"A Vampiric Relation to Feminism: The Monstrous-Feminine in Whitley Strieber’s and Anne Rice’s Gothic Fiction" by Rita Antoni
Rita Antoni is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:
As Angela Carter puts it, the Gothic “grandly ignores the value system of our institutions.”1 This involves ignoring the value system of heterosexuality and questioning gender roles reinforced by patriarchy. For example, Richard Davenport-Hines – in his book entitled Gothic. Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror Evil and Ruin – includes a quite fluid understanding of subjectivity and gender in the interests of contemporary Gothic realm, with issues such as power, domination, sexual experimentation, theatricality, decay and subversion.2
I would like to make some preliminary remarks concerning the vampire story as a subgenre of the Gothic. Firstly, the vampire is a very complex figure in culture that an analysis of it cannot be restricted either to its literary or cinematic representations. Although my primary focus here is literature, that is, two novels, I will also dwell on some relevant film adaptations, as well. Due to the thematic overlaps, I will draw from secondary sources discussing vampire films. Secondly, the vampire story and the vampire film are difficult to place within strict genre boundaries. They are mostly discussed as a subgenre or special manifestation of Gothic fiction and horror films; however, vampire stories often find a home in other genres such as science fiction and historical horror. Thirdly, the characteristic, which is most important from the perspective of this essay, is that there is no other, typically Gothic theme which can express gender anxiety and subversion more suitably than the terrain of vampirism, all due to its overt sexual symbolism.
After reading recent theories of the Gothic one may think that in contemporary fiction the significance of gender subversion has outweighed that of anxiety. “Sexual anarchy”3 does not evoke any more the anxious reaction found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or in early twentieth century vampire stories like F. G. Loring’s The Tomb of Sarah (1900) or F. Marion Crawford’s For the Blood is the Life (1911). The question whether the early Gothic novel is conservative or subversive is still going on in academy. However, the vampire fiction at the turn of the century was obviously conservative; it represented a moral lesson and showed a yearning towards the stability of gender roles with the figure of the vampire as a threat to the existing order. In these narratives the conformist, subordinate women were put on pedestal whilst non-conformist women were destroyed. At the same time, hegemonic masculinity was praised and encouraged whilst any sign of alternative masculinity was ridiculed. Contemporary Gothic, on the contrary, seems to be in favor of sexual anarchy and understanding gender – as well as subjectivity – in terms of fluidity and experimentation.
Still representations of strong women characters (and implicitly, feminism) often reach a surprisingly conservative conclusion instead of a subversive and radical one. The issue of criminalizing and demonizing independent women, who are acting in their own (and/or in their sisters’) interests and not in those of men, is still prevalent in Gothic fiction; and, as the result of male anxiety, the aim of defeating them has not disappeared from contemporary Gothic, but, on the contrary, it is a more favored than was before.
The findings of Barbara Creed’s book entitled The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis are relevant here because they include the special view of several female monsters in the horror film (and fiction) which are called the monstrous-feminine, because their gender is a more important constituent of their monstrosity than those of male monsters.4 However, Creed also calls the attention that the presence of female monsters does not necessarily mean that they have a feminist or liberating implication: “[T]he presence of the monstrous-feminine in the popular horror film speak to us more about male fears than about female desire or female subjectivity.”5 One of these is that special type of monstrous-feminine, which I would call the monstrous-feminist, due to her political commitment and influence in culture. Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned is an example of the destruction of this type of female monster. I have chosen, apart form the examples of Whitley Striber’s works, Rice’s novel for two reasons: I wanted to trace an example of the treatment of the monstrous-feminine by a woman writer, with the awareness at the same time that her horror fiction is not held to be a typical women’s horror;6 and for the fact that – although the novel is widely dealt with, as to my knowledge, with the structure of argumentation – has not been analyzed from a feminist perspective.
I. Defeating the Monstrous-Feminine in Whitley Strieber’s Vampire Novels
I. 1. The Conquering of Novelty: Aging, Bestiality and Immmor(t)ality in Whitely Strieber’s The Hunger
I will, in the following, show the example of defeating the monstrous feminine in Whitley Strieber’s novel The Last Vampire (2001). It is a sequel to The Hunger (1981), which was adapted into a film starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon in 1983. The Hunger is mostly dealt with in critical texts as a film, not as a novel. I have chosen these novels because Whitley Strieber seems to be somewhat neglected figure of American literature.
In contemporary Gothic fiction the theme of the monstrous-feminine sometimes comes up in rewritings of fairy tales, or at least embedded in allusions to these well-known stories. In Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (1983) the main character, Miriam mitigates the loneliness of her eternal life by taking human companions whom she infuses with her own blood. But Miriam is a member of a different species and not a resurrected corpse like a traditional vampire; her transformed companions do not resemble her, they are only a kind of half-vampires endowed with a long life, living for a few centuries. For this prolonged life they have to do more than pay with the moral torture of sustaining their lives by killing. Miriam herself lacks this concern. The half-vampires, however, have to face a sudden accelerated aging process: they grow old in a few days. This accelerated aging process is accompanied by sleep deprivation and an increased level of aggression, which, for example, leads Miriam’s lover, John to rape her in her “Sleep” (the state of which is, for these vampires, indispensable and as deep as death, a state in which they become absolute helpless), and to kill a child to whom they both taught music. What is more, Strieber’s novel enacts a twist upon another ancient human fear strongly connected to that of aging: death here becomes a desirable and unavailable state of mind instead of being the object of fear, while immortality, which is usually presented as a desirable aim, becomes a burden, a torture in their situation from which death would mean their final release.
