Things Unseen But Dreamed of:
An Interview with Steve Sneyd
by Catherine Mintz
Question: In your “You Can Hear But not See In the Mirror” the poem is told from the first person point of view of a vampire. “...laughed dry-leaf-rustle laugh ... and drink raw new or vintage old/red wine is wasted every pass of time.” What can you express by writing about the undead as opposed to werewolves, or serial killers — both of which have some of the aspects of vampires — or some other topic altogether?
Sneyd: In that particular poem I was interested in exploring how the gift of immortality would be responded to emotionally by the recipient — that at least initially the personality’s drive, in this case sibling rivalry, would persist unchanged. There would be exultation in the new status, but underneath the identity would continue with its warped competitiveness or whatever.
There’s a crude parallel with a really big lottery winner. Research here indicates it takes about a year to come to terms with the new situation, longer for some people, and that it can have an effect something like a bereavement. Deprived of almost the equivalent of a parent, a set of limitations on what they can do, and with it excuses for safely limiting their life, there is programming that is no longer relevant.
In a wider sense, with immortality being neither salvation nor eternal punishment, the vampire gets the potentially limitless time extension without the framework of traditional ideas of the afterlife, and without even the need to leave Earth, familiar scenes and settings. It is so much the “best of all worlds” that it’s fascinating to consider.
Even the downside, a diet of blood with the concomitant of having to dominate and hurt others, is, I suspect, at a subconscious level, a price that just about everyone would be willing to pay, particularly as you could convince yourself that you were really doing your victims a great favor, by recruiting them to the same blessed and exclusive club to which you yourself belonged.
There are overlaps with the werewolf myth. The vampire is seen as a were-creature of sorts, having the possibility of transformation to the liberation of the thought-free animal state of a bat — assuming, that is, that there is an unburdening of human consciousness during the metamorphosed period.
But I think, because werewolfdom is a much more limited gift — the werewolf isn’t seen as immortal, merely very hard to kill (and indeed, the vampire’s immortality is potentially limited by human agency, under precise conditions — the stake through the heart and so on — so the Venn Diagrams over lap there too) — it limits our imagination to the less absolute. In other words, we’re not testing, exploring, the possibilities of human nature generally, not looking at the potential adaptability within ourselves specifically, to such an illuminating extreme.
The serial killer is a figure of horrid fascination, and, again deep down, something I suspect all of us, at some level, imagine being, doing, whether or not we’d consciously admit it. But there the gift being given is final death, not immortal life. It’s turning fellow humans to objects, not to an arguably higher, more advanced, in some ways better adapted form of intelligent life — I think that’s where one difference lies.
The serial killer, alas, is human, period, and probably nowhere near as extreme a variant of humanity as we’d like to think — there’s a continuum from the soldier, through the terrorist, the ethnic cleansing bureaucrat, to the serial killer; vampire and werewolf differ in that they are human-plus in a very real sense; they have qualities traditionally attributed to the divine.
Question: The myth of vampires is an old one, but the basis of the popular culture image seems to be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is thoroughly rooted in the myth, legend, and history of Transylvania. For every person who has read the book there must be hundreds if not thousands who know the tale only from film, TV, and comic book retellings. Stoker’s story is a hundred years old and still going strong. What is it saying to us?
Sneyd: As you say, the idea of the dangerous undead — the returnees from beyond the grave — probably comes out of the very dawn of humanity. But taking your specific point, why the intensity of interest right through the last hundred years, I think on top of the general human reasons for gnawing at an idea that is half fearsome, half attractive, of those we’ve lost coming back among us to express their link with us in a bizarre and frightening way — Van Helsing in Stoker’s book talks about vampires focusing on those they loved in life as victims — there are particular reasons within the social, economic, technological onrush of change.
The Victorians were torn by the struggle between faith and science — Darwinism and so on disrupting certainties nearly two thousand years old — you see this over and over again in their poets, Browning, Hardy, Tennyson, and so on.
That conflict has never reached a settlement. There’s a weary truce in places, perhaps a leakage into science of faith-like phenomena in areas like quantum physics, parts of the established churches which try to reconcile with science, God as collective human projection, whatever, or in New Age faiths of Gaia the living planet ecosystem and so on, but basically that war of world views still goes on. In fact with fundamentalist trends in parts of Christianity and Islam it’s getting more intense.
When there’s that kind of ongoing schizophrenia in world-view, an either/or capable of offering an all-embracing credible framework for our lives, then we tend I think to analogize that conflict into a safer, more distanced form.
