Vampire writer David Thomas Lord tackles trend and tradition in his Bound series. Interview by Violet Kane
As any good writer knows, inspiration is everywhere. But so is David Thomas Lord. He will be going on tour shortly to promote his second Bound installment, Bound in Flesh, due to be released in August 2006. And you can find him on any number of internet message board communities, engaging his fans in riveting discussions. David Thomas Lord juggles the classic and the modern with finesse. In many ways, he is a throwback to literary days of yore. His nouveau-Victorian style will please fans of vampire fiction, providing them with a sense of connection to the roots of the genre. On the other hand, his sketching of edgy New York City subcultures infuses his work with realism. The contemporary meets gothic traditionalism with flair. Lord, himself, brings a turn-of-the-century authorial elegance to the wholly modern zone of web interface. He makes contact with his fans and earns new ones through his earnest participation in discussion topics of relevance to vampire fiction fans.
David Thomas Lord
David Thomas Lord's first novel, Bound in Blood, published in 2001, is available from Kensington Books. The entire Bound series is predicted to reach five books in total. His short fiction has been published in Feral Fiction and Twilight Tales magazine. His horror novella, "The Secrets of the Fey" will appear in the upcoming Triptych of Terror anthology. He is currently at work on short stories to be anthologized, an alternate history book, and upcoming books in the Bound series. Interviewing a man of such breadth of experience and ambition, I was curious about his views on the past and the future, the traditional and the modern, within the horror genre today.
V: First off, I would like to congratulate you on the extension of your Bound series. My sources tell me that four books are planned to follow your first novel, Bound in Blood. Can you provide us with any teasers or working titles at this point?
DTL: Thanks, Violet. The next two books in the series do have working titles. "Working titles" are what I call the novels while I am writing them. The titles, as well as the story lines and manuscripts, still have to be approved. But, after Bound in Blood, my editor asked me to think of titles along the lines of "Bound in Something" or "Something in Blood." I thought that to continue with "...in Blood" titles was a little too dreary, too common, for vampire books, so I opted for "Bound in ...." So, for book two, I liked the connection between flesh and blood, hence Bound in Flesh. I hoped that Bound in Blood would incite readers to think of the blood bond between certain characters. With Bound in Flesh, I'd like for them to see the kind of captivity a supernatural being would feel in his human body. But, also, since my vampire books have an erotic flavor, "flesh" seems quite a propos.
For books three and four, I'm currently using Bound in Hunger and Bound in Thirst as the working titles. Again, I like the connection between hunger and thirst and how the terms relate to vampires. How hunger and thirst could almost describe addiction, as I think vampirism could be. Whether or not they will continue to be the titles at the point of publication, I don't know. I have a few alternative ideas as well. It's always possible that in going from concept to outline to manuscript, a book changes sufficiently enough to make the working title inappropriate. If "hunger" doesn't accurately describe the core urge in book three, I'll change it. Same with book four.
I would like, very much, for the fifth and final book of the series not to have a "Bound" title. One of my reasons is that it's a prequel and as such, not really a "Bound" book anyway. Another is that it's my way of indicating to my readers that the series is over. Also, since the final book will look back to the origins of vampirism, I'd like the title to reflect the larger scope.
Now, for your bonus teaser....
Bound in Blood established the characters and, perhaps, my style of dealing with them. Bound in Flesh, however, does more. The prologue, the body of the novel, and the epilogue each contain a clue to the scope of the third, fourth and fifth books. So, look carefully!
V: I would like to speak first about a recent trend in your genre of alternative reality fiction (sometimes called speculative fiction). The genre previously classified only as Horror has recently split down the middle, producing a sister genre often called Dark Fantasy. Do you have any speculations on how to account for the split? What do you see as the primary differences between traditional Horror and Dark Fantasy?
DTL: The term "speculative fiction" was coined, I believe, to eliminate the pigeonholing of genre writing. I understand that many authors were upset by being strictly classified as horror writers or science fiction writers or fantasy writers. Publishers and readers alike have expected their favorite horror writer to write nothing else, thus frustrating the efforts of individual writers to expand into other genres or out of it completely. So, the discussion of a schism in the horror genre is to ignore the concept of speculative fiction.
