Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 212
9th August 2011
Review Article by Sean Gabb
Sweeter than Wine
L. Neil Smith
Phoenix Pick, Maryland, 2011, 151pp
(ISBN 978 1 60450 483 5)
One of the many things that makes vampires so interesting is the fundamentally plastic nature of how they are regarded. Let us compare them with demons. These appear to have entered the Western consciousness because of Plato. Doubtless, the loose paganism of the Greeks allowed for many other beings beside the established Gods of the pantheon. But it was Plato, I think, who first regularised the notion that we are surrounded by a large number of invisible and immensely powerful creatures, whose interventions in the world of appearance can be seen in unusual events, and who can, with appropriate words and actions, be made to obey the will of those who understand them. This notion was taken over and elaborated by the Church Fathers, whose main contribution was to announce that demons were invariably evil. It reached something like its fullest development in a long essay by Michael Psellus, the “learned Constantinopolitan” who wrote nearly a thousand years ago. Since then, belief in demons has gone through cycles of increase and diminution – but with very little change.
It is different with vampires. I grant that belief in the reanimated dead, who feast on the blood of the living, seems common to mankind. The Greeks believed in vampires. So did the Chinese. So, I think, did the South Americans before Columbus. The details, though – and it is the details that are so important – have never been settled. When I first discovered vampires at the age of twelve, I made the mistake, natural to children, that what I had discovered was a settled class of being. A vampire was an invariably evil, and usually aristocratic and sexually alluring, being, that was active by night, and able to communicate its taint, and that could be repelled by the Cross and destroyed by a stake through the heart or by the rays of the sun. It was only as I read my way through every vampire novel and short story I could find, plus the works of Montague Summers, that I realised the truth. And this is that the notion of vampires, as I had come across it, was a mid-twentieth century synthesis based almost entirely on the literature and films created during the two generations that had followed the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the release of the German film Nosferatu. There are precursors to Dracula – John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu, whoever wrote Varney the Vampire, and so forth. But it was largely Bram Stoker who began the synthesis, and it reached its canonic form in the Hammer films of the 1960s, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Even as the Hammer films were being made, the synthesis was breaking down. Most important in this breakdown is the shifting relationship between vampirism and religion. Like demons, the pre-literary vampires of Europe were enemies of God, and were, by definition, frightened of crosses and holy water and the other objects of Christianity. This was carried over into Dracula and Nosferatu. It was unquestioned in other stories and films, even when these were partly or entirely created by American Jews. But it could be sustained in the Hammer films only because these were set in a universally Christian Central European past. It could not be maintained in a present world where not every character could be assumed to be a Christian, or even a believer.
The first change seems to have been made by Richard Matheson, in I am Legend. In his America taken over by vampires, some of whom had once been Jews, the Cross only frightens those who had once been Christians. Former Jews are frightened by the Star of David. This is an important change, as fear of the Cross is degraded from fear of God to a purely psychological quirk of some vampires. The change was parodied in Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, but was soon replaced by the different change made by Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. Here, the Cross works against every vampire – but only so far as the person using it believes in its power. There is no endorsement of the Christian Faith – only an acceptance that certain religious symbols are useful to focus an independent repulsive power. What we can see, then, is a shift in the portrayal of vampires that follows shifts in popular attitudes.
More recently, we have seen changes even in the fundamental nature of vampires. A creature that must survive by drinking the blood of the living must, on first inspection, be evil – or at least as hostile to mankind as wolves and mosquitoes. And the Hammer films rejoiced in this evil. But there was an American television series of the 1970s – I never saw this, and have now forgotten the details – in which the hero was a reluctant vampire. There was, of course, Interview with a Vampire, by Anne Rice, in which the hero is a vampire who tries, so far as he can, to behave decently. But the idea remained fixed that, however restrained some might be, vampires on the whole enemies of mankind by virtue of their being. This is obscured, though not challenged, by all those vampire novels written for teenage girls. So far as I can tell, by making all the flitting about by night, and the blood drinking, rather sexy.
What L. Neil Smith has done, in his latest novel, is to break clean away from the idea of necessary evil. J. Gifford happens to be a vampire. He was made one in 1944, when, as a soldier, he got lost in France and met up with a vampiress who turned him during several weeks of frenzied sexual enjoyment. Since then, he has come back to America, and has become a popular and productive member of his community. Some of those round him know what he is, and do their best to help keep his secret. His powers come in useful for his career as a private detective. He will live forever. He will stay young and beautiful forever. He will enjoy the good things of life forever. Other than this, he is a pretty ordinary, gun-loving American libertarian.
It is difficult to say much about the novel without giving away its rather tense plot. However, I read it with great enjoyment in one sitting, and do assure you that Sweeter than Wine is first class novel by a writer at the top of his form. I am not sure if it is better or worse than his most famous novel, The Probability Broach. I can only say that it is different. But this is in itself a compliment. The problem with many novelists is that they have one early hit, and spend the rest of their lives in various forms of self-imitation. This is certainly not the case with Neil. He is a fantasy writer. But fantasy is a very wide genre, and he has never stayed in any one area of it. It is impressive and admirable, after thirty or so novels, still to be able to come up with something as unexpected and original as Sweeter than Wine.
