Vampires are endlessly reinvented in books and films, and recently, I have really loved The Order of the Sanguines series by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell. The final book in the series, Blood Infernal, is out now.
In this interview, I interview Rebecca about the ideas behind the books, and her own fascination with vampires.
You can watch the video below or here on YouTube. Overview notes and full transcript below.
Overview show notes
Rebecca Cantrell is the New York Times bestselling author of the Order of the Sanguines series with James Rollins, as well as the Joe Tesla series and Hannah Vogel mysteries. Today we are talking about vampires!
- How Rebecca got into vampires and her fascination with the idea of living forever but having to pay a price. We discuss how humanity has always has legends of creatures who suck blood and get some power of it. The cycle of popularity for vampire stories in books and movies. Rebecca correlates it with financial insecurity, when the life blood is sucked out of the economy! Or perhaps it's just a form of escapism in difficult times.
- Talking about strigoi – a word used in the Sanguines series. Strigoi is a Romanian term for what we would call a vampire. The term is also used in The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro. Rebecca talks about bringing back the monstrous in vampires, so they are not so sparkly! When you walk in darkness, there has to be a cost and what does it do to them across time and for their ‘soul.' It was important to James Rollins and Rebecca that their vampires suffered as part of their journey.
- Using research into existing vampire legends. They are allergic to silver and holy objects and holy ground do weaken them. Drinking blood as a core theme, which the Sanguines series turns into an interesting idea – where the Sanguine priests drink the blood of Christ, wine transformed through transubstantiation. On the use of sunlight as light vs darkness. Are vampires really immortal or do they just live a really really long time? How the power of the vampire before being burned or killed affects their ability to regenerate.
- The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory and her basis in historical fact and also the political spin of the time. Did she really kill 600 girls and bathe in their blood?
- On the cost of becoming a vampire and how we can sympathize with the monster. We talk about Dracula Untold, the recent movie, where Vlad has to choose whether to save his family and his people. Another vampire who evokes emotion is Lestat, created by Anne Rice.
- Films, actors and directors associated with vampires. What's fantastic is that CGI is excellent now and we both enjoyed the swooping bats in Dracula Untold! We also discuss hot actors playing Dracula like Jonathan Rhys Meyers … 🙂 and which actor Rebecca would see as Rhun Korza. We both are obsessed with Guillermo del Toro, and Rebecca talks about how the film Chronos has haunted her for years …
Transcript of interview with Rebecca Cantrell
Penn: Hi everyone. I'm thriller author J.F Penn and today I'm here with Rebecca Cantrell. Hi, Becky.
Penn: Hello again. And so just a little introduction. Rebecca is the New Times best-selling author of “The Order of The Sanguines” series with James Rollins, as well as the “Joe Tesla” series and the “Hannah Vogel Mysteries.” And today we are talking about vampires. Shouldn't we have gone goth makeup? That would have been quite fun.
Rebecca: We should have, yeah. We should have coordinated that better.
Penn: Oh well, next time. When I see you in person, we'll get the black out. But just interestingly because you've got the “Sanguines Series” which we'll go into more but it's definitely vampiric, and you also wrote “I Dracula” as Bekka Black.
And so what is your fascination with vampires?
Rebecca: I think it goes back a long time. I wrote vampire stuff when I was a kid. I liked the vampire movies. And I think there is something about this idea that you can live forever but at the cost. And what is that cost and what does it mean? And I think Anne Rice… I read her stuff when I was a teenager, and she really addresses those issues and was the first one that I read who really profoundly addresses that. That you are a monster, it's not your fault, what do you do next? And that has always fascinated me because some people… I remember having arguments with friends, and many of them are like, “Ah, just kill bad people. Problem solved.” And I was thinking, well even if you could know they were bad people, you're still a serial killer like Dexter on a certain level. And yet I do sympathize with Dexter but he's a monster and he… being Dexter would be very, very difficult especially if you were someone who, like hopefully most people, is not a natural born killer or a killer who's made at the young age.
