Exiting the Vampire’s Castlevania
Vampires, peasants, and poor representations of class? Welcome to the world of horror-fantasy computer games…
A long time ago, in the days before national lockdowns and quarantines, a friend and I used to while away the hours discussing a video game we wanted to make. We got as far as making some concept pictures and drawing up some lore and background ideas for it all, but due to having other whims, plans, university projects, and definitely in my case —socially acceptable substance abuse to attend to — we never actually got round to doing anything. The essential idea (I don’t want to present all of it here), was to make an isometric fantasy RPG. The story was going to be indebted to European and Asian vampire myths, but with a clearly expressed idea: that vampirism is a fantastical representation of the aristocracy in social consciousness. I guess in some ways, the races and social grouping in the story were going to be proxies for existing social classes or interest groups. I would not say I was a Marxist at the time, whereas now I would call myself at least an errant one. So my conception of this at the time was probably not quite as dialectically materialist as it is now.
It was going to portray historical, economic relations on a small scale, via the medium of “swords and sorcery” fantasy.
No grandiose aim, then.
Damnit. I do really wish we had got round to making it. I actually hate that term “swords and sorcery.” It makes me think of terrible-brilliant 1980s fantasy romps like Beastmaster or Red Sonja.
At this regretful, reflective Covid19 lockdown moment in time, I am watching the Netflix TV series Castlevania. Here is a series, not quite anime, but definitely aesthetically so, which though a little slow has some good shit in it. The characters begin as rather boring fantasy tropes, but become more interesting than that. The art is at one moment beautiful, and the next horrifying. The story combines a Game of Thrones esque intrigue with some more overarching debates around morality and forms of nihilism.
It is this last quality that I particularly want to focus on. In the operatic, vampire video game series Legacy of Kain — which if you are foolish enough to stay still for a long period, I am happy to bore you about until you are nothing but a husk of cobwebs and bones — nihilism is a big focus. The protagonists spend quite a lot of time dealing with the fatalism and relativism of potential apocalyptic scenarios. In addition to completing lots of block puzzles which is often poked fun at in the LOK community. Playing a giant game of Rubik’s Cube that stalls the inevitable thirst for your enemies’ lives is enough to make you give in to fatalism.
It’s glorious and grandiloquent stuff. But really, I think those debates about the meaningfulness of values and life itself, are much more interesting in Castlevania (in its TV animation form) than Legacy of Kain. In Castlevania the values that different characters hold are presented clearly and without the confusing pretence that sometimes crops up in the other series. “Dracula,” after the zealous killing of his humane and enlightened wife, is filled with nothing but rage and a wish to destroy all humanity. “Trevor Belmont” shifts between a bitter, drunken apathy at Mankind’s cruelty, to a fierce pride in his family history of vampire hunting. The sorceress “Sypha” is obsessed with novelty and gaining new knowledge. Whilst the two forge-masters, “Isaac” and “Hector,” have a hatred of humanity for inflicting on them past cruelties, they also possess a vulnerability couched in very human terms, enduring the loss of friendship and trust during the seasons.
The vampires’ and humans’ frame of moral reference is very much akin to Nietzsche’s Genealogy, particularly the parable of the eagles and the lambs. I The “eagles” (read vampires in Castlevania) tear the “lambs” (read humans) to shreds because this is the natural order of things. They do not hate humans. A lamb is a lamb. And an eagle is an eagle. We should not blame beasts for their “thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs.” But let us imagine a different “lamb.” One who is not merely a complete victim, but conceives of the “eagle” as evil. One that considers their own weakness as a kind of strength, and faith and belief in retribution as a kind of substitute for a lack of “immediate” power or strength. It’s in the afterlife where the deeds of the “eagles” will be punished. This is the sort of overall human/vampire relation you see at work in Legacy of Kain, and TV series like Being Human also.
“Help me kind sir!”
Fantasy series about vampires are not always quite like those described above. Recently (if by that we mean the last few years), I’ve jammed much more with The Witcher’s infinitely more complex dark fantasy set-up. In this. humans are still characterised by a vengeful and zealous attitude to “monsters.” Playing as the titular protagonist, you are able to explore a world where things are never simple — poverty, greed and tribalism intersect. You get time for some card games too (who doesn’t like a quick hand of Uno to distract them from damnation and sulphur?). The vampires, meanwhile, are separate from, but also included in a world they don’t really understand. They come in a variety of different shades — from the simplistic, bestial killers that you encounter in the game, to the naive, brooding misanthrope “Dettlaff,” to the amiable, humanitarian philosopher “Regis.” Living as immortals they can only mark the passage of time, and either adapt to humanity or shun it, as a response.
It’s a more resigned take than the prior mentioned series (although Castlevania starts to themes of time, and how to live as an outsider a bit later in series 2). Vampires, at base, are a monstrous projection of class divisions. Just like in the game that my friend and I never got round to developing. Yes it is true that they have stood as a metaphor for other things in cultural consciousness (the pain of adulthood, perverse sexuality etc.) But there is more to it than that. Anne Rice vampires may be damn sexy. But they are a rather overcooked representation of the social deviant who transitions to a tedious libertine. I can’t speak for the books, but Interview with a Vampire feels a bit like a Henry Miller story played out over centuries and with conspicuously less wine.
