Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sunglasses After Dark

SUNGLASSES AFTER DARK, by Nancy A. Collins (1989) is a violent, erotic variation on the traditional vampire, with glimpses into a complex underworld of creatures secretly lurking in the shadows of our society. At first the novel appears to be a tale of homicidal psychosis and multiple personality; Sonja Blue inhabits the body of supposedly dead heiress Denise Thorne. In fact, Denise has been murdered, and Sonja, the vampire, a new personality with Denise's memories, has come to birth in her body. But Sonja actually shares her identity with two other personalities rather than just one: Denise, her original, mortal self, and the Other, the embodiment of singleminded bloodlust. Collins creates a demonic race known as the Pretenders, with a variety of subspecies that all prey on human beings. The Pretenders are the truth behind vampires, werewolves, incubi, and numerous other legendary creatures. Sonja, transformed by the aristocratic vampire Sir Morgan, whom she wishes to track down and kill, learns the truth about her kind from an erudite vampire-hunter, Ghilardi, and Morgan's rival, the vampire Pangloss. To the latter's bewilderment, Sonja has no interest in joining the Pretenders' "Real World" and the vampire subculture, with its game-playing rivalries. Instead, she pursues vengeance for her Denise Thorne self, thereby clashing with Catherine Wheele, fraudulent psychic and evangelist. Like many contemporary vampire novels, SUNGLASSES enlists our sympathy with a creature traditionally regarded as a bloodthirsty monster by demonstrating that human beings can be guilty of far worse than a peculiar diet and occasional killing in self-defense.

After being drained and abandoned by Morgan, Sonja becomes a vengeful vampire-hunter. Ghilardi, a mad would-be Van Helsing, teaches her the arcane lore of the world into which she has been forcibly initiated. Meanwhile, the Other within her mind taunts her with remarks such as, "What makes the word 'human' so damned wonderful? You're always mourning your humanity, denying yourself the power and privilege that are yours by right for fear of becoming inhuman." Urging her to give up her habit of drinking bottled blood purchased on the black market and instead to drain a mugger who has tried to murder her, the Other demands, "Who's the monster, Sonja? You or him?" The "evil" wrought by a lost young woman transformed without her awareness or consent pales beside the crimes of humanity. Mundane human evil is epitomized by Catherine Wheele, who has psychic energy-draining powers comparable to Sonja's own. Catherine has chosen to use her talent "to bilk sick and deluded humans," a squandering of resources "like using a laser to engrave postcards." Pangloss insists that "no atrocity mankind has perpetrated on itself" has been engineered by the nonhumans among us. At the same time, the "supernatural" beings are far from benign. Pangloss views human beings as "myopic little beasts intent on destroying their world." He wishes to prevent this destruction only in the spirit of a "farmer" refusing to "stand idly by and watch his herd die of hoof-and-mouth."

The powerful, predatory "Pretenders" are called that because "they pretend to be human, hiding their demonic otherness behind a mask of carefully constructed banality." Yet, ironically, their realm is also referred to as the Real World, a dimension to which ordinary human beings are blind and deaf: "The Pretenders dwell in the cracks in mankind's perception of reality." Humanity knows these creatures--"vampires, werewolves, incubi and succubi, ogres, undines, and demons too numerous to mention"--only through "myth and legend, twisted beyond recognition." All these entities "can pass for humans, and they prey on them." A vampire, in Collins' system, comes into existence when a victim dies after exposure to the saliva or sperm of a vampire. After death, "the corpse undergoes radical physical and genetic restructuring," a transformation completed when "a minor demon enters the host"—not unlike the theory of vampirism later used in the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER universe, where vampires are explained as corpses animated by demons. Because a vampire in Collins' novel "has no frame of reference, only raw instinct," it constructs a personality for itself using "the only thing on hand: the brain of the victim" as its "template." Unlike the typical vampire, Sonja experiences transformation without actually dying; therefore, she grows into her powers with abnormal speed, and the "Denise Thorne" self is not quite dead. As the Other's personality encroaches on what she thinks of as her true self, it grows from "constant companion" and "silent, parasitic partner, feeding on...emotions" into Sonja's "intangible Siamese twin, joined at the medulla oblongata." Throughout the novel she wrestles with questions of humanity and identity, finally coming to terms with both Denise Thorne (through her entanglement with Catherine Wheele and Denise's father, Jacob Thorne) and the inescapable Other. Several sequels have been published. More recently, Collins has launched a YA series featuring hereditary vampirism and set mainly at an academy for young vampires of aristocratic descent, beginning with VAMPS (2008).

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


SandyG265 said...

I read Sun Glasses After Dark years ago but didn't enjoy it enough to read any of the sequels.

Anonymous said...

a transformation completed when "a minor demon enters the host"

That is exactly how the mother of all vampires Akasha and her husband Enkil, were created in Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned (1988).

I thought that was a really unique take on how the first vampires came into existence. It's my favorite of the Vampire Chronicles.