The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas
After black-leather vampires, dandified vampires, little-girl-lost vampires, CEO vampires and sparkly “vegetarian” vampires, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Edward Wayland is as bracing as a cold ocean wind in your face.
Weyland is the main character in The Vampire Tapestry, first published in 1981. For Weyland, there is no curse, no mysterious virus, no fear of the sun, crosses or garlic. Simply put, he is an evolved predator adapted to feed on humans.
Charnas unfolds her meditation on the mind of a predator in five linked novellas. Three of these are told from the point of view of the people who encounter Weyland.
In “The Ancient Mind at Work,” Katje deGroot, a fifty-year-old white South African of Boer descent, is far from home in the northeastern college where she followed her now-deceased husband. She is in Limbo, no longer a faculty wife nor a comfortable part of the hired help. An outsider and “other” herself, she immediately recognizes the anthropology professor Weyland as a predator, but who will believe her? Katje comes to disbelieve herself, until she is confronted with the truth and danger.
Mark, the protagonist in “The Land of Lost Content,” is fourteen. A casualty of his parents’ bitter divorce, he seeks refuge in his Uncle Roger’s south Manhattan apartment. This time when Mark comes to visit, he finds that a friend of Roger’s has captured a wounded vampire and has turned the spare bedroom into a cage for it.
Mark is a caretaker — the plants in Roger’s apartment thrive because of him — and he is put in charge of giving the vampire a daily drink of blood-bank blood. At first the gangly old guy caged in Roger’s spare room doesn’t talk much, but then he asks Mark to read to him. He says he has lost strength and needs to keep awake. If he sleeps he goes into a hibernation state that could last for decades.
Mark will not accept that Weyland is no more human than a tiger. Like Katje, in trying to understand the vampire, Mark is thinking about his own situation. Mark’s empathy for someone trapped in a situation he cannot control makes him lower his guard around Weyland.
“The Unicorn Tapestry” is the best-known of the five stories. It won a Nebula Award. Charnas even turned it into a stage play. It is the deepest of the five and gives us the most information about the “mechanics” of Weyland’s existence. It is also the most baffling.
Floria Landauer is a New York psychotherapist suffering from burnout and mild depression. In spite of this, she jumps at the chance to treat a new client, who says he is suffering from the delusion that he is a vampire. Dr. Weyland is a referral from a colleague of Floria’s who works at Cayslin College. Several months ago, Weyland attacked a domestic worker and then disappeared. The college wants him back because he is a powerful fund-raiser, but they want “a clean bill of health.”
Nothing else in Floria’s practice is going very well. She has a patient she is trying to refer out but who won’t leave, a therapy group in the doldrums, and a client who recently committed herself to an institution. Needing something to re-focus her, Floria decides to treat Weyland.
Being a rational woman, Floria initially assumes that Weyland is delusional and his vampire experience is deeply symbolic of his own sense of isolation and separation. Through Weyland’s descriptions of his hunting and feeding, Charnas makes some sharp points about American society. Here is Weyland, describing why he feeds mostly on young gay men in Central Park:
… I take what is easiest. Men have always been more accessible because women have been walled away like prizes or so physically impoverished by repeated childbearing as to be unhealthy prey for me. All this has begun to change recently, but gay men are still the simplest quarry.” While she was recovering from her surprise at his unforeseen and weirdly skewed awareness of female history, he added suavely, “How carefully you control your expression, Dr. Landauer — no trace of disapproval.
Later, Weyland discusses gay men specifically as his prey, because, “Gay men are denied the full protection of the herd.” The protection of the herd and the weight of the herd are themes Charnas will return to as the book continues.
For a while, the sessions progress as a cat-and-mouse game; in Floria’s mind, Weyland is using clever mental tricks to protect his delusion. What about female vampires? He’s never met one — never met another vampire at all. Is he repressing a desire to have sex with his victims? Weyland says he doesn’t have sex with livestock. His description of a “fantasy” of feeding is detailed, realistic and practical. Then Floria’s needy client starts stalking Weyland, and reports back on an encounter he witnessed that is almost identical to Weyland’s description of feeding. In that moment, Floria realizes that Weyland is not a deluded human; he is a vampire in therapy.
As powerful as the rest of the story is, it raises the question: Why doesn’t Floria just write the letter Weyland needs, end the sessions and remove herself from danger? And why would Weyland stay in therapy? His reason, at least, has some plausibility; this is his first and probably only chance to explore his own nature.
That is the superficial reason Weyland gives, but in this cerebral and suspenseful section, it is clear that there is more going on. Weyland talks about the ballet, how the pas de deux moved him in a way he can’t articulate. Whether he wants to admit it, humans have become more than livestock to him, and this is borne out at the ending of the story. Floria’s actions seem unbelievable and unprofessional, certainly, but powerful. This is the strongest and most flawed section of the book.
“A Musical Interlude” changes everything except Weyland’s nature. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, newly arrived anthropology professor Edward Weyland is invited to a performance at the city’s open-air opera house. Charnas shifts points of view among several opera watchers, technicians and performers during a production of Tosca that becomes a magical, once-in-a-lifetime performance. For Weyland, the music is more potent than he imagines, melding with memory to hurl him back, in his mind, to the time when he followed Bonaparte’s army and fed on the stragglers. This mental break has disastrous consequences. Charnas’s writing is controlled and smooth — now dramatic, now poignant, now funny.
The results of this night of passion set to music lead to “The Last of Dr. Weyland.” Still in New Mexico, Weyland prepares to abandon his professorial identity and move on, living an itinerant existence on the road where it is easier to feed. He tries to extricate himself from a pro forma affair with his graduate student Allison, but his relationship — Weyland can’t quite bring himself to admit it’s a friendship — with Irv, another professor, is more challenging. Everyone loves Irv. He is center of the campus; friendly, warm, helpful. Irv worries about Weyland, who he sees as isolated. As he did with Floria, Weyland talks to Irv about the “herd”; Irv is worried that Weyland has put himself as the edges of the herd. He doesn’t realize that Weyland is the wolf crouched in the shadows. Irv is at the center of the herd, but this is causing Irv stress. Soon Weyland makes a discovery that forces him to re-think Irv and who he is.
At the end, Weyland comes to the realization that the vampire’s “hibernation” is not triggered by a physical need, but a psychological one. Prolonged exposure to humans causes him to connect with them. It endangers him and threatens starvation. Confronted with this knowledge, which must come to him with every “existence,” Weyland makes the choice that ends the book.
This is a psychological story. When Charnas needs action she writes it well and doesn’t shy away from violence, but this book is about interiors. The only human who sees Weyland clearly is Katja deGroot. For everyone else, Weyland is a kind of mirror. Humanity is a kind of mirror for the vampire, too, and there is nothing he can do to escape it.
Because The Vampire Tapestry is about what people think and feel, this book was not as dated as I thought it might be. “The Unicorn Tapestry,” with its traditional fifty-minute hour approach to therapy, has probably aged the worst, but the emotional and intellectual dance between Floria and Edward is still compelling. “The Land of Lost Content” narrates human behaviors that haven’t changed that much in thirty years, although today YouTube would be involved somehow. As readers, we have heard, read and seen much about “predators,” but Charnas worked seriously to create a non-romanticized, non-demonized predator. That part of the book works across all five novellas. Read this book for Charnas’s controlled, understated prose, and for a new way of looking at an overexposed monster.
Thank you for the fine review. I usually shy away – far away – from anything with vampires but I’ll try this one.