Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vampirism Revamped

Vampires as we commonly imagine them are sourced from the folklore of 18th century Southeastern Europe. Variations of the vampire-like demons and other manifestations trace back thousands of years, but our stereotypical perception of these undead is largely the result of popular fiction and cinema. There is little doubt that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the most readily conjured image when one considers vampires. Further cementing and popularizing this brand of vampire was the 1931 horror film, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the accepted paradigm of vampirism was embraced and utilized by Gary Gygax, and David Trampier's illustration at once reminds us of Bela Lugosi peering over his cloak-wrapped arm bent at the elbow. Indeed, Gygax touches on many of the popularized attributes of the modern vampire when he states the following:

"...These creatures must rest in a coffin or similar receptacle during hours of sunlight..."

Gygax's AD&D vampire drinks blood, can shape change into a bat, and can charm with its gaze; it also recoils from garlic, the face of a mirror, or a cross (or other holy symbol). They can be killed by sunlight or if a wooden stake is driven through its heart, followed by a beheading. Of course, some AD&D-isms are included, such as the vampire being subject only to magical weapons, an 18/76 strength, and the fact that it can be turned by a high level cleric, but these gaming components are adroitly woven into the presentation.

Whilst the standardized representation of the vampire works perfectly well within the framework of the AD&D game, I must admit I have personally grown rather jaded by this take on vampires. Fiction and film have likewise reduced the vampire to one of triteness for me, perhaps in part due to the voluminous amount of vampire "chick-lit" crowding the shelves of local book store chains. Stephen King's Salem's Lot was a fresh deviation from the paradigm, and so I held it in high esteem as a young man, and to some degree I still do. There are, however, two 20th century authors who portray some of the most thought provoking deviations to the popular notion of vampirism. They are HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

The Shunned House (written 1924, published 1937) by Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Genius Loci (1933) by Clark Ashton Smith challenge our modern notion of the vampire. Gone is the stereotypical image wrought by Bram Stoker, where the vampire has humanlike form and motivation. What Lovecraft and Smith respectively accomplish is the creation of a nonstandard form of vampirism. It is not my intention to summarize these stories point by point, for I feel that readers of this article would derive greater enjoyment by experiencing each tale for themselves. Notwithstanding, I would have to stop writing now were I to completely avoid any "spoiler" material.

In each tale the respective author takes the concept of vampirism and applies it to an a malign force or entity, a wraith-like manifestation that drains its human victims, evoking, in my opinion, greater fear and madness than any man with fangs and cloak could ever accomplish.Whilst Stoker's Dracula (and its many and sundry derivatives) has a palpable form and identity, Lovecraft and Smith present a vampire that can scarcely be quantified on such terms; indeed, what each author has accomplished is the manufacture of a nameless horror that depletes its victims and reduces them to shells of their former selves as they plunge into sheer insanity and, eventually, death.

In The Shunned House and Genius Loci, respectively, the vampire is presented as an incorporeal entity that feeds off its victims, distorts perceptions, and inspires aberrant behavior. Each vampiric entity is distinctive, as is the style and execution of each author. Of the two I feel that HPL more closely touches upon the sort of vampire popularized by Stoker, but only in the broadest of strokes. All who dwell in The Shunned House, generation after generation, suffer various forms of wasting diseases, anaemia, and mild forms of insanity. The closest Lovecraft comes to Stoker's vampirism (and the folklore from which Stoker derived his inspiration) is when he writes the following:

" appallingly grisly circumstance whose duplication was remarkable. It seems that in both instances the dying person...became transfigured in a horrible way; glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throat of the attending physician."

Smith, for his own part, explores what begins as a landscape artist's morbid fascination with a boggy meadow of disturbing quality. Fascination soon escalates to a species of mesmerization or enthrallment that can not be defied. Smith's vampire is perhaps more of a formless entity than Lovecraft's, but both are presented with a focus on a locale that suffers the manifestation of some preternatural malevolence. Notwithstanding, the semblance of a physical form is observed near the end of The Shunned House, particularly when the narrator notes the

"...unthinkable abnormality whose titan elbow I had seen."

