Manuscript vs Myth: Carpe Jugulum
From Dracula to Twilight, vampires have enjoyed a comfortable popularity in fiction for over a hundred years. Along with werewolves and zombies, they make up some of the core creatures of classic horror. Whether they are dressed in evening gown and cower from sunlight, or live in America and glitter like a disco ball, the vampire is a familiar figure in fiction.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Terry Pratchett should make them the key focus of his 23rd Discworld novel, Carpe Jugulum. A satirical author and prolific writer, Pratchett has a reputation for taking key staples of fantasy novels such as elves, dwarves, witches and even trolls, and reimagining them in comedic, nuanced, and emotionally developed ways. Carpe Jugulum is no exception, and the vampiric Magpyr family take centre stage as the quirky and sinister antagonists, determined to drag their clan, somewhat reluctantly, into the Century of the Fruitbat.
Carpe Jugulum sees the return of one of Terry Pratchett’s most popular characters, Granny Weatherwax, and her coven of unconventional witches: innuendo-enthusiast Nanny Ogg, soppy romantic Magrat Garlick, and relative new-comer, Agnes Nitt (plus one). Together they must face off against the sinister Magpyr family – the Count, the Countess and their two children, Vlad and Lacrimosa – who have begun an insidious take-over of the country of Lancre, invited in by the king himself.
In the first few pages of the novel, Pratchett states that “there are as many kinds of vampires as there are types of diseases”. In myth, folklore, and pop culture this is certainly true and contributes to the creature’s enduring popularity in fiction. The mythos of the vampire is so broad, that the author can pick and choose any traits that they wish, and still create something that is recognisable as a vampire (so long as it drinks blood). Some of the most common powers are immortality, mind-control, shapeshifting, and the ability to communicate with animals, but there are, of course many other vampiric traits to choose from.
Though hundreds of legends from around the world are unified under the name ‘vampire,’ in truth these legends describe very different creatures – in early Europe the vampire is imagined as a reanimated cadaver, bloated and purple as a corpse. In ancient Greece, they had the lamia, supernaturally beautiful women sometimes described with the lower body of a serpent. Chinese legends describe the Jiangshi, a corpse trapped by rigor mortis and unable to bend its limbs – forced to hop towards its victims. Meanwhile, an equivalent creature from Ghanaian folklore, the Adze, is said to take the form of a firefly, and sneak into people’s houses while they slept. The main similarity (and of course the most well-known one) of these creatures is their bloodlust. In truth, an author can get away with imagining whatever being they like and calling them a vampire as long as that creature craves and survives on blood.
The vampires of Pratchett’s Discworld are no exception, although in the modern day many of them have taken up the black ribbon and abstained from drinking blood in favour of picking up new interests, like photography or coffee. The vampires of Carpe Jugulum have taken no such oath. Unlike the teetotalling black-ribboners that have cameoed in previous Discworld novels, the Magpyr family are sinister, sophisticated, and out for blood. Led by the patriarch of their clan, Count Magpyr, the family are eager to move away from the silly superstitions that have long held their kind back. Starting with their many, many weaknesses.
It is certainly true that for as many powers that the vampires are said to have, they lay claim to an equal number of weaknesses. According to legend, vampires can be killed with a wooden stake, burst into fire when they see the sun, have a deathly allergy to garlic, melt when exposed to holy water, and scream in the face of holy symbols. They are also unable to show up in mirrors, cross running water, or pass by a scatter of spilled poppy seeds without feeling the compulsive urge to count them. In some places it is even said that putting a lemon in a vampire’s mouth and cutting their head off will deal with the problem (although it’s inconclusive how much the lemon has to do with this).
Pratchett takes advantage of this ridiculous list of weaknesses to great comedic effect within Carpe Jugulum. Count Magpyr is fully exhausted with these outdated superstitions and is determined that his family will not fall to something as silly as mere cultural conditioning. With that in mind, he has used a combination forward thinking and repeat exposure to give his family immunity. This of course, poses a problem to the Lancre coven, who find their usual methods of dealing with a vampire infestation completely ineffective. It also serves as a reoccurring joke in the novel – with the Magpyrs struggling to go against their nature, and the witches being very put out when their garlic canapés fail to have the desired result.
Being a Pratchett novel, aspects of the vampire mythology are not just used for comedy. Pratchett novels tend to have an underlying theme, such as moral or social commentary, gender politics, racism, or classism. In Carpe Jugulum, the main theme is the dichotomy of good and evil, and slippery slope of moral greyness, to moral bankruptcy. One of the ways that this is explored is through the popular maxim that vampires cannot enter a dwelling unless they have been invited.
While this typically is used to mean that a vampire cannot enter a human house unless they have been invited, Pratchett chooses to interpret this in a more symbolic way. The characters of the novel do not just let the vampires into their homes, but into their minds. They willingly accept a being that they know is evil, and preys on humans, because it has made itself seem harmless. Or, to quote Granny Weatherwax, “Don’t trust the cannibal just ’cos he’s usin’ a knife and fork! And remember vampires don’t go where they’re not invited”. Rather than allowing the mob to walk off into the sunset having slain the beast, Pratchett holds them accountable for allowing things to progress so far. If they had not invited the vampires in, they never would have grown so strong.
Pratchett is a master of taking tropes from fiction, folklore and mythology and giving them a greater depth. He takes throwaway aspects of a myth and chooses to genuinely look at the impacts that this might have. If vampires have so many weaknesses, surely there must exist a vampire that tries to overcome them? If a vampire must be invited in, what does that say about the person inviting them? As per usual, Pratchett takes a figure from folklore and makes it entirely his own, while still remaining true to the most recognisable aspects of the myth, creating dynamic, three-dimensional and yes, funny, characters that the audience will adore.