There’s a common kind of vampire in fantasy literature who does not need to drink. Perhaps they have reached some kind of “divine” state, free from necessity. They spend their time fucking around or killing for pleasure, drinking lots of wine (like they’re in a Henry Miller novel), or going mad slowly in a corner. Damnit. The curse of immortality.
I hate these guys.
Speaking of people who need to relax and have a drink, modern conspiracy theorists hold some pretty ridiculous notions. Does this really need saying? The elites eat and kill babies. There are 1% Satanists who harvest blood. Throughout the ages, we have had a range of folklores and histories that transform the ruling classes into something infernal, or unholy. The stories about King John of England being a werewolf, or Elizabeth Báthory bathing in the blood of virgins, or the rumours around Vlad Țepeș are dark legends — akin to fairy tales. Old world superstitions and modern-day conspiracies take a nascent truth of Nietszsche’s “lamb” perspective. They go further than simple anger at being exploited and predated on. They go beyond Nietzsche’s rather lazy naturalistic fallacy and project some kind of unfathomable, magical power onto the “eagles.”
I remember reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation many years ago. In it he details the varying responses poor-folk had to the English Church’s attempts (driven often by an economic interest) to go after Jewish people focusing on the irrational claim that they organised “blood libels” (sacrificial murder of children). Sometimes these drives to ignite a pogrom worked. Often they did not. This is a history book and not fiction. But I think that is safe to say that our understanding of society is generally reflected in most works of fantasy fiction, even if that fiction may exaggerate or diminish some features of society itself. So thus when I am referring to the representations of peasants in fiction, I am seeing them represented in their actual history and experiences by authors. And as such, that vile deeds committed from superstition in our Middle Age and Early Modern history (pogroms, witch-hunts etc.) are the basis for our fantasy peasant’s behaviour.
Do “fantasy” peasants act as those from our history? To want to impale or burn the monsters that literally do drink your children’s blood is not itself irrational. It is totally understandable. But whether irrational or not. Are we ever going to be presented by something more than a bunch of farmers charging in with pitchforks and flaming torches?
In statement form: Not every peasant village is a den of vengeful fuckwits.
In fantasy books, when the peasants aren’t angry, then they are representing the kind of “Help me kind sir!”cliché, seen in the Youtube link above. If you can’t be bothered to watch it, I can summarise it by saying that the “big dick energy” vampire kills the pleading human captive.
Once alone or outnumbered, the stereotypical fantasy peasant is never capable of anything more than blind fear, or a kind of awe in the face of the occult, or power itself. The portrayal is animalistic. The fantasy peasant is not a class-for-itself. It’s a beseeching cry:
“Thank you, kind sir!”
Even if King Arthur arrived, escorted by a man-at-arms simulating the fall of hooves with a split coconut, the nakedness of his power would not amuse or insult the peasant, but instil in them fear and loathing. The fantasy peasant is not much more than a thing. Alas!
“Help me kind sir!”
Gathered, or alone, they haven’t got to that Monty Python and the Holy Grail level of peasant-hood (as per the allusion above).
Thus, the type of power, if we can interpret it as that, is either a) insidious, coy or illegitimate b) non-existent. It’s reactive. Or it nothing but a lynch mob.
I am not very familiar with Caliban and the Witch. However, the Federician notion, that peasant local knowledge, self-sufficiency, and resource management were attacked by the nascent accumulative forces of capitalism, seems very credible to me. Despite being criticised for a broad and generalising view on Medieval peasant life, Federici focuses astutely on how emergent capitalism broke downs solidarity, as well as reducing the sociability of older forms of production. People who express solidarity with one another are not merely purely reactive animals. They aren’t like a crazed Renfield coughing on Count Dracula’s gift of flies and spiders. But you see this crude representation of the poor, in games like Legacy of Kain, TV shows like Castlevania and a variety of different TV, films, books and games.
But if we want to show a world that is still magical, but at the same time more like our own, the peasants would be a bit less “help me kind sir!” and a bit more heroic. Fantasy heroism is seldom only fit for knights and princes, and anti-heroism for vampires. Magic is fascinating not only because it shows or makes something expected, but also its ability to restructure time and space, bring tools to life, deconstruct or enrich the social reality. Magic is a wise woman’s revenge against the inequalities of sex and gender. Magic is the extra harvest grown despite the rapaciousness of a feudal lord.
“There’s one thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach….all the damn vampires”
The next section contains a few spoilers.
The daft but entertaining comedic film The Lostboys is a tale of teen awakening through the medium of horror. But in this world, the vampires of Santa Carla have always been there. There not a vestige of some lost aristocracy, or creatures that hold the local populace in thrall…exactly. The monsters are really monsters, only by virtue of being monsters. The character “Grandpa” who takes this supernatural phenomenon with unexpected, phlegmatic pragmatism represents a kind of understanding of what vampires are all about. Without gothic reference points, they are just intolerable, local bullies.
