Sunday, 30 October 2011

Vampires 101

Well here's my Hallowe'en contribution. I have a undying penchant for vampires, so here's where I'll indulge.  That is, vampires in literature and vampires in film, and long before they became popular in the public imagination.

In my opinion, vampires have an allure like no other fictional creation. In a word, they're cool. They're monsters for all intents and purposes, but they're not your usual kind of gooey claw-wielding monsters. They're beautiful, seductive, sexy, powerful and mysterious - the glammiest baddies ever. But they're also humanlike, incarnations of darkness just a step away from human nature. But I think why they're so popular is because of their ubiquitious natures.  They're not stapled ball-and-chain to the horror genre; infact, they easily transcend it into other genres such as romance, thriller, sci-fi, historical and allegorical.

See vampires are more than horror creations, they're metaphors. I was lucky enough to study a course on gothic fiction at college and came up close and personal with the figure of the vampire in literature. All the texts we studied had one thing in common: the metaphorical resonances. 

For example, did you know that Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' can be read as an allegory of the Irish/English political situation in the 19th century? Count Dracula being a personification of the English colonists sucking Ireland dry. Or vice-versa, the Count as a personification of the rebellious Irish, always a sore point for the English who found it difficult to quell rebel attacks (this is more obvious in 'Carmilla', a vampire short story by Irish writer of the time, Sheridan LeFanu). Also, Count Dracula not only represents fear of the foreign (the East) as noted by Jonathan Harker's superior notations of the country he travels to to meet the Count, but also fear of rampant and gluttonous materialism?  Count Dracula is a predatory land-owner, wealthy and powerful who comes to England to buy a new estate (and suck victims blood as a secondary pursuit - capitalism in its most rampant and figurative form).

Literary vampires were figures used to represent taboo  subjects of the day such as TB, Aids, (the blood symbolism), sex and war.  Many vampire narratives are set in times of war, an especially common one being the American Civil War. Seems supernatural narratives were popular in these times as a way of describing the indescribable reality of human depravity, the vampire being a convenient ghoulish figure to carry the weight of some of humanity's worst moments.

Vampires are the sexiest of the baddies  - after all, they deal in seduction and bloodlust. But did you know that this bloodlust represented sexuality back in the day when such an issue was a taboo subject? Sex and death, two taboo issues for Victorian society, and vampires were incarnations of both and how both were entwined. Vampires didn't attack their victims as per a normal violent ghoul, but seduced them on a romantic level. And blood drinking was akin to sexual intercourse.  The figure of the vampire back in the day was one of liberated sexuality. Vampirism was used to talk about sex, when sex wasn't allowed. And while there were mostly male vampires preying on women back in the day, today we have female vampires which  are the embodiment of sexual liberation (and feminism) - seductive creatures irrestible to their male victims - a vixen, a 'vamp' in other words, a femme fatale.

As well as representing  the obvious  good vs evil themes, vampire fiction also explores conflicting moral issues within vampire characters themselves, the stuff indeed, of what great literature is concerned with. For example, Anne Rice's iconic 'Interview with the Vampire' presents us with two very different vampire characters: Louis and Lestat; one good, one bad, one who struggles with his conscience, the other who  ignores it, the quintessential angel and devil on the shoulder, maybe even that great C19th debate of reason versus passion too.

Today vampire fictions have become especially adept at handling this moral aspect. The 'moral' vampire is a new construct and a pretty common one. Seems like you can't pick up a book or watch a show that doesn't have a repenting vamp, all tortured soul and wrecked with regret from centuries of blood-draining. This started with  Louis in Interview with the Vampire, found new notes in the brooding vampire Angel, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose spin-off series was based solely around his pursuit of redemption, and right on into the now infamous 'Twilight Saga'. Seems the figure of the vampire, a monster who is half human, half demon, is the perfect one to showcase this moral maelstrom.

Then there's the bad guys. The bad-ass kick-ass vamps. And it's true that the devil gets all the best lines when it comes these guys: they're all pros when it comes to the art of sarcasm and wit. "I can't help being a gorgeous fiend, it's just the card I drew... Rice's Lestat has to be top of this list, at turns vicious and vivacious, vain and arrogant and wittily dismissive of any morals: "Come on, say it again. I'm a perfect devil. Tell me how bad I am. It makes me feel so good!" played in the film to a fanged tee by Tom Cruise. He's obtained rock star cool staus within the vampire genre by now (as well as the books), proving that bad vamps make the ultimate cool baddie.

