Saturday, September 11, 2010

Baddeley, Vampire Lovers (2010)

Gavin Baddeley, Vampire Lovers: Screen's Seductive Creatures of the Night. Plexus Publishing Ltd, 2010. Pp. 192. ISBN 9780859654500. £14.99/$19.95.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Gavin Baddeley is a new writer to me. There appear to be no formal academic credentials attached to his previous oeuvre, but there is a list of cheerfully robust gothic titles to his name: novels, examinations of lurid episodes in history (‘Devils Histories’ series), ‘guides to’ themes of gothic subculture and a profile of Marilyn Manson. Baddeley is vaunted as an ordained Priest in the Church of Satan and journalist, with Kerrang! Magazine dubbing him 'King Goth' and The Journal of Popular Culture naming him as 'the patron saint of Gothic journalism' (quotes from author’s blurb on Amazon). His books are widely promoted through multiple sites that link back to commercial giant Amazon, establishing pop-culture appeal. I approached Vampire Lovers as a newcomer to his work; expectations based more on the saturation of vampire-themed books on the market, and wondering how Baddeley could make his stand out.

The press release and the forward make no bones about the thrust of the book, which rides on the popularity of the Twilight films and the resurgence of interest in things vampiric, the implication being the glossier the better. The Cullen character is heavily emphasised in both press release and back-of-cover blurb to sell an idea of gorgeousness, the descriptive, alliterative hyperbole (‘delectably darkened’, ‘heady history’) linguistically racking up the point that this is all about the visceral. If there was any final doubt, it is swiftly quelled by the title of the book and the image of pouting, blood-dripped lips on the cover.

The first line of the introduction is not coy about the textual intention: “vampirism is about sex.” Of all the angles and multiple readings that Baddeley nods to in passing during the course of the book, he’s chosen his focus and sticks to it. For this assumption of one clear theme we can thank him: this will not be a morass of confused signals and tangled inter-textual readings flapping from an alienating post-modernist pitch. With only the briefest explanatory sketch over Nineteenth Century romantic poetry as the explanation and forerunner of the change from vampire-as-beastie into vampire-as-sexy, the forward provides the best place to determine Baddeley’s stated goals. A second clear point is his determination to stick to vampires on screen; initially cinematic, but with the inclusion of some of the more popular recent televisual incarnations as well. This can’t but help his saleability to the casual gothic romance fan, as well as showing his commitment to an up-to-date concurrence with trends in vampire depiction.

He does not linger on the choice of medium—the visual, the immediate—but since vampire literature has a long history of the lurid and descriptive, and the visual is very important in delineating vampires as overtly sexual predators. Baddeley signals Bela Lugosi’s evening-clad model of Hollywood cinematic respectability that for Baddeley truly signalled the start of the vampire as recognisably human, and the otherness of Lugosi’s foreign accent and laser-like eyes that kick-started the vampire-as-sexual-predator themes for filmed production.

His intended goals, taken from the forward, are to “trac[e] origins of the species through a succession of profiles,” including those that are, by his own description, popular, cultish, weird, wonderful and handled by ‘maverick’ directors. This is not heavy academic fare, nor entirely lighter-than-air frippery, with as much cross-cultural appeal to mainstream teenage ‘Twilighters’ as to more hard-core vampire fans who would throw up their capes in horror at the exclusion of firm foundational favourites as Lugosi, Lee and Oldman—a modern contender for ‘best ever Dracula’ according to Baddeley. Specifically, Baddeley is trying to “pin down just what makes each individual vampire unique in their appeal” and the biggest point for review is whether he has succeeded in doing this.

To be entirely fair, he has. His profiles—a clever, clean sectioning of the various vampires into individual case studies—present a healthily-paced skip through the annals of screen vampires. He holds back on developing too many deep, esoteric themes and is also light on hammering home his own opinion and too much inter-textual debate on the connections of this type of vampire to this thematic subject, and thus dispenses with two of the biggest markers of studiously academic writing that would turn off a greater number of readers reeled in by his glossy promises of Cullen-tastic and similar goodies.

This light tone, while remaining for the most part overarching and presentational, means that the greater amount of decision-making over the ‘uniqueness’ of the vampire in question remains in the mind of his reader. The style invites inclusion, engagement with the ideas presented, and perhaps the starting point for some cheerful debate on whether those involved got it right or wrong. Baddeley makes liberal use of quotation from actors playing the role and the thoughts of directors striving to achieve a vision and type, a tidy way of presenting ‘from the horse’s mouth’.

Vampires have become such easily accessible and thus personalised and internalised metaphors for a great number of themes over time (just try scratching the surface of ‘academic’ vampiric writing—there’s a sea of the stuff out there); they have become very personal monsters in the eyes of readers and viewers. The amount of spats over differences of opinion on any message board devoted to Buffy or True Blood or Twilight only underscores the internalisation of vampires by the responsive public at large (witness the playful ‘Team Jacob’ and ‘Team Edward’ separation of Twilight fans, encouraged by movie memorabilia displaying such affiliations; a neat trick by the publicity department feeding into fan-inspired side-taking).

