It’s possible that the fictional character Dracula as developed by Bram Stoker and epitomized by Bela Lugosi created such an archetypical boogyman that alternate interpretations of the blood-sucking undead tend not to be met with much success. Yet with the recent transformation of the undead from the traditional fiction of the zombie into the current brain-eating rage that is in all the movies and generating cute but boring knock-offs of some of the greatest novels of all time, the vampire now has enough space and time to change himself (herself, itself, theirselves).
Yes, let the zombies go bump in the night, rampage whole towns and shopping malls, but let the vampires be reborn. Many years ago I read Interview with a Vampire: it was good and brought a certain freshness to the subject that Hammer could never provide. But then Anne Rice got too enamored by blood and lace and half-way through the second volume I completely lost interest, never to read another Rice novel … never, ever, ever.
More recently Poppy Z. Brite has developed a strain of chartreuse sipping gourmet chef vampires in tight jeans, really tight jeans. So now we know that vampires can be as gay as any photography store owner in the Castro (bringing additional nuance to the term “suck”).
Now I come across Octavia E. Butler’s version of the vampire. Possibly arriving from outer space, Butler’s vampires feed on blood, preferably human blood, but they don’t kill their hosts. Much like certain religious sects, vampires keep a small family of donors around and prefer living in rural compounds with their own kind. Human blood is evidently a miracle elixir which prolongs life, but even after a few hundred years, these vampires die (and never enter the ranks of the undead). Along the way they also enjoy: enhanced senses, quick healing, boosted strength, but fall short of being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler is the author’s version of the vampire. I found that the
novel held off fatal boredom by starting with two mysteries that have to be worked out. The first is introduced at the beginning when the main character, who looks like a ten year old girl, wakes up in a cave, battered, burned, and maybe even gun-shot. Due to her amnesia, we get to discover more and more about her life in the first part of the book before the onset of tedium. Parallel with learning about this girl (who isn’t really as young as she looks) we also learn about vampires: in fact we learn about vampires right alongside the girl who is also learning about vampires.
But there’s another mystery: someone is killing the vampires, attacking their villages, shooting all the inhabitants, and burning the buildings and the bodies. Who?
Is it misguided vampire hunting? Or just mountain boys being mountain boys?
About half way through the novel all the parts are in place, all the questions raised, and I just didn’t care anymore. Was it the curse of Science Fiction? Vampire (and Zombie) overload? or just lack of engagement with the author’s narrative?
This is the second or third book I’ve read by Octavia E. Butler and I can see how she must appeal to many readers, especially readers of genre fiction, but I never found the spark and once again wrote a reminder on my frontal lobe that I didn’t need to read this author again in the future. Butler, who died ten years back, writes well, plots well, and is a pleasant author, but she just doesn’t stab and wound.
Maybe it’s just me?
One final note: the author, being African-American, subtly has her main character also be black. This brings up the one truly original element in the novel: since the young vampire has loads of melanin in her skin, she is better able to avoid the ravages of the day-time sun. No, Butler’s vampires do not burst into flames at the touch of a sunbeam … but they do get painful sunburns.