When her aging lovers are too weak, and their irresistible hunger and aggression threatens Miriam’s safety – she is very careful about concealing her true identity and lives as a chic and well-off suburban woman in a house with a rose garden –, she puts them into a coffin she places in a room in the attic. Wherever she goes out in the world, she takes these boxes with her; sometimes she goes up and talks to her lovers inside in a quite sentimental way. She finds intimacy with her ‘transformed ones,’ and not with her victims, as many other vampires – including her literary predecessor Carmilla – do. However, this intimacy is embedded into a hierarchical relationship: “She was lonely and human beings gave her the love that pets give.”7 Miriam feeds on human beings the way human beings feed on animals, and she keeps some of them as pets, as human beings do with some animals. This, regarding that Miriam is a member of another, possibly more developed species, creates an ironic relativity of superiority of human beings: suddenly they are treated the way they treat animals, that is, both as pets and as food. This approach questions Miriam’s evil nature and, from another perspective, the kindness of human beings. Another duality appears here, too. The third-person narration holds a double point of view, constantly shifted chapter by chapter: one point of view is that of the vampires, mostly Miriam’s, and the other one is the human one, with the ambitious scientist, Sarah, in the centre.
Gerard Lenne’s article, which was dismissed by Barbara Creed as a sexist one, brings up the argument against the presence of women in horror texts in any other role than the “tearful victim” fainting in the arms of a monster, which asserts that there is “not one single female mad scientist.”8 The quest of the overreacher is mostly associated with males and the male Gothic. It is also true that even Mary Shelley embodied overreaching in the male figure of Frankenstein. Dr Sarah Roberts in The Hunger is a genuine female mad scientist, an ambitious overreacher, who wants to find the secret of eternal life. The crucial character trait of the mad scientist, who appeared in nineteenth-century Gothic as an anxious answer to the rapid technical, scientific and industrial development was to disregard the consequences or moral concerns in its overreaching ambition.
Dr. Sarah Roberts, while researching sleep deprivation, identified the blood factor responsible for aging. This blood factor is in connection with sleep deprivation. There are two apes at the institute of gerontology in whose circulation this blood factor has been modified: Betty and Methuselah. Methuselah starts declining one day: he does not sleep anymore, becomes aggressive, and one morning the scientists find his companion’s body in pieces.
Methuselah was brachiating madly through the cage screaming as only a rhesus can scream. On the floor lay Betty’s head, its monkey face frozen in last agony. As he shot around the cage Methuselah brandished Betty’s arm, the little hand open as if waving goodbye. The rest of Betty lay scattered across the cage.9
By constant switches between the two plots, the unexplainable bestiality of the ape is put into parallel with that of the aging vampire, and thus the themes of aging, aggression/bestiality and immortality as well as that of immorality are connected. The two monstrous-feminine characters are responsible for the double chain of terrible events with John and the (by chance, male) ape, Methuselah, as victims. They are, too, both monstrous, and both feel very little remorse. “She was lonely, and human beings gave her the love that pets give. She sought companionship, some warmth, the appearance of the home. She rejected her tears, her shame at what she had done to him. After all, did not she also deserve some love?”10 – this is the conclusion Miriam reaches, and Sarah, watching Methuselah growing old and disintegrating, has the following thoughts on her mind:
Sarah wondered if the feeling that they were intruding into something forbidden affected the others as well. The ape had been a good and loving friend to the whole lab. Had those he loved the right to bring him such suffering? And yet… and yet–Sarah wondered if death was such a certainty, if the gates of Eden were really locked forever. It was simple, wasn’t it? A matter of finding the key. Once the gates swung open, man’s accident, lost war with death would be won. ‘_We need not die_,’ Sarah thought. She folded her arms and looked with cold determination at Methuselah’s remarkable destruction. His life was a fair price for such an enormous gain to humanity.11
However, it is also suggested that Sarah is also motivated by her own career and ambitions, thus there is no doubt left that we have a genuine female overreacher, a female mad scientist here.
In the book, Miriam goes to Sarah’s institute to consult the doctor about her sleep deprivation. Here the touch and the erotic manifestation create a weird effect in a medical setting. The blood transfusion in the book is purely a medical operation, lacking any suggestion of eroticism; it merely re-enacts and subverts the blood transfusion scenes from Stoker’s Dracula. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula a strong man’s blood is used (which was thought better than a woman’s according to the scientific views that time due to the vital essence theory and the belief that due to the monthly loss, women’s blood would be “weaker”)12 to cure Lucy, a young woman, out of vampirism. In Strieber’s novel, Miriam uses a strong woman’s blood, her own – as finally Doctor Van Helsing used his own to save Lucy in Dracula – in order to transform a young woman into a vampire. In both cases, the result is vampirism: lamented in Dracula and rejoiced about in The Hunger. However, in the film version of Strieber’s novel all medical paraphernalia are aesthetically built into a fine scene of lesbian seduction that draws on another well-known literary ancestor, namely, the Carmilla-theme. In neither version does Sarah know what had happened to her. Her hunger will lead to Miriam’s dominance. Barbara Creed interprets their relationship in terms of mother-child, blood-milk analogy,13 but I would simply place it in a situation depicting domination and subordination that prevails over the potential sisterhood of the two, equally monstrous women. Nina Auerbach identifies the moment with the one when sisterhood fails: this comes when Miriam makes her new companion kill her former partner, Tom. Sarah awakens from the enthrallment and she turns against Miriam. As Nina Auerbach writes,
Miriam’s cynical truth [i. e. she defines her role in this age as the bringer of truth] is never allowed to prevail: once Tom is dead, love conquers all. Strieber’s sophisticated account of science, aesthetics, the tenacity of intelligence, and the fall of empires ends by capitulating to an emotional normalcy to which the Victorian LeFanu was supremely indifferent. The journey into the unknown is forbidden.14
Even if sisterhood does not prevail, one of the monstrous women does (in both versions). According to the logic of hierarchic relationship which prevails over the egalitarian one, one must fail in order for the other to survive. In the book it is Miriam who stays alive, and leaves the city in order to take up a new identity and take a new lover, while Sarah is put alive in a coffin, next to the living corpses of the former lovers. The fact of being buried alive, which was portrayed as an ultimate horror by E. A. Poe,15 seems even better than the submission to a monstrous woman and becoming immoral like her. Thus, Sarah excludes monstrosity from her identity as a kind of disease with which Miriam has infected her.
