Monday, December 26, 2011

Interview With a Vampire Slayer

Interview with a Vampire Slayer


Piper Maitland

I traveled to an undisclosed location in Morocco to interview Dr. Jude Barrett, a British biochemist and vampire hunter.

While we drank mint tea and ate hummus, I asked him about vampirism.

Piper: Dr. Barrett, it’s my understanding that you discovered a scientific basis for vampirism. What sort of doctor are you? A physician?

Jude: No, I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry. I was employed by a pharmaceutical company in Yorkshire, England, and I conducted research on mice. I discovered the R-99 gene, which is responsible for longevity.

Piper: How did your research lead to this discovery?

Jude: I induced mutations into the mice via low amounts of radiation. They began craving blood and became hypersexual. Also, they had an extraordinary life span. These same qualities exist in a subset of humans: vampires.

Piper: But how can vampires really exist?

Jude: Are you familiar with Methicillin-resistent Staphylococcus Aurea? It’s better known as MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bug. If you wished to create a strain, all you need is a petri dish filled with staphylococcus. Add penicillin. It will kill ninety-nine percent of the staph. Take the surviving one percent and culture them. You now have bacteria that are resistant to penicillin.

Piper: Why are they resistant?

Jude: It’s a defense mechanism of the bacterium. If you put the penicillin-resistant strain into a petri dish and apply erythromycin, the antibiotic will kill a majority of the bacteria. Culture the survivors, and you have an organism that’s resistant to penicillin and erythromycin. If you repeat this process ad infinitum, adding various antibiotics, you will eventually create a superior organism—one that’s resistant to all antibiotics. And it’s indestructible.

Piper: You’re saying vampirism evolved like MRSA?

Jude: It makes sense, doesn’t it? The survival of the fittest, etc. Vampires began in small numbers and multiplied. They’re adaptive. Strong, hard to kill. And they destroy the competing organism.

Piper: But how can they subdue humans?

Jude: They’re predators. They are built to stalk, attack, and control their prey. Vampiric physiology gives them a biological edge.

Piper: Name one.

Jude: Well, for starters, they emit a distinct smell, rather like the fruity odor from ketones, but they can also smell of menthol. This unique hidrosis—which is the Greek word for perspiration, by the way—affects a human’s brain chemistry. It relaxes their muscles to the point of paralysis, but it also generates a sense of calmness. Also, it has an aphrodisiac effect. Hidrosis helps a vampire restrain prey. Incidentally, this chemical in a vampire’s perspiration is similar to a terpene. I’m sure you’ve heard of Nepetalactone?

Piper: Catnip?

Jude: Yes.

Piper: I have a cat, and she’s immune to catnip. She ignores the toys I set out.

Jude: Perhaps she lacks the olfactory receptor. Some felines have it, some don’t. It’s genetic.

Piper: If your bat-nip theory is true, then people would faint whenever they got near a vampire. Sidewalks and train stations would be filled with paralyzed humans.

Jude: When the chemical is excreted by a vampire’s sweat glands, it evaporates and diffuses into the air and becomes less potent. If humans inhale it, they feel relaxed. But it’s fleeting. A high concentration of this molecule is found in a vampire’s blood and saliva.

Piper: Why don’t vampires succumb to their own chemical? Why doesn’t it paralyze them?

Jude: Is a spider killed by its own venom? An effective predator isn’t harmed by its own methods of predation.

Piper: What about a vampire’s intellect? Is it superior?

Jude: A vampire’s IQ is similar to a humans: it varies. Some vamps are brilliant, some are average, etc. But a vampire’s brain is more developed than a human’s. Some vamps are quite gifted with telepathy. Interestingly enough, vampirism often brings out personality disorders, such as OCD and problems with impulse control.

Piper: In Hollywood movies, vampires can shape-shift into bats. Is this a myth?

Jude: Yes. Vampires can’t change into bats. They are a sub-set of humans, but they’re physically stronger, run faster, and never become ill. They heal at an extraordinary rate.

Piper: Can they be killed?

Jude: Yes, but it would have to be a catastrophic injury to the heart or brain.

Piper: But what about sunlight?

Jude: Vampires can venture outside on overcast days, but they must wear sun block and protective gear—and they can’t stay outside for extended periods.

Piper: Does this sensitivity have a biological basis?