But, let us speak of horror writing and dark fantasy for a moment. When I first came to know other writers personally, few identified themselves as horror writers and most clung to the "dark fantasy" umbrella. Why? I think it may have had a great deal to do with how horror was selling at the time. It is generally considered that horror went through a slump in the 80's, producing a great amount of disposable titles. Many horror readers were lost during that time. Horror sections were disappearing from bookstores and publishers were less interested in buying horror manuscripts. This, I believe, was when "dark fantasy" arrived on the scene. Originally, it was just a repackaging of horror to the unwilling consumer. Now, I believe it has become more of a subgenre, a cross between horror and fantasy.
I personally believe that a horror story must contain an element of the supernatural. It's for that reason that I don't believe Jaws or The Silence of the Lambs to be horror. All of the stories that have been called "psychological horror" I believe are better described as thrillers. Rapists, serial killers, terrorists and the like are all horrific, but I don't see them as the basis of a horror story. So, what horror, dark fantasy and fantasy have in common is the supernatural. In fantasy fiction, the supernatural creature is either the protagonist or an aide to one; in horror, the antagonist or aide. But, in dark fiction, that usual antagonist, that werewolf, vampire, witch or zombie, is imbued with sympathetic qualities. He is that soulful, Byronesque vampire that we see everywhere of late. She is a bewitching Halliwell sister on Charmed. He is every creature Universal Studios has taught us to fear...as your next door neighbor. On the other hand, dark fantasy might also employ a "good" fantasy creature—a fairy, a unicorn or such—in a dark and dangerous way. In short, it is dark fantasy that shows us the kinder side of our traditional monsters or the darker side of our angels.
V: Do you classify your books as Horror, Dark Fantasy, or something different? Why?
My work, so far, has been strictly horror. Jack, the central character of Bound in Blood, is the focus of the reader's attention, but rather than being a protagonist, he is still a remorseless monster. Maybe that was the fun of creating him. A murderous vampire you feel for despite yourself. I think I will always write horror, but I have a growing interest in other forms. I'm currently working on a novel that, while it has supernatural elements, is not horror, but more like alternative history. My short pieces tend toward terror, without the supernatural.
After I first encountered horror writers describing their work as "dark fantasy," I decided to refer to my work as "social commentary," as a private joke. The strange thing is: the closer I look at my writing, the more I see that it isn't truly a joke. I think that all storytellers, whether consciously or not, are creating social commentary. It may not always be deliberate, but I believe that we are all using our vampires, witches, ghouls and zombies iconically.
V: Speaking of icons, which authors would you mark as the most influential in horror? In vampire fiction? What were the most important innovations they contributed to the genre?
DTL: To begin, I'd have to name Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley as iconic. Arguably, Frankenstein is a science fiction, not a horror, novel, because the evil is not supernatural, but I'd still list her because succeeding authors have built supernatural horror based upon her concepts. Then, historically, I'd go to Lord Byron for contributing The Giaour, M.R. James for his ghost stories, J.Sheridan LeFanu for Carmilla, and Edgar Allan Poe for many stories and poems. After that: Oscar Wilde for The Portrait of Dorian Gray; H.P. Lovecraft for the Cthulhu Mythos; and Henry James for The Turn of the Screw.
In more modern times and in no particular order, I'd say Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Brian Lumley, William Hope Hodgson, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, Dean R. Koontz, Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty, Charles L. Grant, John Saul, Robert R. McCammon, and Dan Simmons. And there's no denying the influence of writers like Simon Clark, Graham Masterton, Elizabeth Massie, Ed Gorman, China Mieville, John Shirley, Joe Lansdale, and F. Paul Wilson. I know I've left out names, but these are the ones that come immediately to mind.