In the film version, where the ending is mystified to the extent of obscurity, however, Sarah is prevalent. The former lovers, who had been buried alive, gain energy, and, unlike in the book, Miriam cannot do away with them. They push her down the stairs and she turns old in a couple of seconds, while her zombie-like lovers are released from the torment her selfishness had imposed upon them. Not only the lovers’ sudden revitalization and final release, or Miriam’s sudden growing old, is left unexplained but also the way Sarah manages to restore her new self after suicide. All these seem unimportant regarding the fact that finally Sarah has taken Miriam’s place; she continues to live with a male and a female lover.
Both endings obey a conventional rule: in the novel Sarah prefers conventional morality to sisterhood, and in the film the monstrous-feminine is punished. However, both of the endings are subversive at the same time: in the novel, the strong female main character survives, while in the film she is substituted by a similarly powerful heiress. Central characters are powerful and active women, independent of men here; the existence and actions of a female (mad) scientist and the open portrayal of lesbianism (as the equal of heterosexual relationships) leads one to conclude The Hunger, novel or film, is rather a subversive and progressive narrative than conservative plot.
I. 2. The Monstrous-Feminine in The Last Vampire
In the sequel called The Last Vampire the balance of subversive and conservative elements turns over for the benefit of conservative ones. The setting where the monstrous -feminine is placed into is radically altered, to the extent of turning the narrative into a science fiction or an alternative history than a Gothic work. Reflections on culture are more elaborate than ever, offering an alternative anthropology of vampires (“the Keepers”) as an alien species from another planet, with humanity as their “kettle.” As Strieber suggests, vampires bred human beings through scientific experiments (for example, they stand behind all historical events). The most attractive version is the idea that Vestal virgins were all vampires who decided when and how the Roman Emperor must die (pretended suicide)16. However, the Keepers, as a part of a greater scientific experiment, let the human kettle develop on their own. The outcome proved fatal: the Keepers could not keep up with human development, so they had been “discovered” and thus executed in great numbers. Miriam is one of the last survivors. In fact, it is here suggested that she is the only one remaining.
Miriam is in need of companions more than ever. She lives with Sarah, whom she managed to resurrect. As I have discussed, sisterhood failed in The Hunger but the individual woman was victorious in her battle; however, the sequel manages to do away with both sisterhood and the independent woman: sisterhood will turn into rigid and alienating hierarchy and the independent woman into the victim of a heterosexual romance, complicit to her own subordination.
Miriam is portrayed more monstrous and authoritative in The Last Vampire than in The Hunger. She is completely lacking intimacy and emotional tendency, with a slight touch of sentimentality in the former volume. She gives commands to Sarah and calls her “child.” Sarah, on the other hand, lost her pride and moral consciousness that governed her final decision in The Hunger and has become absolutely powerless. She has also ceased to be the mad scientist: her main ambition is to take care of Miriam, that is, she is practically only serving her. This reinforces the prevalence of depredatory relationships over egalitarian ones. Miriam, in contrast to her elegant feminine appearance, embodies hegemonic masculinity, keeping the oppressed Sarah under her control. When the latter tries to revolt, she regains her dominance by her extraordinary sexual skills, which wash Sarah’s resistance away, making her even more helpless. It seems that here the portrayal of lesbianism is not a liberating and subversive act but it is transformed into a means of subordination, becoming, in turn, more grotesque and intimidating. What is more, stereotypes of subservient femininity are also brought in forefront, especially those concerning Miriam’s preferences: “The females could give you real pleasure, and they were also better servants.”17
Playfulness and liberation are raised as possibilities, but they are finally rejected for the sake of traditional patterns and cultural stereotypes. Misogyny is prevalent here, and it is manifested in entomological similes present also in Dijkstra’s account; these were especially fashionable in early twentieth century semi-scientific texts discussing human sexuality for the analogy of the sexual lives of praying mantises, black widows and other insects whose females devour the males.18 In other words, “they [Miriam’s eyes] were the eyes of a goddess… or a predatory insect.”19 In this sentence we can observe that “misogyny can push a woman upwards as well as downwards. In either direction, the destination is the same: woman dehumanized.”20 The portrayal of the romance plot has a misogynic undertone, too. Paul Ward is introduced as a vampire hunter, who is absolutely ferocious, and is using modern technology with a kind of sanctified cruelty: “You had to blow that head apart, then burn the creatures to ash, to be absolutely certain they were dead. Then the lair had to be washed in acid,” says Paul.21 His attitude (and success) reveals great optimism about humankind, which was doubtful in the former novel. Paul is not willing to accept the status of the member of a bred kettle, he never thinks in such terms, and this brings about his victory. Humankind, whose pettiness was overt in The Hunger, is now put on a pedestal. The binary oppositions are restored: Miriam is unambiguously evil, and Paul is represented as the ultimately good hero, whose cruelty is legalized by him saving the humankind.
