Posts Tagged ‘ vampires today ’

Joseph Laycock’s “Vampires Today” – a review

So a few days before the winter solstice i finally got my copy of “Vampires Today” by Joseph Laycock [1], and read it during the winter break. You might remember that i’ve already written about the book several times before, from the original book announcement via interview links to speculations about identity and ontology. After all that i feel that i owe a proper review of the book, not to mention that writing one will hopefully help me get a clearer understanding of the book as well.

(If all this is too long, here’s the short version: if you’re interested in the vampire community and only have time for one book, this is the one to read.)

First impressions, as others have pointed out the cover is marvellously garish, making me rather reluctant to leave it lying around. I’d be less bothered if it had a more restrained, academic-looking cover. There are a small number of illustrations which i could take or leave, and unfortunately a number of typos which shouldn’t have passed editing. Extensive notes and a very complete bibliography are included as is to be expected from a scholarly work, and the addition of an index does not come amiss. The writing is pleasant and lucid and mostly devoid of jargon, and as such should be accessible to most readers (though i might have missed some jargon in as much as i use it myself).

So what’s in the book? In the first chapter Laycock gives us an overview of the various types of vampires. He does a review of previous attempts at categorisation, which he rejects as being unhelpful in understanding modern vampires. What he proposes instead are three axes along which to sort self-identified vampires. The first is between lifestylers and real vampires, while the second axis goes between feeding types (psi and sang). The third distinguishes between awakened and initiated models of vampirism. Most of my involvement with the vampire community has been with groups and individuals who follow the awakened model, where there is a strong tendency to reject initiatory models out of hand, so Laycock’s inclusion of these made me hesitate for a bit. However in a later chapter he returns to the initiatory model at length, which led me to understand that segment of the vampire community much better.

In the second chapter Laycock asks why and how people come to identify as vampires. He examines better and less known popular theories such as the porphyria myth, “renfield syndrome”, “clinical vampirism”, but also the idea of pathological narcissism or that it’s an escapist fantasy taken too far (or roleplaying taken too far). He quickly shows that the clinical and psychiatric models don’t actually match the experience described by vampires, and also rejects the escapist fantasy theory. Instead he proposes to distinguish between the vampire milieu which is formed of the collective cultural concept of vampires on one hand, and on the other hand the vampire community which is formed of those people identifying as vampires. The vampire milieu then functions as a toolkit (one of many) with which people in our hyper-individualistic society create a more or less coherent and meaningful identity and narrative of the self. With this theoretical framework in place he can avoid the ontological question [2]. Instead he can look at how the vampire milieu evolved to the point where it could become an identity toolkit, and how in the last decade or so the vampire community has become strong enough to feed into and become an actor in the development of the vampire milieu.

With this in mind it becomes evident that the next chapter needs to examine the vampire milieu. In other words this is where Laycock describes the toolkit out of which vampire identities are constructed. This is the second longest chapter and to me one of the most interesting, but i must say that i know relatively little about vampires in literature and film and so on (at least for a member of the vampire community [3]). Somebody who’s more deeply fascinated by how vampires have been represented over time will probably not learn that much, but it should still be a good and thorough recapitulation. A long section is dedicated to vampires in literature, film and tv, from the very earliest offerings in the 19th century right up to the near-present. He pays particular attention to the moments when the image of the vampire changes, becoming aristocratic with Bram Stoker’s (and then Bela Lugosi’s) “Dracula”, and in particular the first tragic vampires in the sixties. Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend” is significant as the first work interpreting vampirism as the effect of a virus [4]. Further sections are dedicated to vampires in occult writing and in metaphysics/holistic health, and again Laycock traces the development over a century and more. For those of us who follow an awakened model of vampirism the inclusion of these occult subjects might be a bit off-putting, but they have also shaped the vampire milieu significantly, and have helped me understand certain parts of the vampire culture better. The last section in this chapter considers the part of role-playing in shaping the vampire milieu, while being itself influenced by the vampire community. Here as well as in other places he makes the important point that the vampire community is now an important factor in shaping the vampire milieu.

The fourth and fifth chapter are dedicated to the two main directions in the modern vampire community: the later titled “The Vampire Community” considers awakened vampires, who form a large part of the publicly visible community today; the former examines the initiatory vampire groups. This last one is particularly interesting. I have a tendency, which i seem to share with a large segment of the awakened vampire community, to dismiss the religious crowd as delusional and to ridicule them. If you want an example of that you might consult the transcripts of the VVC global community chat on vampirism and religion [5]. Considering that awakened and initiatory groups give significantly different meanings to being a vampire it is not really surprising that they are a bit antagonistic; this chapter at least gives an understanding of the internally quite coherent place where initiatory groups come from. I would recommend this chapter in particular for anybody coming from an awakened model who has business with initiatory groups.

