made. After all, he believed he had killed her. She couldn’t let him go to his grave thinking that. Blood was more than nourishment. It was a sacrament. Some said the blood itself contained the very soul. She doubted such a thing existed. She only knew it had something – a power, a magic like nothing else. Strange how easily satisfied beings like her were, hardly the monsters depicted in myth. As pleasurable as it might be to hunt and feast every night, like the noble lion, they only did so when hungry.
No two people tasted the same – not father and son, nor brother and sister, not even twins. This she knew from her own experience. Children’s blood had a sweetness like the candied grapes young men once brought her as tokens between acts at the opera. There was a freshness to young blood, like apples picked in the summer at a perfect moment of ripeness. Teenaged girls tasted of secrets, and boys of lust. Women, pretty ones, whose hearts had been broken had a certain tenderness and resignation, especially if you came to them when their looks were fading, and there wasn’t much hope. There were men who had an edge like a wine with a bitter after taste, while others were warm and smooth. The old, whom she wasn’t fond of, tasted of sadness, disappointment, and defeat, though they would certainly do when convenient. Human blood, like the human voice, had different timbres. Some had the richness and depth of a bass-baritone while others were light but agile like a coloratura soprano.
A killer, however, especially one who dispatched his own so remorselessly, this was a rare treat indeed. The essence would hold within it all whom he had taken. For her to act so boldly, to take so many chances to have him, was a risk, but what would be the point of immortality without gambles? And she had always loved games of chance.
When she walked in and saw him, saw those thick arms, the sandy hair, could already feel what it would be like to fuck him, to take him perhaps when he was inside her, she knew she had to go through with it. The combination of lust and hunger made her almost giddy, barely able to contain herself.
Still immersed, Alphonsine began to touch her thighs, working up to her pussy, replaying the night.
As soon as she sat down at the bar it became clear he had picked her, imagined her as his next victim. It was too delicious! A chance for play-acting. Something different and rough.
Alphonsine lifted her head above the water, feeling the urge to breathe. Her breaths became quick as she felt her release, the first taste of his blood a vivid memory. Her kind not only felt everything more strongly than mortals, but could recall in full sensory detail.
It had been everything she hoped. Feeling him draining, feeling his life force leaving his body, merging into hers. That final beat of his cruel heart. A rush of something – all his anger, perhaps? It overwhelmed her for a second and then was gone. And he had looked so tranquil – transformed by death – beyond the desire to hurt and kill, beyond it all, finally at rest – a gift she had bestowed on him.
She had closed his eyes, and kissed him once softly on the lips before beginning the task of clean up.
The act of remembering left her not hungry for more blood, but still