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'Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today' Review

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by Cathy Krusberg, "The Mad Bibliographer"

A version of this review appears in _The Vampire's Crypt_ 19 (Spring 1999). The Vampire's Crypt web site is:

Katherine Ramsland. Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today. (HarperPrism; ISBN 0-06-105062-8; $24.00/$35.00.)

Reporter Susan Walsh disappeared in 1996 while investigating Manhattan's vampire cults. Ramsland is known as the author of a biography of Anne Rice, as well as several books of analysis of Rice's vampire novels; Piercing the Darkness was inspired when several media people asked whether she could shed more light on the Walsh story. She decided to pick up where Walsh left off and immerse herself in vampire culture, comparing her technique to that of John Howard Griffin in Black Like Me and Jennifer Toth in The Mole People, works that explored the experiences of black people and homeless people in America, respectively, from the perspective of an outsider looking, insofar as is possible, from inside.

Ramsland admits up front that modern vampire culture is more extensive and diverse than she could possibly cover; she sought representative voices from various sectors. She regarded her job as "to listen ... and take seriously the messages, even if some of the things they said seemed illogical or even silly. There was nothing silly about the longing within them that led them to this place."

Following in Susan Walsh's footsteps was only one aspect of Ramsland's approach. The vampire subculture is everywhere: on the Internet, in clubs on the East and West coasts, in Europe, in roleplaying games -- even hidden in America's heartland, where an individual working in "a conservative church in the Midwest" is also a self-proclaimed vampire, unbeknownst to his congregation. "Michael" explains how he is drawn to the role of minister by both the ability to offer redemption and by the power that his position gives, not fazed by the fact that he uses deception both to maintain his position in the church and to draw individuals he regards as "prey." Michael's portrayal of vampirism as a "fluid fiction," a constant re-creation of identity -- "impression management," as he calls his own creation of facades -- reinforces the importance of creativity and fantasy as aspects of the vampire culture, not because narratives such as Michael's are necessarily fabrication, but because the true nature of vampirism is in what members of its subculture make of it.

Ramsland returns to this notion of vampirism's fluid and multifaceted nature again and again, relating a variety of experiences, from mildly frustrating to almost terrifyingly intense. Ramsland met and interviewed many people, even taking on the trappings of the subculture to fit in at the clubs she attended. Some of her encounters were disquieting, to say the least. Fetish balls, blood drinking, ritual scarification, and finally a long and thoroughly creepy interview with an individual who called himself Wraith and claimed to be associated with an extensive vampire cult -- these round out a book that explores many types of fascination with vampires and involvement with vampire-related lifestyles.

Ramsland takes pains to examine a wide variety of external trappings, from novels and movies to real-life vampire clans and ceremonies. Her book, however, is more than a guided tour through vampireland. She also analyzes the implications of vampires' many aspects and current popularity. An early chapter quotes psychiatrist Robert McCully: "The increase in interest in vampires ... is related to a certain cultural self-blindness," because culture tends to "extravert" our shadow side -- that is, to project away what we want to eradicate. A later chapter explores the significance vampires can have for Generation Xers in particular. The power, beauty, and sense of community that the vampire (particularly as portrayed by Anne Rice) represents counterbalance the powerlessness, alienation, and unhappiness of their own lives. Ramsland even gets a bit political in describing the forms of vampirism that our culture sanctions, which act as context for the less acceptable vampiric behaviors that our youth are ostracized for indulging in.

Such conclusions, whether apt or unlikely, constitute only a small part of an often gripping and constantly readable book. Ramsland does what good journalists do: she seeks to disturb by presenting "just the facts, ma'am," whether on a literal level with the shedding and drinking of blood or on the more analytical level of presenting portions of our society as effectual vampires. From the chapter on psychic vampires and emotional manipulators, with its well-argued points about confusion between the two, to the chapter on vampire crimes, thick with murder and necrophilia, Piercing the Darkness does just that: it penetrates cross sections of what is usually hidden, mysterious, and often frighteningly alien.

Ramsland's contacts ranged from the friendly and forthcoming to those who nearly made her certain her life was in danger. This, as much as anything else, reflects the variety of approaches to the vampire-related lifestyle: gamer, blood drinker, dominant, performance artist. What started as a search for Susan Walsh turned into a personal odyssey (perhaps with emphasis on odd): Ramsland's own quest for the vampire. She brings us along to see what she sees and hear what she hears, and even her most inclusive analysis leaves readers room to draw their own conclusions about the real motives and meanings underlying today's vampire underground.

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