Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Price of Eternity

Next week I'm going to Orlando for the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I'll be leading a panel on vampires and other immortals. Here are some of the thoughts I've noted down for my part of the discussion:

In contemporary fiction, most authors who write about vampires tend to emphasize the vampire's status as an immortal rather than as a walking dead creature. Traditionally, immortality always has a price. The Struldbrugs in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, although undying, age normally and are declared legally dead at the age of eighty. The ogre or sorcerer of folklore who ensures his invulnerability to death by removing his heart from his body and concealing it in some inaccessible location becomes, in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, whose fear of death drives him to split his soul into seven pieces. Each fragment that is removed diminishes his humanity. The soulless quality of traditional vampires is symbolized by their inability to cast a reflection in a mirror. In the TV series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, an essential component of vampirism is the replacement of the human soul by a demon. Angel and Spike, exceptions to the norm, have had their souls magically restored. The series never makes it clear exactly how the soul is defined; overall, it seems to be approximately equivalent to the conscience. Angel reveals in one episode that the return of his soul doesn't eject the vampire demon; both coexist within him.

Much vampire fiction portrays the price of immortality as loneliness and alienation from the surrounding flow of humanity. Immortals in the HIGHLANDER series suffer a similar fate. HIGHLANDER Immortals also share with many fictional vampires the inability to beget or bear children. Since Immortals drain each other's power through the "quickening" by cutting off the rival's head, they can be regarded as energy vampires who prey on their own kind rather than on ordinary people. The short-lived TV series AMSTERDAM, in which the protagonist receives immortality from a Native American woman as a reward, yet the condition seems more like a curse since it can be ended by true love, felt to me like "HIGHLANDER lite."

Peter Pan possesses immortality because he never grows up, but he is explicitly described as heartless. As a symptom of this condition, he readily forgets about people after a prolonged separation. Although he treats Wendy as an exception, Peter shows his tenuous grasp on both memory and the passage of time by mistaking her daughter for her. The price of his eternal childhood seems to be the loss of part of his humanity. The eternal child appears in vampire fiction as Claudia in Anne Rice's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE; she is so changelessly frozen that her hair grows back to its length at her "death" hours after she cuts it. And of course the film LOST BOYS directly alludes to Peter Pan. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain retains all the scars he acquired as a living man, but he can never acquire new ones; all wounds heal without a trace, demonstrating the unchanging nature of vampire “life.”

Some fictional immortals achieve that condition, not by preserving their physical bodies, but by transmigration of the soul or personality into a new body whenever the old one becomes damaged or worn out, for example, the wizard in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep." An evil sorcerer using that strategy appears as the villain in a fantasy series by Mercedes Lackey. A similar premise appears in a series by Octavia Butler. This kind of immortality, going back at least to the psychic vampirism of the title character in Poe's "Ligeia," is almost inevitably framed as evil.

Since the 1970s, many authors have shown transformation into a vampire as a positive change instead of an accursed fate. LOST BOYS, for example, invites, "Sleep all day, party all night, and never get old." Vampire romances, however, constitute the subgenre that most frequently represents the human lover's change into a vampire as a happy ending (those that don't take the opposite route and "cure" the vampire by restoring his mortality). Is this trend connected to the secular nature of our culture? Do such authors assume that most readers no longer regard the loss of one's soul as a fate to fear? Or, if they directly address the question, do they deny that becoming a vampire necessarily entails soullessness? In either of these cases, can we now have immortality without a price? If you were offered physical immortality as an ordinary human being in the prime of life and health (immortality without tangible disadvantages), would you accept? One of the few authors who presents this situation as mostly a Good Thing is Robert Heinlein in the Lazarus Long novels, and even Lazarus gets tired of life at the beginning of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. If you were offered unending existence as a vampire, with at least some of the traditional limitations, would you accept?

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. "Or, if they directly address the question, do they deny that becoming a vampire necessarily entails soullessness?"

    I think the more recent vampire romances have diverged widely from traditional vampire lore and virtually abandoned the spiritual aspects. The garlic, mirror, and holy water elements are sporadically used. In the vampire romances I've read, vampires are often treated as another species and are mostly secular; though I have read books where they're specifically characterized as "one of God's creatures." It probably does have a lot to do with society's secularization; but also if you want to have a vampire hero, he can hardly be soulless so that probably has a lot to do with it. Nowadays the price for vampirism is usually loneliness because friends and relatives die, the ickiness of drinking blood and preying on humans, and loss of the sun.

  2. Margaret, having traveled a large portion of the period alloted to me on this earth, I have come to the conclusion that immortatity is something craved only by the young and immature. In the summer of one's life, without a bucketful of experience and with parents to solve all difficulties, the idea of living forever with no responsibility or consequences is attractive. However, as autum aproaches, and one sees the world changing into something that is no longer recognizable as being good, immortality in that changing world becomes problematic. The older one gets, the more important love and friendship become to existence. When there is no one left to share love and friendship with, what is the point? My father outlived all of his contemporaries. It was family love which sustained him, and his love which sustained us. Immortaity gets old.

  3. This is probably too late for your conference purposes, but I saw this interesting comment in a discussion at Dear Author.

    "A writer friend of mine had a copyeditor who kept complaining that one couldn’t keep a vampire in prison because it would just “turn into a bat and fly away through the bars.” Not all vampires in vampire books turn into bats. Some don’t even stay away from sunlight (a’la Twilight). Playing with the “rules” of particular paranormal creatures is often what informs the most fascinating speculative fiction. There was even a vampire book a few years ago that posited that vampire’s traditional fear of crosses was actually a biological reaction of an infected person’s brain chemistry to right angles, and thus vampires (infected individuals) had to live in all round houses."

    It's comment #16 by Diana Peterfreund at

  4. "There was even a vampire book a few years ago that posited that vampire’s traditional fear of crosses was actually a biological reaction of an infected person’s brain chemistry to right angles, and thus vampires (infected individuals) had to live in all round houses"

    Yes, I remember that; very ingenious.