Don't read this until you have read "Unquiet Slumbers." available on this blog, first.
In Danse Macabre, his non-fiction examination of horror, Stephen King discussed the "Tarot Hand" of archetypes that dominate the genre. There is the Ghost (the great granddaddy of all horror archetypes), the Werewolf, the Thing Without a Name, and the Vampire. I don't recall off the top of my head if there was also an archetype called the Bad Place, but if there wasn't there should have been. At any rate, horror stories revolve around these archetypes, whether singularly or in tandem. If it scares you, it probably can be traced back to one or more of them. Unquiet Slumbers, a story I wrote about back in 2003 feverishly and over three days, was a chance to play with a hand of three of those archetypes; the Ghost, the Vampire, and the Bad Place.
Of all those cards, the one I am most cautious to play is the Vampire, an archetype that has frankly been done to death. It is so overused that it is barely ever scary, acting as a "sex symbol" instead (and I mean that both in the sense of being sexy and as being a symbol for sexual relations). The ravenous medieval monster is now a sparkly Mormon messenger telling good girls to save it for their wedding nights. Of course, I wrote Unquiet Slumbers before the world was made to suffer Twilight, but things were already headed in that direction. Vampires had hired PR agents and were rebranding themselves as misunderstood anti-heroes with BDSM overtones (it's not coincidence that the BDSM novel 50 Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction). Even Dracula himself was now a romantic hero, Coppola's curiously named Bram Stoker's Dracula was about as far removed from Bram Stoker's actual Dracula as you could get. I didn't want to ride the Frank Langella/Anne Rice bandwagon.
So what I decided to do was to try and write a very retro vampire story, something almost medieval, stripped of even the 19th century gothic fascination bestowed on the creature. My model was the famous "Mercy Brown" incident, a very real and curious event. For those who don't know it, in Exeter, Rhode Island, at the end of the 19th century, a family named Brown became plagued by tuberculosis, which picked them off one by one. Friends and neighbors persuaded George Brown that it was the work of the undead, and in 1892 he exhumed three family members to find one--the corpse of Mary Brown--still apparently fresh and full of blood. This was taken as a sign that Mary was responsible, so her heart was removed from her body and burnt. Poor George died two months later anyway. But this American vampire story, so close to the 20th century, had been in the back of my head for some time and became the blueprint for Slumbers.
The Vampire was of course the central card in my hand as I told Slumbers (though I decided to never actually use the word "vampire" in the entire tale, a trick I would borrow for a different monster in The Man Cub), but the Ghost and the Bad Place cast shadows over the story too. In my own mind I have never been sure if the spectral apparitions the narrator sees outside the living room windows are vampires like Stephan or the forlorn ghosts of his victims. I lean towards the latter. And the idea of the mountain being dangerous in winter, and of the nasty bend in the road where the narrator lost his parents, were flirtatious with the Bad Place.
The same year I wrote Unquiet Slumbers, I also wrote the novella that would grow up into the novel The Man Cub. I considered likewise expanding and fleshing Slumbers out, but in the end decided I liked this little tale the way it was. But the Vampire, the Ghost, and the Bad Place is a hard hand to beat, and I knew I hadn't written them out of my system yet. So this year I have picked them up to play again in my newest project, Sinclair House, in a larger and more ambitious way. I don't want to say any more about the project at this stage, but despite being very different animals, Sinclair House and Slumbers share a bit of DNA. Stay tuned.
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