We are now sufficiently removed in time from the early aughts to round the perihelion and begin our inevitable return to the vampire, a monster that has practically become a metaphor of itself, rising again and again, never truly dead but always somewhat changed.
The tentative resurgence of vampire novels, this time with an intentional—even ostentatious—literary bent, is now well underway. Glossy, exclusive imprints have put out a judicious selection of vampire novels with complex themes. There was Woman, Eating (2022) by Claire Khoda and Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste (2022), and now The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland. These are sumptuous, high-minded feasts, the narratives redolent with feeling and sensory delight that nod to Rice and her imitators but are ultimately more concerned with the philosophical over the pleasurable.
In media, there has been an equal emphasis on prestige, with far less originality: the lush AMC adaptation of Interview with a Vampire as well as the less faithful (and less popular) adaptation of Let the Right One In. The PR surrounding the books, though, is carefully intellectual, emphasizing their takes on gender, race, and other issues of cultural cachet and calling attention to their accomplished prose or narrative structure. I don’t disagree with any of these claims, but I do think it’s interesting how blatant the underlying message is: “Shelve these books among the contemporary or literary fiction! Not in the fantasy section, or god forbid, the YA section. Genre and teen girls, oh no!”
To be clear, I know the authors aren’t behind this, nor really, in the end, even the publishers. This is a larger cultural issue. But as with the Beatles, who were almost universally panned by US critics but screamed into stardom by teen girls, vampires owe their current cultural moment in part to that earlier unvarnished enthusiasm. Would more mature audiences be open to vampires in their literature if they hadn’t encountered Twilight (2005)?
Yes, I know we all want to be done with this conversation. The debate about sparkly, prudish vampires has been beaten to death, and yet here it comes, rising once more from the grave. I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t think the craze wasn’t still lurking in our collective subconscious, changing the way we think about vampires as both characters and metaphors.
Stephanie Meyer made vampires safe. Of course, she didn’t really—Edward is a creepy stalker, and sex within a marriage established on the expectation of reproduction only served to underscore how dangerous childbirth is in America. But she made vampires’ sexuality safe, restrained it within the confines not just of marriage but of an eternal teenage tentativeness. Despite decades of life, wealth, power, and beauty, Edward is an awkward high schooler who just wants to play baseball and be allowed to date. It is Bella, the protagonist and would-be “victim,” who pursues him across the ocean, who insists on their union, who demands to be turned.
I’m not trying to valorize Twilight here—it remains a deeply problematic series. But this role reversal, and the feeling of safety necessary to enact it, are still playing out on the literary stage. Twilight asked us to consider both vampires without their quintessential sexuality and female characters who reject the victim/survivor dichotomy, neither Dracula’s passive Lucy nor the stake-toting Buffy Summers. It’s not a matter of destroying or being destroyed by the monster anymore. It’s about the victim-as-vampire; it’s about what the woman wants.
So what is that, once the characters are no longer teenagers? Art. Friendship. Art. Family. Art. That is, romance and/or marriage don’t even break the top five. Lydia of Woman, Eating wants to eat (duh), do performance art, and figure out her complicated relationship with her mother. Lucy of Reluctant Immortals wants to watch movies and chill with her bestie. Anna in The God of Endings wants to paint and run a preschool. They all want to reckon with their powers in a way that still allows them to do good in the world and engage with things as immortal as they are—which is to say the enduring creative works that make a long life worth actually living.
The God of Endings is split into two alternating chronologies, one that begins in 1830s upstate New York and another that is set in roughly the same place but in 1984. From the outset, Anna has come full circle in a geographical sense, which underscores how much she also has not changed from an uncertain young girl to a floundering adult. This is the crux of the novel’s emotional concerns. In the earlier chronology, Anna ranges far from her home, making her way to and across Europe and the Mediterranean, slowly building up a series of lives only to lose them in devastating, often violent ways. In the later, Anna believes she has learned the lessons of grief and does her best not to become attached to anything, running an elite preschool so that she can interact with those who have neither the experience nor the capacity to be cruel (i.e., five- and six-year-olds).
But as any teacher will tell you, dealing with children means dealing with parents, and Anna is soon drawn into the disintegrating relationship between Katherine and Dave, the parents of her favorite student, Leo. Leo is already a gifted artist, and Anna, as a painter herself, wants to nurture his talent. But evidence of abuse begins to mount, and Anna isn’t sure she can remain aloof. Tormented by her need to care but also by her fear of loss, her hunger begins to rise.
Hunger and desire in vampire fiction usually find common ground in sexuality. But in this new crop of literary vampires, there is a certain prudishness at work in equal and opposite force to Twilight: instead of abstinent horniness, there’s a weary suspicion of (heterosexual) romantic love or desire. (Again, this is not a view that individual books are espousing. I am observing a trend.) In Reluctant Immortals, heroine Lucy eventually fights off her desire for Dracula and for a mortal man, and ends the novel proud of her singledom and strengthened by her network of female friends. In Woman, Eating, protagonist Lydia has a doomed affair with an engaged man and does not end up with a romantic partner; instead, she chooses to run away with her mother. And The God of Endings?
The God of Endings is, if anything, anti-sexual. It’s not just in the 1984 “present day” sections; Anna is made a vampire as a child, much like the tragic Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1976). But in a sharp departure from Interview and its many imitators, Anna has no thwarted pubescence. There is no agonized sensuality to Anna’s coming of age, which happens in the cramped confines of steerage on a ship crossing the Atlantic. Instead of embracing, subverting, or controlling her sexuality, she jumps right from childhood to motherhood. She occupies a bunk near a mother and her two children, the elder of whom is a girl around her age named Mercy (a nod to Mercy Brown?). Over the course of the journey, Mercy goes from being her friend to her charge: when Mercy’s mother sickens and dies, Anna begins to take on the mothering duties of feeding, sheltering, and protecting Mercy and her baby brother Jonas. There is no hint of Carmilla (1872) in her affections.