Van Helsing talks of the weapons against the vampire as being those of science. At the same time, part of the attraction of the vampire, ambiguous as it is, is that it is a product of faith — faith distorted, admittedly, if you like, a Heretical take on the Resurrection, but the vampire doesn’t need a transplant or bone-marrow replacement or a gene-splice to become one: it is a dark miracle.
We can unconsciously relieve or inner conflict as to what to believe, Faith or Science, by taking both sides safely in the Van Helsing/Dracula, to personalize in Stoker’s characters conflict — we can fly with the bat and hunt with the stake-wielders at the same time.
By identifying with both, we get a chance to off load, at least temporarily, anxieties bred of an un-reconciled inner split, one which runs right through all technically advanced societies, I think, hence the universal appeal — for example Hong Kong cinema with Chinese vampire kung fu tales!
You could widen beyond that in all sorts of directions — it’s often noted that the current vampire interest upsurge parallels the rise in the fear of AIDS, in the same way Stoker wrote at a time of widespread fear of syphilis cutting down the ostensibly respectable Victorians as the price of the hidden side of their sexual activities — the sex with its price death association is a potent part of the vampire myth.
There is a wider economic context, too — the way Victorian capitalism and today’s transnationals, vampirize the societies in which they operate, draining lives, negatively transfiguring the environments — has a metamorphic parallelism on a much vaster scale to the Dracular mode of operation — the foul soil he imports via Whitby to serve as a safe resting place for himself had analogies to the export of nuclear and other wastes to the Third World; but exploring these kinds of anxieties about how negative changes echo down into the domestic scale of Stoker’s story does open up a really big can of worms, so we will leave that point there.
Question: Why do we prefer the retold to the original version? “3 May. Bistritz. Left Munich at 8.35 on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46 but the train was an hour late—” is as low-key an opening as it is possible to imagine, a railway journey based on real time-tables. Most films start with the “It was a dark and stormy night—” part of the tale when Jonathan Harker is already approaching the count’s castle. A mistake or just an adaptation to faster-paced times?
Sneyd: This is a fascinating question. I don’t think that it’s just that we leave, instinctively, more leisurely forms of narrative to the leisured classes of Victorian times, that we want to cut straight to the chase, get by with the soundbite, cut out everything we can bar to cope with the information overload.
A lot of those who supply us with media entertainment clearly believe it’s how we expect to be fed now, but I think there’s evidence against — the way people are inputting huge masses of info onto the Net, the boom in sales of multi-decker fantasy novels full of lovingly detailed build-up and so on.
My wild guess, and I’ve no evidence for this bar a funny gut feeling, is that the Stoker approach makes the whole thing too real. Despite our fascination with Dracula, we don’t want to quite believe and Stoker makes that distancing very hard. His accretion of down-to-earth detail, his method, quotes from letters, diaries, an accreting mosaic of sources — surely they can’t all be crazy, hallucinating, lying, insists on suspension of disbelief, even to bizarrely credible detail.
Jonathan Harker his taken Kodak snaps of the house he’s purchased in England for the Count. The touch is extraordinary — yes, the book is set in the age of photography, but we think of Dracula as a medieval hangover — and makes us believe, beyond perhaps the point we want to be made to.
“Cut to the chase,” and we’re watching something that could never happen, a nightmare not a daymare as it were, because there’s been no contexting in the pedantically down to earth reality of rail time tables and the like. We don’t want Harker to produce his estate agent’s photo using the same camera that shows us the Count’s absence of mirror image, because that would frighten by the banality of evil as well as by conviction-of-reality building.
Question: The modern version of the vampire often a beautiful, immortal, even superior being to which the human race is but cattle. Your “T’New Lass Down ‘T’Millstone” takes an ambiguous, across-the-generation-gap point of view “reasons aplenty and dozens more/we’ll give why we shun t’Millstone’s door —/and niver tell how yon lass turned bat-thing’s whore” Indeed one reading of the poem would be that the girl is the victim of gossip rather than having had anything to do with real undead.
Sneyd: It is interesting that the vampire is so often presented as handsome if male, beautiful if female, and, as you say generally superior. It’s perhaps because at some level associated with the idea that such a great gift as immortality, whatever its price, should only go to the perfect, the finest examples of the species, at least visually — the reward of star quality, or sex appeal, as it were.
“To those who have shall be given,” and as members of the “natural ruling class” they alone are entitled. It may be these things are not exclusive, the idea that the most blessed should also be the most punished — the bad fairy at the christening of the princess, as it were — everything about the vampire is full of cognitive dissonance in our responses, and this would be a good example.
In more purely practical terms, our fantasies will expect a dream seducer to be elegantly dangerous, or beautiful and doomed, not dully ordinary and the media are going to feed this for box-office reasons. It flatters us to be selected as the victim of a superior being, because it reflects our own, sadly unrecognized by the ordinary world around us, superiority, is another way if putting it perhaps.
