We started the week with a zombie story and so we should end it with a vampire one, and it’s also appropriate in that author Rosanne Rabinowitz is guest blogging over on Case Notes today – she’s writing about Arthur Machen and I’m writing about her, but is there a website out there somewhere in the great beyond where Machen completes the circle by blogging about me?
“Survivor’s Guilt” originally appeared in Black Static #14, and while it works very well in isolation we’re informed that it’s also part of novel-in-progress Noise Leads Me. Andy probably has copies of #14 left, but if you want to read the story and be a good person at the same time then the route to go is purchasing the anti-fascist and anti-racist anthology Never Again, in which this story is reprised to stand alongside a lot of other fine fictions with heart, and the profits all go to charity.
The first person narrator is a vampire. We get various clues to this, such as references to speaking a language that is ‘obscure and ancient’, longevity and feeding on blood. The real giveaway though is the accompanying illustration of a hyper-decadent female figure with long fingernails and blood plastered round her chops who wouldn’t look out of place in a movie making eyes at Vinnie Price. Striking though it is, the illustration does the fiction a disservice, in that Mara is the most civilised person in the story and nothing like this apparently blood crazed aristo.
Others, most notably Chelsea Quinn Yarbro with her Saint-Germain series, have made use of the vampire’s longevity to provide a different perspective on the doings of humanity, a ‘long perspective’, and that’s where Rabinowitz is coming from with Mara.
Over two hundred years old, Mara has known persecution from humans, her family slaughtered because ‘They are worse than Turks. They are witches, vampires, unnatural women’ (the last seems particularly pertinent, identifying the feminine and the outsider status in a patriarchal society). But unlike many of her kind Mara has not withdrawn from human society, instead involving herself in political and humanitarian causes. Her viewpoint, and the main subtext of the story, seems to be that human beings cannot reasonably be expected to act with decency towards ‘outsiders’ until they first learn to do so with regard to each other.
The story opens with Mara at a meeting in London to hear his agent read from the work of a socialist and radical writer who lives in Mexico, and whom she believes to be her old lover Gunther. From events described, the period appears to be the late 1930s, a time of great turmoil, with fascism’s grip on world affairs tightening, but also hope that a better world can emerge from the still cold ashes of World War I. In her inner monologue Mara remembers many of the events of the last twenty years, the time she has spent away from Gunther after they became separated in escaping from the Freikorps in Munich. To her surprise when the agent appears it is Gunther himself.
The ‘survivor’s guilt’ of the title is Mara’s, felt not only because she survived the deaths of her family, but also that she has outlived nearly all the people she has known, that they were called upon to make sacrifices that were never asked of her because of her unique nature. Upon seeing Gunther one of her first thoughts is that he has changed so much, while she will look almost exactly the same; Gunther is unaware of her true nature, and if she had known he would be present Mara would have disguised herself, used cosmetics to mimic the passage of the years. The ephemeral nature of all her relationships is underlined, and while she is pleased to see him Mara knows that she cannot take up with Gunther again, that his new partner Lucia must be the one to go with him into the future, and so perhaps there is also guilt at this too, at having loved someone so fundamentally different from herself and the falsehoods any relationship must necessitate for her.
In part of the story we get Mara’s reminiscences of her love affair with Gunther, a passion fuelled by both physical and intellectual attraction, and a commitment to a common cause. And throughout there is the strong sense of the camaraderie of these people, how strangers can become lifelong friends through shared ideals and altruism.
While Mara is a vampire she shares a common goal with these people. She wants us to be better than we really are, to realise our potential as caring human beings, to be supportive of each other and help those who need it the most, the weak and the ailing, the old and the infirm. To see people for what they are, the values they hold dear, rather than colour of skin, gender or sexual orientation.
Mara is a vampire, but she’s not the monster in this story.
The monsters are gathering outside the hall in which the meeting is held. They wear black shirts and it doesn’t matter what victories they win in the here and the now. From the ‘long perspective’ they are damned, one of evolution’s failed experiments, a blind alley, a mindset that humanity needs to outgrow if it is ever to flourish.
As the combat lines are drawn Mara and Gunther meet for the first time in twenty years, and there are no need for words – ‘Before he says anything, I break another leg off the chair and hand it to him.’
The story ends. Another begins.