Sunday, October 12, 2014

Urban Fantasy - character evolution

I read a bit of what is commonly referred to as urban fantasy these days (years ago it was contemporary fantasy) and my tastes also commonly overlap into what is known as paranormal fiction, although my paranormal is generally heavy on the paranormal and quite light on the romance.

I was watching Teen Wolf the other day (I actually do like the show, it's a lot better than many have given it credit for, especially since season 3, I have rarely ever seen a show click in the way it did after 2 fairly so so seasons) and I started to realise that urban fantasy has drifted from the page and onto the screen in a big way over the last 15 - 20 years.

Teen Wolf is, as the title suggests, mostly about werewolves, and it bears about as much resemblance to the teen comedy that inspired the current show as Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie did to the TV show that bore the same name.

This got me wondering about the staples of urban fantasy and how they've evolved over the years from the stars of books that you didn't want to admit you read to horror movies that you didn't want to admit you'd actually watched to mainstream TV shows that you're actually kind of proud you do watch.

If I'm going to look at these types of creatures then I need to start somewhere and that's with the one that in many people's eyes seemed to start it all; the vampire.

NOTE: these views are entirely my own and probably won't be exhaustive as well as being fairly coloured by personal opinion.

The Vampire:

The most famous vampire is probably a Transylvanian nobleman who may or may not have been related to the real Vlad Tepes, a 15th century rule from the country of Wallachia who was rather notorious for his penchant of impaling his enemies, so much so that history knows him as Vlad the Impaler.

I am of course speaking about Count Dracula, the name has become synonymous with vampires in general.

Contrary to popular opinion Bram Stoker's 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula was not the first appearance of the blood sucking creatures in modern fiction.

That honour goes to a work published in 1819. The Vampyre by John Polidori. The author was a friend and personal physician of Lord Byron and present at Lake Geneva when Byron suggested that each of his guests write a ghost story after reading from Fantasmagoria - a French collection of German horror tales. One of the guests; the fiancee of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, wrote the beginnings of what would become Frankenstein, and Polidori came up with The Vampyre.

The theme continued in penny dreadfuls, the best known being Varney the Vampire in 1847. I have to admit I've never been able to take a vampire called Varney seriously. It keeps making me think of Reg Varney, the British comedian who made his name by playing laddish bus driver Stan Butler in British classic comedy On the Buses, although I have to admit if someone told me that Stan's morose brother-in-law Arthur Rudge was in fact a vampire I'd probably believe them. It explains a lot about Arthur.

It was however Stoker's highly successful novel that captured public imagination and set most of what is accepted about vampires, even now over 100 years after it's publication, in place.

Vampires continued to be popular, especially in film, right up until the 1950's. There was the German cinema classic Nosferatu in 1922, but the most popular films were American and made in the 1930's starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

Lugosi's portrayal, complete with cape and accent tended to be how people viewed vampires for years afterwards. Sesame Street's counting vampire; The Count, is clearly based on Lugosi's Dracula.

The other actor that became identified with the character was British actor Christopher Lee. Lee played Dracula in a number of films for Hammer Horror between 1958 and 1973.

In the 60's and 70's TV started to take over the job of keeping the vampire legend alive. A search for a vampire was the basis for the pilot of 70's TV horror show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Vampires were also featured in the show Dark Shadows. By that time vampire films were also being rerun and watched regularly by modern audiences as well.

Vampires were always popular fodder for horror novels and even Stephen King had a go at it in Salem's Lot (1975). George R.R Martin (best known for the A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, adapted by HBO for it's hit TV series Game of Thrones) wrote an excellent vampire novel; Fevre Dream in 1982. Vampires probably jumped back into the public consciousness in a big way when Anne Rice released Interview with a Vampire in 1994. Her vampire books, featuring the hedonistic, androgynous French vampire Lestat gave people a different look at the creatures. It added to films like The Hunger (1983), The Lost Boys (1987) and 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer in taking an alternative view of the vampire.

Laurell K. Hamilton just managed to get a jump on Anne Rice with her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, the first book Guilty Pleasures came out in 1993. The first few books of this series weren't too bad at all, but bit by bit the books seem to become more of an excuse for Anita to sleep with as many characters as possible and the sex became more important than the story. Anita's world was the first time I can remember seeing vampires portrayed as accepted, if not well liked, members of society openly, rather than knowledge of their existence being hidden away from the general public. This was a tack that Kim Harrison took with her The Hollows series and Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampires Mysteries, starring the part fae mindreader Sookie Stackhouse and was later filmed by HBO as True Blood, also took with their entries into the urban fantasy sub genre.

Mercedes Lackey preceded them with her short lived Diana Tregarde series, which the author cut short, for among other reasons, a lack of sales. While the Diana Tregarde books did feature vampires, they were essentially about the title character who was a witch, and vampires were in that series hidden away and their existence was kept secret.

Things changed, certainly for me, and probably for vampires in general when Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy put the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the WB Network in 1997. Whedon had written the original film, but maintained that it went through significant changes before it reached the big screen. The show was more what he had always intended to create with the film.

The show was initially about Buffy Summers, who like Abraham van Helsing and Marvel Comics half vampire Blade and even Hamilton's Anita Blake, was a vampire hunter, or in the mythology of the show a Slayer. However when they introduced the character of Angel, a vampire with a soul, they changed the dynamic of the show and how many consumers saw vampires. The appearance of the character Spike in the 2nd season of the show altered it further. Vampires suddenly became romantic leads with depth and not just creepy super powered blood suckers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer spawned spin off Angel and probably was responsible for the highly regarded, but unfortunately short lived Moonlighting.

In 2005 another game changer hit the market. Twilight. Vampires that don't burst into flames if they go into the sun, but instead sparkle. While the value of the books and the resultant films can be argued ad infinitum, their impact can't. Stephenie Meyer tried to do something that was different and she succeeded, although given the ridicule the idea has received I doubt anyone else will do it.

Vampires are starting to wane a little, although they're still quite popular in fiction, and they'll never go away entirely, but since the publication of Dracula in 1897 they've gone through quite a few changes and they'll no doubt go through a few more before the world is done with them, if ever.

The following list is by no means exhaustive and is as I said at the start largely coloured by personal opinion:
Essential Reading:
Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Salem's Lot by Stephen King.
Fevre Dream by George R.R Martin.
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice.
Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton.
The Hollows by Kim Harrison.
The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.
The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks.
Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine.
The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.

Essential Viewing:
Nosferatu (1922)
Dracula (Bela Lugosi - 1931)
Dracula (Christopher Lee - 1958)
The Hunger (1983)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Interview with a Vampire (1994)
Let the Right One In (2008)

Dark Shadows (1966 - 71)
Forever Knight (1992 - 96)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
Angel (1999 -2004)
Moonlight (2007)
Being Human - UK version (2008 -13)
True Blood (2008 - 14)

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