michael tolkin on mark twain, american popular culture & sarah palin, vampire

Palinism is vampirism, as she leads her army of Zombies, who refuse to concede that carbon dioxide levels are man-made because they want the world to heat up, because they are cold and dead and want to burn or drown everyone else, because death is jealous of life.


Vampires, like wizards, know that the world is made of light and dark, and want to seduce the living into the night. (Edel Rodriguez / For The Times)

The Vampirization of America

An era of fear and uncertainty has helped fuel a sex-and-death wave in pop culture.


By Michael Tolkin

December 20, 2009


In times of political rot and confusion and pain, one needs something like cosmic silliness, not to make sense of things, but for those who don’t expect a life after death, we need an experience, in this life, of the dream of heaven. Tossed into fear, like children, we need a childish vision to restore faith in life. The worse things get, the more we need greater art. Since Pina Bausch wasn’t in town, there was Mozart’s "Magic Flute" at the L.A. Opera not long after 9/11. We needed Mozart because the country was Wagner, pinned to false mythologies of necessary doom.

The genius of that 2001 production was that it felt like it had been put on by a high school with the best singers in the world. It was adolescent joy, with one image that stayed with me. Rodney Gilfry as Papageno the bird catcher, wearing a fool’s cap and bells in a costume with more colors than Joseph’s coat, was singing on stage while a rowboat on wires sailed overhead, carrying three boys dressed like Harry Potter, with his glasses. Young magicians, "Magic Flute," makes sense.

Who would they put in the boat a decade later? A Harry Potter reference now would seem like product placement, not a little wink.

If we look to the Young Adult shelf now for another character type to use as a little reference point, we find death. In the last decade, the four types being found on the shelves of Young Adult Fiction have replaced all previous human character types. We no longer have anima/animus, ego/id/superego, saint/sinner.

We have Wizards, Werewolves, Zombies and Vampires.


Wizards know that the world is made of light and dark, and struggle to keep faith with the light. They’re a weakened force now, frustrated by the way spells dissipate in time, and too dependent on magic wands and hybrid cars. Ten years ago, children wanted to be Harry Potter, but now they want to be vampires, the type most drawn to power, anything not to be exposed out as a zombie, while the werewolves, like real wolves, are hated and hunted.


Obama was elected by the wizard brigade, a children’s crusade. Obama read "Harry Potter" to his Sasha and Malia. It is inconceivable that he’s reading them the vampire books. The wizards are in bad shape now because, being young wizards, they had too much faith in undefined Hope and not enough clarity about policy and compromise, which is to say, they’d forgotten that the dark side runs through all of us. But who can blame the wizards for wanting to regress, seeing as they do that they’re surrounded now by Zombies, the tea baggers, a growling mob of brain-dead idiots led by the Vampires.


There’s not much to say about the Zombies among us. The Zombies are the muddled herd of the maggoty brain-dead, reduced by their confusion to singular obsessions. What upsets them about Obama’s origins is that he has actual proof of human birth. They are the Living Dead in George Romero’s shopping mall, no money, no credit, still shopping. They’re the embarrassing reflection of our lives, which is why Zombies have changed from nightmare flesh-eaters to comic punch lines, although it’s not really a joke that we’ve set the Zombies on the cover of Jane Austen novels; this is a kind of evil, but again, ours is a culture that resents life, so it makes sense that we’d send emissaries back in time to ruin our heritage with mockery.


Vampires, like wizards, know that the world is made of light and dark, and want to seduce the living into the night. The Vampires are telling us two great seductive lies. There’s the "True Blood" lie: "I don’t need human blood, I have a substitute now." There’s the "Twilight" lie: "I’m a vegetarian now. Those other Vampires are bad, and the Werewolves are bad, but I’m good, you can trust me, you can love me."


The Vampires are the aristocracy of the undead, who can, at least, talk. The Vampires are the fear mongers, the talk show hosts, the politicians who can’t find a way to give health insurance to children, much less adults; the bankers, Ponzi schemers, drug company lobbyists, the theologians of prosperity. We can’t understand them without first considering why they’re in a symbolic war against the Lycanthropes.


Toby Barlow’s "Sharp Teeth" has the answer; it’s an epic poem about rival packs of werewolves in L.A. I shouldn’t be surprised it’s not that well-known, because at this moment, in our culture of necrosis, Vampires are sexier than lycanthropes, and as dangerous as werewolves are, they’re still just dogs, and there’s always something to love about dogs. Dogs always have a heart, and more often than not, a good to reason to bite.


