Janice Gable Bashman and Jonathan Maberry have unleashed a torrent of terror in their new nonfiction release, Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil, from Citadel. The book is a far-ranging investigation into the nature of evil and a fascinating history of our preoccupation with the struggle between light and darkness. Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “fantastic and inventive approach to the world’s oldest war (and) a gripping and informative work.”
Jonathan Maberry is well-known to thriller writers and readers as the award-winning author of the bestselling Joe Ledger series, Patient Zero, Dragon Factoryand the upcoming King of Plagues, as well as numerous other nonfiction works, short stories and Marvel comics. Janice has a busy career as a journalist, blogger and fiction writer. They made time for me last week to discuss Vampire Hunters, their collaborative process and their own takes on mankind’s oldest struggle.
I think most people will be really surprised by who merits a mention in your book. I knew we’d see Van Helsing, but Ghandi and Jackie Robinson?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Well, let’s face it the struggle between good and evil isn’t a new one and it touches everyone’s life in one way or another. Ghandi struggled against political oppression and was later murdered. Jackie Robinson was taking swings at the color barrier in baseball. Often the struggles of real people makes the most compelling stories.
Our book starts with good vs evil as a concept and then we chase it through philosophy, religion, politics, literature, art, film, comics, pop-culture and the real world. One important thing is to look past the black and white words ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Often we’re talking about civilized vs uncivilized, honorable vs dishonorable, kind vs mean, and then we go into the gray areas where both concepts are filtered through specific perceptions. For example, in most wars there are people on both sides who think that the other side is evil and that God is on their own side. It’s a funny old world, and we have a lot of fun trying hold those two concepts up so we can see them from all sides.
I’m really glad you guys set the record straight on vampire-killing, because a lot of us were clearly doing it wrong. What are some of the common misconceptions about dispatching the local vampire?
MABERRY: Well…you wouldn’t want to go big game hunting and find out too late that a Super-Soaker isn’t the preferred weapon. So much of what folks know about vampires, werewolves and other classic monsters comes from film and fiction. It’s not a deliberate corruption or a campaign of disinformation (as, believe it or not, some folks have claimed!) but rather the acceptable license of anyone writing fiction. Novelists and screenwriters are allowed to make stuff up. However, for the purist who wants to know what people actually believed, or in some cases still believe, we wanted to set the record straight in WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE.
BASHMAN: What we think we know about killing vampires–a stake to the heart, sunlight, or beheading–was attached to ancient lore by writers looking for a way to add punch to our conception of vampires, to give vampires a vulnerability when they’ve been such strong and scary figures in the lore for so long. We want to believe that there’s a way to defeat them, a way to survive. But what we also have to worry about is how to avoid becoming a vampire. The process varies among the folklore in different countries and it’s no easy task. In some cultures, if a child is born with red hair or teeth, he’s destined to become a vampire. If that happens, he’s just plain out of luck. Other lore is tied into how you die or if a cat or dog jumps over your grave. There’s all kinds of ways to become a vampire, but killing one is quite difficult. The use of garlic, burning, and the Ritual of Exorcism are common methods used throughout the world.
Are you and Janice saying that exposure to sunlight, which has turned a thousand movie vampires to flaming dust or bloody soup, isn’t an officially-sanctioned vampire-killing technique?
MABERRY: Nah…that was cooked up by F.W. Murnau (and his lighting director) while filming the 1922 silent flick NOSFERATU. They didn’t have the budget or time to film the expensive ended ‘lifted’ from their source material (DRACULA, for which Murnau was sued and most copies of his flick destroyed); so they improvised. Creature of darkness… hey, let’s use light to kill him. And voila, now it’s so deeply entrenched in the popular understand of vampires that people believe it to be part of the folklore. But even in DRACULA, Stoker had the Count walking around in daylight. So…sorry, sunlight doesn’t do the trick.
