Monday, April 2, 2007

Vamp in the Middle

“I’m playing this song with a vamp in the middle…” – John Hartford

vamp - n.
1: a seductive woman who uses her sex appeal to exploit men
[syn: coquette, flirt, vamper, minx, tease, prickteaser]
2: an improvised musical accompaniment
3: short form for vampire

The first time I read Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl With the Hungry Eyes,” I was probably in my early teens, in transition from the triumvirate of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke to Leiber, Sturgeon, and Sheckley (I might have said Bester instead of Sheckley, but Bester had at least temporarily left the field for the steady paycheck offered by Holiday magazine).

“Girl” made it to television in the early 1970s, as one of “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” episodes. “Night Gallery” was an embarrassment toward the very end to Serling’s television career, the embarrassment being primarily to due the producer, Jack Laird, who also sometimes wrote and directed, or at least got credited as such. “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” was particularly mishandled, beginning with the casting of Joanna Pettet as “The Girl.” Pettet is conventionally good looking, and appeared in several other Night Gallery episodes, both of which reducing her impact as “The Girl.” "The Girl" should, at the very least, have eyes that dominate her face. Amy suggests Christina Ricci, and I think Ricci would nail it (not that Ricci was even alive in 1972, but you get the idea).

A bit of searching also tells me that there are two films with the same title, one an exploitation film (about lesbians) made by William Rotsler in 1967; Rotsler was a friend of Lieber’s and probably got permission to use the title for a film not based on Leiber’s short story. The other is an actual vampire film made in 1993 by someone named Jon Jacobs, and by all reports is just god-awful.

I re-read “Girl” after seeing the Night Gallery episode, just to make sure I remembered it correctly, i.e. as being good. It was. I then re-read it maybe a decade later, and remember a faint sense of disappointment. The vernacular used to tell the story seemed stilted, and I was bothered by just how many times and how many ways Leiber telegraphed the ending.

Then I re-read it last night for this essay, and lo and behold, it’s even better than I thought when I first read it. The vernacular style is irrelevant (and my older and wiser self realizes that for me to critique a vernacular from several years before I was born is just me being an ass). And the multiple attempts by the narrator/author to prepare the listener/reader for the ending feels like a man trying to work up the nerve to divulge something so horrific that he hardly dares remember it. And no matter how many times I’ve read it, the ending still punches through my defenses:

“I want you…I want everything that’s made you happy and everything that’s hurt you bad. I want your first girl…I want that pinhole camera… I want your mother’s death… I want Mildred’s mouth. I want the first picture you sold…I want the gin. I want Gwen’s hands. I want you wanting me. I want your life. Feed me, baby, feed me.”
--Fritz Leiber, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes

I’ve made no secret of my nigh-unto-worship of Fritz Leiber as a writer, and I’m hardly alone. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have both said as much. And I’ve written a long essay on Leiber, "Sleeping in Fritz Leiber's Bed," New York Review of Science Fiction, May, 2004.

In that essay, I also talk about a kind of fantasy story that is about fantasy, rather than having actualized fantasy elements. Lieber’s “The Secret Songs” and “The Winter Flies” (aka “The Inner Circles”) are examples, as is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and "That's What Happened to Me" by Micheal Fessier (which is also an “unreliable narrator” story).

Although “Vamp in the Middle” was always the title, my Hollywood Pitch title was “The Fabulous Baker Boys meet The Girl with the Hungry Eyes.” Of course there are three young musicians in Vamp, and only two Baker Boys, but the image of a musical group auditioning for a “chick singer” who could show some cleavage and help them get gigs was one of the images that fused together in the story. Another was one of someone staring into the depths of a mirror, trying to see her own reflection, but never being able to convince herself that she was real when she was alone.

There are, after all, reasons for all those hoary vampire tropes. Some people do need other people around to reassure themselves of their own reality, and those people are very attracted to show business and the possibilities of gorging themselves on fame.

The hardest thing about “Vamp” was the ending, of course. I knew I’d never be able to match the impact of “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” and besides, I was tapping into a different Leiberian ore body anyway. The narrator is yet another lost soul who has somehow escaped what should have been his doom, but he’s not sure what it was he escaped, and what sort of life he then committed himself to. Ultimately, he’s not even sure he didn’t imagine it as some sort of dark tale constructed out of a much more mundane and sordid reality.

My thanks to William Sanders who recognized the ambiguity, and to Lawrence Watt-Evans, for convincing Mr. Sanders that the right sort of ambiguity still qualifies as speculative fiction.

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