The Werewolves are closer to the Wizards than the Zombies, but are maligned by the Vampires. Werewolves are not the undead, they are the humans split between control and abandon, between society and rage. Every politician or sports figure caught for scandal is a werewolf. In the beginning years of this mythology, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula deserved the spike in his heart, he was a mournful villain, but still a villain, while Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman was caught tragically by his blood disease, and knew he needed to die for the protection of those he loved. He was a hybrid, no different in that sense than Spider-Man or the Hulk or a Prius.


The Werewolves are being targeted by the Vampires because that part of them which is still human, and still alive, is the great threat to the Vampires; one may say that the alliance of the Wizards and Werewolves is all that can save us from the Vampires and their army of Zombies.

The love of vampires is the love of death, not a heavenly immortality but a contagious negation of productive life, the equation of sex and death. The symbolic world is splitting between vampire and dog, between those who love death and want to spread it, and those who just want to claim their territory and their pack so they can eat and sleep and hump something once in awhile.

A country led for eight years by torturers has not yet — and cannot — produce a work of popular art to make sense of the reasons for these shifts in imagination. We are in a race against the death of posterity, since Zombies have no memory, and Vampires want to kill the most important memory, which is to remember that one is still alive and can choose. The roots of Vampirism are always in the murky past, but American Vampirism isn’t a Romanian import. You can find it in "Huckleberry Finn," our literature’s greatest insult to the American fantasy of its own nobility, the novel that mocks the great-great-great-grandparents of the tea-bagging zombies, their racism, cruelty, religion and stupidity. Today Twain would call that culture Palinism.

Palinism is vampirism, as she leads her army of Zombies, who refuse to concede that carbon dioxide levels are man-made because they want the world to heat up, because they are cold and dead and want to burn or drown everyone else, because death is jealous of life.

Palinistic Vampirism controls the Zombies, and uses them as proxies to call for the massacre that the Vampires are too clever to ask for themselves. But they do want blood. There is no vegetarian vampire, and vampires are always and only liars. Werewolves, like any dog who steals from the table, may be liars, but unlike the Vampires, they don’t want power. The Vampires can’t be reasoned with.

If there’s any hope, and there always is, their denial of global warming gives them away, shows that underneath the death cult they’re scared, and that fear in its way is proof of their humanity. Science scares them, because they’re afraid of being lost in the leap of imagination to reconcile faith and science. Their fear stupefies them, and they fear the loss of God and the fall into chaos if science is right; they’re too nervous to consider that science is fact and religion is poetry and that there can still be a God, but that he leaves science to us and reserves for himself the right to make up stories and delight himself with metaphor, leaves science to hard work and verification and art to inspiration and effort that needs no proof beyond the way Mozart gives pleasure.

—from the Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2009

short fiction by brian evenson


by Brian Evenson


Brian Evenson is the author of the books Altmann’s Tongue, Contagion, Dark Property, and Father of Lies, among others. In 2005, his collection, The Wavering Knife, won the International Horror Guild Award. Two years later, his novel The Open Curtain was also a finalist, as well as for the Edgar Award. In addition to his own fiction, Evenson has translated the work of others into English, including the novel Electric Flesh by Claro (from the original French). A media tie-in novel, Aliens: No Exit, will be released around the same time as this volume, and Evenson has a new short story collection due out in 2009, called Fugue State.
This story, which originally appeared in the magazine
The Silver Web, was inspired by Cabeza de Vaca’s sixteenth century account of crossing North America after being shipwrecked, and Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God which, Evenson says, has a brilliant, mad ending. He says he was interested, too, in thinking about how certain places seem to have a dark but magical quality to them. How zombies entered into it is a mystery, however.





Early evening, still distant from the prairie, we encountered a man with skin flayed half-free of his back. He allowed us to inspect that portion of him, and we saw the underskin, purpled and creased with folds that in their convolution resembled the human brain.


The runds off his back he had tanned and twisted into a belt, which he wore and which our captain tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase of him. When our physician inquired after the particulars of his persecutor, the man answered by unfurling from his rucksack a flapping sheet of skin with a large and hardened callous aswash at one end of it which, upon formal inspection, proved an empty, flavid face.





Our paroch of late has taken to baptizing all we encounter, tallying their particulars on wound scrolls before they are slaughtered. As we walk, he counts the names, phrases aloud before us the petitions he will employ before the Church as, spreading forth his lists of converts, he renders plea for sainthood.





