Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale, by Pam Keesey, San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997. $21.95. ISBN: 1-57344-026-4. Trade paperback, 171pp. To order, call the publisher at 800-780-2279, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit your local bookstore for the actual experience of physically buying a book.
San Francisco’s Cleis Press is starting to corner the market on sheer queer fun. Other publishers take other slants: Routledge offers cool academic visions of gay and lesbian life; St. Martin’s has perfected the merchandising of queer bios and lightweight cultural critiques. But with a playlist that mines the rich realms of homo vampires, dyke werewolves, sex guides, transgender politics, and sex work, Cleis is staking its own admirably lurid claim. Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale is a worthy recent entry in the field.
“Dedicated vampirologist” Keesey is an academic (M.A. in Women’s Studies) but thankfully doesn’t write like one. She’s made Vamps an accessible multimedia study — lots of pictures, big pull quotes, and brief, scintillating sketches of some of the superstars of this dark domain. The usual suspects are here — Vampira, Theda Bara,female vampires, Dietrich — along with some less obvious but equally welcome modern vamps like Sharon Stone (with Stone’s memorable quote, “If you have a vagina and a point of view, that’s a deadly combination.”).
Keesey’s simple, direct writing style makes the historical background of vamp precursors like mother goddesses and lamia more palatable than might be believed. In explicating her subject, she draws on a refreshingly egalitarian array of sources, from Robert Graves to Fangoria magazine to (modesty should but doesn’t forbid) Bright Lights Film Journal. She compellingly traces vamp scandals, from the uproar over Philip Burne-Jones’s painting The Vampire in 1897 to the heavy censorship of Louise Brooks’s Pandora’s Box to Sharon Stone’s “shocking” portrayal of the vamp-bisexual killer in Basic Instinct. Keesey draws some startling connections between right-wing morality watchdog women’s groups of the 1920s, who condemned the “dangerous” Theda Bara, with the more recent leftist Queer Nation, which protested Stone’s “evil lesbian” in Basic Instinct. The book makes many such links, in the process creating a textured portrait of a bulletproof archetype that happily survives every attempt by reactionary forces to suppress it.