Penn: Yeah, I know. That's interesting. So there, it's like not a straight good/evil? It's more of that line… I guess, the gray area between good and evil, I mean. But do you think that's… well the question is really,
why are humans so fascinated with vampires? Because the legends have been going for, well, thousands years, more than that?
Rebecca: Oh, they're everywhere. In every continent, there is creatures that suck blood and get some kind of power out of it. So it's not that it's a western legend or a legend in one part of the world; they are like dragons, and they're everywhere.
Penn: And Anne Rice famously I think said that in terms of the trends for books, she's seen the vampire trend come around three times in her career. Which is interesting. Again, I mean, it's not a fad is it?
Rebecca: No, it comes and goes and it seems to come and go during times of economic trouble. So if you look at the famous movie vampire started out in the '30s when there was “Nosferatu” and the movies that came out afterward, the “Bela Lugosi” and “Frankenstein.” That kind of horror was popular in the '30s and then Anne Rice, of course, she was popular in the 80s when there was the big economic crisis. And then we've seen vampires come back as the economy has kind of gone south in the last few years. So I wonder if there is something about, I don't know, being financially insecure where you start to think that you're life essence is, in fact, being sucked out of you.
Penn: Yeah. Or maybe it's just that people want escapism when things are bad, and hopefully vampires are kind of escapism, aren't they?
Rebecca: Well, one hopes that they are not actually real.
Penn: We have the “The Strain” on TV and the book by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. And really interesting; they used the term strigoi which you used. And it's also kind of come from legend.
So I wondered if you could maybe explain a bit about the strigoi and the legends around vampires.
Rebecca: Well the strigoi is a Romanian term for what we would call a vampire. And one of the things we wanted to do was bring back this more traditional notion of vampires as monsters. Vampires who have hidden secrets and who do evil. Because if you look at like “Twilight” is a really good example and “True Blood” too, there is no cost for being a vampire. You have immortality, and you have eternal youth, and you have strength and all these other powers. And if you have a good twilight, your only downside is you sparkle. And that's it. There's no… they don't have to kill humans, they can live on animal blood, there's really no downside.
So why wouldn't he want to make her a vampire? Why wouldn't anyone want to be a vampire in that world? Because they're beautiful, they're rich, they're successful, they're immortal and they're not even evil. And so one of the things that Jim and I talked about a lot at the beginning was how to make it clear that there is a cost. There has to be some kind of trade-off. That when you walk in darkness, and you expect this path to be thrust upon you where you can only survive by committing a very evil act, killing another human being. Then what does that do to someone or what does it do to them across time? What does it do to their, for lack of a better word, for their soul?
And so we kind of were careful when we were creating that creature, that we made them dark enough and strong enough but also weak enough. So they had to be able to be killed but they had to be difficult to kill. It had to be able to survive on the blood of Christ, but it had to come at a personal and physical cost. So there were always tradeoffs that we kind of kept coming back to make sure that there was always a price. We argued about animal blood off and on for years because I felt that they couldn't drink animal blood. If they can drink animal blood then that was just a cop out and any priest who didn't do that was… or any vampire who didn't do that or strigoi who didn't do that was just choosing to do evil. And one of the interesting things for me about being a vampire is…
Rebecca: Is, a lot of the time because you don't choose it. It's thrust upon you. Rhun Khorza didn't choose to be a vampire. And, in fact, in the whole series I don't think there is anyone except for Elizabeth Bathory who chose that life knowing what it was. And so that's important because you have the corruption of the innocent. I mean, Rhun was a good man; he was a priest. He was not evil before this happened, and he needed to try to figure out how he could continue without losing his soul and becoming evil. And if you could just so often drink cow blood, like any other any priest could do by eating a steak, then it didn't have a cost. So we went back and forth, and we had to come up with some very complicated stuff. Like we had Piers, who was this strigoi or a sanguinist, who was trapped underground for a very long time and had just–and most of it didn't make into the book–but these very complicated discussion as to how he could have survived and…
Penn: Over to a very, very long time yeah. [crosstalk] We'll come back to that long life but in terms of how much you took from… I mean, it's difficult to say research given that vampires we are saying are not real.
