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The well from which Katherine Ramsland’s rambling inquiry into vampire culture, Piercing the Darkness, flows, like a river of blood, is a mystery, creepy and still unsolved: Three years ago, in the dead heat of summer, in the small New Jersey town of Nutley, pretty, blond Susan Walsh vanished without a trace. A mother and part-time graduate student at New York University, Walsh worked at the Village Voice, researching, fact checking, clawing after the stories nobody else wanted. She coveted adventure, this 36-year-old Brenda Starr, so when the opportunity to investigate a rash of blood thefts from New York hospitals presented itself to her, she dove in recklessly. Walsh submerged herself in an underworld of the undead. She tracked people who actually believed they were vampires, filing their canines to sharp points and gorging themselves on human plasma. A manic-depressive, Walsh became obsessed with the culture; she started go-go dancing and taking drugs. She told friends she was being stalked, that a motorcycle gang was after her, that the Russian mob wanted to kill her. Finally, on July 16, 1996, she disappeared.
The world Walsh lost herself in, the same one Ramsland explores in her book, is New York’s nightscape, its catacombs of vampire clubs and restaurants, its temples to the gods Agony and Ecstasy, its salons of cruelty and goth kitsch. Wearing false teeth bought from professional fang-maker and party-planner Father Sebastian (credited with starting the vampire scene in New York), pasty-faced teenagers dress in undead chic—”Dark Fetish, Goth, Arthurian, Edwardian, Vampire, Rubber, or Victorian,” Ramsland explains—and groove at private parties like the Long Black Veil. Insecure and alienated from normal society, or deliberately subverting their daylight selves, they assume the most attractive aspects of their fictional vampire heroes—their charisma and sexuality, their sophistication and style—all the while grinding to bands like Cult of the Psychic Fetus and Stiffs, Inc. In back rooms and dark alleys, they practice scarification, slicing each other open in obscene patterns, turning their bodies into crude manuscripts.
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Each Halloween, many of them make the pilgrimage to New Orleans, a city of necropolises—cemeteries built above ground because of the swampy land—to worship at the high altar of the Queen of the Damned, author Anne Rice. They attend vampire and fetish balls in private homes, where each room promises new extremes: A woman, tied to a vaulting horse, is beaten with leather thongs; a young man, taped head to foot like a mummy, loses feeling in his limbs as his excitement at being helpless grows. Some of them drink human blood from partners willing or forced, and like the Lost Boys—either Peter Pan’s or Joel Shumacher’s—they believe they are going to live forever.
Rather than limit herself specifically to the Walsh disappearance, Ramsland skulks across the country and even Europe, visiting such vampire meccas as Los Angeles, where SOUND (the Secret Order of the Undead), a vampire interest club, is headquartered, and Chicago, supping there with a vampire king named Abel. “The search for Susan Walsh was beginning to pale against the search for vampires,” Ramsland writes a third of the way in, adding later, “I had decided to shift my focus from her disappearance to what she’d been doing before she vanished.” But, in fact, the author gives Walsh alarmingly short shrift from Page 1. Ramsland’s choice of focus proves not just problematic but disastrous when the realization comes that the reporter’s disappearance is the one thing that might have given emotional charge or urgency to Ramsland’s quest. Instead, Darkness is like the X-ray of a compound fracture; it reveals many shards of free-floating information about a “full-blown subculture with its own rituals, relationships, and boundaries,” but there is no connective tissue, no form nor logic.
Further crippling Darkness is Ramsland’s quasi-ominous prose, which lacks humor and irony (“Go hunting for vampires and the vampires will hunt for you”). In one scene, for instance, while preparing to visit La Nouvelle Justine, a popular S&M restaurant in New York, Ramsland wonders why her companion for the evening, D’shan, has asked for her neck size. Expecting a gift, she grouses, “Not a dog collar, I hoped. It would never go with my dress.” As a humorist, plainly, Ramsland is as quick-witted as a zombie; each of her leaden quips (there are many) sinks like cannonballs in quicksand.
Worse, the author seems more interested in herself than in her chosen subjects, likening herself time and again to Walsh and even Jennifer Toth, who entered a city beneath a city, New York’s subway and sewer tunnels, to investigate the Big Apple’s homeless “mole people.” The comparisons are disingenuous: Walsh was corrupted and consumed by her study; Toth spent months suffering in a sunless society; Ramsland is a total party girl, dressing like Catwoman and dancing with all the best-looking boys.