In vampire fiction? We must begin with the contributions of Samuel Coleridge Taylor and John Polidori to the genre. Then, the most influential author in vampire fiction is Bram Stoker, first-ranked and foremost. After that, I choose Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and Stephen King's Salem's Lot, as most important. Then, The Vampire Chronicles, beginning with Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice. Other important vampire novels are: Brian Lumley's Necroscope; The Dracula Tape, by Fred Saberhagen; Kim Newman's Anno Dracula; Hotel Transylvania, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; the Anita Blake Series by Laurell K. Hamilton; Covenant with the Vampire by Jeanne Kalogridis; The Hunger, by Whitley Strieber; Desmond by Ulysses G. Dietz; Sunglasses After Dark, by Nancy Collins; Carrion Comfort and Children of the Night, by Dan Simmons; all of the Vampire Legacy series from Karen E. Taylor; Vampire Junction, by S. P. Somtow; Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite; Live Girls, by Ray Garton; and Sons of Darkness edited by Michael Rowe. Again, this is just a partial list.
The most important innovations they contributed to the genre? Well, to begin, Christabel by Coleridge introduced the lesbian vampire (a theme that has come into its own more recently) that Le Fanu later expanded upon in Carmilla. Polidori set the stage for Dracula with his Lord Ruthven character in The Vampyre. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend introduced apocalyptic vision to the vampire genre and introduced the concept of vampirism as an infectious disease. And Stephen King's Salem's Lot brought vampires right into small-town America. No longer could we sit back and view them from afar, King cast his vampire lord as our next-door neighbor.
Anne Rice has, perhaps, brought the greatest innovation to the vampire novel, the vampire as protagonist. I think it's fair to say that she has absolutely ruled vampire fiction, in the public's eye, for the past, almost thirty years. Her vampires are romantic, troubled, and misunderstood. And, she also introduced a kind of sexual ambiguity to vampirism. Rice brilliantly combined Gothic romance with Gothic horror. Carrying further into the romance aspect is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro with her Saint-Germain Tales. Set in distinctive historical backgrounds, this vampire is the antithesis of Dracula.
In The Dracula Tape, Fred Saberhagen gives us a different interview with a vampire. Count Dracula tells his own story disputing Stoker's version and attempting to put the story to rights. Whitley Striber's The Hunger gives us an alien vampire who craves human companionship. Striber uses the fear of isolation and the desire to banish loneliness as his themes in this novel. Sunglasses After Dark, by Nancy Collins, introduces the vampire, Sonia Blue, who seeks revenge upon the vampire who transformed her. Collins' main character contrasts against the traditional vampire and his blood lust. In Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons gives us the psychic vampire, one who is human in every aspect except that it can use its mind to control others.
Anita Blake, the central character of Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire series, is a vampire hunter who is seduced into the dark world. Desmond is a gay vampire novel that completely outs the theme Anne Rice initiated. In Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls, the vampire meets Gen-X social alienation. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Ray Garton shows us the vampire in New York's underbelly, working in a seedy peep-show called Live Girls. And writer/editor Michael Rowe's Sons of Darkness marks the evolution of the gay vampire into a multi-faceted collection which includes some of the finest writers of vampire fiction: Nancy Kilpatrick, Poppy Z. Brite, and C. Dean Andersson.
And, finally, Karen E. Taylor's, The Vampire Legacy series. I feel that Ms. Taylor is all too often overlooked and that readers are missing the one author who has successfully blended together the various themes these other writers take on individually. Her series carries the reader on an epic journey of romantic horror through the dark and delicious world of Deirdre Griffin and her associate vampires.
V: Which authors have been, personally, most influential to you, as a writer? Why?
DTL: Oddly, I've not been all that influenced by horror writers. Of them, I'd only count Poe as an influence. I love Poe's prose for its poetic leanings. It's something I like to do in my writing. In poetry, each word has weight, each is important. It has to be that word and no other. That's how I like to write. It's tougher to do with commercial fiction, because you want the story to zip along. It's hard to have a "couldn't-put-it-down page-turner," if you're overwhelming the reader with symbols and content. You have to find the balance. That's why I like Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Gabriel D'Annunzio and J. K. Huysmans. They're the novelists who've had the biggest influence on me. Each of them wrote prose as if it was poetry.
