by Alistair Rennie
To begin with a few staunch facts: Bram Stoker visited Slains Castle in 1894 when on holiday in Cruden Bay where he was a regular visitor. With the Bullers of Buchan to its north and the perfect sands of the bay to the south, the castle sits on a rocky promontory on the Northeast of Scotland, overlooking the sea like some architectural phantom, its moody ruin diminished by its ancient dereliction but, for all that matter, no less grand. It is evocative in the extreme and certainly provided Stoker with some ready-made material to be rendered via his Dracula novel (contrary to the remarks of some fatuous Historians eager to assert their invidious counterclaims).
And, to this extent, Slains Castle has acquired an association with Vampirism that appears fairly recent but, in fact, belies the prevalence of a North Sea Vampire legacy that stretches back perhaps for centuries.
It is true to say that the area is rich with tales of inexplicable disappearances among the people of the fishing villages, the farmsteads, the inland bothies and hillside crofts.Stories abound of shrivelled corpses discovered in the shallows of the vales, or of skulls retrieved from woodland pits by overzealous hunting dogs. The reputations of luscious maidens come queerly from the annals of local yarns; while others speak of outlandish seductions, orgiastic rites and strange nocturnal visitations in the charnel houses, decaying keeps and heraldic mansions of the landed gentry.
Presently, however, my own preoccupation with Vampirism refers to a somewhat less exotic pastime than those described by local hearsay – namely, the production of (what I presume to call) music. To this effect, I have allowed myself to engage in an experiment which, thus far, has produced some intriguing results, none of which are of any value to the common weal (but are, I think, of interest to persons of a certain disposition).
It is arguable (some would say ‘self-apparent’) that experimentalism in music is normally confined to the music itself in terms of the technical production or delivery of the sounds involved in its construction. It is the conveyance of an idea that underlies the creative act with a vague or definite sense of applying reason to the direction of an impulse through the medium of sound – the expression of which is a random pattern of calculated interest that, in and of itself, is more a matter of technique rather than emotional determinism. That is to say that the experimentalist’s tendency is to attempt a technical application of cognisant variables, so much so that he or she rarely favours melody over the solid aspects of music; whereas, in my case, I tend to aim for the visionary consequences of an underlying temper represented in a song’s outcome.
In this particular case, however, I did not wish to be persuaded creatively by my own – my personal – emotional character. Instead, I opted to pursue a different sort of experimental gambit by relying on my power to conceive of myself as someone else – or something – in order to arrive at a different sort of musical destination. I would introduce an element of role playing as a basis for production and, in doing so, would choose, in the true spirit of my homeland described above (and in view of the current anniversary we are engaged in celebrating), to present myself as a North Sea Vampire!
A flexible imagination cannot be gained out of nothing; but, where it exists, it can be nurtured to conceive of outrageous transformations of the self as a viable subject matter. Accordingly, within the creative spaces afforded by my musical indulgences, I would become a North Sea Vampire and, within the clutches of this illusion (and my orchestrated belief in it), I would assume the role of a Vampire as a basis for the creation of my melodic inferences (or songs).
My task was as straightforward as it was incorrigible: if a Vampire were to engage in the composition of music, what sort of music would it produce? What mood or essence would underlie its choices of expression through the medium of sound, and what designations of preference would inform its choices of instrumentation?
Such questions came readily, and some answers, too, that were gleefully predictable, almost clichéd (and clichés are so easy to reproduce in any art form). I discovered that the Vampire, naturally, favoured mournful refrains – though, surprisingly, not out of an obvious preference for the darkness (which, after all, was rather forced). The tendency, rather, was to exhibit a prodigious yearning for simplicity in life which it cannot acquire within the complex demands of an existence that remains outside of its range of self-control. And, by the same token (applied in reverse), those elements of complexity, in musical terms, were adapted (unexpectedly) to gliding melodies that arose with an incremental steadiness through their musical structures – like forces of desire arising through their real or imagined scenes of loss or attainment.
With my adoption of Vampirism fully underway, I was able to produce my inaugural collection under the eponymous title of North Sea Vampires. I followed this up with a 6-track mini-album called Blood Red Blossom; and in Séancesation I disconnected myself from the contours of the Vampire Coast, if only to forge a further intimacy with the Vampire spirit world. Quickly, however, and allowing for the benefits of a small distraction, I returned to earth – and, in particular, to the genius loci of Slains itself.
And here I stand upon its shore – engaged as yet in a fledgling project which is newly begotten . . . which allows me, then, to pause in consideration of the Vampire’s role, not in myself, but the world more broadly.
Vampires have been done to death and, yet, they are immortal. As such – and in the sense in which immortality requires the counterbalance of a fruitless yearning for annihilation, a full immersion into the enigmatic torpor of decadence, a stark disavowal of the value of life as a valid response to its ceaseless prolongation – the Vampire has become fetishized as a product of the imagination that has also acquired the status of a commodity. It stands before us as a vaguely significant cultural icon that reaches easily beyond its folkloric origins, to be readily accommodated by Gothic fantasists and heartily consumed by modern purveyors of teenage angst.
It is also to be acknowledged, then, that Vampires have been done to death but that they are also protected by an immortality that guards them against the disintegration of their appeal as iconic statements within the passing fashions of successive epochs. They are, in fact, an accessory to all fashions of all epochs; and the question we are forced to ask is: Why?
The endurance of the Vampire surely lies in the fact of its plurality: there are no fixed or consistent models for the Vampire to adhere to with any emphasis beyond its rigorous bind to a vital core of human appreciation that refuses to abandon its infatuation with the Vampire legacy. As such, the Vampire retains its Gothic and folkloric values, but varies between its range of emotional provocations and its heightened states, acquiring values that are local to particular moments of history, forever emerging as something other than what it was before its latest incarnation. The Vampire changes shape without adjusting its form and, through its kaleidoscopic refraction of possible outcomes, is able to satisfy a diverse range of cultural tastes and sexual appetites – without ever failing to meet its permanent condition of basic appeal, which it reinforces, rather, with each transition.
In my own case, of course, it has merely been my pleasure to imagine myself as a Vampire engaged in making music rather than pursuing my desire for more extravagant forms of gratification. And, in doing this, I have acquired a sharper focus in terms of maintaining a consistent emotional emphasis throughout my music, in spite of the differences between individual songs. That kind of consistency of fundamental mood or rooted vibe is necessary, I feel, for the success or failure of any work of art for any artist in any kind of creative endeavour. But the difficulty is in learning to tell the difference between whether you have actually achieved that fundamental mood or whether you’re only imagining that you have.
And so, as with all potential illusions, we must wonder if the mood is little more than an imaginary fancy which, like the Vampire, raises fears and titillations in us with twice the measure of those we raise within ourselves.
Part of Schlock’s Bram Stoker Centenary celebrations.