Jude: Their immune systems are hyperactive. Their ketonin is sensitive to ultra-violet rays, and any direct exposure to the sun will cause second and third degree burns. Also, light affects the eyes; it causes corneal abrasions, even blindness.

Piper: What about the other myths—garlic, crucifixes, and holy water?

Jude: Garlic has mild antibiotic properties that may alter the taste of blood. As for holy water and crosses, these myths are culture-based. Would a Muslim fear holy water?

Piper: How can a human be turned into a vampire? In horror movies, it takes three bites, and that’s it, you become a vampire.

Jude: It’s not the number of bites. It’s the number of stem cells that pass from the vampire’s body into the prey’s vascular system. And how the prey’s immune system reacts.

Piper: I’m not following you. Stem cells?

Jude: When I was studying mice, the blood analysis revealed an abundance of stem cells. It was a unique stem cell, rather like a stem cell leukemia, but it wasn’t fatal. It grew faster than cancer cells. My research was terminated before I could lean more.

Piper: I have one more question. The MRSA bug is still evolving. Are vampires also changing?

Jude: Definitely.

Piper: What should we expect?

Jude: We’ll have to wait and see. If we’re still around.
Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Fotolia

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Historia Immortalis: A Book Written in Blood

Acquainted With the Night centers on a quest for an ancient illustrated manuscript that was written in the blood of the undead. Many theologians believe that Historia Immortalis was penned in 200 A.D. by an odd sect of Greek monks who stayed hidden during daylight hours and emerged at dusk. These “night walkers” or νυχτοπερπατητής, mapped the night sky. They were also plagued by rumors of hypersexual behavior and human sacrifice.

Historia Immortalis was partly a celebration of the night—nocturnal animals, phases of the moon, and the evening sky. It was also a treatise of death, resurrection, and eternal life.
Other scholars believed that Historia Immortalis was written by the Carpocratians, a Gnostic sect; yet other academicians believe that Lazareth of Bethany penned the manuscript. The book had a way of attracting death to its owner; it also had a knack for vanishing. In the 4th century, papyrus scrolls were unearthed in an Egyptian cave, but before the artifacts could be moved to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the scrolls went missing.

Time has no meaning to a tome like Historia Immortalis. A Coptic version was pilfered from the Alexandria Library right before the great fire. Centuries later, Bedouins found Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi, but the 12th volume was used for kindling. Fragments of the charred codices were identical to pages from Historia Immortalis.

In the 8th century, during the Charlemagne period, a Coptic version of Historia Immortalis was translated by monks in Marmoutier, France. The lavish illustrations featured gilt and semi precious stones and depicted people rising from the dead. Numerous copies were distributed in France. One copy was owned by a wealthy Cathar, Etienne Grimaldi. The Grimaldis were noblemen, richer than the Pope—and immortal. They reputedly served wine and blood at soirees.

Grimaldi’s version of the book featured erotic illustrations, along with an introduction into the secret world of the immortals. When Grimaldi began having odd dreams about the immortal race, he commissioned a Greek craftsman from the Iviron Monastery on Athos to paint three icons—a triptych.
A copy of Historia Immortalis found its way to the Vatican, and the Albigensian Crusade was launched. Etienne Grimaldi’s copy was never found. In 1982, ten pages of the book were auctioned at Sotheby’s for 1.5 million pounds, along with the center panel of the triptych. The artifacts were bought by a London businessman, Harry Wilkerson. Weeks after the auction, the pages—and Wilkerson’s wife—disappeared.

Fast forward to the present.
Caro Clifford, a London tour guide, learns that her uncle has been murdered at a Bulgarian dig site. As she packs her duffel bag, she adds an ancient piece of art: an icon.

Caro stood on her toes and reached for the Byzantine icon that hung over her desk. It had belonged to her parents. She traced the delicate art. A saint stood at the center, her dark hair streaming down the front of the burgundy robe; she held an ostrich egg in one hand, a gilt-edge book in the other. A bleeding man lay at her feet while the night sky stretched over a vineyard, a castle, and a monk. Uncle Nigel had attached rules to this relic. If she traveled outside the U.K., the icon went with her. “Keep it with you at all times,” he’d said. “No matter how inconvenient. You don’t want a hotel maid to nick it, do you?”Caro hadn’t questioned him It was as if she were protecting her parents, keeping them with her.

