I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Speculate! episodes, and in one older episode the hosts were discussing The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. It wasn’t until recently that I got to read it for myself and experience Black’s fascinating take on vampires. When I first started the novel, I thought that maybe it was a dig at Twilight and its sparkly, essentially non-threatening vampires, but as I read on, it didn’t seem to be specifically targeting Twilight—which is nice, because despite Twilight’s many faults, I think there’s enough room in the world for both Twilight’s sparkly vampires and the more traditional Dracula-esque vampires. What Coldtown‘s vampires seem to be critiquing is the idea of romanticizing danger. As Holly Black said in an interview with Parade:
For me, I think one of the key things I wanted to explore in the book is the idea of our love of danger—and what we do in the face of it on such a staggering scale. That’s where the reality TV aspect of it came. We like watching people get hurt—on TV, on YouTube. There’s that vicarious thrill. I wanted to take that to an extreme and see what happened. What would it really be like if we had a world with vampires in it, given our iPhone, camera-obsessed culture? We like the idea that we could get close to danger and survive. And also the idea that someone else could get close to danger and not survive.
The book does have some potentially meatier themes about being a human vs. being a monster, but unfortunately, much of it wasn’t followed through in a way I found satisfying. What I did find satisfying was the ways in which Black uses her vampires to examine the horrifying consequences of the media sensationalism that we have to deal with in the real world.
Spoilers for almost the whole story below the jump.
In Black’s Coldtown, vampires are undeniably dangerous. They have some traditional weaknesses like sunlight and holy water, but they live eternally, are indescribably beautiful, and have super strength, which to some people seems to make up for the fact that they also kill and torture humans for both fun and food. Like in many of the traditional stories, they can turn humans into vampires by drinking a little of the human’s blood. If they drink from their victim and don’t kill them, the victim turns Cold: they start thirsting for human blood and once they’ve drunk human blood, they complete their transformation into a vampire. However, if they manage to resist drinking blood for eighty-eight days, they can fight off the infection and return to their normal human lives. After a vampire epidemic in which one rogue vampire turned many people Cold at once (and those Cold people then went and turned others), the U.S. government created Coldtowns—places in which vampires and Cold people had to live in order to keep the vampire infection from spreading. These Coldtowns are not supposed to be attractive places in which to stay, but the news media is constantly broadcasting reality TV shows about vampires, footage of wild vampire parties, vampire hunter shows, and the like, luring vampire fans to the gates of Coldtown to be turned.
After the infections started burgeoning and the first walls around the infected areas were built—the crude ones that kept only some things inside—news cameras couldn’t get enough coverage. Reporters were always climbing around the rubble, filming, putting their lives in danger.
And it wasn’t just television and newspapers. Flickr, Tumblr, and Instagram were full of pictures of teeth and blood. In the beginning, an amateur videographer uploaded footage of long-limbed vampire girls feeding on a shock-faced middle-aged man. It got hundreds of thousands of hits in a matter of hours. Gossip columns ran long pieces on vampires who acquired an almost celebrity status, their string of kills only seeming to increase interest […]
[Vampires were] the beautiful dead, la belle mort. And if, after gorging themselves in an orgy of death, they became less lovely, if they became bloated and purple and horrible, then they hid it well.
Our protagonist, Tana, isn’t as swayed by the general romanticizing of vampires because she knows full well that vampires and Cold people are dangerous. When she was young, her mother turned Cold, and Tana’s father locked her in their basement in hopes that she could ride out the infection there instead of turning her in to the Coldtown like he was supposed to. As the days went on and Tana’s mother began wailing to be let out, crying for blood, the young Tana decided to unlock the door because she thought it would help her mother. Instead, Tana’s mother attacked Tana, and Tana’s father had to kill his wife to save his daughter. Now at seventeen, Tana isn’t drawn in by vampires like many of her friends are—she knows that turning into vampires isn’t fun and games and vampires aren’t nice or sweet or seductive when they really need blood.
When the story begins, Tana wakes up in the aftermath of a party which has been attacked by vampires. The only people left alive are Aiden, her ex-boyfriend who’s been bitten and is turning Cold, and Gavriel, a vampire who’s been chained up in the house for reasons unknown at the time. A group of vampires is waiting in the basement for sundown so that they can finish killing everyone, so Tana and Aiden wrap Gavriel up in blankets and manage a daring escape. Afterwards, they don’t see any choice but to go to the nearest Coldtown—Aiden’s started to hunger for human blood, and Tana suffered a scrape from one of the vampires in the house and is afraid she will soon turn Cold as well.
Once they’re in Coldtown, Tana starts noting the many ways in which the real Coldtown is different from the one on TV and the internet. It’s not an Eternal Ball, as the media calls the vampire parties—rather, the Coldtown is basically a slum, with a mansion where the rich vampires are living. When Tana sneaks into a vampire party later on, she sees that blood isn’t always offered as clinically as it is on TV, with willing humans who have hospital tubing attached to their veins so they can offer blood without being bitten. Vampires have chained and imprisoned Cold people to drink their still-human blood and have captured other humans to serve as an unwilling food source. She learns that vampires do get bloated and ugly with blood and can kill indiscriminately and without reason. The things that she and her friends and family see on the TV and the internet clearly romanticize the dangerous, evil parts of vampires by sanitizing what’s real.
