Writing Right with Dmitri: What are the Monsters About? (I)
Note: This rant is intended to be entertaining. It is also aimed at the mechanics of writing supernatural fiction. It is not intended to diss either actors – who are the real victims here – or longsuffering audiences, who didn't do anything wrong and are merely watching to pass the time. So stay off my case.
Recently, I made the mistake of starting to watch True Blood. I should know better: it's a vampire story with sexy young people in it. I don't know how far I'll get. I was seduced by the realisation that an actor I like left the show I was watching to join this cast, and I wanted to see how he did going from dedicated policeman to ancient Undeadnik. I'm not sure if I'll make it to his appearance, though. The accents are driving me nuts.
Redneck vampires. In Louisiana, which they call 'Looziana', awkwardly. Biting people in the 7-Eleven. Australian actors doing Bubba imitations. An English actor trying to channel Elvis. I spent my early childhood speaking Gulf Southern, an experience I do not wish to repeat, ever. Unfortunately, it has left me with a critical ear when it comes to the Deep South, one which destroys any hope of my appreciating Tennessee Williams revivals. This is one strike against True Blood. The second is that it started out as a premium cable series, which means there is a lot of gratuitous cussing and sex, which is frankly boring.
Okay, it's funny. So far, that's the series' not-quite-saving grace. That, and I'm hanging on to find out which character is shape-shifting into a dog. Even though I know none of those actors can pronounce the word 'dog' with any sort of verisimilitude1. My head hurts. My inner ears hurt.
Why do I mention this, other than to moan about it? Because it has occurred to me that the first question you have to ask yourself in genre fiction is: what is it really about? Okay, vampires. But what are vampires to you? Are they about transgressive sexuality? Runaway capitalism? Vergangenheitsbewältigung, aka dealing with the past?
The writers of this series are not dealing with the past very well, although I found the idea of a vampire who was a Civil War veteran (of course, they had to drag in the War right away) addressing a meeting of the Descendants of the Glorious Dead (funny name, and keeps them from being sued by the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, which are real organisations) delightfully funny. It could have been funnier, though. They treated that conflict with too much respect for my taste. The scene could also have been insightful, but wasn't. They could have told a few truths about war, and power, and faulty memory, but then they might lose audience numbers and advertising money. So it goes.
You know what vampires aren't? They aren't what Stephen King said they were. They aren't the fear of death personified. They're sort of the opposite: the idea of cheating death. Also the idea of cheating responsibility, by avoiding judgement. Instead of answering for what they've done, vampires hang around and parasitise the living. But if you're going to write a vampire story, I don't care why you do it, you will have to decide what they're doing on your page or screen or in your opera. You can't avoid that responsibility. Even if you think they're 'just for fun', you'll have to decide why they exist. Do they exist to keep Hungarian actors gainfully employed, or to annoy the heck out of said Hungarian actors?
The same goes for zombies. Or werewolves. (Werewolves aren't as popular as vampires. Why? Is it the flea problem? The werewolves in this series are mostly antisocial rednecks.) Or mad scientists and their offspring. Or ghosts. I could go on, but I won't. You get the idea.
It's no use saying, 'They're just there.' They aren't, you know. With the possible exception of ghosts, none of these things has ever been seen – at least not by reliable witnesses, as Douglas Adams once said. You're making them up. Face up to the fact, and realise, too, that you're making them up for a reason.
Figure out what the reason is, and your story is halfway there. It's your choice. And no: you don't have to tell anybody what the reason is. They'll figure it out. You don't have to come out with a philosophical thesis about it. But when Kate Nelligan says
You dare try to confuse me! Tormenting him who is the saddest, the kindest of all…
then we get a glimpse into what John Badham thought Dracula was about. And it wasn't immigration.
If you really don't want to know why you like zombies or werewolves or Frankenstein monsters so much, that's fine. But if you're going to tell a story about them, you've got to make a choice about their raison d'être. This can even differ from story to story. Changing your mind is permitted. But one implied metaphor per narrative, please.
Update: I'm into season 4, and the series is growing on me, rather like fungus. The second season was dead boring, pun intended, because the script folks seemed to be channeling their inner soap opera writers. But once they got the idea that what the audience wanted was comic-book stuff, things improved. They killed off most of the actors with the truly terrible accents, kept the ones from Texas and Georgia with enough sense not to try Gulfspeak, and brought in characters from outside the Mushmouth District. While the main couple continue to run the emotional gamut from A to B (apparently, they are now married in RL, with twins), we don't care, because…Alexander Skarsgård and his Swedish-speaking Viking vampire friends. He's hilarious, and the ladies like him. Not for nothing was Skarsgård five times voted the 'sexiest man in Sweden'. The series is pretty entertaining, due to lines like 'You can't have any more, you drank the whole fairy,' and I recommend it with the following viewer warnings:
- The 'pecan pie' scene is, in the words of a Twitter user, 'the most horrifying thing on the show.' That is not a pecan pie. That is a dish of pecan halves atop some non-fat glop, because Sookie (lord, what a name!) is determined to stay a Size Zero.
- I sincerely hope nobody at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, saw this show, because they are the closest thing we've got to an anti-defamation society for hillbillies. The were-panthers are stock figures from a 1940s Life magazine exposé on the horrors of mountain inbreeding – or, as the series puts it, 'Deliverance extras'.
- I've checked, and yes, the Wiccans raised a fuss about season four. Alarm bells went off when that woman started chanting, 'Blessèd be.' For those clueless people who wail, 'But it's only for fun!' I say, see the original rant on this page, and remember: vampires and werepanthers aren't real. Wiccans, however, are, and deserve as much respect as the rest of us – which also includes people living in the Ozarks.
- Kudos to the actors! They're doing a wonderful job with an inherently ridiculous script. The jokes are funny because they make them so. Also their 'popping out fangs' trick, which they accomplish with elan and gusto. When you realise that every time the fangs come out, they had to stop and put in the dentalwork, it's even funnier. A bit like when the Dark Shadows people had a sign up reminding Jonathan Frid 'Don't Forget Your Fangs!' Vampire fiction can be fun.
Shutting up now. I want to find out how the Vampire King of Louisiana is making out now that he's found out his latest gf is really his great-great-great-great-granddaughter….