Later, Caro discovers that her icon is part of a triptych and it depicts a prophecy, one that pits the forces of light and darkness in a showdown that could destroy humans and immortals.
Image Sources: Dreamstime, Fotolia, Shutterstock

Friday, December 23, 2011

When Characters Misbehave

“Well behaved women rarely make history.”
--Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, historian and author

Grey isn’t a color you will ever see in Greek Orthodox art—medieval artists lived and worked in a black-and-white world. But shades of grey are vital when it comes to building a modern fictional heroine. When I began writing Acquainted With the Night, I wanted Caro Grimaldi Clifford to be a fundamentally flawed heroine. She doesn’t always say the right thing, nor does she always act heroically. I knew it would be risky, but I was tired of playing it safe with my characters. As Caro came to life, her personality traits became layered, with room for her character to grow in the second book.

Right away, I knew that Caro would be tall and leggy, but she isn’t a beauty--at least, not in the beginning (after a vampire bites her, she undergoes physical changes, but that's another topic). Indeed, she wasn’t a pretty infant. Strangers referred to her as il bambino brutto—the ugly baby. As an adult, she became a fashion slob, wearing mismatched colors and high-top sneakers. If she didn't comb her wiry hair (and that wild, resilient hair reflects her true spirit) every few hours, she'd resemble a hedgehog.

Caro is the opposite of a supermodel. She loves to drink gingerbread lattes and eat blueberry scones. As a result, she isn’t stick-thin. Also, she’s a practical soul and cuts her hair with kitchen scissors or a razor—whatever is handy.

Caro drinks whisky, cusses in seven languages, and adores black-and-white movies. She’s brash enough to slug the hero and resourceful enough to drive a china shard into the eye of her enemy. She’s soft, hard, resourceful, foolish, smart, child-like, humorous, irreverent, compassionate, and insecure—when she finds herself in love and in trouble, more and more of these insecurities surface.

Thanks to her tour guide job, Caro has learned a bit about human nature, but she often draws the wrong conclusions. Like many people, Caro has been known to say the wrong thing at the worst possible time. As a result, she’s become her worst critic, censoring her language and holding back.
Deep down, Caro believes that her smart mouth is responsible for a series of disastrous romances. In fact, she’s compiled a list of her failed relationships, which she privately refers to as “the Lost Boys.” One of her ex-beaus entered the priesthood, moved to Monaco, and sent her a postcard that featured a casino. He signed his name Chip Monk. True, many heroines have endured a series of ruined love affairs, but Caro’s problem is different. Her failures have a biological explanation.

Her attitude stems from a childhood trauma. She was a much-wanted, much-loved child. The night she was born, her father wrapped Caro in a blanket and sang her a Cole Porter song. In fact, she believed that she’d been named after her father’s favorite Beach Boys’ song, “Caroline No.” When she was five years old, home invaders murdered her parents. Caro ran off into the night and hid behind a waterfall. Days later, she was escorted to England by a distant relative, Nigel Clifford, a British archeologist.

Because Caro suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” a part of her is scared all the time, and she over compensates by forcing herself to act fearless. This bravado often plunges her into trouble. Part of her character arc is to learn how to balance fear and audacity.
Due to her history, Caro is always struggling with personal demons. Her uncle calls her “Dame Doom,” because she’s cynical, always imagining worst case scenarios. And with good reason. Caro privately thinks of herself as a harbinger of death.

Caro’s last boyfriend had specialized in Jack the Ripper tours and couldn’t seem to get enough of her, That is, until he was suddenly distracted by a Soho waitress. A wise move on his part, really, since everyone Caro loved ended up dead.

Shortly before the novel opens, Caro has dropped out of King’s College to become a London tour guide—an odd career path for a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history, but she’d welcomed the chance to leave her uncle’s house in Oxford. She’d assumed that she would wear pearls and escort Americans through the Tate, but Caro didn’t excel at this job. She misplaced an entire family at Waterloo Station, and an article in the Observer had referred to her as a “loser guide.”