But how much did you take from actual legend and how much did you make up?
Rebecca: Well, we did do a lot of research into existing legends, and we took a lot of things from them. We took the idea that they have to survive on human blood, and then we made it trans substantiated wine which was just supposed to be human blood, the blood of Christ. They are allergic to silver which comes from the history book. We both decided garlic was not going to be particularly useful. But holy objects do not necessarily repel them but holy ground, holy objects do weaken them. So that also comes from the existing mythology of vampires.
Penn: Which is interesting. I mean, the blood thing is fascinating. Of course, probably the scariest thing about the vampire myth is the fact that they drink your blood, and then you die. But it's not always not that you die, it's that they drink your blood which is kind of gross. But talk a bit more about the trans-substantiation idea and the way you've twisted the drinking blood and that makes the difference between the strigoi and the priest, the sanguines.
Rebecca: So the idea was… and this was Jim's idea. This was something that he had from the very beginning when he brought the idea to me. He's like… he pitched that one and then I said okay, I'm in. I can see where you can do really fascinating things based on that. And I remember in college, I had studied trans-substantiation and we studying Catholicism and I was just amazed at this belief that during mass, that the wine turns into the blood of Christ. And that people had wars over that. But this wasn't just a story; this was a deeply held belief that people were willing to kill and die for. And why did it have that kind of power and what did that mean and what was that for? I mean when you think about it, it's very gruesome.
Telling people to drink your blood and eat your body, that's odd. That's not something that you see in other contexts where that's ever seen as a good thing except for maybe you know warriors might eat their enemy's body. But that's rare, and it's a very specialized moment. And so, which, of course, mass and trans-substantiation is to. So the idea that it really does turn into blood; it doesn't represent the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ. And what if the reason for that were to help strigoi find salvation? And then when you go from there and then you have all these other questions, such as what does it mean when they drink it? Is it as good as human blood?
And the answer, of course, has to be no because they are damned, and it's holy. So it's sustaining them but it's weakening them, and it's punishing them even while it gives them this hope of salvation. And so it's a very kind of complicated idea that has so many cool ways you can go with it. And of course it means that we could have Rune who was a fairly innocent vampire or strigoi throughout most of the series. Where he hadn't taken human life and where he was more innocent than other strigoi.
Penn: Yeah, and it's really interesting.
And then of course you mentioned Elizabeth Bathory and the blood countess. You want to just talk a bit more about her because historically, not a nice character and yet you make her almost likable.
Rebecca: Well I wouldn't want her to baby sit. But historically, if you read some of the stuff that's written about her, of course, she was a very evil woman. I got a collection of letters that I found in a book, and they've been translated from Hungarian into English. And they were the letters written by her son in law to her daughter and to his friends. And they detailed what he found when they went for her, when they went to arrest her. But she was quite wealthy, and a member of the nobility and so they couldn't just have her arrested. And there had been complaints from her local priest for years that women were disappearing at a very high rate when they went into her service. And initially, when he was sending letters back to Rome, he was saying things like well I'm not sure. They said it was Cholera, but it just seems odd that the cholera was only killing her babies' maids. And what does that mean? And so reading about it, it was just horrifying.
But then there's other accounts that indicate that maybe she was framed. That perhaps she didn't do any of that, and she was just framed because the king owed her a lot of money. Like more money than he had; she was one of the wealthiest families and individuals at the time. So when he accused her of that, he was able to strip her of her lands and her wealth and wipe out his own debt. So it was a very politically convenient time for her to be accused. And so there are some people who feel that she didn't really do as much as history paints her as doing. So…
Penn: Which is basically killing like 400 girls or something and bathing in their blood right?
