Happy October, everybody!
We are in the home stretch of 2020 now, just a bit more to go! We have ghost stories, turkey, presents, and possibly the end of civilization to look forward to in these final few months. (wait, did I say that last one out loud?)
As I thought about the holidays we can still look forward to, naturally I started thinking about Halloween, and I realized that, of late, I’ve found an urban fantasy I quite enjoy in the work of Patricia Briggs, author of the Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series. At last, I thought, a third entry into the genre that I enjoyed as much as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters. I was thinking specifically about the monsters found in each series, and it didn’t surprise me how much overlap there was between the three. What surprised me was the nuance to be found between these three works, the similarities and differences. Thinking a bit more about that, I began comparing them more, and soon I was including the versions of all these creatures that can also be found on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, and Supernatural.
Hmmm… I thought to myself… what might emerge if I write all these things down, comparing them all to each other, side by side?
Thus, I am undertaking a little project in the spirit of Halloween, where I do exactly that. All this month, I shall post weekly about a few of the usual monsters we find in urban fantasy, drawing from the three literary universes and the three televised universes which inspired this. I may mention other franchises as well, but that’ll be more in passing.
Also, this obviously will not, and cannot, be an entirely comprehensive list of all the critters and crawlers that go bump in the night. These are just some of the more widely known ones, because I am interested in the different takes that these various storytellers have on these supernatural creatures.
For this week, as the title suggests, I am looking at the three most classic Halloween monsters: vampires and werewolves and witches! Oh my! 🙂
First off, the vampires!
Ah, those bloodsucking fiends! Those undead lords of the night! Those kings of all spooky monsters! …and they do not freaking sparkle in the burning light of the SUN!
Butcher’s Dresden Files depicts several types of vampires, divided into “courts” across the world. The Red Court is (or, spoilers, was) a clan most like typical vampires, including allusions to blood-sucking bats, being brutal masters and merciless enemies. The Black Court, meanwhile, was more like truly undead, decaying horrors, the likes of which the ruling council of wizards ensured the destruction of by sponsoring the publication of Bram Stokes’ Dracula, so they’ve been long-since rendered nearly extinct. The White Court goes in a much more seductive and manipulative directions, where one would find a succubus or an incubus, feeding on lust, fear, and other emotions (their weakness being the touch of one who truly loves another). That lot is unsurprisingly reluctant to dirty their own hands with blood, always using pawns and cat’s paws instead. And then there’s the Jade Court, which, we have heard about, but not yet seen. So, all in all, vampires are predators, but with some variance in methods of feeding (most of them drink blood exclusively) and how civilized they can appear to be.
That trend generally holds true across the entire genre, but most others seem to be more strictly predatory, rather than having actual courts and such. Some of them try to rule each other, and others as well, but The Originals shows how bloody a proposition that tends to be. Mercy Thompson has its vampires practicing a more successful model as they, and other such creatures, are ruled by figures of particular power and wit, and who enact only a few basic rules. That is contrasted with the vampires of the Buffy-verse, where they have no such connections at all. No, that lot is more like a very loose fraternity than anything else: they know about each other, some of them meet up here and there over the centuries, and generally they only congregate into groups the same way humans do, when they have a common interest. And Supernatural has virtually no social order among the vamps at all, though there was, for awhile, a first vampire who could command the rest, before that one unwittingly tangled with something much more dangerous than itself.
Some vampires have more mystical tricks up their sleeves than others, like the Master vampires (as opposed to the regular vampires) of Correia’s Monster Hunters, or various vampires (some masters, many not) in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson. For the latter, their magic is more like a mutation, or some amplification of magic that the living person already possessed. The Buffy vampires can perform magic the same as anyone else could, but they aren’t automatically mystically gifted.
All of the above, however, with the exception of the Buffy vamps, are a little psychic, and this is how they enter people’s minds, compel them in some way. TVD and its spinoffs, The Originals and Legacies, keep up that trend, though in this case it tends to be more of a technique, made possible by staring into the eyes, into the soul, to give orders which must be obeyed, including the order to forget things and remember something else. It’s something of a cheat with them.
If that all seems pretty powerful, it is, but they have their limits, their weaknesses. Most of them are vulnerable to sunlight (like proper vampires), and the Mercy Thompson vamps go absolutely out cold, being as dead as they really are, when the sun comes up. In TVD and such, the vampires can obtain an enchanted daylight ring in order to withstand the sun. Most of them are unable to enter a home uninvited, but there are ways to twist that rule. The vamps of Buffy and Mercy Thompson both suffer when exposed to symbols of faith, though the latter requires faith to do so and does not require physical touch as it radiates a holy aura. The more physical, and less spectral, vamps in both Buffy and Monster Hunters can be seriously damaged, if not outright killed, by more mundane methods, though such injuries tend to be more spectacular than humans could survive. Garlic, however, is generally a non-issue, though a particular herb TVD will wound, limit, and protect against vampires, this being explained as part of the price which nature exacted for the spell which made the original vampires in the first place.
