By Dmetri Kakmi
Published in 2011, Margaret Wild’s picture book Vampyre is a hallucinatory marriage of minimal text and symbolic imagery, rendered in a subdued colour palette. Echoing the image and writing style, the story pivots on a complex exchange of ideas. Chief among these is the individual striving for personal salvation. The journey is fraught and the end remains ambiguous, paradoxical.
Written in pared-back free verse, the story is about an adolescent who lives with his mother, father and six siblings in a vast underground network of ruins, teetering on the brink of an abyss. They are a family of vampires, feared and shunned predators who feed on blood; and, as we learn, the youthful protagonist wants out. The family business is not for him. He is a sensitive soul, drawn to gentler ways. Love and acceptance are his preferred states. Going against the wishes of an overbearing father, he plans to escape a hellish existence and rise to the surface, visually depicted as an unspoiled forest.
Two things came to mind when I read the book.
First, the Village People song ‘Go West’, later covered by another gay pop band Pet Shop Boys in a rousing rendition to freedom and liberation. Second was Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 29’, a tortured soliloquy in which the poet bemoans being an outcast and finds inspiration in a (possibly) male muse.
The two seemingly unrelated impressions account for why I see Vampyre as a coming out story. While reading it, I was reminded of my own struggles as a gay teenager, coming out to a traditional Greek family. All the youthful emotions from that time are embodied in Wild’s eponymous character: awareness of difference, fear of rejection, suicidal thoughts and determination to be one’s self, fully and without compromise.
The picture book is a precise form of communication. As a written medium it has more in common with compressed poetry than the expansive novel. When the author’s words combine with the illustrator’s image-making, the picture book joins the visual storytelling techniques used in film and comic books, and the language structures of poetry. The reader’s eye must engage with word and image to make a unified whole.
Generally speaking, the contemporary picture book has thirty-two pages (they rarely go beyond that) and it contains five hundred to eight hundred words, at most. It is a compact form of communication; therefore, storytelling techniques must be honed and exact. Each word must count and has to earn its place on the page.
Similarly, the artwork must underline the text and draw attention to subtle meanings and interpretations that may or may not be in the words. Particularly in picture books for older readers, such as we see here, the artwork can’t be an exact representation of the word. It must bring out the ‘under story’, the hidden meanings and buried suggestions. It is a collaborative process that can bring about surprising results, such as Margaret Wild’s Fox with Ron Brooks (Allen & Unwin, 2000) and Woolvs in the Sitee with Anne Spudvilas (Penguin, 2006). The latter title has thematic similarities to Vampyre, though a more optimistic ending.
In Vampyre, Wild’s talent is once again matched by an artist who knows what he is doing. This is Andrew Yeo’s first picture book, but you wouldn’t know it. He brings a level of skill and a depth of understanding of the book’s themes that is as surprising as it is sophisticated.
In the Walker Books Classroom Notes for the book, Yeo states that the illustrations are inspired primarily by ‘the introspective atmosphere of Rembrandt…coupled with the melancholy grandeur found in Romanticism’s aesthetics’.
Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro (the treatment of light and shade in painting) is evident in Yeo’s sprawling double-page spreads; but, for me, his work has more in common with romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). In striving for spiritual elevation, the German Friedrich developed a symbolic visual language that brings an overwhelming profundity and magnitude to his canvases. Similarly, Yeo’s use of symbolism elevates Wild’s stark prose to a higher level.
The first lines of text cleverly announce character and story trajectory:
I am Vampyre.
I live in darkness.
I long for light.
With these brief lines the narrator bares his soul: who he is and what he wants. This will be his journey, from one emotional state to another. And because Wild writes in the first-person present tense, she engages sympathy and secures identification with the narrator. He is us, or he could be any one of us.
The accompanying image, rendered in cobalt blue and shades of black, places the narrator amid a group of glowering gargoyle sculptures. While they are positioned to look down into a well of darkness, the boy looks up, his face bathed in the pure light of hope that filters from beyond a wall of shattered ruins. Stasis, desolation and faint hope are visually joined to tell the reader that this is a story about ascent, from darkness to light.
Wild’s picture book follows a road map set for the modern vampire story by Anne Rice. In the seminal 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire, a melancholy narrator uses a journalist’s tape recorder as confessional booth to tell an exotic story of damnation and redemption. Important to this discussion is the fact that Rice popularised the vampire novel as lush homoerotic tome. The tormented demon fighting his true nature is central to her narratives. Margaret Wild places these elements in a picture book and combines them with perennial themes taken from the young adult novel – adolescent rebellion, loss of innocence and sexual awakening.
In the first line, note also how the character introduces himself. He does not say, ‘I am a vampire.’ He says, ‘I am Vampyre.’ The use of the proper noun, instead of the noun, is a gesture, part celebration, part self-reproach. It announces him in absolute or monolithic terms. He might as well have said, ‘I am gay.’ He is pariah, the ultimate outsider, which is society’s traditional view of homosexuality.
The second double-page spread launches the plot.
I am now expected
to embrace my role.
