Final Rating: Two cups of Stoker award-flavored tea
If there’s one thing I love in this life more than anything, it’s women. As it happens, I’m also pretty damn (haha) fond of vampire myth. So you can imagine my immense excitement when I discovered a copy of Blood Sisters on the shelf at my local library. Not only have I been semi-desperate to expand my knowledge of vampire fiction beyond Dracula and Twilight, (and the many vampiric trainwrecks I’ve picked up in Amazon’s free eBook section) but an anthology written exclusively by women!? Holy god. This was the peanut butter and chocolate of fiction. This was all I could hope for, and more. This was it.
Sadly, as is so often the case, reality failed to live up to my expectations.
My first indication that there were troubled waters ahead was the forward, written by editor Paula Guran. While she is clearly quite knowledgeable and passionate about her subject matter, the line “meaning no disrespect to the innumerable fine and hugely important male authors of such fiction” put me ill at ease. As if somehow, assembling a collection of fiction written by women was inherently disrespectful; as if somehow just by picking up this book I have committed a crime against all men, everywhere. It felt too much like an apology, the same apology that’s expected anytime women try to create their own spaces. But I don’t want apologies. I want women writing vampire fiction, and not giving a damn who it bothers.
I was still hopeful at this point, though, so I soldiered on. The editor chose to arrange the short stories she’d assembled in roughly chronological order–not by date written, but by the date in which the story takes place. (Which I’m totally fine with, btw; even though Guran admonishes herself for making an “odd choice” in her forward) This meant we started somewhere roughly in the 1700’s, though a lot of the stories aren’t particularly clear on when they happen. On the upside, this meant exploring some of the old myths we still hear whispers about today, which is always my jam. On the downside, this meant that the authors felt pressure to make up explanations for these myths–and those explanations usually boiled down to abusing women.
Because of course, what woman would want to drink the blood of mortals unless she’s beaten and assaulted first? What woman would desire power over life and death unless she’s contending with a “dark past”? And if, god forbid, one of these women does slip by into the shadows of vampiric power without first passing through the gates of Terrible Things, then she must immediately be punished for her transgressions; this is the case with The Fall of the House of Blackwater, a story which is entirely about a possessive shitboy, who murders his wife and unborn child (because she doesn’t like the fact he’s an impotent shitboy who only cares about architecture and gets her jollies elsewhere like she damn well should) and is subsequently turned into a vampire by three ancient forest gods. He haunts his old house until the owner marries a young virgin which shitboy stalks and eventually sleeps with…years later she demands to be turned as well, and when he refuses, she sidesteps him and goes straight for the gods who turned him because she knows what’s up. Shitboy can’t handle that, though, so he stirs up a mob with literal pitchforks and torches to literally rip her limb from limb. Great. Cool. Good talk.
On the bright side, one of these “historical” stories gave us the beautiful gift that was Tanith Lee’s La Dame, which is about a dude (metaphorically) fucking a boat. And then the boat (metaphorically) dribbles his (metaphorical) vital juices into the ocean as a sort of (metaphorical) love note to the ocean who is also a lady and they (metaphorically) lady-bang until there’s nothing left and then the boat drifts off in search of its next victim. No, I’m not kidding.
By the time we reach modern day, things have shifted out of purely abusive territory and straight into: “What if vampires/Dracula were boring, everyday people just like us?” This is about as fun as it sounds. While I admit that reading about Dracula in the 60’s trying to get high on LSD was mildly entertaining, I draw the line at stories about Dracula going to therapy and vampires being real-estate agents. There was another story about a male vampire who, instead of taking blood, took the life energy of his wife, essentially sapping her dry while he went off to work every day at a power corporation. This could have been a beautiful chance to illustrate some harsh truths about gender roles, the dynamic of the modern family, and how women often feel they must repress their feelings for other women; instead it just falls kinda flat.
Once things move from present-day into the future, it’s quickly made clear that the only way to become a vampire is to catch a communicable disease. This is when I started sighing very loudly. There’s nothing wrong with exploring this idea, but the fact that three stories in a row did the exact same thing? And they all felt the need to go into extremely detailed explanations as to how these diseases are transmitted/contracted? (One story even has lists! Two of them! With bolded font!) To me, this feels like a holdover from the Gatekeepers of “Hard Sci-Fi”, where everything must have a technobabble explanation or it’s deemed unrealistic. (And also probably I Am Legend, another book which failed to impress me) When there are literally entire groups of people waiting with bated breath to discredit any woman who wanders into the genre, it’s easy to feel the subconscious desire to make sure all your I’s are dotted and your T’s are crossed, even if that means your story suffers. And again, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of vampirism as a disease; just that I’m way more interested in stories about vampires adapting to new technology and changing times, rather than mortals freaking out over “How can I avoid contracting Cold*?”
Out of a book with 25 stories in it, I enjoyed only seven. Unsurprisingly, the best two were written by women of color–Jewelle Gomez and Nalo Hopkinson. (The work of the latter actually made me tear up a little.) Which, by the way, is an important thing to note of this anthology: It is shockingly white. I haven’t looked up every single author listed, but a quick glance at Amazon (the only site which posts pictures of the authors which are touted on the cover) shows what feels like an endless parade of white women. This is also fairly unsurprising, though it remains disappointing. Despite there being vampire myth and folklore in almost every culture in the world, the genre is undeniably saturated by the romanticization of whiteness and European beauty standards. This anthology is, sadly, no exception.
In closing, I can’t help but wonder how different this collection might have felt if there had been a de-centering of whiteness, and a much stronger focus on newly written works, rather than trawling through older works done by well-known authors. I understand that name recognition is important for marketing anthologies, but I refuse to believe that there are so few women writing in this genre that all we can do is revisit Charlaine Harris’ fascination with gossipy fashionistas and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s obsession with travel arrangements and men who can’t emote.
While this anthology gave me a lot to think on and a few authors to follow up on, all in all I’d say it was a disappointing experience that I wouldn’t recommend. And thus, the search for the mythical collection of good, interesting vampire stories continues…
(*actual name of an actual vampire disease in the last story of the book)