A few chapters later Miriam meets him face to face and, as in similar heterosexual romance stories, falls in love with him:
Her body responded to this human as if he were a Keeper. This was not the attraction she felt normally to human prettiness, but powerful, shivering, blood-pounding desire. She wanted him not under but over her; she sweated and lusted for him; she wanted him to possess her…22
These few sentences encapsulate a range of stereotypes embedded in the myth of heterosexual romance, which is believed to “cure” even the most resolute feminist. According to this myth, at the bottom of their hearts all women, including the most independent ones, yearn to be subordinated by a man. However, a contradiction lurks here. Love is supposed to be a gentle feeling and still “it can also be a pretext for violence.”23 This binary can be perceived in the excerpt quoted above: real (heterosexual) female desire is suggested to be accompanied by a necessary and wishful subordination to the man. Thus, different kinds of heterosexual relationships are contrasted here while female-dominated or egalitarian relationships are diminished or denied in comparison to the suggested normalcy of male dominance. What is more, a hierarchy is also set up between lesbian and heterosexual relationships, for the benefit of normative heterosexuality: once Miriam falls in love with Paul, her relationship with Sarah becomes of secondary importance, and finally, quite irrelevant.
The sequence of stereotypes is rounded off with an almost Victorian conclusion: Paul turns away from Miriam with disgust – although he had an exceptional sexual experience with her, what is more, it turned out that they belong to the same race – and chooses his colleague Becky instead:
He threw his arms around her. When he kissed her at last, he immediately found what he’d lost hope of ever finding, which was his heart’s true happiness. This was where he belonged, in the arms of this wonderful, normal, completely human woman.24
The same takes place that Stoker wrote about more than one hundred years earlier: although Jonathan feels a desire that the three vampire women would “kiss him with those red lips,”25 and we do not know what would have happened if the Count had not interrupted the scene; he finally decides that they are “the devils of the pit,” and it is only Mina who deserves to be called a woman.26 One must note here that neither Mina nor Becky are absolutely passive feminine women; the technical progress of the age they live in seem to have affected both of them. Mina is a schoolteacher and gains new skills (like shorthand) and uses modern equipment with confidence; Becky is involved in the ‘masculine’ profession of a vampire killer, which, at one point, results in Paul rejecting her: “He heard something in her voice that was tender. But she was a professional killer, for God’s sake. What man could romance a woman like that?”27 However, Mina clearly declares her intention to use her skills in the service of her husband, (“When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, …”28); and Becky is also willing to concentrate on more ‘feminine’ roles when Paul is suddenly willing to love her: she focuses on marriage and raising a child. (Similar to Miriam, who needed the proper man to take pleasure in being subordinated and forget about her lesbian relationship, which were less “serious.”)
As for Miriam, she is executed in the most brutal way, but, just like in Dracula, there is an open ending: her child survives. The offspring of questionable origin is a crucial element in Dracula, where double or, due to the blood transfusions, multiple fathering of Mina’s son is also possible, shaking the safe reconciliation in the complete restoration of the status quo. In The Last Vampire this child is a potential threat, since not only his mother is a Keeper, but his father is a half one, too. Identity is represented as choice again, as Paul rejects vampirism. This rejection reaches the extent of brutally murdering the other vampires; this reminds the reader of the ironic act of self-deception in case of aggressive homophobia that might well conceal latent homosexuality.
As Jack Holland puts it, what is specific about misogyny compared to other forms of hatred is the fact that within it, “hatred coexists with desire”, because, as he argues, most men need women, and most women need men.29 There is an urge in contemporary fiction to repress the (undoubtedly existing and fierce) desire for strong women in order to eliminate the threat to male dominance.
II. Defeating the Monstrous Feminist in Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned
There are several reasons in praise of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles; among them is the shift in perspective with the vampire as the narrator, the elaborate genealogy of vampires, and the philosophical, and moral questions raised in it. However, the portrayal of women is not among the reasons of acclaim. The representation of gender relations in these novels, as seen by feminist readings, deploys a certain level of dissatisfaction. Janice Doan and Devon Hodges call these novels postfeminist and argue that “Rice’s novels have an almost vampiric relation to feminism.”30 Maureen King argues saying that, Rice makes use of the fantastic as the space to transcend the way patriarchal system has defined reality; she does not manage to transcend the gender ideology of the traditional vampire narrative(s) because “[T]he masculine/feminine duality is, at times, reinforced rather than undermined, for some female vampires are far more alien than their male counterparts, maintaining rather than undermining the identification of woman as Other.”31 Jennifer Smith is more indulgent, and says that the point is that we recognize that the portrayal of women characters (in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles), which, seemingly does not correspond to the manifold reality of women’s experiences. She says that “[O]ne of the glories of Rice’s work is that it is so often politically and socially incorrect and therefore liberating.”32
In the first two volumes of Vampire Chronicles the focus is on intellectual and homoerotic bonds between male vampires. For this reason Rice’s work is often valued for transcending gender boundaries and the ideological system of compulsory heterosexuality. Martin J. Wood celebrates her for portraying gender as irrelevant and for proposing a non-penetrative understanding of sexuality.33 However, this still contributes to the marginalization of women characters, since the alleged “irrelevance” of gender is shown by almost all male characters. Women in Vampire Chronicles do not get involved in intellectual and homoerotic friendships; they do not instruct each-other and do not have debates on moral issues and the nature of evil (like male vampires). Male intellectual and homoerotic bonds in the first two volumes remind of the ideal Greek friendships. Woman characters in the Vampire Chronicles are mostly powerless. Their fear overcomes the desire to know (like Babette who finally goes mad); while female vampire characters are, although very often wise and powerful, portrayed as isolated, solitary and embittered figures.