Still, Caro is determined to become an independent woman. Her flat is near Big Ben, and her gorgeous roommate (who briefly functions as Caro’s opposite) works for British Vogue. Then Caro’s uncle is murdered, and she must travel alone to Bulgaria. When she exits the world of Starbucks lattes and the Tube, she enters a world of blood-drinking, mind-reading immortals. Just as artifacts won’t always stay buried in the dirt, secrets push their way to the surface, and Caro must use her wits to unravel clues, locate medieval artifacts, and discover her role in an enigmatic prophecy, one that pits humans against vampires.
Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Fotolia

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Creating Fictional Mansions: Daphne Du Maurier's Manderley

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive.”

When people ask how I became a writer, I blame it on my sickly childhood, a book-lined room, and Daphne Du Maurier’s fondness for old mansions. It began when I was a young girl, my mother sent me to Girl Scout camp. After a day of caving, I spiked a high fever and couldn’t breathe. The doctors were puzzled. They took my mother aside and asked if I had been exposed to tuberculosis. X-rays and skin tests finally determined that I’d contracted histoplasmosis, a rather common malady in middle Tennessee.

Fearing that my brother would catch the disease, my mother sent me to my grandmother’s house in the piney woods of Mississippi. My Mimi’s home didn’t have servants or sweeping views of the ocean, but its cozy warmth and smells of fresh baked bread were healing forces. I spent a rainy morning in Mimi’s book-lined study—a rare treat because my mother did not purchase books and borrowed them from her friends or the local library.

On Mimi’s shelf, I found a tattered copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I curled up in the window seat, and for the next few days, I entered the world of Manderley. I could see Jasper, the spotted Spaniel dog, as he followed the unnamed narrator around the stone mansion, the sinister housekeeper, Danvers, lurking in the shadows. I could feel the warm, sandy grass as I walked down the path to the sea. When the narrator sat down at the dinner table, I saw her lift the linen napkin and run her finger over the ornate, monogrammed R. When she walked down Manderley’s secluded driveway, I was right behind her.

In real life, apparently Daphne Du Maurier was a bit of a house stalker, one of my favorite vices. Her young mind was shaped by two English estates. The first, Milton Park, was located in Northamptonshire, and Daphne spent the summer in the lavish gardens. Later, Hitchcock would use Milton as the inspiration for Manderley’s interiors.
The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done….

But it was the second house, Menabilly, that shaped Du Maurier's vision of Manderley, along with her other fictional mansions (My Cousin Rachel and The King’s General).
Here's a video tour of Daphne at Menabilly:

While working on Rebecca,Daphne would walk around the ruined house, and while she mentally refurbished the manse, her writer’s imagination was firmly engaged. Using words, she constructed a hybrid of Milton Park and Menabilly, and a house with another M-name was born: Manderley. Daphne constructed the grey stones, soaring ceilings, and windows with glimpses of the water.

I recovered from my illness and returned to Tennessee, but part of me stayed in Manderley. I became a seasoned house stalker. I’d walk around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, boldly asking owners if I could tour their homes. Oddly enough, these kind souls never refused.

My mother forbade me to become a writer, and I ended up with a B.S. in nursing. I wrote in a stuffy closet under the staircase and papered the walls with rejection slips. During those long, unpublished years, Manderley was never far from my mind. When I began writing full time, I wasn’t sure how to build a fictional world, so I turned to Rebecca. Fictional houses became just as important as my characters—in fact, the houses became characters.

In Acquainted With the Night, I “designed” a farmhouse in rural Tennessee, a cliff-top monastery, a stone house in Oxford, an English country estate, and a London pharmaceutical building. My favorite house was an Italian vampire’s villa. I placed it on an island near Venice:

The villa reminded Caro of a floating hotel. The four-story Italianate was the color of oyster shells. Stone gargoyles peered down from an upper balcony. The island wasn’t landscaped so much as sculpted. Stone nymphs danced around a fountain. Further out, boxwood hedges formed crosses. Next to the front steps, topiaries were carved into mythological beasts.

The mansion’s name is Villa Primaverina. Inside, it had been modernized: a mirrored weight room, lap pool, media center, game room, elevators, blood bank, and a virtual golf course. Naturally the manse has a windowless, book-jammed library or two.

Source: Shutterstock
In real life, I will soon move to a farmhouse, mainly because I fell in love with the winding driveway. It’s far from the sea, but the setting has already sparked my imagination, because just last night, I dreamed of Manderley.

Acquainted With the Night book trailer: