Book Review: The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas

The Vampire Tapestry was first published in 1980, at the end of the Carter recession and the cusp of the Reagan era. Americans were bored with vampires. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) and Stephen King’s Dracula Americana, Salem’s Lot (1975) had both been best-sellers. But Rice wouldn’t publish her second book, The Vampire Lestat, until 1985, and King never wrote another vampire-themed novel. The first two Saint-Germain novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro had been published, but attracted less attention than they deserved. The TV cult sensation, Dark Shadows, and Hammer Films’ vampire series had fizzled. Science fiction and fantasy, led by Star Wars and Tolkien, dominated the pop culture zeitgeist.

The great vampire renaissance we’re seeing now began building in the mid-80s and exploded in the early 90s. Maybe this dry spell is why several books released around 1980 gave the vampire theme unusual and creative twists. Like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), also published at a low point of vampire popularity, Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Vampire Tapestry startled readers with its revisionist depiction of a blood drinking character. Charnas’ book still has a solid core of fans who state that it’s not only their favorite vampire novel, but the best vampire novel ever written.

Despite this high regard from some very estimable people, I had never read The Vampire Tapestry. I’d only read one of the novella-length chapters, anthologized separately as “Unicorn Tapestry.” I came to the new reissue edition of The Vampire Tapestry (2008: Tom Doherty Associates) with fresh eyes, but a different context than readers had in 1980 when vampire fiction was largely defined by Dracula. Today, fictional alternatives to the “traditional” supernatural vampire are many and varied. Matheson (and the 1945 movie House of Dracula) broke new ground in imagining vampirism as a biological disease rather than a spiritual one. Charnas was among the first writers to present vampires as natural and normal members of another humanoid species. (She was not the very first to use this idea, since it was also the premise of the comic book series Vampirella, but The Vampire Tapestry was the first novel to develop the concept.)

Dr. Edward Weyland is the sole remaining member of his race, as far as he knows. Infinitely old, he periodically enters a state of hibernation, from which he emerges with no memory of his past to create a new identity for himself. He has no conscious knowledge of how he came to exist, exactly what he is or why there are no others like himself. He is a casual predator of humanity, but he isn’t a random killer. Herein lies his contradiction, because Weyland is by no means a cold-hearted murderer who disdains human beings as mere cattle. Intelligent, sophisticated and civilized, Weyland becomes more involved with the prey who so resemble him than I expected. Anne Rice’s vampires are far more alien, murderous and dangerous, from a human being’s perspective, than Charnas’ anti-hero.

Weyland is a living being, but he shares several of the powers attributed to “supernatural” vampires, including enhanced strength (explained in anatomical terms), resistance to injury (he survives a direct gun shot) and accelerated healing. Many readers are especially impressed by Weyland’s unique method of feeding. He uses a sort of dart under his tongue to pierce his victim’s skin, rather than fangs. But in 1980, long canine teeth fangs were a comparatively new vampire convention, which only started appearing in movies in 1958. Prior to that, fiction sometimes described puncture wounds but was vague about the physical mechanism that inflicted them. Weyland’s stinger is reminiscent of the grooved underside of a vampire bat’s tongue, which may have been Charnas’ inspiration for the idea.

The book’s title is descriptive. Although labeled a novel, The Vampire Tapestry consists of five long chapters that are connected, but can each be read as a free-standing and independent story. This gives the book an episodic narrative line–a “tapestry” of stitched together tales. The first three chapters focus on protagonists whose paths cross Weyland’s for very different reasons. These character studies are drawn with detail and skill, and each character is as memorable as Weyland himself. In “The Ancient Mind at Work,” Katje is an older white woman who was born and raised in colonial Africa and now works at the college where Weyland is a professor. She perceives him for what he is, with violent results. The second chapter, “The Land of Lost Content,” is told from the point of view of Mark, a teenager whose neglectful parents foist him off on his sleazy uncle Roger. Roger’s association with some very unsavory people leads to his having Weyland in captivity in his apartment for some time, and Mark forms an alliance with the vampire. The third chapter, “Unicorn Tapestry,” introduces Floria, a burned-out psychotherapist who reluctantly takes on Weyland as a client, and eventually crosses professional boundaries with him.

The final two chapters center on Weyland himself, and develop his character in ways that surprised me. I had often heard The Vampire Tapestry praised for its unsentimental depiction of vampires–Weyland, I was told, was a cold predator, not a mushy romantic hero. The final chapter of the book, however, belies this generalization. Weyland has deeper emotional tangles than he wants anyone to know.

The Vampire Tapestry has a few weaknesses. Some of the supporting characters, and some of the events, strained my credulity, especially in the second chapter. The narrative style contributed somewhat to this. Charnas apparently wanted to avoid using the authorial voice as much as possible. This means that all the exposition is done in the form of dialogue among the characters, and that means that most of the characters do too much explaining. Even Weyland ends up being the biggest vampire blabbermouth after Rice’s Louis, because he has to explain himself if there is no omniscient author to do so. It doesn’t seem to fit his personality or his precarious situation. Weyland needs about a pint of blood a day, which he obtains, without usually killing, from humans through all different kinds of subterfuge. Just for his own protective camouflage, you wouldn’t think he would talk about vampirism quite so much. The stories were written at the end of the 70s and are framed as simply, “the present,” so the assumptions and details are a bit dated now.

These are minor quibbles, however. The Vampire Tapestry is an entertaining and well-crafted book. It stands out from the vast sea of vampire fiction as one of the very few that achieves true originality. Its greatest disappointment is its lack of any sequels (or prequels). Weyland is a character whose longevity and history would lend themselves to an almost endless number of stories. Many questions about his species and origins are left unanswered, especially the two biggest ones: why are there no other vampires, and how did Weyland survive for so long? Alas, readers will simply have to speculate about these mysteries. However, Weyland does appear again in a novelette, “Advocates,” co-written with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, which is anthologized in Under the Fang (Pocket Books: 1991), edited by Robert R. McCammon.

This entry was posted in book review, vampire fiction, vampires. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.