To give the devil her due, Ramsland’s effort is not completely worthless. For the benefit of Dracula’s disciples, vampire aficionados, and serious scholars of the undead, she unearths such tidbits as “vampires can eat food (but not processed cheese).” Beginning her investigation online, in chat rooms like Realvamps and Vampyres Only, she stitches together a ghoulish taxonomy. Psychic vampires, for instance, suck people’s life forces but not their blood. Gamers take part in sophisticated Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing scenarios, often dressing in costumes; they may or may not drink blood. Nighttimers, “genetically altered human[s],” shun daylight. Blood fetishists cut themselves or others, bathing in and slurping the body’s red juices, but they are not necessarily nosferatu. Deathers are attracted to the vampire-chic lifestyle but eschew immortality, coveting instead “the glorious exit.” Shifters can move into and out of their bodies at will, transferring their souls to the bodies of animals. Classicals are your garden-variety vampires: immortal, self-loathing, generally unpleasant.
One of the first vampires Ramsland encounters in cyberspace is a sexual predator who signs his pornographic e-mails “W.” Ramsland christens him Wraith “because he came and went like a spirit,” and asks to speak with him in person. W. declines, and when Ramsland demands why, he replies: “Because… because I…I think maybe I’m sick.” As it turns out, there is no maybe about it. W., who pops up at regular intervals, is clearly degenerate. When he and Ramsland finally do meet, he tells her how as a boy he dreamed of dismembered hands masturbating him, how his boyfriend/ vampire mentor Christian introduced him to a coven of monsters who lived underground, how he and Christian brought their victims home and tortured them. W. even alleges that he and Christian raped and killed men they’d picked up in bars.
At best, W.’s first-person account of his life and crimes is full of unintentional howlers: Explaining his sadism, W. declares, “The only time I’m submissive is when I pretend to be submissive in order to dominate.” At worst, it degenerates into incomprehensible tripe: Describing the sensations he felt after becoming a vampire (in his case, taking part in a complicated blood ceremony where the life force of a vampire enters his body), W. says, “My life is a dream within a dream—this is what it is to touch the hem of madness, to don the mysterious shroud. When blood assumes the priority of night—when others become less valuable—when situations become fluid—when imagination becomes reality—madness becomes your life.” W.’s “true” story smacks of supermarket horror fiction (even Ramsland doubts it, writing, “It was all a bit too fantastic—and inconsistent”): unbelievable, unremarkable, and uninteresting.
Sadly, the stench of mendacity that taints W.’s confession pollutes Ramsland’s entire narrative. While contemplating a trip abroad, Ramsland describes spinning a bottle over a map to let the fates determine what the next leg of her journey should be. The bottle stops, pointing to Paris. She goes. Several pages later, she admits that she is in France to give a lecture. “Okay,” she confesses naughtily, “so I didn’t really spin the bottle.” At this point, the author admits to being an unreliable narrator, and everything she has put forth as truth in Piercing the Darkness comes into doubt. Obviously, Ramsland interviewed people who believed themselves vampires; clearly, she visited goth clubs and attended secret meetings of the undead; but how much of her book, one wonders, is embellishment, manipulation, or complete fabrication?
Ultimately, Piercing the Darkness’ greatest failure is not that the subject matter is uninteresting (although, in truth, there is little in the book that would shock anyone who has ever seen a vampire movie or been to a Marilyn Manson concert, or for that matter, had his ears pierced), but that Ramsland’s inquiry is a static pursuit. Scenes of authentic bloodletting and murder were witnessed by the author or described to her and then incorporated into Darkness, but they neither titillate nor horrify. Heaped on the reader one after the other, her observations and theories about vampire culture, offered up artlessly, never coagulate into a single persuasive argument or conclusion. “There is no single truth about the vampire” is the best Ramsland can offer. In the end, then, the author turns out to be less vampire hunter than vampire, leeching off a real tragedy, Walsh’s vanishing, and preying on her readers’ trust to create a misshapen and misguided body of text.
Somebody call Buffy.CP