Similar to The Hunger, in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles there is a reference to The Sleeping Beauty fairy tale; Akasha, the mother of all vampires is awakened from a long petrified slumber by Lestat (in the second volume called The Vampire Lestat). In The Queen of the Damned she becomes the central character. She decides to create a new, utopist, woman-dominated world. To achieve this, she finds it necessary to execute 99 percent of all men, a deed that according to her logic will result in a peaceful world without war and violence. She is defeated at the end, but the arguments by which other vampires try to dissuade her from her plan are problematic because they melt gender-specific problems into “beneficial” universalisms such as ‘humanity.’
According to Martin J. Wood Anne Rice has established a new, female centered myth, the The Queen of the Damned “an apocalyptic struggle among vampire women.”34 He says that “the book suggests a powerful matriarchy among the vampires, counterpoised against the predominantly patriarchal order among humans.”35 This interpretation is far too optimistic: on the one hand, the portrayals of both matriarchs are problematic, since one of them, Akasha is demonized and criminalized, while Maharet, the other one, seems to transcend her femininity by means of witchcraft; in the end the conclusion of the book suggests maintenance of patriarchy, with even woman as accomplices.
Akasha is criminalized right from the beginning of the novel as her first act when she wakes up is that she drinks her husband’s (Enkil’s) blood, and eats his brain and heart in order to become the only/single parent of all vampires. She kills most of the vampires and from the few surviving ones she abducts the ambitious male one, Lestat. She wants him to help her with her plan to create a new world dominated by women. To achieve this, she intends to execute most men, saving only 1% for reproductive purposes. She claims a godlike position: she wants Lestat to obey her without question36 while she establishes herself as the ontological basis of the world: “You need look no further for the cause of anything. I am the fulfillment and I shall from this moment on be the cause.”37 She is authoritative – as Miriam in The Last Vampire – and endows Lestat with fascinating new abilities (such as flying), but, to make sure of his obedience, she does not refrain from threat either. She claims that “as the stars are my witness, you will aid me in my mission. Or you will be no more than the instrument for the commencement, as Judas was to Christ. And I shall destroy you as Christ destroyed Judas once your usefulness is past.”38 The writer makes (ab)uses of strong religious symbolism here, Akasha pretends to be the Queen of Heaven, deceiving simple-minded people of the third world in a Virgin Mary-like position, with Lestat as the Christ-like character.
However, beside commands and threats, he also tries to convince Lestat of the rational necessity of her plans: she projects powerful images of the poverty and misery of the underdeveloped countries of the third world, and then exposes an utopist vision in her speech to a group of third-world women:
Soft green hills stretched out before me in hallucinatory perfection – a world without war or deprivation in which women roamed free and unafraid, women who ever under provocation would shrink from the common violence that lurks in the heart of every man.39
Akasha has an essentialist perception of gender, understanding aggression as an inherently masculine trait. What is surprising about the structure of argumentation is that Lestat does not even try to deny the inherent aggression of men:
“…I cannot turn this earth into a garden, I cannot create the eden of human imagination – unless I eliminate the males almost completely.
“And by this you mean kill forty percent of the population of the earth? Ninety percent of all males?”
“Do you deny that this will put an end to war, to rape, to violence?”
“But the point….”
“No, answer my question. Do you deny that it will put an end to violence?
“Killing everyone would put an end to those things!”
“Don’t play games with me. Answer my question.”
“Isn’t that a game? The price is unacceptable. It’s a madness, it’s a mass murder; it’s against nature.”40
Lestat tries to dissuade Akasha first lamenting on the violence she wants to enact. However, Akasha can easily come up with several counterarguments, pointing at the unpunished violence by men against women (including against female infants) as well as the violent murders Lestat himself has committed to sustain his life. As a result, Lestat helplessly bows his head in front of essentialism, saying: “I am no better than most of the men who’ve ever lived. I can’t argue for their lives now. I couldn’t defend my own.”41
Lestat’s next attempt is based on the ideology of heterosexual complementarity: when he says that “[S]uppose the duality of masculine and feminine is indispensable to the human animal. Suppose the women want the men; suppose they rise against you and seek to protect the men.”42 “Do you think men are what women want?”,43 Akasha asks in disbelief. Her example shows that women do not necessarily need men. Lestat is Akasha’s companion, he is her subordinate, rather a helper that a partner. The commonplace saying that women need men is a frequent antifeminist argument, but, as Akasha sees it quite correctly. She belies the myth Miriam so sadly represented, and she does not let herself entrapped in the ideology of complementarity, which can be used against women’s interest from either aspect: women’s need for men can be used to silence women’s problems, and, as Jack Holland argues, men’s need for women and their anxiety about the helplessness this need might lead to misogynic acts.44 However, Akasha has a unique solution in case women need men: a number of men will be kept alive, and, what is more, “they shall not be used as women have been used by men.”45
Lestat then comes up with the supposed inevitability of dichotomies, and thus conflict and hierarchy:
“What if the women divide along principles of masculine/feminine, the way men so often divide if there are no females there?”