Though the fifth chapter isn’t dedicated exclusively to awakened groups, they do make up the majority of the visible community, both because they are more numerous and because initiatory groups are often quite secretive (even more so than other vampires). Laycock calls this a “speculative history”, as much is only vaguely documented and/or relies on oral histories. Very interesting is the concept of womb communities: communities which aren’t directly related to vampirism, but in which early self-identified vampires were more or less at home and could learn to express themselves and form their identities. These created protected environments in which the first vampire communities could form. The current community is described fairly well, though i didn’t find much new for somebody already involved in the community. For an outsider this would certainly also be very informative.

Laycock is a scholar of religion, and thus the sixth chapter is a discussion of vampires and religion. He points out that when talking to his peers most of what he does is show how vampirism is not a religion, which is what he does here too. I do find the sociology of religion to be fairly interesting, but for me the concept of “real vampires” has never been crossed with religion anyway. So for me reading this chapter was more of a “people really say that?” experience, and sometimes it felt like Laycock was building up the arguments just to have something to demolish. I’m not saying that he did that on purpose, but it was the least interesting chapter for me.

Unfortunately the next chapter was only slightly more interesting. It is unfortunate that vampires mostly appear in the media when they are the subject of scandal, but i’m frankly just not that interested in rehashing old scandals and celebrity news. He does make the point, with which i wholeheartedly agree, that the vampire community is at a point where it is being made public whether we want to or not. As a community we have written too much and our forums are too public and open for it to be possible to crawl back into the coffin. The vampire community is out – it is now up to us to decide how to present ourselves.

Concluding, Laycock speculates about what the emergence of vampire as an identity signifies for the rest of society. As i’ve also previously done in this blog he makes a comparison with the trans community, which just like the vampire community claims a socially disputed ontological identity. He makes another comparison to the autistic community, which like the vampire community has done a lot to define itself from the inside, instead of having a definition imposed on it from the outside. An interesting point Laycock makes is that as vampires (and therianthropes and otherkin [6]) emerge into the public view, this gives others the identity of “non-vampire” (or “non-kin” or “non-therian”). Unfortunately i think that this is a rather idealistic view; the privileged identity-group tends to ignore the non-privileged groups, and assume that by default everybody is like them (white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, healthy, wealthy… you get the idea). In contrast, members of non-privileged groups are almost constantly made aware that they are different, and cannot forget it. A ciswoman [7] does not have to worry about her identity as a woman (though she can’t forget that she is a woman, while a man can readily equate “man” with “human”), but she will hardly ever think about being a ciswoman. It is easy for her to assume that her experience as woman applies to all women. On the other hand a transwoman can hardly ever forget that she is trans, and not cis. Similarly most people who become aware of vampires as an identity group will rarely consider how that puts their identity of human into question. We, the vampires and therians and otherkin, we can’t forget that we are different from the mundanes.

It is tricky to write about an identity as an outsider, there is a big danger of telling people what and who you think they are. This doesn’t only risk affronting your subjects, but in a foundational work (and i think this could be such a work concerning vampirism) you also risk prejudicing future researchers. In this regard i think Laycock did good work, he seems to have approached the subject with a very unprejudiced mind. Perhaps it was lucky that he had his first contact with vampires at the AVA (Atlanta Vampire Association), one of the most down to earth vampire groups currently active. If his first encounters with real vampires had played out in the courts of Gotham [8] or with one of the religious groups we might well have been left with a very different book.

By concentrating on the vampire as an identity group Laycock also deftly avoids the ontological question: are modern real vampires actually “real”, do they really have this need for psi-energy or blood which other humans don’t have? Are the symptoms described by vamps who haven’t fed enough based on an actual need, or are they perhaps “only” [9] psychosomatic? Unfortunately we can’t answer these questions. Assuming psi phenomena were real, we still have no tools to examine them with, nor even have a theoretical framework in which to place them. The experience of sanguinarians would be accessible to modern medicine, but the hope of anybody investing the kind of resources needed for that kind of research seems fanciful at best. With this in mind Laycock’s approach is excellent, but i remain convinced that the ontological question will raise it’s head again sooner or later [10].

