History, Sex and Black Gunk: Justine and Rachel

[Justine] believes that the blood tastes different now than it did in the faraway past. It seems like it is fouler now, also more complicated, more of a metallic mineral tang to it, like licking the hood of a warm automobile.
stainlessfront

The above passage, from Stainless (1996) by author Todd Grimson, jumped out at me when I read it years ago. It still resonates, and feeds into what I love about vampires as a horror monster. I’m reminded of what I read once about steel, how any produced after 1945 is contaminated with radionuclides because of atomic bomb testing. Devices that require low-background steel have to source their metal from sunken pre-Trinity Test battleships. We have changed the atmosphere over centuries, in ways we can barely even comprehend.

But an undying monster might notice.

Stainless is a vampire love story at its heart, and my book Rachel is similar. I was inspired by Grimson and other vampire authors, and took the things I enjoyed from his book, placing them in Tokyo and giving the setting a Japanese flavor. The history of Los Angeles gives Grimson’s book its life (the antagonist is even a former silent film star) and like him I wanted Tokyo to be its own character in my book, grounding the story in a real place.

Grimson doesn’t explain why, or even if, the modern Californian blood that Justine drinks is different to that of Medieval Europe, but I think it’s an effective way to introduce the unbearable span of history a monster like her would experience. How the air itself has changed, perhaps, in taste and texture.

[As] they come into the sea of lights Justine becomes a little excited, it amazes her, just for a moment, how much things have changed. This endless electric urban cosmic swarm of fallen stars is incomprehensible in terms of rural, fifteenth-century France.
— Stainless
The sea of lights. "Downtown Los Angeles at night" by Nemanja Pantelic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The sea of lights. "Downtown Los Angeles at night" by Nemanja Pantelic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Justine lies outside human understanding. She is always alien, in strange and terrifying ways. And how she sees the world is fascinating in both its complexity and simplicity. She is like a child in some ways, her brain failing to make connections, but in others she’s an experienced monster, adept at taking human blood; so many people touched and ruined over the course of her long unlife. A woman in modern-day Los Angeles who carries centuries of tragedy within her. Grimson writes this in broad strokes that hint at things left unexplained.

His writing appealed to me on several levels, and it was the first time I’d read a book that made me think, "this is what I’d like to write! This is what vampire fiction should be!" Like Justine, Rachel is an "immigrant", taken from England to Japan a hundred years ago, an outsider learning to live in a different, modern culture. Like in his book, I painted in broad strokes; images, sights and sounds that would evoke different times and that sense of history I love:

Years in the old house with spiders and dust. Just me and him, that filthy old kimono, drifting sounds of merchants, mosquitoes, lanterns, old wood and dead wood, torn paper screens, the struggle to fight off boredom.
— Rachel

I love the simplicity and immediacy of this. "Justine is a vampire and Keith is her boyfriend."

I enjoyed writing like this, making the backstory appear in brief, half-remembered images. Rachel, like Justine, has lived for generations, and she also barely recalls patches of her life. We learn that she was previously at an "abbey", but not much is said about memories she prefers to repress. Her life before Japan is mostly a void. Perhaps I like this because I’m the same; I have a terrible long-term memory, and most of my childhood is closed off to me. My life before the age of about 17 to 18 is brief images, and I’m even unsure which ones are real and which may be photos I saw at some point later. History, to me, is fractured and faulty and sometimes it feels like I was always an adult.

When I wrote Rachel, it was Grimson’s book that was usually at the forefront of my mind. I think Justine fed into what became my protagonist, even though in the end I chose to write in a different style. We never really know Justine; Stainless is in third-person, and she remains an enigma. Rachel is more immediate as I wrote in first-person. Throughout the book, she "talks" to herself.