“You know that’s a foolish objection. Such distinctions are never more than superficial. Women are women! Can you conceive of war made by women? Truly, answer me. Can you? Can you conceive bands of roving women intent only on destruction? Or rape? Such thing is preposterous. For the aberrant few justice will be immediate. But overall, something utterly unforeseen will take place. Don’t you see? The possibility of piece on earth has always existed, and there have always been people who could realize it, and preserve it, and those people are women. If one takes away the men.”46
Akasha denies the inevitability of conflict and aggression on essentialist basis again, this time arguing with the inherent peacefulness of women. She backs up her argument with empirical facts, pointing out that women are hard to be imagined involved in wars or acts of rape. She is right in this sense, but research shows something else: if we turn to the analysis of the infamous Milgram test on aggression of non-criminal people under pressure in Alex Krista’s book entitled Deadlier than the Male we learn that “not only was there no significant difference between men’s and women’s readiness to aggress against their fellow humans […] but […] women would press the high-voltage buttons sooner, more frequently and keep their finger depressed for longer than the men. […] So much for the sweet celebrated virtues of womanhood,”47 the author ironically writes. Obedience to authority or pro-social aggression proved to be unsatisfactory explanations, and, referring to other psychological experiments, the author argues for the approximately equal tendencies of the two sexes for aggression (or any other forms of behavior). Why is biological determinism such a long-lived misbelief? Here Krista echoes the text of the novel: “the beauty of biological determinism lies in its extreme simplicity, its easy-to-follow formula of cause and effect.”48
Another possible counterargument against Akasha is her monstrous plan, the very example showing that women are not necessarily peaceful. Vampires in the book argue with humanity’s potential of development, which is in disturbing contrast with Akasha’s arguments which suggest a dreadful regression to the earlier stages of evolution:
Go out in the lush garden that surround the villa, study the bees in their hives and the ants who labor as they have always done. They are female, my prince, by the millions. A male is only an aberration, and a matter of function. They learned the wise trick a long time before limiting the males.49
This is a reference to social Darwinist theoreticians of the early twentieth century that used it primarily against women, warning men to watch their masculinity; otherwise the horrible early evolutionary stages of female dominance (matriarchy) might come back. On this kind of distorted theoretical basis early feminists were labeled atavistic.50 Akasha’s visions and arguments are graphic representations of early twentieth century male anxieties, and the execution of her plan enacts the stereotype of the man-hating feminist, who does not only threaten male dominance, but the life of males, too. Besides, Akasha is the only woman with an explicit political commitment, “becoming the epitome of the antifeminists’ nightmare, the ‘femi-nazi’ out to exterminate all men and rule the world.”51 It is at this point where she would be more exactly called monstrous-feminist. Her terrifying potential is increased by the fact that even the wisest and oldest vampires are helpless and unable to oppose her arguments.
Collectively the lives of these men do not equal the lives of women who have been killed at the hands of men over the centuries. (…) Now tell me, how many men over the centuries have fallen at the hands of women? If you brought back to life every man slain by a woman, do you think these creatures would fill even this house?52
What Akasha argues might be true, but the reason is not discussed. It is not revealed that women probably are not less aggressive because they are biologically coded to be so, but due to the unequal distribution of power between the two sexes. Our society―as it is shown in the earliest stages of education―discourages women from self-assertion and aggression, but it is also lenient towards male aggression. As Freda Adler warns in Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal, “men dominate crime as they do most areas of social endeavour, and this dominance is not dependent on any specific activities.”53 Similar to Krista, she denies that one’s sex is a determining factor in being aggressive or, on the contrary, timid, and concludes that “the small natural differences between the sexes have been polarized and institutionalized in special ways by different cultures to produce a gender disparity which reveals more about the emotional needs of the society than about the innate possibilities of the individual.”54 This is a fine example how feminist rethinking of certain cultural stereotypes can contribute to the liberation of female, as well as male individuals and it is also another proof that feminism is not necessarily hostile to men.
No character, however, thinks of arguing that equal self-assertion for women and men might lead to a balance, regarding the individuals’ inclination instead of their gender. The idea emerges in none of the protagonists; therefore no essential conclusions should be drawn from any empirical difference between the sexes. The argument raises important issues, but the discussion is not “deep” enough, and the conclusion and implication is far less that satisfactory. Instead, an anxious conclave of vampires echoes Lestat’s weak arguments, and then let the problem of women’s subordinate situation suffocate in universalism.
For example, one character, Marius, hides the problem behind the ‘moral cloak’ of philantrophy, arguing “can you honestly say that human beings have done so badly that they should receive such a punishment as this?”55 The agent in focus is suddenly and uncritically shifts from “men” into “human beings.” Women’s situation loses its specific status as the argumentation goes on: “men and women are learning animals,”56 and they have developed a lot, raising their voices against war recently: “it’s the attitudes which were never possible in the past. It is the intolerance of thinking men and women in power who for the first time in the history of the human race truly want to put an end to injustice in all forms.”57 Marius is quite naïve for his age, talking about “men and women in power,” as if there had been no vast difference in the numbers they are represented in powerful positions.
Maharet joins him arguing that human beings need time to further develop, and this is repeated as many times as possible so that Akasha should not intervene. They beg Akasha for time, which she is reluctant to give, when the sudden arrival of Mekare interrupts the request and Akasha is executed. The newcomer is a woman character who kills Akasha, beheading her in revenge. In Doane’s and Hodges’s view this is a battle between two versions of the maternal, with the victory of the one that “manages to be matriarchal without being hostile to men.”58
However, the subordination of women is uncritically maintained: some gender-specific concerns raised by Akasha are left unanswered; in fact, they are obscured into the benevolent universalism of “humankind.” Akasha’s plan is a radical one; at one point of the novel she is accused of having no real moral concerns,59 and she is accused of a preference for desperate ethical systems, a fascination with abstract ideas and with indifference to the pain of others.60 As shown above, the figure of the monstrous-feminist here is taken by the stereotypical image of the ruthless career-woman.