This is also when we learn that being turned removed Anna’s sex characteristics. Instead of continuing the discomfiting tradition of Dracula and his children/brides, Anna’s “gift” erases any trace of her breasts and vagina. Anna is stunningly incurious about this change, as are most others. Neither her lover, Paul, nor her best friend, Anais, even remark on it, which may be exceedingly courteous, but is also fairly odd. Mostly it seems like Holland just isn’t interested in gender, which is fair enough, but that strange detail begs more questions than it answers.
If there is a response of sorts, it’s in The God of Ending’s meditation on motherhood. To be a parent, Holland implies, is absolutely not a matter of biology or “parts.” Anna cannot bear or nurse children, and this has zero bearing on her ability to nurture them; many of the parents she encounters throughout her long life have the supposedly requisite genitals, but no willingness to care.
All of this marks the beginning of Anna’s journey, her first real interactions as a vampire. They will define her over the next century and a half of life, a life she cannot end no matter how much she wishes she could. Holland’s vampires are immune to all the traditional trappings: Anna has no vulnerability to garlic, silver, or even sunlight, and she cannot be killed. Ever. But she can feel pain just as she did when she was alive, physically and emotionally, and it is this factor that haunts her through the decades. This is a haunting that soon takes on personification in Czernobog, the titular god of endings, who may or may not be dogging her existence in order to periodically take away all that she has made for herself.
Is there such a force? Or is it only human wretchedness? Holland maintains a careful and effective ambiguity that succeeds in walking its line throughout the novel. The very fact of Anna’s own existence is proof of the supernatural, but as for greater and more ineffable powers, Anna cannot quite bring herself to believe. She has faith only that all things end—except, tragically, her own life.
The God of Endings is almost unbearably elegant: I sometimes had to stop and close the book in order to savor the near-overwhelming beauty of certain lines. Holland is a masterful writer whose insights are deeply felt. Her reflections on the turning of the seasons and Anna’s moments of peace are nearly portraits themselves, and her lingering sadness for the human condition is an ever-present undertone. She mourns the parade of cruelties she watches go by, and periodically escapes to the wilderness, where the beauty and brutality are straightforward and have no moral dimension.
If anything, I was perhaps too convinced by Anna’s pessimism. After grieving so many losses alongside her, from the early loss of her father and first love to the later, more abstract losses of her home, her hope, and her innocence, I began to share her outlook. Humans have such an extensive array of cruelties available to them, and Holland is unstinting in her examination not just of violence, but of the selfishness, indifference, and willful stupidity that enable most violent ends. Anna’s poignant but largely unsuccessful attempts to save others—or even herself—from suffering still left me hoping that she would find some measure of comfort, but her transformation in the final chapters left me more apprehensive for her future pain than confident in her newfound hope.
Part of this was not so much the emotional shift, which Holland had been building quite skillfully, but my deep ambivalence about the ending. Holland spends the entire book establishing what a poor mother Katherine is, and a fairly rotten person to boot. She’s a pathological liar who manipulates everyone around her, and her self-obsession leads to her neglect, endangerment, and traumatization of Leo. Anna has watched scenes like this play out over and over again. She—and we the readers—want her to act where human powers fail.
The ending is brutal in a very unique and shockingly bloodless way. Yes, bloodless. There need not be gore for there to be brutality, and Holland has found a way to shock in a totally new manner for a vampire novel: via inaction rather than action. In an accident of timing, Anna discovers Katherine unconscious and clearly overdosing. She also finds Katherine’s suicide note, which is addressed only to Dave and makes no mention of Leo (let alone offering her only surviving son a farewell or kind word). Coldly enraged by this final proof of indifference, Anna leaves her to die. I felt Anna’s refusal to aid Katherine more searingly than the action sequences in several other horror novels combined.
Her decision is quite fitting, but also leaves a queasy moral ambiguity in its wake. Which is good—I like moral complexity. I fully admit that I would have had less trouble with the ending if Anna had killed Katherine outright, which says a lot about our culture of action-hero justice. Could Anna have snatched Leo, drained Katherine, and fled into the night? Sure, but here instead we have Anna choosing to simply allow someone to experience the consequences of their actions. I’m not talking about drug use—Holland is careful throughout not to equate addiction itself with moral failing—but about Katherine’s abdication of responsibility for her child. Just as Katherine refuses to act, so Anna refuses. And just as Katherine acts in her own self-interest, so Anna acts—in Leo’s interest, but also, ultimately, in her own.
All of this would be a far more straightforward tale of responsibility (or lack thereof) except for one thing: at no point is Leo given a choice to accept or reject vampirism. It’s true that the choice might be largely symbolic, since a six-year-old probably could not grasp the full implications of immortal existence. It’s also true that adults sometimes have to make decisions for children that the children may not like—removing them from unfit parents certainly happens in more cases than this. But Anna is tormented through the book by her own lack of choice, and says repeatedly that she would have preferred to die. She knew it as a child and confirmed it as an adult. And then she turns around and makes that choice for Leo.
This makes for a quietly subversive ending, one that has more questions than answers about the natures of parenting and existence. Is Anna’s final act of the novel one of optimism or folly, selfishness or generosity? All signs point toward hope, at least, with Anna awaiting her chance to do better by Leo than was done for her, to move ever closer to family and community and art. But vampires are defiant creatures, never content to remain in the categories for which they were intended, and in The God of Endings they still assert a subtle horror. Anna has gotten her new beginning, but to Leo, she is the avatar of endings.