As expected he hardly writes about donors, and when he does it is about what vampires do with donors. Vampires feed from donors, they have relationships with donors, and so on; the donor in there is entirely passive and denied any agency. Of course this is a donor blog, and i’m a donor, so i’m certainly a bit biased, but i remain convinced that by overlooking donors and our identities so thoroughly he and others are missing an important aspect of the community. The vampire identity would hardly be what it is today if there were no donors. Even with the central question of the book being how vampires have evolved from eastern european monsters to a valid identity group and how the vampire milieu functions today as an identity toolkit, disregarding donors so completely is problematic. While reading it occurred to me that this critique might be extended to the larger community. The diverse vampire communities are made up not just of vampires, nor just vampires and donors. Most of the vampire groups i’ve seen contain large numbers of non-vampires, and in writing about vampire communities it might well be illuminating to consider who besides vampires forms the communities.

But even with this lack i can only repeat that i consider this to be an excellent book, and wholeheartedly recommend it to any interested readers. It should be required reading for any outsiders involved with the vampire community or doing work on the community. Many vampires would also profit from reading it, at least for an understanding of the different currents and interpretations of “vampire” and for the roots of those differences in the community.

[1] Laycock, Joseph; Vampires Today: the Truth about Modern Vampirism, 2009, Praeger
[2] More on the ontological question later.
[3] I’ve been accused of having read too much vampire fiction. If that accusation had come from outside the vampire community, i might have agreed. But compared to most of the vampire community i find myself relatively uninterested in vampire fiction.
[4] You might have seen the recent movie adaptation, but i’d heartily recommend the book. I think a point could be made that Matheson’s vampires have more in common with modern zombies than vampires. It’s also interesting that the protagonist in “I am Legend” – the only human in the story – is much more monstrous than the vampires. But i’m getting sidetracked.
[5] I just noticed that the transcripts aren’t yet posted. They will be available on the site of the VVC.
[6] Laycock has said in interviews that he is doing work on therians and otherkin, and that he’d planned a chapter on us for this book which was removed for editorial reasons.
[7] “Cis” is a prefix gaining use in the trans community for men and women who were assigned the gender which they still identify with. Their gender identity is just as constructed as that of trans people, and the prefix cis allows us to talk of them without having to refer to them as “normal” (i’m speaking as a transwoman here).
[8] Otherwise known as New York.
[9] It is petty to say that something is “only” psychosomatic. The suffering experienced is just as real whether the need is “real” or in the sufferer’s head. I’ve witnessed both the suffering of thirsting vampires and the relief brought by feeding often enough to affirm that both are real.
[10] The ontological question will eventually rear its head and require some kind of answer anyway, but there’s nothing we can do about it for now.

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Laycock review tomorrow

It’s 4:50 am, and i’ve just finished the review of Vampires Today. i desperately need to proofread it, and have somebody else check it too, but i should have it ready for posting tomorrow. Sorry for the long wait, but i think it ought to be worth it.

I’ve got one or two other posts lined up, so there ought to be a little more activity here.

Laycock for the fourth

so i’m posting about Laycock again*, the fourth time actually, and somehow i think not the last. i finally ordered the book at the end of july; they said three weeks, but it hadn’t yet arrived in the store when i checked by today. they said they would text me when it arrived, “by the end of the months” – not much time, guys, that’s monday. i hope to have it, and have it read, by the time i visit my sang again, and i will certainly post a critical review of it here.

coincidentally yesterday also saw the publication of another interview with Laycock. i continue to be impressed by the lucid style of his writing, and really hope that will also be present in the book.

as i was also in chat, we talked a little bit about what the book might or might not bring. one thing which was regretted was that Laycock totally avoids the ontological question (or at least that is the very strong impression one gets). i’m not sure that is a bad thing; he is concentrating on that which he knows how to do – ethnography – and leaving aside that which he can’t say anything about, which is both the metaphysical and the biological aspects of vampirism. on the other hand, to really understand vampirism one would have to include those two aspects.

a possible analogy is gender and sex. if we write about gender we can write an awful lot about the social construction of gender, about identity politics, can do anthropological and ethnographic work, psychological studies. but sooner or later we are going to be confronted by biology. and for all that it was popular (for a while) to say that it was all social construction, that the only difference was gender, and sex was negligible, we’ve had to accept that biological sex is complicated and powerful and can not be dismissed. not only that, if we presume that it’s simple, or use ideologically tainted ideas of sex, our work on gender will be falsified and corrupted. consequently, we either have to very carefully delineate what we can write about – and stay conscious of that during our whole writing – or we have to study medicine and biology in some detail as well.**

when it comes to vampirism, we have that problem writ large. we have an identity of vampire, but then we have sanguinarian blood-drinking and the strong claim by many sangs that it is a physical, biological need. this issue would be open research – if vampirism were taken seriously by the medical community. even more intractable are the metaphysical questions about psi-feeding – we currently don’t have any scientific tools with which to examine the question, and are left with mystical or religious explanations.

