Vampire stories never seem to be out of fashion. Still, a good vampire story— such as Joseph Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian—is not always easy to find. And a vampire story that manages to connect to social and/or political concerns, the way Bram Stoker’s Dracula did, is even rarer.
Dan Simmons’ Children of the Night does a good job of fitting the bill, though. Originally published in 1992, the story opens in Romania where American Dr. Kate Neuman is part of an aid mission. Appalled by the living conditions she finds there, she adopts a baby boy with a strange blood disorder and returns to her life at the Centers for Disease Control in Colorado—not realizing that her young son Joshua is connected to the family of Vlad Tşepeş, the original Dracula, and that the family wants him back.
The key to the story is the blood disorder—named J-virus by Kate—that Joshua and others in the Tşepeş clan suffer from. As expected in a vampire tale, blood occupies an important place, but Simmons adds an interesting twist. Kate relates to a colleague: “Blood has—until recent decades—been the source of superstition and awe… Now, with AIDS, it’s regaining that terror and mystery… We don’t know how it began… But once it worked, the J-virus sufferers had no choice… find human blood or perish.”
Simmons’ vampires then are “Not fanged creatures of the night… but members of a family who did have to ingest human blood in order to survive their own faulty immune systems”.
While most of the story takes place in the modern day and is narrated in the third person, a few sections, aptly titled “Dreams of Blood and Iron”, not only tell Vlad Tşepeş’ story but tell it from the beginning and in his own voice: “I watched from these windows… these small windows which shed such thin light upon me now… I watched from these windows as a child of three or four as they led the thieves… from the cramped jail in Councilmen’s Square across the street to their place of execution…” These sections include not only the usual historical details of Tşepeş’ life (murdering, torturing, impaling) but also Simmons’ imaginings, as well. After all, Simmons’ Tşepeş is alive, if not entirely well, in the 20th century.
Vlad Tşepeş’ musings are beyond disturbing—nailing skullcaps to skulls, impaling priests and donkeys, driving spikes down people’s throats. But are these depictions the most horrifying part of the story? That’s another question.
In the introduction, Simmons admits traditional vampires held little appeal for him, particularly after completing his novel, Carrion Comfort. However, he was interested in orphaned children in Romania:
“In 1990 I became concerned about the plight of… orphans discovered in Romania after the December 1989 ‘revolution’… birth control regimens, taxing any family with extra children, had led to more than 600,000 children simply being dumped into giant warehouses posing as orphanages: imagine 500 steel cribs in a single, huge, cold crowded space… While the children were almost never taken out of their cribs and cages, were never held or touched or shown any love, nurses would pass among them injecting them with adult blood to give them strength… the nurses in Romanian death-warehouses were injecting infants and children with Hepatitis B and AIDS.”
Simmons wrote “a long story about it… but soon realized that [he] had to turn it into a novel—one combining the horror of Romania’s orphans and ‘orphanages’ with the legend of Vlad Tşepeş.”
So the book begins with these orphanages: “The AIDs ward was behind four sets of locked doors. There were no nurses there, no doctors… no adults of any kind. Neither were there cribs; the infants and small children sat on the tile floor or competed to find space on one of half dozen bare and excrement stained mattresses thrown against the far wall. They were naked and their heads had been shaved.” A character in the book later notes that “AIDS is a capitalist disease” and “Romania has no official cases of AIDS.”
Of course, as previously mentioned, this book was originally published in 1992, and recent articles on Romanian orphanages report improvements. Still, as many of the children await adoption and may be waiting for some time, it’s a good time to look back, remember, and make certain the world’s children are receiving better care.
Dracula is considered a great book in part because it explores many themes: sexuality and gender roles, Victorian culture, British imperialism. Children of the Night explores different themes—blood disorders, Romanian history, adoption—but arguably just as many. It isn’t a perfect book. I would have been just as happy without the romantic element, and while the scientific angle is fascinating, every now and again the pages seem a little heavy with medical jargon. But Simmons’ personal travels through Romania provide a depth and richness to the story, and the book’s themes and messages are (unfortunately) still relevant today.