Finally, there’s how vampire reproduce. In Supernatural, one bite will do the trick, though the deal is sealed only after the first time they feed. In TVD, if one drinks vampire blood and dies with it still in their system, one then awakes as a vampire, though, again, the “awakening” is only complete after their first feeding. In Buffy, one must mutually exchange blood, drinking and being drunk from by one’s vampirical sire, but only when on the brink of death, and then only by dying right afterward, at the very moment of mutual feeding. And then one’s corpse and memories are taken and worn by a demon, an entirely new entity within one’s flesh. Mercy Thompson features a method where one must usually, though not always, be fed on many times, for a prolonged period of time, before dying and coming back, and even after the change, one needs one’s maker to help one navigate the change and one’s new instincts successfully. Dresden Files doesn’t go into specifics, or at least not that I recall, but it seems that one does indeed become a vampire when one is fed on and dies. There is one exception, though, namely the White Court vampires, who can apparently have children biologically.
The overall depiction of vampires, then – and I like how Monster Hunters depicts them so straightforwardly – is that they are basically undead horrors who prey upon humanity in the dark, ravaging the body and raping the mind, and turning humans into more of themselves. And yet, there is something consistently seductive about them, perhaps as they embody the inevitability of death even as they symbolize a refusal to submit to it. That leaves them, in the intimacy of their attacks, also representing the things we do with our bodies, the proof that we are somehow still alive, which leans towards the seduction of the sexual appetite, and the corruption of abuse which results from a stronger person preying on a weaker one. I recall that Bram Stokes’ novel, and at least one movie based on it, have very strong themes of such seductive power being matched only by the value of the Christian virtues of chastity. Small wonder Dracula and his ilk eventually became so savagely seductive.
And small wonder that eventually rubbed off onto other creatures of the night, including witches and werewolves. Indeed, if you follow the legends back far enough, you find the monsters from which both vampires and werewolves and even zombies all spring, the cultural common ancestor of what has now become two distinct species that are classically at odds with one another. On which note, and saving witches for last, on to the werewolves! 🙂
I love werewolves! That’s my own canine-oriented bias, of course, because wolves are my favorite animal. Yet, there is something vastly interesting to me about these men and women who bear a curse, that their inner beasts are called forth by the siren song of the full moon.
Butcher once again provides variety within Dresden Files, as he did with the vampire courts. We see mostly only one kind throughout the series, but they are introduced in the second novel Fool Moon, alongside several other types. There are the werewolves we see most often, being more like one-trick wizards who can shift between a human form and a large wolf-like form, not quite identical to real wolves, but close enough. These were taught, it turns out, by a wolf who could take human shape. Then there’s the loup-garou, more like the classic movie version of werewolves, being individuals who are cursed to become ravening monsters on every full moon, including the two nights on either side of the full moon. Thirdly, there’s the hexenwulf, being a human with some item like a belt made of wolf pelt, which has been enchanted by dark magics, turning the human into a gigantic wolf, and wearing away their humanity until there is only a mad monster. Finally, there’s the lycans, who are pretty much just people with the minds and souls of ravening wolves.
So, man becomes wolf, and wolf becomes man, or some hybrid of such, usually. They might maintain some humanity, or they might be monsters, or they might just be animals.
In the Monster Hunters, werewolves are fairly rare, and the first monster we meet is a man who got bitten and went crazy, thinking he was some sort of chosen being. However, the werewolves are a bit more mystical, like avatars of wild beast spirits, and connected in a way that they have a “king,” so to speak. Not that said king rules with an iron hand, usually, but the rules he sets are to be obeyed, or else invite his lethal wrath.
In the Buffy-verse, they use the three-night’s per month idea. A person is a person, except for those three nights where they are a wolf-human hybrid, and they usually can’t be held responsible for what they do on those nights. That’s why the werewolves who are good people get themselves locked up and/or chained, though there was at least one who reveled in a wild rush of being a monster. Outside that, however, they’re just regular people, and it’s the werewolf hunters or, even worse, a circle of wealthy clients who pay to eat werewolf meat who are much more evil.
The werewolves of Supernatural are somewhat similar, but there is more interplay between the wolf and human halves, such that some can control themselves, and many can draw on the strength and savagery of the wolf side fairly easily, at almost any time. The TVD werewolves, by contrast, have almost no control at all until they transform, and it’s a long, agonizing process that tends to leave the savage beast in charge. That comes in again in Monster Hunters, though the most powerful werewolves can at least point themselves in the right direction at need, with exception to full moon nights.
My favorite, though, are the wolves of Mercy Thompson, and they are wolves, albeit very large ones, typically in the range around three hundred pounds. They have a wild side to them, yes, but one which a strong human will can keep under control. They’re more aggressive, and usually more assertive, than usual, as humans, but most of them function well enough that they have a true social order among themselves. It’s based entirely on their internal hierarchy, but it stabilizes their aggression so they can live among humans. Not all of them, mind you. Some are broken in one way or another, and they have to be put down to protect everyone around them, but by and large they can do fairly well in the human world. A huge part of the balance they strike is thanks to the work of one wolf in particular, the Alpha of Alphas, called the Marrok. He is, in short, brutal when he needs to be (which is often), but filled with love for his fellow wolves and those who accept them.