You do not need to be one yourself to appreciate the technical excellencies of other novelists, but I suppose it does help. Something I do greatly admire about this novel – and Neil’s work in general – is its seamless integration of opinion into plot. Most novelists have strong opinions about politics, or religion, or sex, or whatever. The difference between a good and a bad novelist is how he manages to express his opinions without interrupting the flow of the plot. I may be uttering a gross heresy among libertarians, but I have always wished that Ayn Rand had given Atlas Shrugged to a ruthless editor. The resulting text might not so effectively have converted generations of the young to a form of libertarianism. But it would have flowed rather better without all those ten page speeches.
Where Neil is concerned, look at a passage in Chapter 18, where Gifford is being retained by a woman who wants her husband tracked down, so he can be dragged into court and made to work himself to death to pay her maintenance. In this, he manages to pass scathing judgement on the divorce laws and their entitlement culture without once stopping the flow of narrative between Gifford and his client, or stepping outside his main plot. He finds time for asides like this one:
The trouble here, of course, was judges, full of law school drivel in no way connected with real life, and two centuries of the insanity of justification by precedent, giving away other people’s money, and destroying their lives, a process bound to continue until the American people rediscover the fact that a lamppost can serve more than one purpose. [p.96]
It takes skill to work this sort of thing into a narrative without breaking the flow. And there is much more like this.
But let me come back to the wider matter of evil. In the synthesis that culminates in the Hammer films, there is a duality so strong that it never requires explicit statement. This is that vampires are evil – and that the forces of state and church arrayed against them are good. There is a priest in one of the Hammer films who is seduced by evil. But he returns to good at the last minute, and his own defection only emphasises the otherwise fixed duality. Magistrates are on the side of good. So are priests and doctors. Monasteries are places of refuge. Village elders mean well when they cry “Don’t go up to the Castle!” The forces of good are often weakened by scepticism – “Vampires? Don’t be absurd!” – “But I’m a man of science!” – and so forth. But they always accept the evidence of their senses in the end, and then do what is right to preserve a good moral order.
What we see in Sweeter than Wine is a full acceptance that the moral order in which we live is not necessarily good, and that it raises systematic barriers to the good life for mortals and immortals alike. In this sense, what Neil has written is as much a departure from the synthesis as I am Legend. Matheson divorced vampires from a religious view of the world. Neil divorces vampires from the idea that they are the enemy of all that is good. And this is an interesting development. One of the reasons why ruling classes have always taken an interest in the arts is that poets really are the legislators of mankind. The propaganda that pours off the pages of our newspapers, or from the television screen, is of purely local use. In itself, it produces cognitive dissonance. It can, for example, stop people from fully accepting the evidence of their senses or the conclusions of their common sense. It can tell us that this is “the hottest summer since records began,” or that we are richer in every sense that matters than our parents were, or that bombing countries full of non-whites into the stone age is an humanitarian act. Coupled with a police state, this sort of propaganda can stop people for very long periods from shouting the truth. But it is the arts – nowadays, films, television programmes, novels, popular music – that change the way that people think. When vampires change sides, and are no longer seen as the enemies of mankind, this may indicate a general shift of attitudes towards the established order.
There is one further, though associated, consideration. This is the immortality of vampires. In the old synthesis, vampires lived for a very long time. But this was usually a longevity that only put off the ever-lasting torments of Hell. This was one of the reasons why vampires were so malevolent – the longer they managed to put off the inevitable, the worse it would be. But the Fires of Hell are nowadays a minority belief, and many more people like the idea of unlimited life-extension. Whatever they may hope, few believe that death is the gateway to a better and ever-lasting life. At the same time, we have lived for the better part of a century with the firm promise that scientific progress would eventually allow us to live out our maximum span of life, and would then extend that span.
The problem is that science has been largely co-opted by a ruling class that does not regard its progress as self-evidently a good thing. I see no reason in itself why we should live in a world where getting to ninety is almost as astonishing as it was for the Ancient Greeks. But I see many reasons why this will not be allowed to change in time for me to avoid those last few weeks in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of me.
And so Neil has given us vampires who do not spend their days sleeping on grave dirt and their nights driven mad by thoughts of their final punishment. As said, J. Gifford is forever young and forever beautiful – and he can spend the whole of eternity playing with guns and eating pizza and having wonderful sex with the vampiress who turned him in France. It is an enjoyable fantasy. It may also be powerfully subversive propaganda against an established order that grows more obviously evil by the day.
A few years ago, I sat down with David Carr and laid out the plot of a vampire novel that covered similar themes. Sadly, David has not so far written this novel. Now that L. Neil Smith has given us his triumphant Sweeter than Wine, I do feel half inclined to write one of my own.