Originally I had hoped to write a little more in this meandering piece about Mark Fisher’s essay Exiting the Vampire Castle. It’s well known for containing an interesting, but rather flawed, critique of the mechanisms of what is now called online “cancel culture.”
I am rather more interested, however, in the way the essay represents leftist moral frameworks as they exist. A section:
The bourgeois-identitarian left knows how to propagate guilt and conduct a witch hunt, but it doesn’t know how to make converts […] The aim is not to popularise a leftist position, or to win people over to it, but to remain in a position of elite superiority, but now with class superiority redoubled by moral superiority too. ‘How dare you talk — it’s we who speak for those who suffer!.’
I’ve spent the last two sections exploring the ideas behind examples of the fantasy genre. I generally believe that culture is an important battleground for politics (whilst downstream of it). There is no reason that solidarity and resistance, the kind that is able to stand against the vampires of this world, cannot manifest in everyday experiences of working people, experiences in the face of exploitation.
Some of the modern Left (I mean this in quite broad terms), particularly the social media using Left, like to drain discourse of the kind of the phlegmatic pragmatism shown by “Grandad” in The Lostboys. They aren’t terribly interested in solidarity or how to build it. They see enemies in certain people who may well share their opinions or experiences. This allows people with a legitimate desire to stratify and codify people the means to do so and also an advantage.
They are a bit like “Dracula” in Castlevania: who by the end of the first series had shunned the humanity of his murdered wife “Lisa,” turned on his fellow aristocratic vampires. This is by a perverse commitment to what his wife stood for, or at least her image.
“Dracula” and his story will now be our cypher for the modern Left. It begins like so…
In the throes of what appears like mental deterioration born of trauma, the vampire king becomes suicidal. Despite having a castle that can fly anywhere and amazing powers, he becomes totally obsessed with destroying all humanity. Men are weak and cruel. He makes war on the hypocritical Church. But really his is the kind of evangelism that comes from a place of deep cynicism. It’s not so different from the avenging Church’s position. His “class superiority” is most definitely “redoubled by a moral superiority.”
Is he like other vampires? Definitely not like the archetypal “aristocrat” vampires in his court, represented by a character like “Godbrand.” I probably don’t need to insert another Youtube link, but I find it hard to resist. Here’s some voice acting involving the amazing Peter Stormare and Graham McTavish:
“Godbrand” disdains humans, he probably finds some revolting and some appealing. He enjoys killing them. But he doesn’t appear to hate them, in the way that “Dracula” does. The latter obviously suffers deep guilt from failing his deceased human wife. He was not able to act, and save her. The humans took her from him. He hates them, and he also hates those things that connected him to “Lisa.”
“Godbrand” represents the upper-class mentality, and he can’t understand why “Dracula” suddenly wants to upend the natural order of things. The infamous Wallachian has lost a sense for what is economic. He no longer wants to exploit humans, frankly and dispassionately. And other vampires in the story suspect that too. The castle he is in is both a constant reminder of his human life and a way to torture and trap him mentally. His son, who represents the last vestige of his humanity, the man he should share solidarity through grief, he casts aside…
In Exiting the Vampire Castle Mark Fisher was trying to conjure an image of a confused vampire hunt, or “witch hunt” on the modern Left. There exists a willingness to attack other people — to make sweeping generalisations and produce unforgiving depictions of people, people who might otherwise be our friends. So long out of power and influence, the Left has no itinerary of what is strategically necessary to fight for, and how to express solidarity. There is the replacement of this by “prolier-than-thou” analysis and “snark and sarc” leftism. Perhaps not in all quarters. But this attitude does not do anyone any favours.
Some people will always be genuine vampires, and prey on others. Like “Godbrand.” But by virtue of our humanity, we are all complicit, whether we know it or not, in our alienation under capitalism. We need to be able to see the true vampiristic forms in the economic structures — take control over the means of production — not get sidetracked by internecine debates, often moral ones, that provide free meals for the vampires. Nietzsche’s “eagle and lamb” allegory was simplistic. When the “lambs” revolt they are no longer prey animals. But they sometimes make the mistake of believing themselves to be. They are conditioned into simultaneously blaming the other prey, and accepting an inevitability of their destruction at the “Eagle’s” indifferent talons.
Ultimately “Dracula” lacks his wife “Lisa’s” phlegmatic pragmatism. She has a purpose, through her study and practice of medicine. She is involved in the human project; she advances rationalism and progress. Despite the irrationality of humanity that she sees around her, she seeks a connection with everyone, whilst being aware of their dangers.
Perhaps the weakness of Castlevania is that “Dracula’s” missed opportunity for redemption is always suggested to be inevitable. Few are as pure as “Lisa,” — crying to her last for humans to be understood and forgiven. The Count’s irony is he’s a monster acting in a very human way. He isn’t able to exit his castle, the vampire’s castle, even though he may travel in it. The problem really is the castle, not the imperfect human/vampire creatures that live within.
At the end of the first Castlevania Series, we see the ability of the castle to move destroyed. In later series, it may move. But as the narrative stands, it is grounded, haunted — unable to escape the tyranny of the Past and the fears of the Future. We see “Dracula’s” ghost inside it for a flickering moment. He is unable to get the castle moving again.