One fascinating aspect of werewolves is how we’ve tied them to vampires. Often, they are enemies, and sometimes they are wary partners. But comparing strengths and weaknesses can be quite a unique balancing act.
The most obvious advantage that werewolves have is that they can go out into the sun and be active all day, every day. Meanwhile the most obvious disadvantage, with the exception of the Mercy Thompson wolves, is that their power is usually tied to the cycle of the moon, putting them at a severe disadvantage at night, when vampires rule. TVD adds in an advantage of werewolf venom being lethal to vampires (much like how Dracula can only be killed by a wereolf bite in the movie Van Helsing), but that depends on them being able to use it, which, with slow transformations across the board and being little more than oversized canines, is not so feasible. Also, vampires can generally breed much more quickly, and they’re strong and fast, as well, and sometimes they have magic. All in all, the advantage tends to go towards the vampires in a straight-up fight… but not always. 😉
And speaking of advantages… finally, the witches! The practitioners of unholy crafts, calling on powers the likes of which no mortal man can comprehend, but all can fear!
For once, Butcher is outshone when if comes to variety, which is a ironic considering Dresden Files follows the adventures of a wizard. There is, after all, only so much one can do with a magic system that consists solely of a mixture of natural talents, rituals, and rigorous study and self-development. Anything can happen, but it’s all the same, really.
Mercy Thompson talks about various kinds of magic users, who follow traditions that all have their own limits and capabilities. There are wizard, who can manipulate non-living things, especially in the form of telekinesis. There are shamans and others who are basically priests of the natural world, using holy magic to heal the innocent and to smite evildoers. There are those who are touched by elemental power, and they are formidable indeed in their might. There are the avatars of otherworldly beings, children of powerful spirits who circumvent most of the rules and the dominion of other magics, shepherding the unquiet dead and giving strength to the living. And then, yes, there are the actual witches, who draw on the power of living things to enable themselves in doing all manner of spells.
Said witches come in three varieties: white, black, and gray. White witches are those who hurt no one and nothing else, and so their power tends to be limited, with very rare exceptions. Black witches do much harm, gaining power from the pain, blood, and death of others, people and animals alike. To a black witch, a white witch is usually their single most appetizing prey, having enough power to be above average but not nearly enough to protect themselves. Between these two are the gray witches, who dabble in things which push the limits of what black witches do, but not crossing over into outright black magic. They are both a strong safeguard against black witches, and also the most likely to become black witches if they do not withstand the temptations of greater and greater power. And speaking of such, they tend to jealously guard their spells through their family lines, but that just results in wide variances in expertise, which makes them even more troublesome as enemies, and even more useful as allies.
Speaking again of temptation, the witches of Buffy have a more subtle temptation than simply raw power to contend with. They are the tinkerers of the natural order, using spells and potions and rituals to accomplish a wide variety of remarkable things. Even if that sort of power and influence didn’t go to their heads, the way a child finding kryptonite might make them more daring and less responsible even when Superman is in the sky directly overhead, they’d still have to contend with the immense euphoria that can arise from tampering with the fabric of the universe. Pride, pleasure, and ease of use make for quite the addictive drug, and witchcraft can easily consume its more powerful practitioners. Even if they triumph over all of that, they’re still human, and still capable of every sin which leads humans into darkness, including the wrath which erupts when a loved one is murdered, not to mention the spite of envy.
And then there’s the witches in TVD, Originals, and Legacies. Not only do they wrestle with all the same temptations, and the creeping madness of their own minds, but they seem to be responsible for every single supernatural things in their world. The original vampires were created by a spell, the werewolves were made through a curse, the creation of various limbo afterlives was done through magic, the threat of otherworldly powers is enabled through witchcraft, and more. It always seems to come back to the witches. Even the existence of Hell itself, being made by the dying moments of a powerful psychic, which is the oldest root of all witchcraft.
Fortunately, that also makes witchcraft the solution to almost everything, including, my favorite example, the apparent undoing of Hell in TVD‘s series finale. There have been spells, and attempts at spells, which have undone other afterlives, and nearly ended all vampires and whatnot and even magic itself throughout the world. Heck, the oldest and most powerful supernatural beings in the world are all made vulnerable, at any time, by magic. Witches are freaking powerful in that story.
Not so much in Supernatural, though. They can hold their own, and arrange horrific deaths for people they don’t like, and they tend towards being devious, but they also die pretty easily, and permanently.
And I don’t recall much in the way of witches in Monster Hunters, though various figures are able to use magic in various ways, often unique to them. Which, I suppose, just makes one’s status as a witch a bit less formal than it is in other urban fantasies.
Vampires are dead people who eat you.
Werewolves are people with a dangerous beast lurking within.
And witches are scary as all Hell, partially because they are capable of making or unmaking Hell itself.