James Lyon’s 2013 novel Kiss of the Butterfly is one of the best vampire novels written in recent years. Its author did impeccable research into vampire folklore, not relying solely on how vampires are depicted in films or even in the novel Dracula and all the vampire fiction that has followed its 1897 publication, but by digging into the true legends of vampires in the Balkans.
Lyon is also the translator of the novel After Ninety Years: The Story of Serbian Vampire Sava Savanovic, which has previously been discussed on this blog. After Ninety Years was first published in 1880, seventeen years before Dracula was published. In his 2015 translation of that novel, Lyon discusses Serbian vampire folklore in detail, and many of the details he discusses he also uses in Kiss of the Butterfly. (Lyon has also written Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of World War I, so he is obviously very knowledgeable about the Balkans.) I won’t go into all the vampire lore details in the novel, but a few are worth mentioning here along with a little plot summary (with a few spoilers, but not giving away the ending) to explain why this is such a great vampire novel.
First off, an explanation about the title. You may not associate butterflies with vampires, but as Lyon explains, butterflies have traditionally been associated in Balkan folklore with the soul. Consequently, a vampire can transform itself into a butterfly. When vampires are killed, it’s important not to let the vampire’s soul escape from its mouth in the form of a butterfly. Of course, the kiss part of the title refers to one of the best scenes in the whole novel when a female vampire attacks the main character.
The novel’s plot is well-paced. It’s just over halfway into the novel when vampires show up in the main storyline, but the lead up to their appearance is suspenseful. I never felt bored at all. The main story concerns Professor Marko Slatina, a Serbian professor teaching in California, and his graduate student, Steven Roberts. Slatina helps Steven get connections in Serbia so he can go there to study vampires for the dissertation he is writing. It’s not easy to go to Serbia at this time since it’s the early 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic is waging a war of genocide in the former country of Yugoslavia.
Once in Serbia, Steven begins his studies in earnest, meeting some professors and other students whom he shares his research with. He also meets some girls, one of whom doesn’t like his interest in vampires, but the two find themselves attracted to each other regardless. The novel educates the reader about Balkan vampires without being boring and builds up to Steven discovering an old book about vampires at a library that he wants to read. The librarian tells him the book was forbidden during the communist regime but he can now look at it. The next day he goes back to look at the book again, only to find that the librarian has been dismissed from her job and the book cannot be located. Obviously, someone does not want him to read it.
Lyon keeps the story moving by having short historical interludes at the end of each chapter that are set between the 1730s and 1980s. These interludes tell us about vampires still existing in Serbia and their history during this period. Most notably, there are twelve vampires in the novel, one of whom is the famous Vlad Dracula. In the 1730s, eleven of the vampires were imprisoned in an underground chamber by a man who had been in love with one of them, Natalija, before she became a vampire. Because of his love for her, he is unable to bring himself to kill her and end her vampirism, so instead, he imprisons her and her fellow vampires. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the vampires escaped.
As the plot thickens, Steven finds himself being hunted by these vampires, who are intent on killing him before he finds out more about them. Professor Slatina also travels to Serbia at this point and reveals the truth to Steven—that he sent him to the Balkans to find out information about the vampires. Slatina also reveals that he is a vampirovic, the child of a vampire who had sex with a human female. The children of such unions grow up to be vampire hunters and they are basically immortal. I loved this fact, which is part of Balkan folklore, because when I wrote my novel Lilith’s Love: The Children of Arthur, Book Four, which is largely a sequel to Dracula, I depicted Quincey Harker, the son of Mina and Jonathan Harker, as having special powers and an extended life because Quincey’s mother drank Dracula’s blood. I didn’t know at the time that vampire children were part of the vampire tradition, but thought on my own such a child would be special, so I guess I was right.
Slatina also turns out to have been the husband of Natalija, the female vampire. At one point, he confronts her and she begs him to show his love for her by killing her rather than locking her up. At this point, he explains that he didn’t kill her because he has been working on trying to figure out how he can save her by redeeming her. Elsewhere in the novel, Lyon explains that some vampires can feel remorse, try to repent, and achieve redemption. This, of course, fascinated me since I have traced in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, how Gothic wanderer figures like the vampire go from being damned to redeemed throughout the course of the nineteenth century, the most notable being the title character of Varney the Vampire (1846), who continually tries to end his misery by killing himself and who eventually finds redemption.
One additional interesting use of the vampire theme in the novel comes when the vampires attack Steven and his friends. A male vampire attacks a female, which is perfectly acceptable, since it’s heterosexual, but Natalija attacks a female, which is a lesbian act. Much has been made by critics of homosexuality in vampire novels, although in the nineteenth century novels, authors were always careful never to have vampires attack humans of the same sex. Natalija must have been really thirsty, I suspect, rather than into girls since she is married and later seeks to seduce and have sex with Steven—she literally does want sex with him, not just to drink his blood, or so she says. I suspect Lyon gave no thought to the lesbian possibility of her drinking a female’s blood since the scene is not in any way erotic or really significant ultimately. Oh, and I should mention that the vampires can also become werewolves, another part of Serbian folklore Lyon uses.
I won’t give away all the rest of the plot—needless to say, you can imagine how it ends. I will say I thought the pacing very good; the novel never became insincere or fell into being comical like too many vampire films become. Even when one of the vampires loses its head and remains talking, it did not become comical but rather fit into the vampire lore, as explained in the novel. The scene where a female vampire tries to seduce Steven was especially a page-turner.
I’ve read many vampire novels that were written in the last two hundred years. Of the more modern ones, I would say Kiss of the Butterfly is the best one since Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned. It is far better than cheesy and boring Twilight novels or Elizabeth Kostova’s slow and anticlimactic The Historian. I would even read a sequel if Lyon writes one.
Anyone interested in real vampire lore that predates the success of Dracula should definitely read Kiss of the Butterfly.
(I wish to thank Robert Burke, a regular reader of my blog, who introduced me to this novel and James Lyon’s translation of After Ninety Years.)
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.