The short story writers who most influenced me are Damon Runyon and O. Henry. They both had such facility with words, such wonderful characters. And irony! God, could these guys tease you with a situation!
Also, I'd read all of the Greeks, Shakespeare and the Bible before I was fourteen. Hardly another damn thing needed to be written or read after them. Let's face it, you'd never have to look past those sources for an idea for a new novel. Every human foible and strength is there. They are my most major influences. I love mythology; although, I suppose you have to call it "theology," if people are still practicing it. But, I also read a lot of comics as a kid. All the superheroes. You can learn a lot about pacing from a well-written comic book. I imagine I learned about the construction of a series from them as well. How to set up the elements, how to build a relationship between the reader and the core characters, and how to keep the focus and eliminating the chaff: all that's in comic books.
Still, I don't believe I write like any of those I've mentioned. I honestly couldn't compare myself with any author, living or dead. Their influence on me has been more in tone than style, in theme rather than direction.
V: What sort of research do you conduct while writing your books? For instance, to provide the details of the Greenwich Village "scene" and its subcultures? For detailing historical sequences, like Jean-Luc's trip to see Boris Godunov at the Bol'shoi in tsarist Russia? To populate Jean-Luc's world, both past and present, with art and sculpture?
DTL: I’m very big on researching everything. I like to know what my characters might have worn and eaten, where and how they lived. I want to know what music, art, literature and theater they could have experienced. I also like to know how long it takes for them to do certain things. If they’re going from point A to point B, how long would it take them to walk? To ride a horse? To take a train? Drive a car? We perceive our world through our senses. So, the only way I can communicate a fictional world to the reader is through the senses. I want to give my readers the sensation of the time and place I’ve brought them to, so it’s important to me that I know how things looked, tasted, smelled, felt and sounded.
I spent a great deal of my life in Manhattan and worked in Greenwich Village. It’s one of those places on Earth that's unique. It has a color and tempo that's strictly its own. The people of Greenwich Village are very public; everything happens outdoors. So, with the exception of the interiors of the clubs, it’s pretty easy to witness a huge spectrum of life just walking the streets. As for the clubs I describe, they're all invention. I needed for them to exist in a particular way, and so I made them to be what I required. No one could ever use this novel as a "tourist guide" and find the clubs I described.
I chose "Boris" for a few reasons. Its premiere fit into my time frame, for one. Also, because it is one of the few operas that has a mostly male cast, it gave a particular tone to the scene. The one I wanted. So, while I listened to the recording of the opera again and again, I researched the opening night and the opera house. The original Bol'shoi had burned down in the early 1850's, leaving only the stone exterior and the portico I described, and was rebuilt to the original designs. The theater could hold up to three thousand spectators, so I imagined a sea of social types—aristocrats and military officers. There was a greater formality to that time and the theater was a common meeting place for the upper classes. Armed with that, I described the scene as an event not unlike a dress ball. I let everything from "My Fair Lady" to "War and Peace" influence my feelings toward this grand spectacle that surrounded Jack's intimate encounter.
To populate Jean-Luc's world with art and sculpture? First, I started with Jack (Sorry, Jean-Luc is always just "Jack" to me). It was essential for me to fully understand Jack before I did any other thing. So, I first cast a horoscope for him. I don't advise that for every writer or for every character, but Jack had to initiate the series. And so, as the primal force, I had to build everything around him. A horoscope was a quick way to shorthand certain aspects of his character. I decided to make him an art critic. That way, the reader could see his discernment, how his taste in one aspect was reflected in another. Once I did that, art became essential to the story. Every piece Jack describes actually exists, except for Phillipe's "sculptures."
