“Living” History

I’ll admit it, I’m often jealous of The Doctor and his TARDIS. In company with many (perhaps slightly unhinged) historians/history geeks, I’ve fantasized about efficient time travel that would allow me to safely drop in on this or that event and observe it first-hand. Preferably without picking up strange diseases or having to fight Daleks.

So this desire was one reason I found so much joy in writing about such ancient vampires. They allowed me to go back in time through their eyes. I studied history at the University of York in England, which is an incredible city even if you’re not a history geek. But if you are, just walking the streets is an education. The history is literally under your feet and you can feel it, as well as see it. The city is simultaneously ancient and modern, just like the vampires, and it was only natural that they lived there for many centuries before moving to London.

There was something enchanting about the thought of “living” repositories of history, right in our midst—these vampires could tell us firsthand accounts of historical events and unlock any number of mysteries. Sure, it’s fun to surmise, but sometimes you really just want to know how the princes in the Tower died, you know? (For the record, I don’t think Richard III had anything to do with it.) There the vampires are, and if we knew how to listen to them—and could do so without getting eaten—they could answer many questions. Also, it would be hard to imagine any kids finding history boring under those circumstances.

It also seemed natural to me that the vampires would be frustrated by their inability to acquaint us with important aspects of history as a means, perhaps, of preventing us from repeating it and thus creating new disasters. In as much as it goes against their rules to try and interfere too closely with the human path, there was no way, having seen such massive devastation after World War I, that the vampires would not try and put their immense historical knowledge to use, along with their unique abilities, in the hopes of preventing World War II. They can see the disaster that’s going to unfold, being that it’s plainly reminiscent of much they’ve seen before, only now on a larger scale. George Bernard Shaw may have said “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” but the vampires aren’t willing to be so cynical. The past often does repeat itself, but it doesn’t have to.

Of course, it was crucial to me that in no way were the vampires pedantic—they are living history, but they are also of their moment, in any time. It was most important to me that they be real characters. While they are not human and the pace of their lives moves differently from humans, they nonetheless have many human attributes. It’s these attributes that guide them through the story. And yet, as non-humans, I find it fascinating to juxtapose them against inhumanity. For me, locating vampires in the midst of World War II creates a prism through which to contemplate the nature of evil, and what it means to be truly “human.”

And it gives me a chance to safely play with history. From ancient Rome to Europe plunged in war, the vampires provide a fun way to explore a variety of “what ifs.” What can make history such a maddening delight to read is that events can turn on a pin, and the most bizarre details contrive to bring something to its conclusion. Alan Bennett explored this in his play The History Boys, referring to the turning points wherein a course is set. One of the more plain-spoken characters dismisses the complexities and sums up history as “one (blanking) thing after another.” Which is true, too, although not quite as edifying.

Still, there is something almost comforting in the idea that the world keeps on going and yet the vampires remain constant—unless one of them gets snuffed. They change their clothes and hair to keep up with the times, but they are still there. It’s been said that the Rockies will crumble and Gibraltor will tumble (which I really hope isn’t the case, cause I like them a whole bunch) but somewhere, either in the shadows or next to us on the night streets, is someone who could take us on a personal tour of the distant past. Just because it’s not real doesn’t make me like the thought any less.

Sarah Jane Stratford is a novelist and playwright. You can read more about her on her site and follow her on Twitter.


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