BASHMAN: That would great, though, wouldn’t it? If there was a sure-fire way to kill vampires that worked for everyone. Of course, that isn’t the case, which is why different lore advises different methods for the killing vampires. If you’re a vampire hunter, you’d better know your lore and your vampires or you’re in big trouble.
Vampire Hunters starts, appropriately enough, with Evil 101, in which you discuss the difference between ‘dangerous’ and ‘evil,’ which was really interesting because you follow it up with a monster-by-monster breakdown of who rates as truly evil and which of our favorite nightmares are just misunderstood. Did you guys disagree at all about who fell into the ‘evil’ category?
MABERRY: Not really. We both accept that there are a lot of monsters -supernatural and real-world–who are more ‘gray area’ than purely black hearted. Creatures like Godzilla, zombies and giant insects are certainly dangerous as hell, but they aren’t evil. They don’t draw plans against humanity as, say, Dracula did. Their intent is to destroy, consume or kill because that’s their nature, or they’ve been attacked and are responding, or they are driven by impulses hardwired into their instincts. They don’t want to ‘hurt’ or ‘harm’ because they are incapable of the deliberate thought of ‘wanting’ something. A storm may destroy but it doesn’t ‘want’ to. When viewed through the filter of intent, the distinction is pretty easy, and we agreed all the way down the line.
BASHMAN: It’s pretty easy to see the difference between the monsters that are misunderstood and the monsters that are truly evil. Of course, there are so many of both in folklore and pop culture. So how do you choose which are the most evil? It seems to us that society has done that already. People throughout the world have read, seen, and heard about these monsters for years. So if you look at world culture and folklore, it’s pretty easy to see which monsters are the most evil.
The explosion of vampire and occult fiction in the last few years has spawned a generation of vampire and monster hunters. Who are your personal favorites?
MABERRY: My personal favorites change with my moods. As a kid I was all about the Hammer Films monsters. Their take on Dracula and Frankenstein informed my own; but over the years I’ve become far more selective. In films, I do have a pretty solid ‘best of’ list, though. My favorite zombie film is the extended director’s cut of Zack Snyder’sDawn of the Dead remake. For werewolves it’s Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. Favorite ghost story will probably always be the original ‘The Haunting’. Scared me then, scares me now.
The reason I like these films in particular isn’t because of the monsters -for me it’s always been about the monster hunters. Peter Cushing’s heroic and inventive Van Helsing was so much more compelling than the version in Stoker’s novel. The characters of Ana, Kenneth and Michael in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead show how real people are likely to react in a crisis. Dog Soldiers is about loyalty and courage. And The Haunting is an intellectual and psychological look at how our world might collide with the paranormal. Each of these is a thinking-person’s horror story.
In fiction there are tons of great heroes fighting evil. L. A. Banks has done marvelous work with her Vampire Huntress series, which often blurs the lines between good and evil in the protagonists as well as the antagonists. Also, John Connolly’s compelling Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker thrillers present chapters in an ongoing battle against evil, both in physical terms and supernatural. His novel, The Unquiet, is the single best paranormal thriller I’ve ever read.
BASHMAN: There are so many good ones (and we cover many of them in the book), including Van Helsing and his gang of vampire hunters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Anita Blake, author Laurell K. Hamilton’s protagonist who hunts vampires for a living; and Damali Richards and the Guardian Team in L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress series.
You guys range really far into some fascinating territory – legendary heroes, serial killers, games, comic books. How was your research done?
BASHMAN: The research was intensive. We interviewed tons of experts, including authors, FBI profilers, comic writers, screenwriters, directors, actors, and gamers to get their take on the subjects. We also researched by reading a lot, watching movies, and using the internet.
MABERRY: The Internet is pretty damn useful. We used it to find experts, often by cruising news articles, published papers, and bibliographies…and then we traced the experts back to their home base, be it in a university, government office, or even Facebook. Then we do a ton of interviews via email or phone. It allows us to tap into a global network of experts rather than relying on those we can only see face-to-face.