I chose the pieces specifically to express something about either Jack or the situation he was in at the moment. When Jack is at Lincoln Center, the art works there are described. That he hates the Chagall's and loves the Henry Moore is an insight into him I included for the readers' sake. Jack’s relationship to art is prismatic. At one moment, he is drawn into the ukiyo-e, the "floating world" of Japanese art. The fact that it is both static and graceful finds reflection in the undead as I portray them. Then, when Jack describes a sculpture to Claude, he is multitasking. He not only gets to impress Claude with his insight, but also cements the impression that he's nothing but an art critic, while he seduces Claude with his poetic impression of the work.
I can't say for certain that art critics would agree with my interpretations, because they are really meant for the reader. The art at that moment has an express interest for that scene. In some other book with some other characters, my analysis could easily fall completely apart.
V: Do you do any research into vampire lore? How do you make key decisions of which elements of traditional vampire lore to use, and which to deviate from? Jean-Luc's fascination with his own unblemished beauty, for example, would not be possible if he could not see his reflection. On the other hand, Jean-Luc sleeps in a coffin—a convention ignored by many modern vampire stories.
DTL: Much of what distinguishes the work of modern vampire writers is how they handle the lore. You may find an author who chooses to use all of the standard vampire accoutrement and another who uses none of it. I looked at all the various aspects of "Vampirism 101" and decided individually what worked for my monsters and what didn't.
For instance, it made no sense to me that someone else could see the vampire, but he couldn't see himself in a mirror. It didn't seem right to me that the law of reflection would change simply because one drank blood. We see an object because light reflects off of it. So, if one can see a vampire and a vampire can see other things, it was ridiculous to say that a vampire couldn't see himself in a mirror. Also, using the mirror fit in with a characteristic I wanted to give my vampires: an attitude of utter self-involvement. Nothing says narcissism like a slavish devotion to the mirror.
As for the coffins, well, Jack tends to sleep in things a bit more upscale like his antique Moorish chest, but the effect is the same. I didn't want the vampires in the series to be utterly invincible. They had to have faults. Weaknesses. So, just as we need to digest the food we eat to absorb the nutrients, my vampires do too. And it is that time spent in the coffin in which they do that. Plus, it highlights their vulnerability. They have to protect themselves from the destructive power of the sun's rays. Because of that, there is a downtime from sunrise to sunset wherein the humans can plot and repair, but it's also a time at which the vampire is unaware. When Jack sleeps, he is either completely unconscious or caught in perilous dreams. There is no part of him still cognizant of the world around him.
You can't create a hero or a villain who has no faults and weaknesses. They're boring. The reader has to know that there is a way to destroy this supernatural evil. So, along with their need to shelter from the sun for half the day, garlic, roses and certain woods can repel my vampires. I use silver not only as a way of destroying the vampire, but, if the affliction isn't lethal, they develop "the argent sickness" and are driven mad by it.
I've also alluded to a vampiric disease that they are subject to developing, a kind of madness based on disassociation. Then, too, these vampires aren't exactly immortal. Phillipe, the "Vampire Maker," was destroyed before he could pass on all the secrets to their existence to his fledglings. They're scrambling to find out what they need to know because they don't even know how long they have or how to achieve immortality.
There were some other things from the vampire traditions (like the mirror) that I felt I needed to change. One was the flying. I didn't want them to be able to turn into bats or sprout wings or pull a Superman. Still, I wanted to show that they were not tied to the Earth in a normal way. So, I gave them a physical ability that allowed them to bound very high and over long distances, but it had to be learned. To counter that strength, I had to give them a weakness, so I retained the lore about "sleeping on native soil." They can't shapeshift into wolves or bats, but they can subtly alter their appearances, a talent that's more mental projection than physical alteration.
V: As in much vampire fiction, your vampire characters make erotic connections with their victims. Such connections are, to some extent, a tradition of modern vampire fiction. The writing of authors like Anne Rice has garnered criticism in the past for themes of sexuality. How do you respond to critics who might dismiss the work of you and similar vampire writers as erotica?
DTL: I'd say that to a fetishist, the Victoria's Secret catalogue is considered erotica. We actually learn more about that critic (when they say that) than we do about the book.