Running a close second has to be Damon Salvatore from new TV series The Vampire Diaries (my fave watch at the moment), who is deliciously  bad. Damon  enters the show as alter-ego to good brother Stefan,  a menacing figure dressed always in black, with piercing eyes and a merciless demeanour. He can go from a psychotic, bloodthirsty murderer to sullen and sorry, sharply sarcastic to heartbroken and deeply hurt all within a few seconds. His character is brilliantly complex with the eventual introduction of his human side, providing many emotional arcs to the storyline of the show. Ian Somerhalder is fantastic in the role (pictured). Yep, I'm a big fan of Damon and the like. The show is based on the series of books by young adult author L.J. Smith, who manages to explore all the potential we have for both good and evil and the precarious balance between both through this character, the vampire slant serving to heighten the fundamental message. 


Modern vampires have also come to represent the outsider's status in society, which has led invariably to vampires being equated with rebels. Vampires don't belong to the routines of society, they live beyond its rules and repressions, guided only by their bloodlust, which could be translated to a passion for living adventurously. Which could explain their popularity at the moment, especially with young adult readers who feel their individual personalities at odds with that of the collective. Vampire narratives elevate and celebrate the outsider's status, declaring it cool to be an individual who stands apart from the crowd.  

The classic 80s movie 'The Lost Boys' has made its way into the cult classic line-up of films mainly because of this. The social commentary plot sees the newcomers to town recruited into the local vampire coven, who are none other than the resident rebellious punks who stand outside of society's rules and regulations (characterised by their leather, piercings, tattoos, punk hair-do's, motor-bikes, delinquency etc). The movie celebrates the new teenage punk generation (it even has a punk rock soundtrack) who sleep all day and party all night,  effectively equating them with vampires and with the outsider rebel (rocker) status. Twilight also exudes this message somewhat; its vampires the Cullens, literally live on the edge of society and experience shunning and judgement from the townsfolk but don't seem to be bothered by it. Edward is regarded as a 'freak' by his peers at school, but remains unperturbed, as do we as readers/watchers. We know vampires are cool, so that fact trumps social exclusion issues. 

There's also the idea that vampires are representative of old traditional ideals and Romantic notions. In Anne Rice's short story, 'Master of Rampling Gate' the story revolves around a vampire trying to protect his home from being torn down and destroyed by the encroaching forces of modernity. The vampire is noble and honourable, old-fashioned and traditional and in complete contrast to the superficial preoccupations of the day. The narrator Julie is drawn towards him, as are we, and to all that he represents - the values of the past pitted against a vacuous future. Edward from Twilight is also quite an old-fashioned character: he reads,  writes, listens to classical music, upholds traditional views about marriage and chivalry and is morally upright, which may explain his popularity among readers - especially women! 

Vampires are appealing on many levels, but maybe mostly, because they exude power like no other supernatural character. Not just supernatural abilities (envious ones like mind control and immortality - what could be more powerful than the ability to outdo death?) but other more earthly kinds like wealth and status. Think of any vampire character in any book or film - they are always well-off powerful characters, their wealth accumulated mysteriously. They never have to want financially or materially. They are always well-educated too, extremely intelligent, even bookish (the thinking person's baddie of choice? Well, living for hundreds of years I suppose contributes to this). They enjoy high status in a community - Count Dracula was a Lord, Louis and Lestat, estate-owners. Vampires are not only powerful, they represent power as well, all kinds of it.
Think vampires are all about blood and gore, think again. Nowadays they've become more synonymous with forbidden love and romance than anything else. This is the whole premise of Twilight, the (inferior) vampire mythology coming second to the love story. This was previously and successfully explored in Buffy, where vampires took on the whole metaphorical weight of forbidden love with a love-story between a vampire and a vampire slayer. What could be more forbidden and heartbreaking than love between a vampire and a human?  Yet another example of fantasy literature being the perfect medium to delve deeper into a common theme. Teenage angst, lust and longing finds a perfect outlet in tales of forbidden love between vampires and humans, which explains why vampire fiction is the biggest selling Y/A genre at the moment. (Plus, it also appeals to all romantics out there, especially the tortured ones - myself included!)

Oh yeah, and another reason why I like vampires: they're not that scary. A must for me who swears against all horror films (yes, I'm that one behind the sofa with a cushion over my face while watching anything with a suspenseful score). Vampire fiction, when done right, causes us to ponder what it all could mean, not jump in fright. It throws up a whole array of themes and ideas through the mysterious and elusive figure of the vampire, who wanders these fictions 'cloaked in metaphor' - (the one quote I can remember from my winning essay on vampires as an undergrad...)