The air is fumid, choking. Near midday we were greeted by a man who made claim to raise the dead. Our captain bared his weapon and lopped the head from Rusk, with whom he has been at odds throughout the voyage, and then bade the man have at his task. The self-appointed Jesus sewed Rusk’s head back onto the frame and then, with shaking fingers, uttered his shallow pronouncements. After ample wait, the captain ordered this fellow’s head struck from his shoulders as well.


We carried the heads spikeshafted and passed onward. Nearing the prairie, they began to mumble, at which we sandsunk their shafts, abandoned them.





We have reached the prairie, the dead progressing in droves through shackle and quaking grass. We captured one and he was drawn forth with little struggle, falling nearly insensate once raised from the ground. His flesh was dark and stinking. We examined his armature, the way his mouth had been resewn and mandibled. Avelling the membrane lining the chest, we found the internal organs neatly removed, the lower orifices stoppered. With a sleight pressure of his palm, our physician sloughed away the skin that remnanted to the skull, then exposed the upper portion of the braincase by means of a racksaw. The brain had been removed, the emptied interior case showing in its blotchwork signs of siriasis or, as it is commonly called, sideration.


Our physician made severe notes and, when done, asked for the sake of experiment that the body be released. We lowered it to the earth and watched it come animate, stumble away.





During the night, Latour harnessed a dead woman, for we have been long on the road. Devoid of resilience, she came too rapidly asunder beneath his hips. Even with eyes gritted shut he could gain no satisfaction. The paroch refused his confession.





At times one discovers the living hidden among the dead, the which can be discerned by the

color manifest in their flesh, the sentience of their regard. They crouch to the center of a drove, allowing the dead to sweep them along.


One, we managed to capture. When he made pretense of death, the physician pierced him with his instruments until the man could not but grow bloody and roar.


We jointed his limbs, packed them in salt. His eyes shuttered and then opened again, his torso regaining a torpid motion. We watched his body struggle out and away from us. His boxed limbs thumped against the lid, grinding the salt.





We have consumed the remaining provisions. We eat the living when we ferret them out, and have eaten the horses as well. Still the prairie continues without cease.


The dead prove too festered and rizzared to consume. Instead, we encircle them and employ them as mounts. We tie them by twos front to back and lop free the heads. Sitting on the planed necks and shoulders, we goad them to motion by prodding the forward remnant of the brain’s root.





The prairie is subdued in dust and sand, footing given way. The dead are sparser and often balsamated, their armature careful and fresh. There is no sign of who has prepared them.


This morning we saw approaching at some distance a lone figure with a purposiveness that proved him still alive. When he came closer, he was seen to be slung with a large sack, groaning beneath its weight.


He attempted flight, but mounted athwart the dead we soon rode him down. Dropping the sack, he murdered Latour and Broch before being killed himself.


We struck a fire and ate what we could of the newly dead, then slit back the sack. Inside were two gray and curled women who stumbled away when released. We rode them down and coupled them severally. Later, we directed their movement by ropes slung about their necks. Later still, we ate their fleshly portions.





There is no water, no matter how deep we dig. All provision is gone, the dead here shot through with venom so that upon consuming them we die ourselves. Our paroch is mad and wandering. Our physician is dead, and all the others dead too but for five of us.


The physician pursues us with a sentience we have hitherto disallowed the dead. We awoke last morning to find him astraddle the captain, whom he had killed, consuming the fellow’s face. We dragged the physician off, breaking his legs and plucking free his eyes to hinder further pursuit on his behalf. We broke the captain’s legs as well.


There is some discouragement among the men who remain. Yet I have urged them to push forward, and for the instant they comply.





This midday a glister at some distance and the movement of far figures like lice. We rode forward and found there what I must deem a templature for preparing the corpse, hastily abandoned, the heaped organs on its surface still spongy with blood.


I have examined the apparatus at length but can make nothing of it, nor of its functioning, though it has in my awkwardness contrived to lay bare my palm to the bone. The others, seeing my fate, destroyed the device before I could query it further.





My injured palm swells. I am without water, food. Save myself, the remainder of the party have returned, hoping to reach the edge of the prairie before dying. I have opted to continue, hoping to strive to the center and whatever is established there, if center there be.


There is no satisfaction anywhere. I wander among the dead, awaiting the moment when I shall pass imperceptibly from the stumbling of the living into the stumbling of the dead.




—from John Joseph Adams (editor), The Living Dead (2009)