Four Novels and One Kick-Ass TV Show by Helen Maryles Shankman
Mostly, I blame it on Buffy.
One wintery January night a few years ago, I stayed up too late watching TV. I was bleary-eyed from cleaning up after three flu-stricken toddlers, but not yet ready to surrender the day. At two in the morning, I found myself staring numbly at a rerun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I now know that it was the second half of the second season. Angel, Buffy’s dreamy and repentant vampire boyfriend, had turned evil. When he wasn’t busy killing her classmates, he was stalking her, just so that he could say mean things to her.
That’s when it dawned on me. The whole Buffy universe was a metaphor for high school. Some kids were smart, some kids were cool, some kids were damaged, and some kids were bullies. No one’s parents were around; they were out working, or maybe they were barely managing to hold their own lives together. All you could count on was your circle of friends, the books you could disappear into, and if you were lucky, a caring teacher.
Raphael Sinclair appeared the very next night, dressed smartly as always in his overcoat and gray fedora, whispering his sad story into my ear while I typed as quickly as I could to get it all down. My art school experiences, my years as an art assistant in downtown New York, my mother’s Holocaust stories–he tied them all together with his enigmatic, generation-spanning presence.
Angel wasn’t the first vampire I fell for. That honor goes to Louis, the haunted, grieving protagonist of Anne Rice’s strange and beautiful Interview With the Vampire. The lush settings, Louis’s mournful yearning, descriptions of vampiric encounters with women of every color and social class that resembled nothing so much as swinging 1970s sex…it really opened my eyes. But here’s the part that set my imagination on fire. Shortly after he becomes a vampire, Louis falls in love with a mortal girl. For a while, he pretends to be mortal too, helping her out with one thing and another, just as an excuse to be near her. But late at night, he lingers outside her window, watching, pining. The sheer longing with which he narrates this never-to-be-consummated passion held me transfixed. Years later, I heard Sting sing Moon Over Bourbon Street. Setting the story to music made the passage even more haunting. As I wrote, I listened to it over and over again.
Wuthering Heights doesn’t have any vampires, but it does have a ghost and a brooding antihero. There’s a blizzard going on, and Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, is stuck at his grim landlord’s grim home. Heathcliff, the fierce, taciturn master of the house, allows him to stay until morning. Someone shows him to a little-used room. In the middle of the night, Lockwood dreams. A branch is blowing against a window, driving him crazy, and he breaks the glass on the locked window to move the branch—only to feel his hand close on a girl’s wrist. “Let me in,” she sobs. “I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!” In horror, he struggles with the ghost, finally blocking her out with a stack of books. After recounting the story to the wakened household, he expects sympathy. To his astonishment, he witnesses a changed Heathcliff wrenching open the windows and bursting into tears. “Cathy, do come. Oh do—once more! Oh! My heart’s darling, hear me this time—Catherine, at last!”
This is one of the most riveting passages in all of literature. I was thinking of Heathcliff when Rafe reflects, Rest in peace? Please, God, no. Haunt me, Sofia. You said you’d haunt me.
Which brings us to Dracula. Oh, yes, I read Dracula. Bram Stoker’s book is as notable for its retrograde turn-of-the-century anti-feminism as for the introduction of one of our greatest monsters. Lucy Westenra is a naughty girl–she’s interested in boys, unlike prim Mina Harker, who fatuously announces that men are smarter and kinder than women. Bram Stoker punishes Lucy for her weakness; he has Dracula turn the poor girl into a nymphomaniac, roaming the countryside, kidnapping children and drinking their blood. Thank you, Bram Stoker, for your sexual anxiety! You opened my eyes to what that fin-de-siècle fear of vampires was really all about—fear of women’s liberation, but mostly, of female sexuality.
Finally, I come to Atonement. The language is precise and beautiful, the list of quirks and details describing each character absolutely essential to the drama that is to come. Every event quietly noted in the first third of the story has its echo later in the novel, like the closing of a parenthesis. Thirteen-year-old Briony likes to write and act in plays she puts on for her family. Later, in the defense of a lie—or is it a misunderstanding? –she will prove to be such a convincing actress that she sends an innocent man to jail. It is only at the end of the book that the reader discovers her last lie—and it is shattering. Atonement was my introduction to the device of The Unreliable Narrator. Thank you, Ian McEwan.
These influences shaped the novel I didn’t know I was going to write. When I wrote a vampire book that takes place at a school, with strong female characters and a cast of funny friends, I was thinking of Buffy. But when I wrote a book where the protagonist never recovers from the loss of his lover, I was thinking of Wuthering Heights. When I wrote a book with a strong sense of place, with tactile, sensuous descriptions of objects and settings, with a man who buries his grief in sex, I was thinking of Dracula and Interview With a Vampire. When I wrote a book where a character tells you his story—but not all of it—I was thinking of Atonement.
Sometimes, it pays to stay up late and watch old reruns.
Helen Shankman’s short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, Grift, Danse Macabre, 2 Bridges Review and JewishFiction.net. Her family’s stories of Holocaust loss and survival inspire much of her work. She holds an MFA in classical art techniques from the New York Academy of Arts. The Color of Light is her first novel. Learn more and order your copy here.
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