While I love the gothic escapism of a good vampire yarn, I love the underlying stories even more. I love the comment it makes on human nature in a very veiled and seductive way. It heightens emotions and truths and puts its message across in a way that will never get tired, never date, or diminish (or grow old.... maybe immortality is the chief lure of vampires...?)

Gosh, I  ramble! If you're still with me - you must be a vampire lover too! Let me know if I've left anything out - any themes, metaphors, films, books, characters....?? Would love to hear your responses and your views on the topic!

Happy Hallowe'en!

~ Siobhán.

Click to see a preview of: The Vampire Diaries Trailer

And instead of the usual creepy tunes, here's some spook-tastic ones that soundtracked this blog: (well, three spooky and one spine-tinglingly sad...)

Sleep Alone - Bat for Lashes
Enjoy the Silence  - Anberlin
Night Drive - Jimmy Eat World
Beauty of the Dark - Mads Langer

(And by popular demand, some more spooky tunes & videos: Red Right Hand - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds; People Are Strange - The Doors; Cold - The Cure; Lullaby - The Cure;  Translyvanian Concubine - Rasputina; Running Up That Hill - Placebo; Closer - Kings of Leon. That's all I can think of for now...! Any more  ideas let me know...)

Monday, 17 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

What a perfect way to spend a Sunday night.... humming along to whimsical French violin notes and swooning thoughts of Paris, á la 'Midnight in Paris', the new Woody Allen movie, which is utterly and deliciously delightful. 

Paris, I love. Je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'adore. And this movie is yet another love letter to the city from the kooky director, but also a swansong to art and its 1920s heyday in Paris, when the city was a mecca for all the great artists and writers and musicians, the creative thrumming hub of the world. 

'Midnight in Paris' is a quirky, comical and magical tale, almost bordering on the fairytale-esque.  The main character is Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter/wannabe novelist who is holidaying in Paris with his incompatible girlfriend. He is a nostalgic romantic who hankers back to periods like the 1920s when the golden age of Paris was in full swing. And  so, his nostalgia is indulged at midnight every night when he is transported back to the 1920s and gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Picasso, just like that. See, Paris is magic - winks the underlying theme, and anything can happen here, especially at night. In the realm of Paris, every dream and dreamer is embraced.

I'm not usually dying about Owen Wilson in films, but here he does an excellent job of an unassuming, stuttering, unsure-of-himself writer. Especially when he comes face-to-face with Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald and the likes! And giving his manuscript to Gertrude Stein to read, ha, priceless! He is endearingly comic. One funny moment is when he pays hommage to the French practice of mistresses, telling tour guide Carla Bruni, that the French are more highly 'evolved' than Americans when it comes to this taboo of love and romance. The encounter with Salvador Dali in a café with his comparison of Gil to a rhinocerous was crazily accurate and funny. And I can't help but be impressed with Gil's earnest love for the city and openness to the inspiration it offers.

And what really struck me about the time period was how easy it was to declare yourself a writer or an artist. You were welcomed with open arms into the burgeoning community indeed as Gil was. Paris was (and is) unique as a community for the arts; it revelled in art, embraced it, was committed to the pursuit of it, valued art above all other things. Art and everything that went with it: love and passion, truth and freedom and living life to the full, the essence of la joie de vivre.  

Artists and writers were the celebrities of the day in 1920s Paris, not seeking fame, but excellence in their own genre. Take Hemingway for example. He is portrayed in the movie true-to-form as an extremely intense and devoted writer. One piece of advice he doles out to Gil goes along the lines of not letting other writers read your work, because they'll hate it if it's bad, and they'll hate it even worse if it's better than their own. Writers are competitive. Point taken like a bullet!

Paris of course, is the film's main star, spinning scenes into  wonder-filled whimsy. What the film does is capture that 'je ne sais quoi' element of Paris that is so hard to describe in words. The opening montage offers a luxuriously long take of Paris in all its glimpses: Eiffel tower with trees in foreground, sidewalk cafes with red brassieres, and black-tie waiters, cobblestones, rain lashing on streets, the lanterns, the steps of Montmartre, the many bridges,  the magnolia banks of the Seine, the Eiffel tower with twinkling lights at night. 

One of my favourite moments in the film is when Gil tries to describe the allure of Paris - how the fact of its very existence makes him happy, that everywhere in it is somehow a piece of art, a scene and a story, a poem and a painting. (See clip below).  And it's not as if he's star-struck, it's real, this love and awe for Paris. It gets in the heart like no other city, no other place. Especially if you're a creative person, and for most it's love at first sight, first visit, first postcard reverie, first black-and-white picture, first midnight musing.

