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Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today
Katherine Ramsland
HarperPrism Books, 371 pages

Photo: Nick Romanenko
Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today
Katherine Ramsland
Katherine Ramsland holds an M.A. in clinical psychology and Ph.D. in philosophy. Her Engaging the Immediate: Applying Kierkegaard's Indirect Communication to Psychotherapy combined these interests. Ramsland is better known for her biographies of horror writers Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice and Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography. She has also produced companion volumes to Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, Erotica and Lives of the Mayfair Witches, as well as The Anne Rice Reader. As early as 1989, some of her interpretations of the psychological drives of those claiming to be vampires were outlined in an article in Psychology Today entitled "Hunger for the Marvelous: The Sudden, Curious Allure of the Vampire."

Katherine Ramsland Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Be forewarned, if you want the Jerry Springer version of vampires in America, the stories of Goth mall-rats, or the born-again Christian version of vampires as Satanists corrupting just about everybody, this book is not for you. If you are looking for accounts of psychotic serial killers with blood drinking fetishes, well you will find one chapter, but that in the context of their aberrant psychological behaviour. Again, you'll be disappointed if you are looking for evidence of corpses risen Night of the Living Dead-like from the grave to drain humans of their blood. However, this is for you, if you are looking for an in-depth, well balanced, open-minded and clinically unbiased window onto the current vampyre subculture in North America -- vampyre being the term coined by modern-day vampire enthusiasts or fetishists to describe themselves, whereas the mythological undead are termed vampires.

In the summer of 1996 a young female reporter disappeared without a trace while investigating the underground vampyre scene in New York city. Katherine Ramsland was initially drawn into doing this book in an attempt to bring to light any new information on the disappearance, but the book quickly diverged from this original tack, given the closed-mouth attitude of the vampyre community. Given her close association with Anne Rice, it was fairly easy for her to make contact with and begin a semi-participatory investigation of this subculture. She first entered the world of vampyre clubs and parties, with their sexual fetishists, true blood-drinkers, willing victims, musicians, role-players, merchandisers and assorted Goths. She travelled from Manhattan, to Los Angeles by way of Chicago and Las Vegas, meeting, interviewing and mingling with the vampyre community that has largely grown up around Anne Rice's bestselling vampire novels. Ramsland chronicles her extensive interactions with a wide range of members of the vampyre community in detail. She discusses people's psychological needs that are fulfilled in their vampire fantasies or lifestyles, and how the immortality and near limitless power of the vampire are powerful attractants for the those who are already outsiders or lead tedious mundane (the term vampyres use for the general non-vampyre population) lives. Interestingly, as with the punk rock scene, many of those who adopted the anti-establishment "anti-ritual" of the vampyre lifestyle have now created a whole new stringent set of vampyre-rituals, and some are now again redefining themselves to escape conformity. Ramsland also quickly discovers that the same prejudices and cliques that plague society are also prevalent in the vampire community: "true" vampyres denigrate role-players and Goths, who in turn may consider blood-drinking "true" vampires to be psychopaths. In this vampyres have a lot in common with science-fiction fandom.

In this regard, one of the most important things Ramsland does, is to show that the number of junkies, Satanists and assorted other sociopaths in the ranks of vampyredom are actually very few. Similarly she makes it clear that those involved in the popular vampyre role-playing game The Masquerade don't all turn into Jack the Rippers, as some might want you to think. Most members of the vampire community appear, however strange their interests might seem to some, just a bunch of people out to have a good time, and as with any group, the publicity around the few bad apples shouldn't be made to reflect on the whole community. Ramsland also includes a well designed index and a thorough listing of snail mail and internet addresses for various vampyre-related groups.

While Ramsland should be praised for avoiding the tabloid approach to her subject, her extensively researched scientific-clinical psychology-documentary approach doesn't make for the greatest page-turner of all time. It tends to read more like a thesis or a psychological case study than a popular survey of the mores of vampyres. Readers outside the scientific or vampyre communities may find the presentation a bit dry. If there is any bias in her book it is that many of the conversations with vampyres she presents seem to be with people who are her intellectual equals: well-educated, having pondered the philosophical implications of their lifestyle choice, and able discuss it coherently with her. While these are certainly fairly interesting people, surely a healthy proportion of young vampyre-wannabes likely would have little more to say than "Hey! it's a great way to get laid!", and this should have it's own psychological implications.

Rev. Montague Summers (1880-1948) in his classic studies The Vampire, His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929) presented the vampire historically as a quasi-real, amoral and supernatural monster requiring crucifixes, oak stakes and Christian invocations to defeat it. Ramsland discusses the portrayal of the "new vampyre" by Anne Rice and her contemporaries as not simply the ultimately evil, soulless, undead, blood-feast-driven psychopath of yesteryear, but as a multi-dimensional, humanistic, cultured, and even pitiful creature. Given my antiquarian tastes in vampires, I have read all of Summers' vampire lore, but confess, cultural illiterate that I am, to having read none of Rice's novels. Hence, I tend to prefer vampire over vampyre. Nonetheless, it strikes me that the vampyre community and to some extent Ramsland have tended to discount earlier writers as purveyors of psychologically uni-dimensional vampires. Yet, even the early Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) alternatively attributed to Thomas Peckett Prest (c. 1810-1879) or James Malcolm Rymer, presents a vampire whose pangs of conscience finally lead him to commit suicide by throwing himself into the volcanic crater of Mt. Etna. Similarly, an excellent Edwardian short story, whose title escapes me, tells of a vampire's valiant but futile attempts to repress her instincts. Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) in his non-fiction work The Book of Werewolves (1865) gives a lengthy discussion of lycanthropy as a psychological disorder rather than a supernatural phenomenon. All this goes to show that Anne Rice and her peers did not invent the "new vampyre," but that he has been around for quite awhile, though perhaps overshadowed by the vampire.

Notwithstanding this minor difference of opinion, Ramsland's well-documented book should be a must for anyone interested in this fascinating cultural movement, so file your teeth, put on your cape and flutter your little bat-wings to the nearest bookstore to find yourself a copy of Piercing the Darkness.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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