This spooky season I find myself falling headlong back into the clutches of vampire fiction, a turn of events spurred on by the fantastic new television adaptation of Interview With the Vampire. Ever since HBO’s bonkers True Blood ended, I’ve been craving something that truly gets the horror, the thrill, the sheer camp of vampires. Pop culture needed a bit of a break from them, but this fall we have four new vampire book adaptations airing. We’re back, baby! And we (vampire fans) are getting everything our goth little hearts desire. For too long it’s been all about zombies. Enough. Time for the return of decadence.
For the past couple hundred years, vampires have enjoyed a stable presence in literature, waning in and out of fashion. And while people might still roll their eyes at the concept of vampire romance, probably bemoaning the cheesiness of Twilight, the fact of the matter is that for as long as there have been vampires in fiction, they have been intrinsically tied to romance—or at least, to desire. In 1700s Western Europe, the novel as we know it was in its fledgling form, and much of the written content was meant to be lurid and titillating (often under the guise of morality-teaching) for a newly widespread audience (think Fanny Hill or Pamela). Around the same time, Eastern Europe was gripped by a “vampire epidemic”; a sort of mass hysteria that caused townsfolk to exhume corpses they were convinced were coming back to life. Shortly after this time period came Gothic literature. The motifs are familiar: decaying castles or abbeys, vengeful murder, damsels, lascivious villains, and so on. Basically, Gothic fiction was the height of melodrama (for a crystallization of all of these themes and more, see 1796’s The Monk by Matthew Lewis).
The words “comfort” and “slasher” might not seem to go together—in fact, you might see them as diametrically opposed. After all, what’s comforting about a masked man jumping out of your closet brandishing a knife, or a strange voice on the phone asking if you like scary movies? But in Stephen Graham Jones’ new novel My Heart is a Chainsaw, the well-trod roads of the horror genre are just that, a safety net for his traumatized protagonist. As mysterious—but ominously familiar—events start popping up around the gentrifying town of Proofrock, Jade Daniels uses her encyclopedic knowledge of horror conventions to investigate the goings-on.
Horror isn’t for everyone, but those who love it, love it. I used to know someone who watched horror movies before bed, the way I might watch an episode of Friends or New Girl (this person also worked in a funeral home, so make of that what you will). In My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jade is singularly obsessed with slasher films, knows them inside out, her stream-of-consciousness-like narration a running encyclopedia of the genre (this Letterboxd list compiles Jade’s film references, all 171 of them). She knows her Final Girls, from Laurie Strode to Nancy Thompson to Sidney Prescott; those “good girls” who follow the rules of surviving a horror movie while their less virtuous friends get offed. Jade herself is something of a Final Girl, but she exists on the fringes of society: an Indigenous teenager with an abusive father and absent mother, who barely scrapes through school and has multiple suicide attempts under her belt. Since the Final Girl rules were cemented by Halloween in 1978, filmmakers have played with them, subverted them, modernized them—but Jade, devotee of the classics, doesn’t even consider that she might have Final Girl potential until she’s all but run out of options.
In July, uber-cool film studio A24 released The Green Knight in theatres, but with the new school year starting and sweater weather approaching, I feel there’s no better time to delve into an old Arthurian legend than autumn (except maybe Christmas, when the story takes place). If you haven’t seen the film, it is an adaptation of an anonymously-penned chivalric romance from Medieval England about Sir Gawain (one the famed Knights of the Round Table). And if you have seen the film, you’re probably like, “what in the world did I just watch?”
Arthurian legends in media are in no short supply. We all at least vaguely know the names King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Excalibur, right? You might have seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone as a child (featuring, iconically, a Converse-wearing Merlin), or maybe the old parody staple, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government”). More recently, there was BBC’s Merlin, in which the titular wizard is a young man when he befriends the weirdly jock-like Arthur (cue shipping). Historically, the old tales have been interpreted in countless paintings as well (you might recognize this one especially, of Elaine of Astolat, harboring an unrequited love for Lancelot). No matter the version, they’re always recognizable as being Arthurian. The departure from that recognition, from the usual tropes, names, and places, is what makes The Green Knight such a bizarre, and modern, take.