We also divided the work according to our preferred areas of interest. That allowed each of use to bring our own sensibilities and understanding of the topic to play, shortcutting the process of identifying and contacting those experts.
One of my favorite passages was on talismans and charms to ward off evil. When there’s evil in the neighborhood, which are you going with to protect yourself and your loved ones?
MABERRY: As much as I enjoy being a rational and scientific modern man, I am amazingly superstitious. My talisman of choice is Ganesha, the Hindu god of writers and remover of obstacles. I wear a Ganesha pendant and have him as my screensaver. And, no, I’m not a Hindu. As far as evil in the physical world…I’ve been studying and teaching martial arts for 46 years. Unless it’s Godzilla, I like my chances even against a vampire.
BASHMAN: Quite frankly, when there’s evil in my neighborhood, I’m not going to depend on a charm or talisman to ward it off, although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to have a ton of them on hand–I’ll take all the help I can get. If evil’s threatening my loved ones, I’d want to get them out of town. Real fast. Of course, if I have a few bucks in my pocket, I’d have an all-seeing eye with me, a talisman which is found on the one dollar bill and on currency in other countries. It’s fascinating how so many different charms and talismans are used around the world to ward off evil; and each works in its own unique way.
To do a book like this means pulling info from a thousand sources – is it a tough process to get rights and permissions to reference all the books, movies, games, comics songs and other material featured in Vampire Hunters?
MABERRY: Surprisingly, no. When we approached people and organizations about this, they were jazzed. Everyone was very supportive and generous.
BASHMAN: It was great to see so many people excited about the book and wanting to be a part of it.
One of the really interesting things about the incredible surge in interest in stories of the occult is that gradually, there seems to be much more tolerance for vampires and other supernatural beings; they’re frequently actually heroic or at least tragic now. Do you think this represents a new subtlety in our feelings about the monstrous? Or have we just gone soft on evil?
MABERRY: I think it’s a storytelling thing. It’s often hard to sustain interest in something that’s one-note. In order to make Dracula more appealing to a theater audience he was revised to be more romantic (and he was anything BUT in the novel). That started a trend. It allows writers to tell a more emotionally and psychologically complex story with characters the audience cares about.
That said, I think the trend may be tipping too far in that monsters have become not only romantic and tragic, but the stars of the story. They’ve become more interesting than the human protagonists; and as such they’ve stopped being scary. Very few paranormal romances and thrillers present scary monsters. Interested, no doubt; but not scary.
That satisfies a need in legions of readers and viewers, else they wouldn’t be buying the books and watching the movies. However it dilutes the horrific punch of the monster. I’m a bit of a monster purist. I like my monsters scary as hell, and that means that I tend to dip into the folkloric well and draw on the older, far less romanticized versions.
Zombies are the exception to this mass-media monster makeover. They were never romantic and except in very rare cases (such as S.G. Browne’s witty BREATHERS: A Zombie’s Lament), shouldn’t be. Zombies are metaphors for larger threats–pandemics, climate changes, military build-up, the faceless majority, etc. That’s always going to be scary.
BASHMAN: I think we want to believe that all beings, human or otherwise, are somehow good, that no matter how evil or monstrous they’ve acted there’s something in them that can be salvaged. Of course, that’s often not the case, but we still search for that glimmer of goodness, that piece of humanity that makes these monsters seem like us. Over time, vampires and other supernatural beings have evolved slowly from “evil” creatures into beings that are more human-like, beings with feelings and the ability to care for others. That’s not to say that they’re all “good” or that we’ve gone soft, but perhaps it’s just a reflection on our changed perception of the world–that not everything is black and white and that even a bad guy or a monster can do good in the world if he’s given the chance and he decides to take it. After all, we want to see good win and evil lose. By creating a heroic or tragic vampire or supernatural being, it increase the chances of good triumphing over evil.