with a masters in theological studies Laycock ought to be very aware of how far he can take the ethnographic approach, and where he has to admit that he doesn’t have the tools to talk about things. it is one of the most important lessons one learns when studying religion scientifically.

so yeah, i’m hopeful that the book will be good at what it’s supposed to be, i.e. vampire community and vampire identity, and will carefully acknowledge the questions it can’t deal with. and i promise that this is my last major post about Laycock’s book until i’ve read it.

*for those who don’t remember or are new to my blog/the vampire community, Joseph Laycock wrote “Vampires Today: the truth about modern vampirism“, an ethnographic study about real vampires. i’ve mentioned him in at least three previous posts.

**the same problem presents itself to people studying sex instead of gender, they too come to a point where they have to include gender in their studies.

Laycock interviews

for those who haven’t realised yet, Laycock is the guy who wrote Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism. i still haven’t read it, due to not having acces to a credit-card or other means of ordering it online, and also because of being quite broke. but he’s given two more interviews recently, and each time i read those i want to read the book even more.

the first of the two is at the New Orleans Vampire Film Festival. note the following paragraph, i think it is essential to understanding the difference between “vampire-as-an-identity” and “vampire-as-a-condition”:

Neither real or lifestyle vampires claim to be undead or immortals.  The idea that a vampire could be a living person actually goes back to the 19th century and an occult group called the Theosophical Society.  The Theosophical Society traveled to India where they re-imagined European vampire legends by drawing on Indian ideas of vital energy and holistic medicine.  I have met Hindus and students of Chinese medicine who acknowledge that some people need to borrow or take energy from others to be healthy––they just don’t think of this as vampirism.

i am convinced that vampires-as-a-condition, both those who feed on energy and blood, have been around for as long as the human species has existed (several hundreds of thousands of years) and quite possibly could be found in our ancestor species. however, like Laycock says, even today the condition isn’t necessarily equated with vampires-as-an-identity. it is only in our post-modern society that we can construct an identity around the condition. i think it is also this difference between the condition and identity of vampires which fuels the discussion which sometimes rises in the communities around names.

he makes a similar argument in the bostonist, in an interview titled “We All Become Non-Vampires”. here he makes an analogy to how gay became an identity:

There used to be no concept of homosexuality. If you’re a man, you’re supposed to have sex with women; if you have sex with a man, then you’ve sinned. And if you have sex with lots and lots of men, then you’re a sinner. But you’re not “gay.” You’re not different from other people, you’re just bad.

Now we have this category of “gay,” and all of us start thinking of ourselves as “straight,” whereas before there was no concept of “straight.”

you see how this argument works; i personally really like it, because it allows us to talk about “vampire-as-an-identity” – and by consequence about vampire communities or subcultures – without having to answer the tricky question of what “vampire-as-a-condition” actually ontologically is. furthermore this construction of new identities is a subject which i find intensely interesting, both academically and personally (as donor, otherkin, and queer transperson).

on the other hand, i want to remark on his response (in the first interview) when asked whether he interviewed donors. it’s becoming more and more obvious that he didn’t have more than casual contact with donors, and clearly didn’t include us in his research. we end up with the same issue i remarked upon earlier (scroll down to where i mention the “true true blood” article), that we have people talking about donors but not actually letting donors speak for themselves.

this is even more astounding as the basic concept of his book is to go out and talk to the communities, instead of relying on second-hand accounts. it’s even more astounding as overlooking a part of the community is one of the basic errors in ethnography. one of the classic examples is a researcher noting in his logbook that “everybody left to go hunting, and we were left alone in the village. only the women and children remained” (i forget who exactly it was, and the quote is paraphrased, sorry). it also makes me a bit angry, because those people which are excluded in that “everybody” (the women and children, the donors, the queer people, the trans-folk) become non-people, become people who don’t have an identity. and that is frankly something i’ve dealt with long enough.

perhaps i’m being hasty in my opinion on how he treats donors; as i said, i haven’t yet been able to read Vampires Today. maybe the bookstore could order it for me, i think i’ll have to go check it out. but so far i unfortunately haven’t seen anything which contradicts my opinion.

i originally wanted to write something about the recent public chat held by the VVC, but as this has already grown much longer than i intended i’m going to leave that for a future post.