Has the sun come up? Has a new day dawned? Although the days are long vampires are everywhere, proving that Vlad the Impaler, the ur-vampire of European legend and literature, has a frighteningly long reach.
Bram Stoker invented the franchise as a great gothic trope, with Dracula as the ultimate wanderer, the undead descendant of the Wandering Jew who, as legend has it, denied Christ water along the way to Golgotha and as punishment traverses the earth forever, a marked (and undead) man. Stephen King toyed with vampirism. Anne Rice perfected it. Stephenie Meyer’s name enters this list only because of her shallow (though enormously successful) attempt to cash in on it.
As a general rule, vampires, as Jill Lepore suggested last month in the New York Times Book Review, are about love — but not the simple Sunday kind. Vampires, even when they flap those big bat wings, arouse as much as alarm, so the love they dramatize seems almost always sharply tinged with eroticism.
For some of the writers who have employed vampires in the past few years, however, romance has taken a back seat to fear. Award-winning writer and novelist Justin Cronin decided to make them the focus of his attempt at a popular triumph, discarding the legend. In “The Passage,” the first volume in a projected trilogy (the second of which, “The Twelve,” will be published in the fall), a secret military bio-war project goes viral and infects the nation with a a strain of vampire-like mutants. Whatever aesthetic success Cronin might have achieved in his for-profit fiction venture has been perhaps trumped by “The Strain,’’ the first installment of a vampire trilogy by film director Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan.
So the vampire has had a rather full life in death in modern western fiction. Why then, you might ask, would Carlos Fuentes, one of the most gifted and important writers in the western hemisphere, take up this heavily worked over subject?
His “Vlad” stands as only a little more than a hundred pages, a bit longer than Fuentes’s 1961 novella “Aura.” Like the earlier book, this new one exists in the nether world between long short story and novel, a realm in which writers can try out their obsessions at greater length than in a short story but without all of the time and energy a long novel requires.
Both books show Fuentes at work on the motif of enchantment and entrapment by a compelling demi-supernatural figure amid one of the most sophisticated urban territories in the world. In “Aura,’’ composed quite early in Fuentes’s career, that figure is an entrancing witch, who plays on the young hero’s desire for love and affection, mainly his turning away from the dreary everyday world of modern Mexico. In “Vlad” a young Mexico City lawyer becomes entrapped before he becomes entranced.
Vlad, who because of historical and social circumstances on his home turf (his holdings have not done well in the shifting economics of modern Europe), has decided to immigrate from Eastern Europe to the New World. Looking to re-establish a financial and real estate empire, he moves to Mexico City and secures the help of Yves Navarro, an ambitious young lawyer, who has a seemingly devoted realtor wife, Asunción, and a 10-year-old daughter, Magdelena. The family is still mourning the drowning death of an adolescent son. Vlad has plans for the lawyer, the wife (and the daughter!) which go far beyond mere business. As it turns out, their very souls are, to make a bad if appropriate pun, at stake.
Vlad is hardly a physically bewitching figure (unlike the romantic shape-shifting Aura). Narrator Yves notes that he wears a “black turtleneck shirt, black pants, and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous, extra-large but strangely undefined, as though a hawk had disguised itself as a raven . . . His mahogany-colored hairpiece slid sideways, so he constantly had to adjust it.”
Despite his appearance, Vlad, whom Fuentes portrays as an immortal Casanova with fangs, comes to titillate and stays to incorporate, giving Yves the task of managing his purchase of a house that Asunción helps to find, a place that situates him in the center of a Mexico City that Vlad hungrily views as a vast blood farm.
Lawyers and vampires, rather than standing as opposites (as Yves initially views the situation), work rather beautifully together by the end. After a brief period of arranging contracts and assigning real estate, the earnest, upwardly-mobile Yves, his complicated wife, and their innocent daughter, for whom the undead monster has terrifying plans, fall rather precipitously under Vlad’s spell. The portrait of the young Mexican middle-class couple on the make gradually becoming enmeshed in the machinations of the blood-drinking monster in moccasins is an ingenious demonstration that the best works of horror show us as much about life and society as they do about death.
Which is why vampire fiction never seems to die. Run-of-the-mill writers work the myth for its shock value. Good writers use it for what it can show us about our own inner lives. Fuentes takes up the aging but still deadly figure of the seductive Casanova, the piercing principle of lust without scruples, and carries it to a new level. This paradoxical work of short fiction by the late, great Mexican master serves as a lament for the loss of the deep and pure romanticism of an earlier age even as it reveals his own fascination with the way in which the vampire practitioner of desire heightens our present awareness of the dangers, and the pleasures, of the romantic condition. Vlad gives us yet another reason to mourn Fuentes, whose bark has almost always been as great as his bite, because unlike his ghastly penultimate creation “Vlad,” he is, except in his books, gone forever.
Alan Cheuse is book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction, “Paradise, Or, Eat Your Face,” a trio of novellas, has just been released. Cheuse can be reached at email@example.com.