Since we describe vampirism as "blood lust," we cannot separate the "lust" part from the "blood" part. I believe that those critics who see my vampire literature as simply erotica have serious Puritanical issues. They see the violence and killing surrounding the vampire as payback for the evils of carnal knowledge. That's not my intention. In the "Bound" books, death isn't punishment for sexuality; sex is the trap the vampires lay before their victims. Sex is a tool, a means to an end. It's the "honey" my vampires use to catch more "flies." But above all, it's about catching the flies.
Make no mistake; these are horror stories. The seductions are never the point. They merely exist to blind and confuse the victims. Jack lulls his prey into a false sense of security by distracting them with sex. My friend, mystery writer Patricia Lewin, said this about Bound in Blood: "Men generally are not as cautious as women, and thus Jack (David's vampire) uses that lack of fear to seduce and kill his victims."
My books aren't meant as erotica. I use the sex scenes in the same way I use violence, to put the reader on edge. Much of horror writing is meant to unsettle the reader. Sometimes you want to lull them into a false sense of security; I can do that with a sex scene or with humor. You don't want the reader to see what's coming. It's rather like a magician's use of misdirection. While I've distracted the reader with either sex or humor, I'm setting up to scare the hell out of them.
And, oddly enough, in true erotica, the author uses anything other than sex to stir lustful feelings. There is nothing sexual about erotica except its impact. The most erotic scenes in Bound in Blood have nothing to do with sex; they're all about blood! I guess that's why I describe my vampires as "hemosexual."
V: How do you see the face of your genre changing in the next ten years? Who, in your opinion, are the cutting edge authors who will help usher in these changes?
DTL: I'm not so sure I do see a change happening in the next ten years. I know what I'd like to see changed, but I don't foresee it happening. I'd love to see a greater amount of representation from female authors. Whenever you mention the paucity of women being published in the genre, people love to shout: Anne Rice! Poppy Z. Brite! Laurell K. Hamilton! As if three writers is actually representative of the entire female horror writer population. I feel the same way about Afro-American horror writers, Asian horror writers, gay and lesbian horror writers and many other underrepresented groups. There is certainly a readership, just nothing for them to read.
I hate that expression: "cutting edge." What the hell is it supposed to mean anyway? I think we've reaching a point wherein old-fashioned storytellers will be "the next new thing." I don’t think this is a matter of progression, but more like a pendulum swinging back. Truthfully, there isn’t much further the horror writer can go as far as shocking an audience. Horror has to become more subtle, more cerebral. I think there is a "taste limit" and we’ve hit the end of line.
Still, if I had to name some writers I think will bring changes into horror, Maria Alexander, Jeff Strand, Lee Thomas and Wrath James White come immediately to mind.
V: What do you see as the most exciting trend in vampire or horror fiction today? What trend would you gladly see banished from the genre?
DTL: Well, I think I'd have to vote for the horror/romance hybrid of late. It's not something I could write, but I think it will prove effective in introducing new readers to horror. And what I like about the new vampire books coming out is that they are proving this to be an undead subgenre. Because so much has been written about the vampire over the years, the new books have to be very clever and have a really fresh look to see publication. These newer takes on vampires aren’t arbitrary; they are very well thought-out. These new authors are stepping out of the box and reinventing the genre, without completely throwing away the established lore. Anyone who says that the vampire genre is dead or overdone or uninventive simply isn’t keeping up with what's being written.
I, personally, cannot read stories—of any length—that include buckets of blood and tons of body parts. I’d love to see gore disappear. Or, at least there should be a moratorium. A great many writers simply aren’t exploring what frightens the reader; they're substituting the horrific for horror. I think, as a group, we should look back to the time when the genre called its work, "tales of terror and suspense," and measure our concepts against theirs. There also seems to be a juvenile faction for whom the "gross-out" is worth recording. A good dictionary would help them in understanding the difference between gross and grotesque. And, finally, I really just hate zombie stories. Maybe banishment is too severe, but I see those stories as serving the same frat-boy predilection as the gross-out. But, it seems that many horror writers embrace the censure that as a genre, horror is the ugly stepchild of literature.
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.