The recent surge of vampirism in pop culture has left many fans of the genre with an unsavory taste in the mouth, and it is not hard to see why. With so much focus on mushy romantic heroes and a complete disregard for true ingenuity, this cookie-cutter formula has quickly overstayed its welcome. It is in troubling times like these that we must think back to the works which first instilled our wonder and interest in the genre, works like: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), and Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry (1980). Unfamiliar with that last one? Well, just keep reading then.
Let me start off by saying that The Vampire Tapestry is anything but your typical vampire novel. At the time of its publication, America was as it is now—bored with vampires. Fourteen years of Hammer Film’s vampire series (1960-1974), five years of the hit TV show Dark Shadows (1966-1971), and two best-seller novels—Salem’s Lot (1975) and Interview with the Vampire (1976)—had all but completely tapped the market. The world of science fiction was turning on vampires and becoming dominated by George Lucas’s Star Wars. It may come as no surprise then that in the 1980’s, some authors took it upon themselves to reconstruct the vampire theme. Suzy McKee Charnas headed this front with her creation of Dr. Edward Lewis Weyland and The Vampire Tapestry.
Dr. Weyland differs from the mythological vampire archetype in many ways. For instance, he does not sleep in a coffin, fear garlic, spontaneously take the form of a bat, or convert victims into vampires through his feeding practices. In fact, he doesn’t even have long canine teeth fangs, but rather, uses a small skin-piercing dart located underneath his tongue to acquire blood. What is perhaps most revolutionary about Weyland’s character though is the basis of his vampirism. Rather than being some spawn of the devil or supernatural being, he is a natural and normal member of his biologic species. Although Charnas was not the first to have envisioned vampires in this way, she was one of the first to fully develop the concept.
Being that Weyland’s condition arises from biologic means, we as readers are more inclined to sympathize with his situation. Throughout the centuries, Weyland has survived by periodically entering extended states of hibernation only to awaken to new and drastically changing environments. To add to the problem, these long periods of rest effectively erase all memories of his past “life.” While basic hunting, communication, and academic skills are retained, he is unable to recollect the people, places, and events which he has encountered. With no knowledge of his origin, and no other members of his species to interact with, Weyland is forced to lead an inherently solitary life.
The social constraints which Weyland faces consequently give rise to rather interesting predator-prey dynamics. Although entirely conceivable, Weyland is no cold-hearted murderer who disdains humankind. Instead, he is a civilized, sophisticated, and respected member of the scientific community who has learned to form an uneasy empathy with his prey in order to survive. At times, I was surprised at just how deep these relationships became. If nothing else, Weyland is certainly unlike any other “monster” that you have come across.
As for the narrative, The Vampire Tapestry is composed of five novella-lengthed, free-standing chapters which are stitched together to form one episodic plot, or hence the name, tapestry. Chapter one, entitled “The Ancient Mind at Work,” is centered around an older woman by the name of Katje de Groot who happens to work at the same college where Weyland is a professor. After discovering his true identity, Katje moves in on Weyland in order to take care of him once and for all.
Chapter two, entitled “The Land of Lost Content,” was perhaps my favorite segment of the novel. In this chapter, Weyland finds himself captive in the apartment of a sleaze named Roger and his nephew Mark. As Weyland’s situation becomes increasingly bleaker, Mark empathetically befriends the trapped vampire. When Roger enlists the aide of a Satanist by the name of Alan Reese, Mark realizes that he must act quickly if he is to save his newfound “friend.”
The following chapter, “Unicorn Tapestry,” received the Nebula award in 1981 for best novella. After eventually escaping the confines of Roger’s apartment, Weyland begins seeing a psychotherapist by the name of Floria in order to regain his professorship. Initially, Weyland attempts to manipulate Floria and her therapy sessions. As the time progress however, Weyland accepts the process with hopes to finally uncover who and what he truly is.
Chapter four, “A Musical Interlude,” follows Weyland throughout the course of an opera performance. This chapter is significantly slower placed than the rest, but it helps to expose Weyland’s increasing psychological tension and set up the climatic ending of the novel.
In the final chapter, “The Last of Dr. Weyland,” we are introduced to another anthropologist by the name of Irv. Irv is the complete antithesis of Weyland in terms of social behavior; he strives for and is fueled by social interactions. When Irv suddenly collapses under the weight of societal pressures, Weyland realizes that he too must accept his own inescapable fate.
As a whole, I found the book to be a fantastic read. I would strongly recommend it to long-time fans of the genre and newcomers alike. The Vampire Tapestry pushes the bounds of our preconceived notions around vampires. It makes us question the old mythologies and in turn fabricate our own personal images of what these creatures/beings are. What’s more, it forces us to consider our own perceptions of humanity and social interactions. Aside for some slight pacing issues, namely in the fourth chapter, I believe that it ranks among the best vampire novels out there.