Lillith Saintcrow, author of “A Standup Dame”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s basically homage to the noir gumshoe greats — Hammett and Chandler. I love noir, both in film and book form, and since short stories are where I get a chance to “play,” a lot of my shorts have noir elements. It was also a sort of palate cleanser; I was working on a very dark, ugly book and needed something shorter and a little more hopeful. Not too hopeful, though. Noir isn’t very hopeful.

There is also a nod to PN Elrod’s Jack Fleming, a vampire nightclub owner in 1930s Chicago. Jack has a very distinctive voice, and I wanted to pay tribute to Elrod as well as Hammett and Chandler.

So I wanted a story about a private eye back in that era, and it had to be a vampire story, and all of a sudden, bam! Jack Becker stepped out of the dark and started talking about rain and mud. Voila, “A Standup Dame” was born.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Some stories are constructed around a what-if, others have their genesis in a very clear mental image. “A Standup Dame” was built around the image of Jack digging himself up out of the grave with a hole in his skull, mud all over him and the rain pounding down. Originally I thought he would be an amnesiac vampire, but I was having so much fun with him and his secretary that idea sort of fell by the wayside.

And I guess I always wanted the gumshoe to go off into the sunset with his wisecracking secretary instead of carrying a torch for the sexy dame who got him into trouble. This was my chance to get as close to that as you can get in a noir-type story.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Short stories are always more difficult for me. The problem with novels is endurance; the problem with short stories is speed and clarity. There can be no wasted words, no wasted sentences, no excess weight. They have to be planned much more carefully before you draw your sword to make your cut.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

For me, novels are very personal. Short stories are where I play and experiment. Although I suppose my wanting to be a wisecracking secretary for a handsome noir gumshoe — and to go off into the sunset — could have something to do with it. I never wanted to be the dangerous dame, I always wanted to be the sharp-tongued secretary. She had a job, after all.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Slang and automobile makes during that time, that sort of thing. The most interesting thing was researching to see if Kleenex was a brand yet at that particular point in history. I found that fascinating.

What is the appeal of vampire fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

We love vampires because they are polymorphic. Each generation invents and reinvents different variations on the vampire theme. Blood, sex, love, death, repression, liberation from the confines of civilization or meditation upon the link between Eros and Thanatos — vampires are tremendously versatile. They endure because we can (and do) remake them with every generation. To Bram Stoker’s readers, vampires were about disturbing untrammeled female sexuality, discomfort with modernity, and the excesses of colonization. Since then they’ve gone through several incarnations, as filthy corpses, investment bankers, androgynous sexy avatars, you name it. The strength of the vampire is her ability to shapeshift for each new set of popular neuroses.

Vampires tend to be very popular when the social fabric is undergoing severe stress, and they’re a “safe” way to examine social fears. Like any successful symbol, their power lies in their plasticity and their ability to carry a great deal of metaphorical weight.

What are some of your favorite examples of vampire fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Tanith Lee’s vampires — the Scarabae, Sabella, or Vivia–strike a deep chord with me. I enjoyed Anne Rice’s first three vampire novels, and I loved Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. I also loved Kostova’s The Historian, for the sheer number of literary in-jokes and references. Whitley Strieber’s Miriam from The Hunger and Robin McKinley’s Constantine from Sunshine also hold a special place in my heart. My very, very favorite vampire tale, in terms of sheer emotional effect and use of the metaphor in a stunningly original way, would have to be Jane Mendelsohn’s Innocence.

One can go much further, though, and find vampires in the classics. My favorite book, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, mentions the “foul German spectre, the Vampyre” in connection with Rochester’s mad wife; Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff is a vampiric figure. Byron deliberately associated himself with vampire myth and Keats wrote “The Lamia;” one could even make the case that the Romantics were the genesis of the sexy vampire — the vampire’s association not just with decay but with Eros and/or sexual libertinism. Stoker himself, when he tapped the Victorian vein for Dracula, modeled the Count on Henry Irving’s theatre portrayal of Mephistopheles as a sexually dangerous spirit. (Faust and vampires have always gone hand in hand, I think.)

In more modern times, Alice Hoffman’s Jimmy Angelov (in Practical Magic) is a vampiric spirit, though that word is never used; in White Horses, Blue Diary, and Here On Earth there are significant vampiric undertones to the dangerous male characters. I’ve also seen true-crime books also using the vampire metaphor directly or indirectly to discuss murders and crimes from the sensational to the mundane. Vampiric figures in fiction have ranged from the brooding and Byronic to the dangerously obsessive and abusive. Vampires in fiction abound, and the creature that feeds off its fellows from beyond the grave or beyond a curtain of social limits is very much with us in truth as well as story and art.

You can probably tell I’ve thought about this a lot. Maybe too much. Once you start, you can find the vampires everywhere.