The cautionary message of this story is well-exemplified by Midnight and Winter, two vampire groupies whom Aiden, Tana, and Gavriel meet on the way to Coldtown. Midnight and Winter are twins who desperately want to be turned into vampires, and so have dyed their hair blue, dressed up like they’re from Goth Central, and started calling themselves Midnight and Winter in lieu of their actual names, Jennifer and Jack. They want to catch a ride into Coldtown with our main group, but Aiden, at this point desperate for blood, attacks Midnight and almost drinks her blood before Tana and Gavriel stop him. Midnight isn’t bothered by this at all and even films herself to put her experiences on her blog to show her viewers what it’s “really” like:
Listening to her, Tana had to admire the way Midnight was able to turn what happened into a madcap story, into part of the Legend of Midnight. Even the not-so-good stuff was spun on its head to be enviable. Tana could imagine herself watching the video and wishing she were as brave and lucky as the girl in it. But standing in front of Midnight, knowing what actually happened, Tana could see that Midnight wasn’t just telling a story to other people, she was telling a story to herself. She was smoothing over all the frightening parts until she wasn’t scared. But she should be, Tana thought. She should be scared.
Midnight has romanticized the idea of being a vampire to such a degree that she can’t even react rationally when she’s been viciously attacked and is losing blood. She’s spent so much time on online vampire forums and blogs that she’s become desensitized to blood and violence. Once all of them enter Coldtown, she and her brother immediately start trying to get turned by locking Aiden in a room with Tana, assuming that Aiden will drink Tana’s blood, complete his transformation into a vampire, and then be ready to turn the rest of them. Instead, Tana escapes, and when Midnight and a friend go to let Aiden out of the room, Aiden kills the friend and infects Midnight. Midnight, in turn, drinks human blood, becomes a vampire, and, unable to control herself, kills Winter by draining too much blood when she tries to turn him.
Black’s worldbuilding is done so well that we, the audience, fully understand that the vampires are dangerous and that they shouldn’t be aspirational. We’re horrified when Pearl, Tana’s twelve-year-old sister, sneaks into Coldtown to try and see her sister again, and we’re thrilled when she leaves safely. Yet the worldbuilding also gets at the heart of human nature, because I can fully believe that were vampires to actually exist, this is how the world would actually react. There’s always been a certain part of humans that’s attracted to danger and there have always been traditional and new media alike willing to extort that desire for ratings and views, despite the fact that these biased broadcasts are literally leading misguided humans to their deaths.
At the end of the story, Tana’s been turned Cold by another vampire, and she decides to hole up in one of the abandoned Coldtown homes in hopes of being one of the few people to ride out the infection. She even takes Midnight’s camera so that she can film herself going through the process in hopes that it will encourage others to stay away:
“For everyone else, I thought I would show you something other than the glamour. This is what it’s like to sweat out an infection. I’ve got a bunch of water and some cans of creamed corn and I’m going to scream and beg and puke my guts up.”
However, as hopeful as this ending may be, one cannot draw the conclusion that Tana’s brave efforts will solve everything. Earlier in the story, Winter tells Tana that he and his sister watched a vampire turn a human and broadcast the detoxification process, and it didn’t deter them from their Coldtown plans in the slightest:
“And the part that was really fascinating was that sometimes she would sit in front of the camera and talk about what it was like being a vampire. She told us about the people she killed, what blood tasted like, how her vision was different, how she was different. She wanted to warn everyone, she said, that being turned wasn’t how the Eternal Ball or the Coldtown feeds made it look. It wasn’t glamorous or special or anything.”
Tana watched his face as he spoke. “And you still want to be a vampire? I mean, that’s why you’re both going inside?”
“Yeah,” Winter’s voice was firm, but there was something in his eyes–fear and a kind of awful, drowning look, like a man who is slipping deeper and deeper into quicksand and knows that struggling will just make things worse. “Messed up, right? But somehow Matilda made it seem real–like since it wasn’t glamorous and special, then maybe I could have it. But I know it’s what every wannabe coming here wants. Most of them are going to die without getting it. Get used for blood or get turned and find out that they’re not any better at their new life than they were at their old one. […] You think we’re going to wind up like them, but we’re not.”
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown sets up a world where the dangerous stuff vampires do isn’t funny and isn’t just “for the Vine”. Vampires are a real and present danger, far more dangerous than humans in the real world are, yet people still romanticize them and dream of turning into them. This desire is helped along by a voracious media that can’t get enough of interviews, illicit broadcasts of vampire meetings and parties, and constant replays of vampire attacks and vampire battles, much like the real-life reporting on real tragedies. This is the part of the Coldtown story that’s particularly thought-provoking, and it’s a problem that Black encourages people to think about by setting the story in the real world and relating Coldtown media coverage to our own media coverage of tragedies. If people can understand how showing romanticized, sanitized vampires is wrong, hopefully they can also understand the other, more real faults of our current media sensationalism.