We are now almost thirty years removed from the date this novelet was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Nowadays, vampires are commonly imagined as radiant albeit misunderstood beings who, yes, may have dark sides, but who also have huge guilt complexes to balance said dark sides. Today’s most common vampires, with their eternal moodiness, youth, and pathos, have become little more than sympathetic emotional fodder for teenagers and dangerous sex objects, but such was not always the case. Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” would be a jarring read for those enamored of the Adonis-like vampires who stalk prime time television and the pages of today’s YA lit.
The narrator of Leman’s story is a scientist who has studied the habits and nature of vampires as one might any other creature. From this perspective, the vampire is no more peculiar than a mole rat, fruit bat, or orangutan. Leman’s depiction of vampires is a combination of science essay and horror story; just as readers might squirm over the peculiar physical features or behaviors of nature’s oddest creations, so would they over the bestial qualities of this seemingly human creature.
Clifford M., the subject (he can’t really be called the protagonist) of the narrative, is a vampire who was inadvertently raised by humans. Clifford M. did not learn the truth of his own nature for many years, for vampires do not succumb to daylight paralysis until they reach puberty somewhere in their thirties. As for the occasional bloodlust, well, he just thought he was a monstrous human. He did many of the things a normal human does: attend college, get a job, stockpile wealth. When he finally figured out that he’s something else entirely, Clifford M. became obsessed with finding others of his kind—and it is upon this quest, this pilgrimage for the truth, that the story turns.
In this pedantic science fiction/horror mash-up, Leman uses the curious case of Clifford M. to explore the question of “nature versus nurture.” Can we really rise above our instincts and become more than we are biologically programmed to be, or are we just doomed to succumb to nature’s barbaric whims? You may be able to guess where this is going, but I’ll throw out a hint. Clifford M. shares at least one quality with today’s sullen teen vampires: the romance of tragedy.
When our subject does finally locate other vampires—his parents, the narrator posits—he is horrified. The three other vampires are depicted as the worst sort of back-woods hillbillies: filthy, lustful, and unrepentantly violent. (It’s no stretch to suppose that Leman was inspired by a certain canoe trip movie.) Refined, sophisticated, and intelligent Clifford M., faced with the possibility that extreme age may one day rob him of what he values most in himself, chooses to commit murder-suicide rather than risk that eventuality. Clifford M. informs the local vampire hunters of the location of the vampire nest, then beds down with his kindred for the daylight hours and awaits his own destruction.
Thus, the tragedy: a being who had a chance to change his course, to push back against nature, instead passively accepted a possible future as inevitable and chose to end his life instead. While vampires are commonly depicted in contrast to humans, and although Leman clearly illustrates them as another kind of mammal entirely, they are so often used to highlight humanity’s own darker tendencies that it’s impossible not to identify with Clifford M. to some extent.
Should humans then follow his example? Should we accept prejudice, violence, and fear as inevitable? Should we not fight for our brighter qualities? If our pilgrimages are for truth, we should accept what we learn, but not let it bind us to any one course.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1984. “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” by Bob Leman. Cover art by David Hardy.