At the beginning of the film, Gil dreams of living in Paris, which is deemed a 'fantasy' by his oh-so-down-to-earth-and-practical girlfriend, but becomes a reality at the end by way of magic and mischief and musing, and a realisation that although there are some people who live in reality and some people who live in dreams, there are also some people who turn one into another, and in Paris, this is exactly the thing to do. And art, art is a catalyst in this change. As Gertrude Stein comments to Gil who is beginning to despair about his 'perplexing' situation and the rewriting of his novel - 'artists don't despair, their purpose is to find the antidote to the emptiness of existence.' And this is what Gil is in the pursuit of and does, and what Woody Allen has done with this film.

And you would think it, but 'Midnight in Paris' doesn't require a suspension of disbelief, it was in its own right, believable. As well as being heartwarmingly humorous, endearing and witty, this offbeat and upbeat film will delight and inspire too. When the clock strikes midnight, who knows where you'll end up (in your head of course, but better still, in your heart....and what better place to be than in Paris???)

~ Siobhán.

*And if you like this movie and the 1920s era - you'll love Ernest Hemingway's memoir of the time in his book  'A Moveable Feast.'

'Midnight in Paris' Clip

 Movie trailer

Monday, 10 October 2011

Word Up: Blocks, Jolts, and the Big Blue

And now a sort of cheat post. I know I should be posting more regularly, but what's that they say about the best-laid plans and all....never work out do they? So here I go  - no plans, just some dive-in ad-libbing. Brought about by a finger-tapping frenzy to get writing something!!  (You got it - block is back -boo-hoo!)

The urge to write has been buzzing around me for days now, like an annoying turbo-powered blue bottle. But now finally I'm swatting it! Here's how:

Admitting the problem: I find that I seem to be doing what the bible of writing proclaims you should NEVER do: sit around waiting for inspiration. Well, not technically.  Not necessarily sitting, just waiting. Waiting for the right frame of mind to write, the right idea to burst into a bright bulb above my head, waiting for the right time.  And I know what they say: inspiration doesn't come to you, you've got to go out and chase it down with a club, writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and all that, but... I know, I know! (Knuckles rapped already.) But see here's the thing -

Knowing the cause: Ideas do come to me at the strangest times. Like the other night when I was washing my face, right there, in mid-splash, something hit me out of the blue (and I am so intrigued by this blue - where and what is it exactly? The blue-sky space I talked about before? Infinity's ink well? Imagination's unending ocean? Inspiration manifested in cerulean swirling electricity?) Well, there it was, a line, a bolt from the blue, and these bolts, I've come to recognise them as otherwordly. Creatively ethereal. And good. Exceptionally good. So good it's hard to equal them with long-staring ordinary labour at a computer screen, when each word comes at a sweat and a struggle. These 'floaters'  from somewhere in the Big Blue, are like a heaven-sent typescript. They can either open up a whole piece of work, be the missing piece of the puzzle that just makes the whole thing perfect, or a flash of an idea, an aha kickstart to a whole new writing project, be it poem or prose, feature or blog, or nicely-nuanced new notebook scribble.

Problem: And I'm so thankful for these little wonders, I rejoice in them. But problem is they don't come all the time. Just now and then. Just as the voiceover goes: when you least expect it. And let me repeat, that's not all the time, unfortunately. And so, in the absence of these electrifying blue jolts, it's very easy to fall into a fallow writing field, a blocked binge. You feel your own mundane words don't live up to the jizz of the jolts, won't capture the fizzing excitement of them.

Consequences: This is when block can set in (I have duly noted and experienced), like gangrene, eating away at imagination and all your best-laid plans and ideas. Your own words seem like stick-men scrawls now, useless gibberish, and the block, personified as a huge grey cloud-type monster, smothers you with its doubt and almost finishes you off.

Rescue: Until it happens again that is. Another little zing from the well. Another blue stab of inspiration, firing you up, setting your mind racing again with ideas. An electric resuscitation, just like in hospital ER rooms. Suddenly, asystole, back beating and breathing! 

Ongoing Solution (Hurray!): But here. Let me share with you some kind of daily miracle-enhancer. A tool to administer this first-aid when there's no cosmic defibrillator around: It's simple. You're given a word and a minute and you write. Block unexplainedly disappears in this kind of pulse-thumping setting. You write for the buzz of it, the electricity flowing back into your fingers. I don't know why or how exactly, but it really does work!

