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Ghoulish pleasures

By Nancy Harris
October 28, 2010

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As the sunlight disappears earlier and the smell of falling leaves and decaying apples fills the air, our literary appetites often turn to something darker.

With Halloween looming, I found Elizabeth Wegner of Weymouth ostensibly searching for a spooky tale to read aloud with her second-grade son, to encourage his reading skills. But Wegner quickly added: “It’s kind of embarrassing, because I’m also looking for a good read for myself about vampires. Ever since I found Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga in 2005, I’ve been kind of obsessed with them.’’

She is not alone. I became hooked on vampire literature by a gothic soap opera called “Dark Shadows’’ way back in 1967, when a darkly mysterious vampire named Barnabas Collins stole the story line in what became a hugely popular TV series.

I remember running home after school to watch the melodramatic portrayal of a 200-year-old vampire, who brought terror to the town of Collinsport after he was released from his coffin. But what kept me coming back was his romantic obsession with a local waitress whom he believed to be his long-lost love.

For many of us, it’s this notion of secret obsession and romance in a world of characters that constantly struggle with their strange appetites and impulses that draws us in.

Meyer picked up on this theme with her debut novel, “Twilight,’’ and her subsequent novels about the dark prince charming named Edward and his moody, beautiful girlfriend, Bella.

“It was the romance and the suspense of ‘would they or wouldn’t they ever get together’ that kept me enthralled with Meyer’s series, rather than the hint of preternatural violence and the body count,’’ says Wegner.

Speaking as a psychologist, it seems that one of the best explanations for our fascination with vampires is that they represent the darker side of human nature. From a Freudian perspective, the unconscious mind is the repository of man’s aggressive and sexual impulses, which are felt by us to be shameful. In vampires, we see these long-repressed impulses become not only visible but freely acted on in a way we humans are not free to do.

Vampires also give expression to both our dread of death and our death wish, which Freud believed to exist side by side. What better way to give free rein to our fear of death than to immerse ourselves in the world of vampires, where immortality is readily achieved?

Authors were dealing with these themes long before Edward and Bella entered our lives. I reminded Wegner of the series known as The Vampire Chronicles, by Anne Rice. These books also have a huge mainstream and cult following and continue to enthrall readers.

Rice, the author of 28 books, published her first novel, “Interview With the Vampire,’’ in 1976, and it went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time.

With loving attention to historical detail, Rice introduces us to her brood of vampires who struggle with issues we all face: love, loss, and survival of the soul. In their individual voices, Rice follows the transformation of her characters from mortal to immortal as they pursue their quest for either revenge or redemption over the centuries.

I also felt obliged to share with Wegner the writings of another prolific vampire lover, Laurell K. Hamilton.

Hamilton’s best-known character is Anita Blake, who has chosen a career as a court-appointed executioner of vampires in a time when vampires are protected by law . . . unless they get too brutal and nasty.

The stories follow this tough, sexy heroine through the streets, back alleys, and cemeteries of St. Louis as she battles vampires, werewolves, and zombies in a classic struggle of good versus evil.

Hamilton’s novels are action-packed page-turners about a feisty heroine who is more afraid of love and intimacy than of any vampire lurking in the night.

When we finished our discussion of these vampire classics, Wegner leaned in and said: “Why should my son have all the fun this Halloween? Since I shouldn’t eat all the Snickers bars, I think I’ll grab one of Hamilton’s books instead!’’

Nancy Harris, a psychologist, can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.

‘Twilight’
By Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown

‘Interview With the Vampire’
By Anne Rice

Ballantine Books

‘Guilty Pleasures’
By Laurell K.

Hamilton

Jove