Yes, I would agree that the poem you refer to does leave the question of the truth of the matter wide open; it’s the response of non-eyewitnesses to a reported story. The “witness” could well have been lying to cover impotence in a situation, or some belittling post-coitus remark by the girl.
The “regulars” who desert the pub could have a series of motives — eager credulity because, for example, the young, attractively young barmaid disturbing, “stirring dull roots in spring rain,” in a situation where they are too far removed from her generationally to try to bring their fantasies to reality, and so seek a face-saving excuse to take their custom elsewhere.
In a wider sense, I’m perhaps looking at the way, on very little or no evidence, we demonize someone, turn difference into an excuse to exclude or dehumanize. The characters in the poem judge on minimal data, but “punish” solely by departure, boycotting. As the story spreads, after the poem ends, as it were, the barmaid might well be attacked physically by third-hand hearers, or driven from the area.
Yes, there is a deliberately deglamourizing element — that is one of the reasons, aside from trying to establish the speaker’s own attempt at self-conviction, is by telling the tale in a down-to-earth, forcibly factual way, he is trying to convince himself as much as his hearers that the decision to cut off contact with the girl is the right one.
It is also why I wrote it in an accurate echo of Yorkshire dialect speech, what’s called Tyke, which is still in use in both cities and countryside, although in different forms. At the back of the poem somewhere, too, is the question of the responsibility of those who transmit such stories, though that is very much a non-explicit subtext.
Question: The goth or gothic popular culture movements features everything from distinctive makeup and clothes to music and literature. Many of the participants do their best to look like vampires, pale skin, blood-red lips, even fangs. Why not something new for the new millennium? Or is this new wine in an old bottle that’s held other fears in other times?
Sneyd: This is one question where possible answers lead off in an enormous number of directions. There are a lot of goth little mags and zines here, and I’ve read some — even had poems in them — but I can’t really recall attempts to explore why the fashion is adopted, beyond aesthetic reasons — liking the music, a way of being different and so on — it’s taken as a given reality.
At one level, perhaps, it’s proudly adopting what your enemies say about you. If your parents say when you’re a teenager, you should get more sleep, all your healthy color’s gone, get more fresh air, whatever, one response is to go out of your way to look as unhealthy as possible, the rebellion thing. Then you find an image that iconizes that look, which is goth, and contexts it in the vampire/vampire victim/new vampire pattern, It’s a way of becoming part of a group, with all the glamour of the night, the forbidden, and so on.
But I’m sure there are a lot of other levels working there. The sex as a little death/big death link, the idea that women are “dangerous vessels,” which leads to, so, right, let’s look as dangerous as possible, be as tempting as possible to the “straights,” the respectables who’ll affect to despise us but really want us.
To go back to Stoker, Van Helsing confesses to temptation as he eliminates the three female vampires in Dracula’s castle chapel. There’s the association with empowerment through illness, victimhood — one of the few ways Victorian middle-class women could exercise real power was professional invalidism. It gave them control over their husband’s sexual demands, over the house generally in fact, with the brute man reduced to tiptoeing round.
I think the idea does echo in on things like anorexia, bulimia, and so on, a woman achieving power of a king through suffering: the vampire look is a pale, if you’ll excuse the pun, echo of all this — “treat me properly, I’m fragile, at the very door of death.”
There may be, deep down, be an after-ache of an old class thing. For a long time pallor in a woman was a sign of being in an economic situation where she didn’t need to go out in the sun, to work in the fields, or to do shopping, or whatever.
Also the pale look is starting to come back, as a paradoxical sign of being healthy, i.e. with the ozone hole sunbathing is becoming increasingly dangerous, skin cancer and so on, that perhaps is in there somewhere. The vampire as ultimate health fanatic, in a weird sort of way. Why risk throwing away the potential of everlasting life by risking going out in the sun when it’s potentially fatal for vampires, and now for ordinary Homo Sapiens, too?
I’m sure, as with all kinds of choices of fashion and image, which get deep into a person’s ideas of selfhood and of the sort of mask that needs to be presented to the world and to the self as seen — or in the vampire’s case, of course, not seen — in the mirror, that there are an enormous number of factors at play, or at work, simultaneously and a lot of the time probably self-contradictorily, but in an at least metastable enough way to suit the need, certainly in the goth case, of a lot of young people over, now, a long period of time.
Of course, to answer your other point, such almost archetypal images, which go right to the roots of all sorts of fears and needs, erotic and social and so on, are endlessly flexible in adapting to change around them in the world.
(1999, web exclusive)