But in Genius Loci we never actually see a physical form made manifest, and at length the horror is observed when the narrator relates the following:

"The true horror lay in that thing, which, from a little distance, I had taken for the coils of a slowly moving and rising mist. It was not vapor, nor anything else that could conceivably exist -- that malign, luminous, pallid emanation that enfolded the entire scene before me..."

Exploring vampirism as an environmental event, hazard, or location as opposed to a palpable enemy combatant is an intriguing option for a swords & sorcery role-playing game adventure, and as I type this article, I am inspired by its myriad possibilities. A location that drains its inhabitants of their vitality . . . Might it affect the family of a PC, or some notable villagers whom the local clergy seem unable to assist? Perhaps the PCs themselves are the afflicted by the manifestation. How can such an entity be exorcised? The PCs might have to engage upon some harrowing quest to obtain an artifact that might vanquish the vampiric haunting, or if not some artifact, the clandestine knowledge that might reveal some form of ritual that would banish the affliction. For a more combat oriented adventure, below the locale there might be vast catacombs where past victims dwell in various states of undeath. Perhaps the entity drains from its victims to give itself physical form, some underworld titan vampire as hinted at in The Shunned House.

Experimenting with alternative forms of vampirism could enrich your game, keep your players on their toes, and prevent them from the using meta-knowledge to combat an otherwise stereotypical enemy. I think I might start working on such an adventure soon . . .

(Jeffrey Talanian, 2009)


Rob Kuntz said...

Kudos, my friend. A great new exploration of an old theme. That is the richness of adventuring into the depths presented rather than treading water at the level offered.

Robilar's Ranking: 9 of 10. I only give a 10 if there's a green dragon involved. ;) Oops. I'm not ranking things these days, other than my own declining wit. Oh well. Great stuff Jeff. :)

Heruka said...

Fascinating stuff Lord Ghul... and raising of many interesting and diversifying threads in my imagination. One thread leads me to thinking of non-Eurocentric treatments of vampirism (Penangallan anybody?), another into the treatments of human-formed vampirism as part of a 'disease' motif, often badly decorated with the gothic urge to sexualise what we fear (though 'sexual prana' and the refinement of the possible shapes of sexual desire, which is itself a creative and/or generative power, seems well worth exlporing in character and party dynamics).

Then there's the predatory aspect of vampirism, the other part of the relationship to desire (need to feed versus pleasure principle)and power. Vampires are cultural symbols of many things, among them the ultimate narcissist, special, immortal, but utterly dependent and cursed - desperate to consume the next fix of sustaining life-juice.

Deeper thoughts turn to the way in which vampirism is a profoundly existential state - perhaps an edge that the roleplaying milieu is well equipped to explore. And the whole genius loci aspect seems almost moist with possibilities for engaging other scales of landscape-as-character, opening onto the 'pathetic fallacy' part of the Romantic tradition, and indeed, onto the sublime itself (which I see as a very desirable station on the roleplaying way). I feel that the box you have opened, marked 'Vampire, Do Not Touch', is already revealing much by the moonlight glow. Do you know the books 'Pan & the Nightmare' and 'Dream & the Underworld' by James Hillman? They come to mind here too.

Anyway, enough rambling - I will go and digest what I have bitten off...


Rob Kuntz said...


This type was treated in the Fiend Folio IIRC--uh. let me check the shelf.... Tick-Tick-Tick. Back! Yes, similarly named after the malyasian counterpart: Penangalan (one "L" dropped, hmm). One of the more complex entries for an AD&D monster in fact

"And the whole genius loci aspect seems almost moist with possibilities for engaging other scales of landscape-as-character, opening onto the 'pathetic fallacy' part of the Romantic tradition, and indeed, onto the sublime itself"

Ah, and this touches upon several ideas I have had in the past where the item is the thing, the area the being, etc.