Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Fairy Tale as Laboratory: Jeff Chapman on “The Princess and the Vampire”

Tales of Woe and WonderEric Ortlund—author of Dead Petals - An Apocalypse—interviewed me a couple years ago regarding my story “The Princess and the Vampire.” The interview was originally posted on The Midnight Diner blog. The Diner is undergoing major renovation and the old posts are no longer available. I love this interview so I was bummed that it had disappeared. Enter Diner staff Michelle Pendergrass and Lincoln Crisler, who graciously helped me to locate an archive copy.

“The Princess and the Vampire” first appeared in The Midnight Diner, Volume 3. It has since been reprinted in my story collection Tales of Woe and Wonder.
The Midnight Diner, Volume 3

Ortlund's Introduction

With a title like “The Princess and the Vampire,” I expected Jeff Chapman’s tale to begin with “Once upon a time, in a faraway land . . .” The story does open with two members of a royal court sent to deliver a message to another castle, but little else in this kingdom resembles what you’d expect in a fairy tale. The most glaring example of the dissonance I experienced in visiting this kingdom is that our Princess is determined to take a vampire as her plaything or her lover-roles which, for her, amount to pretty much the same thing-and is ready to flog anyone suggesting otherwise. A spoiled princess is already enough to shatter any expectation of a “happily ever after” at the end, but the vampire is not what you’d expect, either. While Chapman’s vampires behave in pretty standard ways, our view of them is drastically changed in the story’s final paragraphs.

Part of Chapman’s accomplishment is the way he shows the surreal ability of vampires to mesmerize the humans around them, but shatters our view of the undead by the end. The story’s last scene is revelatory on several levels, and continues to reverberate after reading. I won’t be giving much away by saying that things end truly tragically for the Princess. But part of the reason I enjoyed “The Princess and the Vampire” is that Chapman deftly avoids becoming prurient. The story strikes exactly the right note as the earlier pieces of the narrative fall into place and everything changes at the same time. It is disturbing in the right kinds of ways, and in ways I didn’t expect, as well. I probed a little further in the following interview. (You can read Chapman’s tale in the third edition of The Midnight Diner.)

Ortlund: Your title seemed deliberately to evoke a fairy-tale setting and also to subvert it. Was that intentional? Did you want readers a little off balance, right from the beginning?

Chapman: Putting readers off balance is a good thing. I want them to expect the unexpected and be at least a little surprised at the ending. I imagined this story with a fairy tale setting: kings, princesses, castles, and medieval technology. The reader doesn’t question that the Princess has the power to flog anyone that gets in her way because in a fairy tale, rulers possess that kind of unchecked power. While invoking the tropes of a fairy tale, I’m aiming for a writing style and attention to physical detail and motivation that is closer to a modern short story.

Vampires are usually associated with the horror genre, so juxtaposing the fairy tale princess and horrific vampire in the title signals something strange is brewing in the story that follows. I didn’t plan it, but I think there is a gradual move from fairy tale to horror as the story moves toward its conclusion.

Ortlund: I can’t think of too many stories which have spoiled, Disney-ish princesses . . . and the undead. What influences were there for this story? Were you trying to play with the vampire mythos at all?

Chapman: I imagined and wrote this story when the craze for the Twilight series was in full swing. I like my vampires to be evil, not the moral center of the story. I prefer traditional vampire tales like Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” Vampires are following an alternative route to immortality. That path has some drawbacks for the vampire, and many mortals in the vampire’s wake pay a high price as vampires buy immortality with blood and death. It’s a wicked perversion of the Christian concept of salvation and eternal life bought through Christ’s blood and death. It’s hard for a vampire to be anything but evil. There is some wiggle room if you consider how someone becomes a vampire. Is it willing or forced? Can a vampire turn from evil and repent? There’s lots of material there for interesting stories, but I don’t think it’s possible for a vampire to remain a vampire and be “good” at the same time. It’s like an alcoholic who says he’ll just drink once in a while. A vampire who repents must seek his own death.

Ortlund: The scene where the Chief Counselor tries to de-fang the vampire seemed to me simultaneously comic and unsettling. Your theme seems to come into sharp focus here.

Chapman: “The Princess and the Vampire” asks, can you render something that is inherently evil harmless? Can you domesticate a vampire? As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, a number of popular works suggest that vampires are not inherently evil. Young girls can have them as boyfriends. I find this domestication or “de-fanging” of vampires appalling. Fairy tales provide a wonderful laboratory for taking a metaphor such as de-fanging a vampire and making it literal.

The de-fanging scene came to me first. I built the rest of the story around it, describing how we got to this point and then addressing the ramifications. Pulling out a vampire’s teeth is insane and ridiculous. I always chuckle when I think about this scene so I went with the comedy to achieve some dark comic effects. I liked the Fool’s suggestion of horse power (another literalization) and the image of the Barber bouncing across the yard. Their failure to pull out the teeth because “the roots run too deep” and their compromise to shear off the sharp points, suggests the impossibility of taming inherent evil.

The fangs are a symptom of the vampire’s “disease”, not it’s cause. The Vampire recognizes the Princess’s faulty logic and willingly gives up his teeth. The only way to get rid of the evil is to go for the heart, which the Chief Counselor attempts to skewer and the Vampire protects.

Ortlund: Ironically, even the vampire’s final victory is foiled by a bit of clumsiness on his part. Is this (in your mind) just part of the story, or are you hoping readers will notice this detail?

Chapman: I didn’t like the idea of the Vampire achieving a complete victory. Nobody likes to see evil triumph although the Princess asked for what she got. I hope readers will notice that evil is not invincible and see the parallel between the Princess and the Vampire. The Princess brought about her downfall and the Vampire injured himself. I also liked the image of the Vampire dripping the Princess’s blood across her kingdom as he made his escape, proclaiming her folly to everyone.

Ortlund: The Fool traditionally tells truths (in veiled, indirect ways) nobody else wants to hear. As the character with the last line of dialogue, did you intend him to play this role? Or is this Fool not up to the task?

Chapman: The Fool unwittingly makes the most profound statement: “Who would have thought a vampire would use a dagger?” At this point in the story, the Fool’s point is obvious. There has been a severe failure of imagination, but he sums up the thrust of the tale. When playing with evil, there are no rules or safeguards.


  1. Great interview -- I remember enjoying this tale from your collection.

    1. Thanks, Milo. This story is one of my favorites.

  2. I still remember that story. It's a good one.