And now, in a 'heres-some-I-made earlier' gesture, here's some one word renditions I made earlier. In times of great blank block I might add, a saving proof of ability.  Infact, just a few moments ago, I was sober-stoned-silent, my mind a mute blank , words a sanskrit I couldn't read. Now, one one word, later, I'm back in blog business! It's a key I tell you, a key that unlocks all those shut doors.

So next time you find yourself staring at a blank screen, a blank page and whiling away the minutes with worry and doubt - get active word-wise instead and slay that beast of block. Go to one-word and write, for fun, for a kick-start, for an electric blue jolt. 

(Now, to put this damn buzzing blue-bottle out; no metaphor intended, this is real! This bedamned blue-bottle gave me my metaphor at the beginning, but the stupid thing keeps flying against the glass of the window now, unable to get out (in the words of Emily Dickinson - 'with blue, uncertain, stumbling Buzz')  I feel kind of sorry for it - myself well-acquainted with this kind of action against  brick walls. Not anymore though, well for the time being, anyway. To  freewriting and the infinity of beyond!)

Beating the block!

~ Siobhán.

- Some I made earlier: -

Suppose I knew you. And you knew me. A pursed lip wondering, a surmising. Brain blowing bubbles of maybes that burst leaving water-stains of tears. Suppose that we’d met before now. Long ago. BC: before complications. Suppose love was easy. Suppose that love is easy. Suppose that we admitted this. I blow a pink chewing-gum bubble and it bursts. You daydream a bright bulb idea and it breaks. Suppose we stop supposing and try it out.

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon. Crouching is not hiding; it’s waiting, whiling time, waiting to pounce on the right moment, the right possibility, the right prey. It’s a comfortable and crafty patience. Muscles bent ready to spring into action. Crouching is being ready.

Missed out. Missed the boat. Missed like a missile pinned to an ed wall of obstacles, and me in between. Missed like a ghost wearing a white sheet. Missed like almost rhyming with kiss, or ill-ness. 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

National Poetry Day!

from the film 'Dead Poets Society'

Today is All-Ireland National Poetry Day, hurray! Or as I like to call it - National Read-a-Poem Day. To appreciate, celebrate and relish poetry.

And before all you non-poetry-lovers out there scoff and squirm and bah-humbug me, just hear me out, quickly!

Reading a poem a day is like popping a vitamin for the soul. Yes, I've used this soundbite before but I'll say it again! Poetry is not some pompous pedestal of literature, but more a bouquet of life in bloom, for everyone, about everything. It's anything but pedantic. It's powerful. It could change your life. (If read on a continuous basis, most definitely. At an once-off, it might just change your viewpoint a little; open a window in your mind into a meadow of beautiful meaning.) 

Today is for celebrating poetry. Poetry reminds us of who we really are. It reminds us of what's important in this life. It stills time and quiets all the rabble-dabble-scrabble static of day-to-day detritus. It sieves through the mud of days and finds the gold beneath, presents to us the treasure in our midst. An alchemy that changes ordinary into extraordinary through the sparking flints of words. 

Open your mind to some poems today. And if your mind won't open (some are confusing I admit, but just like any puzzle, therein lies the fun!) - open your heart instead. Let the warmth and wisdom of the words flow into your heart and make life glow all a-glitter-and-golden with wonder for a short moment in time.

Give poetry a moment of your time today and it will give you so much more in return. You could start by reading below, or better yet, get yourself along to one of the many free poetry readings around the country today. At the very least it makes a change from the usual slog; it might just end up flipping the entire usual slog stuff into unusual and unique and something to whole-heartedly embrace.  

Go. Read, listen, enjoy!

poetry PR gal,

~ Siobhán.

First, for those of you afraid of a poem, don't be! Let go of worries and just let the poem say what it wants to say:

'Introduction to Poetry' - Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

And for us poetry lovers, the sheer delight of reading poems:

'Eating Poetry' - Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. 
There is no happiness like mine. 
I have been eating poetry. 

The librarian does not believe what she sees. 
Her eyes are sad 
and she walks with her hands in her dress. 

The poems are gone. 
The light is dim. 
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up. 

Their eyeballs roll, 
their blond legs burn like brush. 
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep. 
She does not understand. 
When I get on my knees and lick her hand, 
she screams. 

I am a new man. 
I snarl at her and bark. 
I romp with joy in the bookish dark. 

And lastly, the master craftsman of poetry, our Nobel Prizewinner, Seamus Heaney. Here, in one of my favourite of his poems, he explains what exactly poetry is capable of doing:

'Postscript' - Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.