Rebecca: Yeah I think it was 600 women and bathing in their blood. To become younger. But even the historical record where they don't talk about her killing, she was really terrible. I think she beat her girls, she would cut off their fingers and make them eat them. I mean just awful, awful things. And because she was nobility, and they were peasant girls and she basically owned them, nothing was done about that. And that went on for years, and it wasn't until after her husband died, and she started… she ran a school for noble women. And so families would send their daughters to her to learn how to be better nobility. And so once she started killing them, then the… but she killed several of them. Like I don't know, 12 or 14.
Then over a period of just a few years like five years or something, then they stepped in. But it was, it wasn't until she started killing people that they thought mattered that they stepped in. So it's tough to say was she guilty or was she not. But I like the idea of having a character in there who really was not so conflicted about being evil. So Rune feels terrible that he's a strigoi, and he's lost his soul and he's trying to atone for hundreds of years. And Elizabeth is like, Okay well, not my fault. Got to have to have some fun. And that was kind of… she just went through it thinking, “Okay. What's best for Elizabeth, do that thing.” And then she met Tommy and she kind of softened and she became his protector in the book, but it was a tremendous fun having a character who really didn't answer to anybody. You knew Elizabeth was going to do was best for Elizabeth, and that was that.
Penn: Yeah, no doubt. She's a great character. And then another of the sort of traits is the being burned by sunlight.
Rebecca: Yes, we did that.
Penn: And you have the interesting bit in “Blood Infernal,” the last one, where you use sunlight to drive the darkness into this diamond thing which I thought was an interesting use of the light there.
Do you think that that sunlight that versus vampire, do you think it's just like the light versus darkness basic idea or do you think there's more than that, like the power of the sunlight?
Rebecca: Well I think some of it is just light versus darkness and the idea that there are two sides to every coin. And that if you have an angel, you have to have a devil. But I think some of it is also… we are afraid of the dark, and I think we've been afraid of the dark for a long time, and there are monsters in the dark. There are wolves, and there are bears and if you go out and you stray into the forest and off the path, you did die. I mean, it wasn't just that there were these metaphorical monsters that we trade on television now; there really were animals that would kill you in the forest at night. And so making a mythology out of them, I think was a natural thing to do and happened all over the world. And so I think there is something about that unknown, that thing that you can't see because it's dark that scares us and that we want to explore.
Penn: Yeah, absolutely. And then the long life, of course. It's virtual immortality. It's not actual immortality, is it? It's just a very long life?
Rebecca: Well I don't know because Lazarus is still around, and he's been around for a couple of thousand years. So I don't know.
Penn: Yes, you should probably explain the Lazarus thing for people who might not read the books.
Rebecca: And so in the first book–this is now a spoiler alert, and I'm going to hold my hands up. When I'm done with this spoiler… I will put my hands down and then you can listen again. So in the first books–spoiler alert–Lazarus is the founding member of “The Order of Sanguines.” So when he is turned into a strigoi, and he's the first strigoi that Jesus turns in to a sanguinist, and he founds this order that survives within the Vatican of priests who are also strigoi. Spoiler done!
Penn: But yes. So some of them have this long life, and they're still alive but not moving very much. Kind of, just hanging out, going a bit slowly and kind of, old age vampires thousands of years old.
Rebecca: Yeah, well I think there's an old age home for the older vampires where they can go and live a life of prayer and meditation. Where I think they turned away from the world above because they are tired of it. Because they want to just take a step back. And some of them go, and they stay down there for hundreds of years and some of them go and they stay down there for a while. And Rune really toys with it from the beginning of the very first book. He's thinking about going into seclusion and leaving behind the trappings of the everyday world.