However, despite all moral flaws in her personality she is still the only character in the novel that has political and moral concerns about the restricted situation and marginalization of women, and about the violence against them. The other characters, including many women, defeat her, but do not take the effort to come up with any other alternative solution; they prefer the comfort of non-intervention. This suggests the failure of sisterhood on many levels: these vampire women, while experienced subordination in their human lives, have become indifferent to the subordination of and violence against them and against other women. Their vampire existence defends them from the drawbacks of gender in the human world. This standpoint echoes skepticism about feminism, and leads towards a reconciliation of power relations, as they are, with the only possibility of isolated, individual rejection of the ruling order. Thus the outcome of the novel suggests the criminalization and monstrosity of a woman with a political consciousness of her situation; and suggests pessimism about shaking patriarchal order.
The Hunger, The Last Vampire and The Queen of the Damned are all innovative and subversive novels from many aspects. They certainly let the female vampire roam free in comparison with their Victorian predecessors (for example, in Dracula the female vampires were hidden in the castle and did not accompany the Count into the public domain; the Count does many terrible things in the novel, takes several victims, distracts the innocent Lucy from virtue, climbs down the wall like a lizard, turns into a wolf, commands the elements but the eccentricities of the novel do not reach the extent of questioning the dominance and authority of men even in such a decadent place putrid of immorality as the Count’s castle). Miriam and Akasha move freely in the world, and during the greater part of their stories they both refuse male authority. Dracula_’s women are hardly given any voice, they are marginalized characters, but in the abovementioned three novels female vampires are the central characters that endow the reader with their specific point(s) of view. They are portrayed as active and powerful characters. What is more, in both _The Hunger and The Queen of the Damned several innovations appear: the female mad scientist figure and the liberated portrayal of lesbianism is an equal and pleasurable alternative to compulsory heterosexuality. These novels question women’s need for men, pose questions about women’s subordination and raise political issues concerning women’s situation.
However, woman-centeredness cannot be simply equated with feminism. The discussed works of both authors carry several traits of conservativism. Throughout the stories both Miriam and Akasha are demonized and dehumanized in terms of early twentieth-century pseudo-scientific methods, namely, misogyny. What is more, they are rejected on the basis of commonplace cultural myths which distort and misrepresent women and their experiences with the only ideological function to subordinate them. The Last Vampire suffocates all lucid innovations of The Hunger into the overwhelming myth of heterosexual romance; and The Queen of the Damned draws upon the stereotype of the man-hating feminist. While The Hunger is glamorously innovative and liberating, doing away with many stereotypes of women in horror, The Last Vampire reflects the conservativism of the earlier novel, Dracula. This thematic relationship is reinforced by the repetition of certain elements of Stoker’s novel, among which the most striking is the reinforcement of the good girl – bad girl dichotomy. A further drawback of all the three novels is that sisterhood (and the possibility of egalitarian relationships) is – either anxiously, or in a pessimistic way – blocked.
What potentials do these novels still leave for pleasure of reading them with a feminist consciousness? Even if Miriam and Akasha are executed, they are still more powerful then their predecessors. Their beauty (and attraction) is recognized snf made more difficult to first-sight comprehension – this makes them unconquerable -, whilst in Dracula beauty was a kind of test to manliness that most men successfully passed. It is only their dehumanization which enable male characters to reject and/or execute these characters. These women live glamorous, exciting and liberated lives before they die. Still, the reader would prefer to see them survive. The need fort heir execution shows that the non-subordinate woman refusing to fulfill the expectations of accepted feminine behavior and desires is still a threat to men, and due to the internalization of patriarchal ideology, even for some women.
As Salli J. Kline puts it, the femme fatale threatens one (usually weak) male victim, but the New Women vampires personified in Dracula embody the potential to ruin the whole empire.61 Miriam and Akasha go even further: they are strikingly close to affect the whole world and, thus, the entire humankind. However, both authors reach a conclusion implying the optimistic belief in the survival of all humankind and its subsequent development, but in the light of the unsolved problems this kind of optimism seems less complete. In this world, the monstrous-feminine embodies male paranoias, but she also is, as Miriam asserted, “the bringer” of more truthful ways in reconsidering gender relations.