Now a young man, the narrator is expected to take on the family mantle. Repulsed by the idea, he flashes back to a carefree childhood, before self-awareness tarnished his sense of self. In a series of scenarios, we see him first blissfully riding on his father’s shoulders. Next he is playing hide-and-seek with his siblings. Finally, and most tellingly, he is in a moonlit field surrounded by birds and deer.
In symbolic terms, deer represent a complex series of ideas. Their purity is linked to transformation. Their presence in this illustration hints that the boy is in the process of dramatic change. Antlers represent everything from rejuvenation, to birth, death and transfiguration. The definition of transfiguration is a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. This happens to Jesus Christ in the New Testament when he appears, radiant with God’s presence, to three disciples. The religious connotations of ‘transfiguration’ are important to the story because Wild strikes a liturgical tone through repetition in the writing. The first lines of text are repeated three times, the third time with a slight variation that signals a narrative shift.
I am Vampyre.
While others sleep,
I wait for midday.
The boy’s decision to act at midday, when the sun is at its highest, suggests a movement towards conscious reasoning and decision-making.
Birds, on the other hand, represent desire for freedom and the will to transcend the ordinary. ‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’ wrote poet Emily Dickinson…
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Given the narrator’s upturned hopeful face in many of the spreads, and the birds that usher the reader in and out of the story (see title page and imprint page), we can’t help but see what is at the heart of this narrative: the yearning for something wonderful to happen. Birds are also bringers of news, feathered intermediaries between the upper and lower realms. Their presence at key points in the narrative is important to how the story unfolds.
Returning abruptly to the present, the narrator informs us that birds shun him now. Deer vanish in the forest. Villagers drive him away with stakes. Even his family turns against him when he refuses to accept his apparent destiny. What is going on?
The world doesn’t shun him because he is a vampire; after all birds and deer crowd him when he is a nascent vampire child. They shun him now because he has matured. Innocence is lost when he becomes an adolescent, moving towards a physical and sexual awakening.
The next scene is a family tableaux. Rendered in amber, it depicts a turning point in relations. The boy says:
I repudiate my ancestry,
The looming father castigates and the mother protects her brood from monstrous words. To repudiate ancestry, to turn one’s back on familial duty, is to cut off the flow of procreation and lineage, which again is linked to a traditional understanding of homosexuality.
The next golden-hued scene is a simultaneous coming out and a suicide attempt. Desperate, the boy exposes himself to the sun – certain death for a creature of the night – and is rescued by his father. It’s important to note three things here.
First, like the vampire, gay people often feel they can be themselves only under cover of night. The 1984 disco anthem ‘In the Evening’ by Sheryl Lee Ralph sums it up.
In the evening the real me comes alive
I can feel it
In the evening something happens that I can’t describe
But it helps me to survive.
The second thing to keep in mind is that suicide is high among gay teens. Finally, note how the father pulls his eldest away from the light, into the darkness that crowds the edges of the image – a symbolic gesture that yanks the gay son out of public view, back into the closet. Shame is hidden and family honour is temporarily restored.
Wracked with pain and guilt, the boy is ill for three days. Once he’s back on his feet, he sneaks out and begins an anguished ascent to the upper realms, rendered in pale, glowing yellows the closer he comes to the surface.
In words that evoke immense internal and external struggle, the vampire makes his way up through purgatory to emerge ‘scorched, bone bleached’ in the primal forest. Birds and deer congregate around him now that he has taken a positive step: destiny is in his hands. It’s difficult to judge the time of day when he finally comes to the surface. The golden-hued image suggests daylight; but, hopefully, it’s dawn or dusk. Full sunlight is fatal to a vampire.
The forest in which he emerges contains more complex symbolism. Trees have roots in the earth and branches in the sky. They connect heaven and hell, suggesting that the boy might have found salvation by rising to the earth’s surface or he might have condemned himself to certain death. That is probably why he looks cowed and miserable – as well he might. It’s likely that the sun, when it rises, will burn him to a cinder.
This uncertain, suspended state is integral to a gay person’s coming out process. You can show all the strength and courage you like, but the world might still reject you. Despite the white dove of hope that hovers above the boy, he might still be found wanting by the spotlight that will soon be trained on him.
In the Walker Books Classroom Notes for the book, Wild states that the idea for the story came to her when she stumbled across the word ‘vampyre’. She ‘liked the fact that “pyre”, with its connotations of burning, was part of the word.’ She leaves it up to the reader to decide if the boy burns with anguish or passion.
Cirlot, JE 1962, A Dictionary of Symbols, Routledge, New York.
Koerner, JL 1990, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, Reaktion Books, London.
Walker Books Australia 2011, ‘Walker Books Classroom Notes for Vampyre’, viewed 4 October 2016, <http://www.walkerbooks.com.au/statics/dyn/1314598276864/Vampyre-Classroom-Notes-Secondary.pdf>.
Applewhite, J 2005, ‘Prayer for my Son’ (from Selected Poems), Duke University Press, Durham. This poem echoes Emily Dickinson.
The first four lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 set the tone for Vampyre:
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate…
© Copyright Dmetri Kakmi 2016