Penn: Which is nice. So you give these vampires… basically they're still humans. They've still got human characteristics in that way and some kind of conscience, I guess. And it's interesting talking about that and the conscience and the suffering. We both watched “Dracula Untold.” Which was a good movie. And you know, again I guess, he has to make a choice. He doesn't have to become a vampire, but he has to make a choice whether to save his son and his family in order to kind of to do this.
So do you think that kind of choice is really important to make vampires we care about?
Rebecca: I think that's it's tough to sympathize with the vampire when they are purely evil. A pure original Dracula, we don't sympathize with the monster. We don't know how he became a monster, I don't think and we don't know much about his day to day life or what he's hopes or fears are. And we sympathize with Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker and with Van Helsing and with Lucy and with the human side. But the monsters are monsters, and that's kind of taken as a given. And I think unless…and I think it is very hard to make those monsters likable unless they have something that we can understand or sympathize with them.
And that's one of the things that Anne Rice did that was so genius in creating Lestat is that, he is this vampire, and he is horrible and he has done terrible, terrible things. But you can't help but like him because he's very much aware of it, and he's been pushed into this circumstance. Once again, he had no choice, and he is trying to get through it however he can.
Penn: And in that film, though very cool, was when he kind of swoops off and turns into a load of bats. Did you like that?
Rebecca: Yes, that was very cool, and then the bats just come pelting down. And they just go zooming through and everything breaks around. And I think one of the nice things about living in this day and age, is that CGI has finally reached the point where they can make very good monsters on screen.
Rebecca: So a lot of things that… like smog in “Lord of the Rings.” And there was just these–well, in the hobbit. There was just these monsters that couldn't really exist before, and now they look completely realistic. And yeah, how could you have done that before> I guess you would have had to try to hand-draw bats on the…
Penn: Yeah, well you just couldn't. But it's… yeah, it's really awesome and that, I like that and… but, of course, that takes away from the kind of human aspect. But the other kind of known human and the other thing and the “Dracula” they had on TV with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who I find devastatingly attractive. He's always really hunky isn't he in these films now? You know, hot Dracula. But Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Hot Dracula, the Opening Sequence. Have you seen that? He's…
Penn: Yeah, he's so… but like, his body is rotted and stuck with a stake, and he comes alive. And the same in that “Dracula Untold.” He's burned almost to a crisp; he's almost disappeared from the sun. But yet, they bring him back.
So here's a fantastical question: how much would there need to be left of the vampire's body do you think so that they could resurrect it with a lot blood?
Rebecca: I think it would depend on the power of the vampire before they were burned. So in “Dracula Untold,” he is the second vampire ever made. So he has a tremendous, tremendous amount of power. And so he is very tough to be killed. But I think when you get to the point where there are hundreds of vampires running around then there… each individual vampire is wimpier because they have to be. You can't have 10,000 all powerful beings on earth at the same time because they would wipe each other out.
Penn: That's a good point. So is that why we really only know the name of a couple of vampires because most of them are just second rate?
Rebecca: [laughing] Well, I wouldn't call them second rate to their face.
Penn: So if you had to meet Jonathan Rhys Meyer's “Dracula” versus “Dracula Untold” hot Dracula…
Penn: Versus… well, so your characters are all kind of nice. Did you ever really… I don't picture Rune as being that particularly hot. Did you have an actor in mind for rune or the man of action?
Rebecca: Well I mean no but I think it's… Jordan would be somebody like a Channing Tatum. Some kind of…
Rebecca: …Big hunky, all-American guy who looks good in his…
Penn: Action suit.
Rebecca: …In his action suit. And runs around and has the strength and the actual size, the brute force size to do the things that he needs to do. And Rune is like a smaller, more slender guy because when Rune was growing up, people were smaller. And so he was more, I kind of viewed him as… what's his name? That actor from “The Seventh Sun.” Ben Barnes. So that kind of that action hero with the dark hair and the dark eyes who's a little more haunted and not as bulky as say Jordan. But stronger and more powerful.