1 Angela Carter, “Afterword to Fireworks,” in Burning Your Boats. The Collected Short Stories. (New York, Penguin., 1997), 459. ↩
2 Richard Davenport-Hines, “Prologue,” in Gothic. Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. (New York: North Point Press, 2000), 1-11. ↩
3 Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy. Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siécle. (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1990). ↩
4 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, (London and New York, Routledge, 1993), 3. ↩
5 Creed, op. cit., 7. ↩
6 Mark Jancovich, Horror, (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1992) 109. ↩
7 Whitley Strieber, The Hunger, , (New York: Pocket Books, 2001), 94. ↩
8 Gerard Lenne, “Monster and Victim: Women in the Horror Film,” in Patricia Erens ed. Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, (New York: Horizon, 1979), 38., quoted by Creed, op. cit., 4. ↩
9 The Hunger, 50. ↩
10 The Hunger, 94. ↩
11 The Hunger, 74-5. ↩
12 The vital essence theory refers to the blood-semen-wealth analogy. Bram Dijkstra, Evil Sisters. The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 88. ↩
13 Miriam “is the cruel mother, the parent who nurtures her lovers/children in life and then keeps them in a state of living death. She represents the suffocating mother –the mother who refuses let go.” – Creed, op. cit., 68. Auerbach also states that a mother-child analogy, i. e. a substitute mother figure is, like in Carmilla’s case, relevant in the interpretation. –Auerbach, op. cit., 59. ↩
14 Auerbach, op. cit., 59. ↩
15 Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial ↩
16 Whitley Strieber, The Last Vampire , (New York: Pocket Books, 2002), 252. ↩
17 The Last Vampire, 273. ↩
18 Dijkstra, op. cit., 67-9. ↩
19 The Last Vampire, 206. ↩
20 Jack Holland, A Brief History of Misogyny. The World’s Oldest Prejudice, (London: Robinson, 2006), 6. ↩
21 The Last Vampire, 55. ↩
22 The Last Vampire, 165. ↩
23 Jackson, op. cit., 117. ↩
24 The Last Vampire, 384. ↩
25 Bram Stoker, Dracula , (London & New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 51. ↩
26 Stoker, op. cit., 69. ↩
27 The Last Vampire, 174. ↩
28 Stoker, op. cit., 70. ↩
29 Holland, op. cit., 5. ↩
30 Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, “Undoing Feminism: From the Opreoedipal to Postfeminism in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles,” American Literary History 2:3 (Fall 1990), 422. ↩
31 Maureen King, “Contemporary Women Writers and the ‘New Evil’: The Vampires of Anne Rice and Suzy McKee Charnas.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 5/3 (1993), 75. ↩
32 Jennifer Smith, Anne Rice: A Critical Companion, (Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996). 82. ↩
33 Martin J. Wood, “New Life for an Old Tradition: Anne Rice and Vampire Literature,” in Leonard G. Heldreth and Mary Pharr eds. The Blood Is the Life: Vampires in Literature, (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1999), 76-7. ↩
34 Wood, op. cit., 75. ↩
35 Ibid. ↩
36 Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned. [1988.] (London: Warner Books, 2003), 299. ↩
37 Rice, op. cit., 303. ↩
38 Rice, op. cit., 349. ↩
39 Rice, op. cit., 355. ↩
40 Rice, op. cit., 427. ↩
41 Rice, op. cit., 428. ↩
42 Ibid. ↩
43 Ibid. ↩
44 Holland, op. cit., 5. ↩
45 Rice, op. cit., 429. ↩
46 Rice, op. cit., 434. ↩
47 Alix Krista, Deadlier Than the Male, (Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 48. ↩
48 Krista, op. cit., 51. ↩
49 Rice, op. cit., 431. ↩
50 “Women’s rights activists … were, …, far more a part of primitive motives of nature than they realized,…” –Dijkstra, op. cit., 70.; Ellsworth Huntington suggested that “feminism was a form of autogynecide.” – Dijkstra, op. cit., 351. ↩
51 Smith, op. cit., 78-9. ↩
52 Rice, op. cit., 514. ↩
53 Freda Adler, Sisters in Crime. The Rise of the New Female Criminal, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975), 34. ↩
54 Krista, op. cit., 52. ↩
55 Rice, op. cit., 516. ↩
56 Rice, op. cit., 518. ↩
57 Ibid. ↩
58 Doane and Hodges, op. cit., 433. ↩
59 Rice, op. cit., 385. ↩
60 Rice, op. cit., 388. ↩
61 Salli J. Kline, The Degeneration of Women: Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as Allegorical Criticism of the ‘Fin de Siécle’, (Rheinbach-Merzbach: CMZ-Verlag Winrich C.-W. Clasen, 1992), 87. ↩
- Adler, Freda. Sisters in Crime. The Rise of the New Female Criminal. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975.
- Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York & London: Routledge, 1990.
- Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats. The Collected Short Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.
- Crawford, F. Marion. „For the Blood Is the Life.” [1911.] In James Dickie ed. The Undead. Vampire Masterpieces. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973, 41-58.
- Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic. Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
- Dijkstra, Bram. Evil Sisters. The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
- Doane, Janice and Devon Hodges. “Undoing Feminism: From Preoedipal to Postfeminism in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.” American Literary History 2:3, (Fall 1990): 422-442.
- Holland, Jack. A Brief History of Misogyny. The World’s Oldest Prejudice. London: Robinson, 2006.
- Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1992.
- King, Maureen. 1993. “Contemporary Women Writers and the ‘New Evil’: The Vampires of Anne Rice and Suzy McKee Charnas.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 5/3 (1993): 75-84.
- Kline, Salli J. 1992. The Degeneration of Women: Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as Allegorical Criticism of the ‘Fin de Siécle’. Rheinbach-Merzbach: CMZ-Verlag Winrich C.-W. Clasen.
- Krista, Alix. 1994. Deadlier Than the Male. Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Lenne, Gerard. “Monster and Victim: Women in the Horror Film.” In Patricia Erens ed. Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, New York: Horizon, 1979, 31-40.
- Loring, F. G. “The Tomb of Sarah.” [1900.] In James Dickie, ed. The Undead. Vampire Masterpieces. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973, 92-105.
- Matheson, Richard. “Drink My Blood!” In Alan Ryan ed. The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1991, 362-70.
- Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1996.
- Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
- ——. The Queen of the Damned. [1988.] London: Warner Books, 2003.
- Smith, Jennifer. Anne Rice: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Stoker, Bram. Dracula. [1897.] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.
- Strieber, Whitley. The Hunger. [1981.] New York: Pocket Books, 2001.
- ——. The Last Vampire. [2001.] New York: Pocket Books, 2002.
- Wood, Martin J. “New Life for an Old Tradition: Anne Rice and Vampire Literature.” In Leonard G. Heldreth and Mary Pharr eds. The Blood Is the Life: Vampires in Literature. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1999, 59-78.
Images in this article were drawn by Péter Hanyi.