Her teeth chattered, breath hot.
She needs me now. Isn’t that what I wanted? Why won’t she look at me?
— Rachel

Where I differ from most vampire authors, I think, is in my reluctance to describe Rachel’s vampiric condition. In Stainless, we are clearly told Justine has fangs that secrete a venom, which enables her to control people. I didn’t want to do that with Rachel; I don’t even mention her having fangs in the book, and I deliberately didn’t give her mental powers or an easy way to acquire victims. One of my issues with vampire fiction—and I think Stainless is guilty of this a little—is how vampirism is presented as more of a superpower than a curse. I wanted to give Rachel no mercy; her thirst for blood is her undoing, and she gets nothing to help her. No night vision, or mesmerism, or even the ability to turn into a bat. She stumbles through life in pain and fear, the blood she steals giving her strength but also making her hate the things she has to do.

As an aside, I quite like the idea of vampires not having fangs, having to cut or gouge into their victims. Or use more perverse methods...
Rachel probably does have fangs, honestly. I purposely didn't stray too much from Vampire: the Masquerade-esque "kindred", mainly because I didn't want to have to describe how my vampires worked!

At the heart of Grimson’s book is the love story between Justine and her human "Igor", Keith, a man with his own problems who begins to feel something for the monster he spends most of his time with. Their scenes together are slightly off, like he knows he’s in a situation that’s wrong but either doesn’t care or doesn’t want to care. Later, they start to have sex, and even that is weird in how it’s presented, Justine like a virgin unfamiliar with a man’s body, and Grimson describes how she secretes a sticky black substance that comes from deep within her. We’re constantly reminded of how inhuman she is, even as Keith revels in her body and his love for her. It’s a world away from vampire romance as it’s often portrayed, and again nothing is really explained. Her existence is as strange to us as to him, and the author is content to leave it a mystery. Some readers would presumably balk at this, but I love his writing, how we’re left to fill in the blanks—Justine unknowable, mysterious and awful.

There’s a little circle of red, swollen flesh around each of the bullet holes. Keith touches the fast-closing central dime-shaped entry, and gently presses his right index finger into the yielding puzzle-pull, tactilely experiencing the heat generated by the healing, the gunk as hot as interplanetary soup.
— Stainless

Her body is indeed a puzzle to him, one that he will never solve. But the thrill is in the exploration, the physicality, "gunk" that marks her as intensely different to anyone else. Just the presence of her among humanity means there is something to be discovered out there, questions we will never answer. This, to me, is the heart of horror, and especially vampire stories.

Rachel doesn’t produce black gunk in her body, but I still wanted her to stand apart from humans. Unlike Grimson, I did that by indulging in her gory side. I enjoyed writing gruesomely erotic scenes, but doing it from her point-of-view, something beautiful and wantonly seductive. When she sleeps with her vampiric girlfriend Yoshi, it’s an explosion of blood and consensual violence:

Her lip burst like a balloon, blood flooded into my mouth. She moaned... I let it spill out of my mouth. I broke off, tore her flesh. She breathed heavily, an insistent red waterfall down her chin.
— Rachel

It’s more graphic than the lovemaking between Justine and Keith. The lovers in my book are both vampires, capable of taking pain and magically healing damage. It became a different kind of story as I wrote. Even though I took a lot from Stainless, I wanted it to be more gruesome and in-tune with how Rachel sees the world.

In the end, I was greatly inspired by Stainless and similar works, but I ended up changing them to make the story my own. I took the weight of history that I love so much about vampire fiction, the strange fetishistic relations between monsters and those who love them, inhuman characters who do awful things to survive. But I wanted my book to be more focused on Rachel herself. I wanted her to guide us through the violent Tokyo nights she inhabits, for people to see her as a sympathetic anti-hero, someone awful but vulnerable. A woman who might indeed taste blood differently over the centuries, but who would be more focused on her lack of confidence and wondering whether her lover actually enjoyed spending time with her.

Stainless is a great vampire story, and it’s one I recommend to anyone interested in the genre. It makes the most of its 90s’ LA setting, and gives us two fascinating characters in Justine and Keith. Although Rachel ultimately became a different beast, I remain indebted to Grimson, who in a few passages inspired me to write my own story about a monster adrift in a strange culture, struggling to live among people she stood apart from.