Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Melanie Tem's DESMODUS (1995) takes a unique approach to vampires as a natural species evolved separately from us. Tem portrays a vampire community entirely detached from human society, interacting with our kind only where absolutely unavoidable. To the first-person narrator, Joel, his clan members are "people" and Homo sapiens the dangerous outsiders. (The novel doesn’t explain why these creatures adopt human-derived names and, apparently, speak no language except English.) Essentially intelligent, humanoid bats, they can pass unnoticed within human settlements only by covering themselves in voluminous clothing and taping down their ears. Besides their wings and ears, their other nonhuman features include fangs and long, curved nails, as well as less visible details such as echolocation, nocturnal activity, the anticoagulant in their saliva, and the ability to detect heat waves. From Joel’s perspective, his people’s vampire bat traits don’t arouse the revulsion the human reader may feel. He views behaviors such as feeding blood to infants by mouth-to-mouth exchange as ordinary facts of everyday life. Unlike most fictional vampires, his species leads a gregarious communal life, tightly knit to the point of claustrophobia. Their babies, like infant bats, stay together in a communal nursery where mothers visit to feed them, each locating her own child by calling to him or her. Joel finds the nursery, "fur-lined with the little writhing bodies of all those eternally ravenous babies," unsettling, but from masculine nervousness, not human-like squeamishness.

One of the most peculiar characteristics of the Desmodus species is their seasonal cycle of migration and hibernation. While the females, after an orgy of feeding and mating, withdraw into hibernation, the males migrate south each winter. To keep the clan together and safe, the vampires have adopted human technology; the men drive huge, temperature-controlled trucks that shelter the dormant women. Females store semen from mating until the optimum time for ovulation, a process under conscious control to ensure that babies are born in the spring. Besides conserving energy, hibernation supposedly bestows upon women a "life-changing or -centering, hallucinogenic" experience, "connected directly to the divine.” Females live much longer than males and display "greater stamina, discipline, creativity, productivity, and all-around class.” Males are assumed to be, by comparison, irresponsible and dull-witted. As far beyond ordinary women as women are beyond men, the near-mythical Old Women remain permanently dormant, shrouded in a transcendent altered state of consciousness.

Tem's vampires take pride in their ability to survive without killing. Upon finding a shriveled, bloodless rabbit, Joel’s mother reacts with extreme displeasure to such lack of self-control. The Desmodus clan regards human beings, in contrast to themselves, as potentially dangerous creatures who might at any time try to exterminate the vampires if that species’ existence became known. Having to venture into a human community for any reason provokes anxiety, and the rumors that some of their kind have even lived in disguise amid human society horrify them. Joel and his male friends leer over the presumed nymphomania of human females, who are sexually active all the time instead of having estrus seasons like vampires. Like many other stories of vampires as naturally evolved creatures, this novel emphasizes that we’re all animals, but in DESMODUS, the vampires are the standard against which other species are measured.

Oddly, young Rory, Joel's nephew, who has "little use for anybody who wasn't 'like me,'" brings home the only individualized human character in the novel, Ernie, as a sort of pet. When Joel questions Ernie about his reasons for staying with the clan, Ernie says he is estranged from his family and has nowhere to go. A pair of misfits in their own families, Rory and Ernie form a tenuous union. As for Joel, he tolerates Ernie but has no respect for him, since the human boy is "a stranger" and "an alien.” Joel becomes an outcast from his clan when he assumes the gender-bending role of caretaker for the out-of-season infant born to one of his young female relatives, Meredith. Possessed by an unexpected love for the baby, whom he names Eli, Joel flees with the newborn when he discovers a secret females hide from males: Women feed upon the brain fluids of infant boys, a habit that probably accounts for the stereotypical mental backwardness of men. Rory, eager to feed on the baby, too, makes himself into an outlaw by pursuing Joel and Eli. Ernie, in turn, follows Rory. Joel conceals himself and the infant in a cave, reminiscent of the underground caverns where their race evolved. From this point, Joel’s story becomes visionary, drawing upon the ancient mythology of his people. Although Ernie plays a role in Joel’s discovery of forbidden secrets, otherwise the human world is irrelevant to the important concerns of his life. If you’d like to read about vampires that are creatures of neither romance nor traditional Gothic horror, but simply alien, try this book.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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