Malinda Lo's story "The Cure" may be short and relatively simple but it's a smart story that knows exactly what it's about. It merges horror, female-focused history and sexual subtext to create a vampire story that sticks in the mind.
I can't help considering "The Cure" in the context of Sos Eltis' essay Corruption of the Blood and Degeneration of the Race: Dracula and Policing the Borders of Gender - #vampirenerd. According to Eltis' Dracula and the female vampires in his castle are subtextually tied to forbidden, or taboo, sexuality and, by association, forbidden social desires:
'The vampire women, infected by Dracula's corrupting kiss, are monstrous embodiments of Nordau's nymphomaniacal New Woman… Vampirism infects women with masculine sexual aggression and perverts their maternal instinct into an appetite for infant blood...'
Dracula bites both Mina and Lucy, penetrating their skin. You don't have to be a Nobel Prize winner to guess what teeth "penetrating" a virgin's neck symbolises to a writer like Stoker, who lived in the middle of a Victorian culture obsessed with whether young girls had done it. In Dracula, receiving a vampire's attentions (and subtextually having and enjoying sex outside traditional hetrosexual wedlock) ends with your boyfriend cutting your head off. RIP Lucy Westenra - we barely knew ye.
In contrast, contemporary vampire romance stories have managed to recast vampire bites as a subtextually freeing action - heroines choosing to get bit, and enjoy their sexuality. In effect, while critics bemoan vampire romances, the great wave of stories about vampire lovers can be seen as a kind of pushback against Stoker's classic subtextual punishment of women. While these stories can have their own problems ladies do at least get to keep their heads.
"The Cure" makes use of this vampiric literary context to create a story which both subtextually and textually deals with the ideas of female restriction and freedom. Lo's unnamed female protagonist has suffered a fit. She knows it is as a result of her anxiety about the man her parents have decided she will marry 'that horrible, stinking man who brought a fortune into Father’s hands, who I was supposed to submit to—it was enough to drive any woman to despair.' Her doctor however diagnoses 'Hysteria' brought on by too much education for her dainty female brain to handle. She is consigned to the "rest cure"; a historical regime employed against women who suffered hysteria.
Hysteria is a particularly pernicious medical diagnosis which I encourage you to look up when you need some Hulk-style rage energy to get you through the day. A diagnosis of hysteria was based on sexist prejudice. The logic used to identify the condition was circular and difficult for the patient to disprove. And the cure itself - a regime of isolation, sitting still and drinking endless milk - was a recipe for creating poor mental health. "The Cure" perfectly captures the way this rest cure strips the protagonist of all control as she is forced to eat, wear and do what her nurse and doctor order at all times. She is entirely disempowered:
The nurse helped me out of bed, dressed me in a gray flannel robe, and slid thin slippers on my feet. Come with me, she said, and I walked on quivering legs out of my room and down a long empty hallway, the smell of salt in the air, until I came to a tiled room outfitted with a wooden bathing chair. I was made to sit in the chair, and another nurse came to assist the first one. They stripped me of my robe and nightgown and slippers, and before I understood what was happening they had turned the hose on me.
Of course, the reader desperately wishes for the story to free the heroine from this place; to create a way for her to escape or be rescued. The ubiquitous knight in shining armour may not be the reader's first choice but even that jackass looks pretty good when a lady is being blasted with a hose. The story's heroine even hints at the reader's desire with her cynical, sardonic comment 'Well, I had escaped my marriage, after all.' Could her marriage have been so very bad, the reader may briefly wonder, in comparison with this treatment?
Having read many stories about historical women in unhappy traditional marriages I can honestly say it could have been worse. Husbands could accusing their wives of madness, steal their money or just making them sit around being bored. The drawing room may have been more civilised than the sanitorium but each had the potential to be as stifling as the other. It is difficult to wish the heroine out of the sanitorium and into a marriage bed. And thankfully, Lo's story has no intention of doing so. Instead, her chance at freedom comes in an entirely different package - a lesbian vampire. There's story subversion and then there's epic Malinda Lo style story subversion.