Baddeley does avow, buried within the forward, that he chose vampires that “signalled a new direction in the evolution of the archetype of vampire lover”, but does not specify exactly what that archetype is. The intention appears to be that the book as a whole is showcasing multiple facets of this stated literary-critical tool. He does spend a paragraph on what it could not be: raising the concern already current in the vampire fanbase over the humanising and domestication of vampires by making them more lover-like, and thus more socially ‘acceptable’. The bad boy is becoming the easiest character on which to pin themes of trouble, difference, deviancy, and yet remains a naughty pleasure, a thrill to enjoy, and ultimately to redeem. He also suggests a reflective element of vampire as archetype, repeating a much-used standby theory for why the human-looking vampire, as opposed to creature-feature werewolf, mummy and decaying zombie, is accepted as being a metaphor for intimate human taboos. For Baddeley, the humanly-faced vampire lifts “the lid on our culture’s creepiest fantasy figures… perhaps [we can] glimpse a few of the darker secrets of our own sexual identities.” In academic terms; the vampire is a sort of fictional masturbation, done under the covers and in the dark. Vampires become a sexual toy to play with, an activity ratified by claiming them as a versatile sounding-board for such explorations.

The book, then, follows a tradition of vampire writings on allowing, nay, expecting, the reader to provide their own response and can be counted a success in provoking such thoughts (even if it is only “they are so not right about that!”), and leading the reader into doing half of the author’s job in eliciting feedback to presented stimuli. Such books are half in the reader’s arena when it comes to fleshing out data with their own ideas, and Baddeley manages this trick with aplomb.

Yet this is not a subject that Baddeley takes on flippantly. He claims a great pleasure in the hours of re-viewing required to research his vampires, and encourages a hope that readers might find a few new fanged friends to take to their hearts and DVD players from among his choices. There is an obvious amount of love for his subject; each vampire is handled with respect and playfulness. For each there are nods to recurrent wider ideas associated to types of vampire: rebels, disease, gay politics, feminism, in/sanity, other vampiric connections/developments and chastity are all touched upon as and when they fit within the purview of each profile. But he wisely desists from heavy intrusion of his own opinions, keeping the tone playful and eminently readable, instead of opening up the actors, directors and publicity materials associated with each vampire to our criticism.

Can this book, however, tell us anything new? There is a lot of vampire literature out there, and as already mentioned above, this is a book playing on the glossy, the popular. Does it have any great longevity as a result? Baddeley does not encourage timelessness by skipping over the socio-political themes he mentions, with a more in-depth look at vampire development reserved for the afterword; a section rarely perused by those wishing to read up on populist screen icons. Indeed, the afterword is where the author can really get his teeth more into the subject and gives greater credence to enthusiastic reviews of his work as journalist—a profession that, ideally, is meant to seek out interesting nuggets of information and present them with the least bias possible.

It is a shame he does not include a bibliography, which would add weight to the afterword and also enable those who are interested in following up the threads dangled temptingly in the profiles. It also calls into question the validity of his quotations. Any good journalist or writer worth their salt knows that direct quotations should be traceable to prevent any quibbles over alterations to suit a purpose. The lack of a bibliography for the quotations also means that, despite this potentially being a richly furnished fund for primary resources on the various productions, none of them can be verified.

It is pleasingly glossy in style with an easily dip-in, dip-out format in a book that is not too large to physically handle and peruse over a coffee in between heavier tomes. It does have a fun printing; the pages, when not carrying a large amount of publicity shots, are drenched in blood splatters and vary teasingly between positive, negative and red-wash-out versions of this decorative motif. It presents as something fun and light; a good introduction to vampires as sex objects and is undemanding to read. As such it gives itself a longer lifespan on the fringes of vampire fictions; a subsidiary guide, a gothic stocking-filler. Although very up to date as of this review, and proudly vaunting further cinematic vampire treats to come sketched in press release and afterword, being a work based on fast-moving media, it will inevitably become out of date quite quickly. The fact that visual media books are generally accepted as being semi-obsolete within a short span yet still remain popular as readings-after-the-fact means this book has another claim to a reasonable shelf life.

One point that does let the side down is the quality of binding. The pages are printed in matt quality—an appreciatively tactile experience—and clever given the number of pictures included (matt gives better clarity to images), the binding at the spine is woefully inadequate to the task of holding the print- and ink-heavy pages together. A good read of the Interview with the Vampire section reduced it to a series of lose pages, and I wasn’t even trying very hard! The spine cracks far too easily and then loses coherence.

To sum up: this is a fun, glossy coffee-table-book read, with a little more depth and attention to detail than that type of book would lead one to expect. It contains a thought-provoking afterword, and the individual profiles of each vampire prove fertile ground for reader response. The format is easily accessible, both intellectually and physically, and the book itself a worthy addition to a vampire fan’s collection, leaning towards the lighter end of the spectrum. It’s only a shame that the physical binding let the book down. When the pages came loose it started to appear tatty and was a fuddle to keep in one piece.

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Howard Beale's Ghost said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Djibril said...

The previous comment was a long, slightly spammy message containing dozens of links and several pages of promotional gumph. We don't object to the content of the message, but the tone and length were too much.

The event being announced was a launch party for:

"Bela Lugosi's Tales From The Grave"

(which might indeed be of interest to readers and reviewers of this Vampire-themed title).

(If you can moderate the length and spamminess of on-topic promotional posts, we won't delete them.)