Amy Jenkins: Powerless in the grip of vampires

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The Independent Online

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The undead have risen in unprecedented numbers and are walking among us again. They cluster sinisterly in our bookshops and our cinemas; they lurk terrifyingly behind our television and computer screens. In fact, they are nigh on ubiquitous. Two hundred years after they first became popular, vampires are back with a vengeance.

Next week an adult horror called Thirst (below) hits our movie screens. Next week's offering is called The Vampire's Assistant. In the US, The Vampire Diaries is big on TV, and we've just started watching HBO's hit series with fangs – True Blood – over here. And that's to say nothing of the phenomenal success of Stephenie Meyer's teen vampire novels in the Twilight series, the hit movie that followed, and the surely inevitable sequels. And if that's not enough, this week sees publication of Kevin Jackson's Bite: A Vampire Handbook, billed as "a thorough companion of all things blood sucking".

Vampires make wonderful characters, of course – beautiful, menacing and murderous as they are. But they also make wonderful metaphors. They talk to us of sex and death and fear – and, most importantly in these ungodly times, of the unknowable. A vampire's cloak is perfect for wrapping itself around all sorts of differing anxieties and preoccupations.

The teen vampire – now so popular in bookshops that they have their own shelf called "supernatural romance" – is clearly about sex. In Twilight, for example, the heroine can't have sex with her gloriously attractive and vampiric boyfriend because if she does it will lead to a kind of death. In the heat of passion, he won't be able to resist drinking her blood and she will become a vampire herself. The story is essentially a very effective allegory that tells us that the consummation of passion is the end of passion. It tells us that sexual consummation leads to more earthly and mundane things such as intimacy, marriage, children – and, although these things are rewarding in themselves, there are all sorts of little deaths involved – not the leastof which is the inevitable death of romance.

But I think Twilight is also telling us something more serious. For many young women the consummation of passion can lead to some really quite dire things. It can lead to unwanted pregnancy, financial dependence, loss of sexual potency – not to put too fine a point on it, it can lead to ghastly things like being made redundant while you're on maternity leave. And this is still true even in the age of the condom.

Even if you don't get pregnant, sex is still dangerous for women. Especially virginal young women. Sex has a strong hold on the young and can lead to obsession, heartbreak and – essentially – a kind of loss of self. This is how the strutting, spunky teenage girl who has the world at her feet becomes the needy thirtysomething romantaholic or the put-upon mother of six.

And then a vampire makes a marvellous bad-boy masculine archetype. The Rochester/Heathcliff fantasy – to flirt with him is to play with fire – yet women through the ages have been drawn in like moths to the flame, pursuing their unavailable fathers, some would say, or perhaps their own elusive inner masculine, the natural ambition that dare not be expressed in a patriarchal society.

And then vampires also work well for expressing racial anxieties. HBO's True Blood is set in the American Deep South and articulates the continuing challenges of diversity and mixed-race relationships. Vampires are ungovernable, unknowable, predatory and exotic. Even as our culture gets more diverse and even though America has its first black president, the age-old fear is still with us: foreigners are going to come and steal our women.

There's also something resonant and timely about this idea of the blood being sucked out of us. These supernatural beings walking in our midst: are they perhaps a little like bankers and celebrities and the super-rich? They're draining our resources, aren't they? Sucking us dry? And yet we love them; we're seduced by them and we're drawn to them. We flirt with them and become their willing victims.

However destructive they are, we continue to enjoy the fantasy that one day we too might be chosen. The fangs will be sunk into our necks and we'll pay a bloody price – but then we too could have their powers. We too could be superhuman.

So I don't think this vampire thing is just a craze. Vampires are around for a reason. And is it surprising when the new century began so apocalyptically? The chief legacy of 9/11 was "terror" and the resultant "war" on it. Vampire stories say a lot about that terror and the fearful state we're in. But vampires throw a surprisingly sophisticated light on the matter because they also stand for that part of ourselves that can never be tamed.

We look around us and we see all the wonderful things that have been achieved, but also that we're greedy and murderous still. There's undeniably evil "out there", but we're all human and what does that say about the deeply ungovernable parts of ourselves? After 9/11 we identified a new enemy without but the vampire cult isn't just about the enemy without – it's also about the enemy within.

Back from the near-dead

It's not only vampires making a comeback. This week two of our favourite pop stars of old are attempting to rise from the grave (or, rather, from drug-induced near-death experiences). Last week it was Robbie Williams giving us a twirl and his new single on The X Factor, and tonight Whitney Houston will do the same. Both Robbie and Whitney have been having time out – a few years doing that "my own personal hell" thing – that thing that rich, beautiful, talented, have-it-all celebs do. And, of course, they've both been to rehab and "told all" to the press, and they're both back racing for the Christmas No 1.

I saw Robbie perform once – in his heyday – and I could completely understand why he found drugs so alluring. He clearly felt so powerful and omnipotent on stage that the only possible place to go afterwards (without drink or drugs) must have been down. He strikes me as the kind of person who feels truly happy only when he's performing. How hard, then, to go back to your hotel room after a gig and drink mineral water?

It's a kind of a curse, really. Both Whitney and Robbie were once at the top of their game – and that's the terrible thing about being at the top; there's nowhere to go but down. Some stars manage to descend gracefully, to glide imperceptibly with a silken parachute. Others go for the crash landing, and at least then there's a good story. There's something to "fight back" from. In fact, the publicity machine almost demands it. What's an easier sell – the "comeback", with all the inherent drama of the prodigal's return? Or "just another album" from this boringly successful person?

Goodbye post, hello books

Postal workers are going on strike and in so doing may bring about the demise of the Royal Mail. I hate the thought of it going. I was furious when my local Post Office closed. And yet... surely it's obvious that we are post-post. Mail that isn't email has had its day.

I can't be the only one who's sick of that papery pile of junk that comes through the door at lunchtime every day. It's brochures and bills and nothing much more. I hate the thought of all the trees being wasted for it. About once a year I get a postcard. That's quite nice, I suppose. I usually try to make out who sent it – then put it straight in the bin. These days I simply don't have time for such arcane tasks as trying to decipher handwriting.

*As e-readers launch left right and centre, the discerning book-lover is rushing to a small independent bookshop that's just opened in Notting Hill in London. The literary agents Lutyens & Rubinstein were nervous about opening during a recession. But the first week has been phenomenal. The shop is exquisitely designed and just entering it is a soulful experience. People have flocked through the door. In fact, Sarah Lutyens says, it's been like opening a soup kitchen for the very, very hungry.

It seems people feel deeply romantic about books. They not only want to handle the books themselves – weigh them, smell them – they want to have a sense of cultural exchange while they're doing it. They want to have an intimate experience, to discuss the book with the shop assistant. If the context is right, then book buying delivers retail therapy like no other. We're not just buying words and paper, after all – we're buying little pieces of humanity wrapped up in book form.