This vampire offers the heroine freedom from the sanitorium by making her a vampire too. However, it's not just her vampiric nature that makes the 'red-headed woman' the heroine's liberator; it's important that she's a female vampire. By granting the heroine her freedom at female hands "The Cure" speaks to the gender politics of the story's culture and pushes back against the doctor's sexism, which is expressed in the opening section of the story and his continued treatment of his patient. The decision to have a female vampire free the unnamed heroine also speaks to the fact that women are stronger together. Up until she meets the vampire, the heroine has been separated from the other female inmates:
'Sometimes I glimpsed another woman walking her own lonely path on a different part of the hill, and sometimes we would look at one another across the distance, but we were so far apart I could never make out her expression. And often I looked at the windows of the sanatorium, seeking out the other inmates’ silent faces.''
It is only when she spends time with another woman that the heroine is able to realise her true power and escape the sanitorium. A woman rescues a woman by helping her rescue herself - take that sexist doctor. It's become more common for women to save each other in fantasy narratives (Maleficent, Frozen, The Sleeper and the Spindle), but there's still a lack of lesbian rescues in these mainstream fantasy stories. By having the heroine freed by a female vampire, "The Cure" specifically sets same-sex female sexual relationships up as a site of freedom. Taking you back to
“Hush,” she said, and her cold hand moved up my arm and cupped the back of my head, her fingers stroking my hair, which had been plaited into two thick braids as if I were a child still. She gently pulled my head back, making my throat arch. My body went slack beneath her touch, as if she had turned me into clay to be shaped by her own hands. She lowered her mouth to my throat.
Her lips were wet against my skin, sending a trail of shocks through my body as if she had jolted me awake at last.
She came to me like this night after night, and every day I lived only for her return.
If modern vampire romance can be seen as a reaction to the fear of societally unacceptable sexuality, a way of allowing heroines the freedom to explore their sexuality, then Lo's take on the vampire story reads as a challenge to history's prejudice against same-sex relationships. "The Cure" allows its heroine the freedom to chose to explore sexuality forbidden by her society. The scene of her transformation is incredibly sensual and again, sexual, if we accept that vampire teeth penetrating skin historically = sex imagery:
But I could smell her. I could smell the essence of myself in her, and it gave me a jolt of energy. I bared my teeth. They were not as sharp as hers. I bit down, her skin pliable and soft, and she gave a low, guttural cry as I clumsily tasted her flesh. She was salty and hot, the meat of her like butter on my tongue, the blood of her a thick warm syrup. I licked her up, each drop humming electric through me, waking me up until I was leaning over her, her arms flung out above her head, my mouth pressed to the wound on her throat, and she was laughing, the sound of her voice as rich as cream.
Traditionally, the use of teeth as a symbol for sexual penetration represents cisgender hetrosexual penetration. Taking this imagery and using it in a story about lesbian characters recasts that imagery, showing how new versions of vampire stories can be created. The whole story is full of sexual longing, imagery and touch from the moment the female vampire appears, and it's clear that the two women are romantically linked. The fact that the heroine's choice to embrace the vampire sets her free from the sanitorium pushes back against the way the heroine's parents try to force her into marriage. Freedom from control comes not from a heteronormative marriage but from a same-sex relationship.
That word 'choice' is crucial in understanding the full freedom the vampire offers in this story. Linked to the exploration of female sexuality is the power to make choices, and so "The Cure" makes a same-sex sexual partnership a space of freedom and of choice. In fact, part of the vampire's bargain involves the heroine actively choosing to become a vampire. The red headed vampire asks her ' "Are you sure?" ', which is a far more obvious choice than any offered to Lucy Westenra. This choice stands in direct contrast to the lack of choice the heroine has in the sanitorium, and the lack of input she had in coming to the sanitorium in the first places. Which brings the reader full circle back to the gender politics of the heroine's society.
Of course, reading this story has me desperate for Malinda Lo's version of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" 'where twelve girls who live together in one dorm go out every night through a secret passageway to dance at an exclusive city nightclub.' The catch is it's in a multi-author anthology and I've been burned before by paying for mixed collections. Has anyone read "The Twelfth Girl" and is the anthology worth a look?
"The Cure" is available to read for free at Interfictions Online.
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