Penn: Yeah. And did you have any other people in mind for any of the other characters? I always like to pick people for my films. My films?
Rebecca: Your films. Where did you go?
Penn: For my film… Yeah, no for my books.
Rebecca: I picked directors, actors, set designers. I have cinematographers… I do have some cinematographers.
Penn: I think we both want Guillermo Del Toro don't we?
Rebecca: We do. Oh, God yes. Guillermo Del Toro would do such a wonderful job. He can do any of my books.
Penn: Yeah, any of mine too.
Rebecca: Any of the ones that don't have any supernatural sets at all. I have loved him since I saw “Cronos,” which was that first movie he made. Have you seen it?
Penn: No, I think like Pan's Labyrinth was the first one I saw. And then “Hellboy,” of course. Which I love.
Rebecca: Oh, you should totally see “Cronos”. It's a vampire movie, and he made it while he was working on TV, for TV in Mexico. And so he filmed it over a long period of time on a fairly small budget but it doesn't look schlocky at all. It's very well put together and very interesting. And on the DVD extras, he talks about the artistic decisions he made as the director and what he was doing and I find that fascinating because often on special features, they'll just talk about, you know, this was the day of shooting. And I was throwing up. And then this bee hit me in the eye. You know, all this anecdotal thing whereas he'll be like, “Well here's the color palette when I was making this device and I had this idea why of why it would function this way and I wanted this to look like…” And you learn a lot as an artist when you listen to him talk about it. And particularly “Cronos,” because that was his first film, and it was his breakout film. And it's a very fascinating vampire film because, once again, it's a completely different take on the vampire tale. So the vampires in his movie are like nothing else that we've ever seen before.
Penn: Oh cool. And then, of course, he came back to do “The Strain.”
Rebecca: Yeah. And in “The Strain,” the vampires are bad. They're evil.
Penn: Yeah. And they kind of have a sucker thing which is quite odd. They're like almost like aliens. They don't actually… they don't have fangs, they have sucker things.
Rebecca: Well, that would make sense. I mean…
Penn: And then it's like gulping sucker thing. It's really gross…
Penn: Anyway, gross
Rebecca: They have fangs… No, they don't. They don't have fangs at all. They just eat blood, and there is one scene where this old man who is turning into a vampire and he wants to drink blood. And he goes into this bathroom to kind of recover and this man comes in with a bloody nose and bleeds on… it's this beautiful marble bathroom. And he bleeds on the counter, wipes some of it up but not actually all of it, and he leaves. And then there's the old man alone in the room with the blood and it's the most creepy scene I have ever seen in my life. And it's really just an old man in the bathroom but you… argh, you are just horrified, and you are horrified with him and you are horrified of him and you are horrified for him and it's a wonderful movie. It's a love story, and it's just… I mean it's just incredible. And the cinematography is… you can see everything Guillermo Del Toro would become in that movie because it's just masterful right out of the gate.
Penn: Well that clearly affected you and, you know, it came out in the “Sanguines” series.
Rebecca: It did. It was one of my… it may be my favorite vampire movie period.
Penn: Ahh, there you go.
Okay, so where can people find “The Sanguine Series” and your other books?
Rebecca: Well “The Order of the Sanguine” series is a trilogy. And they are “The Blood Gospel,” “Innocent Blood,” and “Blood Infernal.” And they should be available anywhere where books are sold. They'll have them at your local bookstore, they'll have them at Amazon, they're in audio book, they've been translated into–I don't even know–10 or 12 languages. And they run a little behind in translation, so they're a year later in most countries. But you can find them anywhere And then the “Joe Tesla” series, there's two of those now. There is “The World Beneath,” and the “Tesla” like you see and those are available online or you can order them at your local bookstore as well. So there is paperback version and an audio version coming out next spring in a couple of months. And, of course, an E-Book version.
Penn: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Becky. That was fun.
Rebecca: Oh yeah, it was.