Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Bloody Favorite Book Genre of Mine: Vampires

And now for something completely different...

I suppose calling something I enjoy a "guilty pleasure" is a bit presumptuous in that it assumes I'll be judged for it without giving the reader the benefit of the doubt, so I'm not going to use that term. What I am going to do is something a bit different: I'm going to write about something you probably wouldn't expect on this blog. My name is Drew and I have a confession to make: I love to write, I love to read, and my favorite genre of fiction is the vampire novel. I do also enjoy vampire movies, but I must interject the caveat here that as far as both forms of media are concerned, I am very picky about those I like and those I don't. And before anyone asks, yes I've read the Twilight series (and didn't think much of them), and no, I don't think everything having to do with vampires is great. But of the ones I have sifted through to find, they've all captured my imagination and for the same reasons. Since I am currently (still) working on my first novel, which I started back in 2010 and falls within this genre, I thought it would be interesting to examine why vampires and their lore has captivated me ever since I was a kid.

Without trying to be an amateur folklore historian, a little bit of background: even though the vampire myth goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it is the Eastern European vampire folklore dating from the Middle Ages that has captured the imagination and fueled the present-day mythos. That's certainly the case for me. There has always been something so entrancing about the Gothic and Medieval feel and tone of the original vampire literature that has just grabbed me. Regarding the beings themselves, the mix of revulsion and attraction to what a vampire is has always fascinated me. In essence, they are undead beings who upon dying were turned into inhuman killing machines, preying on the blood, the very life force, of living people. They are pale and gaunt like corpses, with superhuman strength and abilities and of course, those fangs. And yet, in their undeath they are enhanced versions of how they looked in life: the women impossibly beautiful, the men the epitome of handsomeness. There's also usually a lot of romance as well as some eroticism and sex which, as long as they're not gratuitous, I enjoy as an underlying subtext in vampire literature. I tend to lean more toward the romance aspect of it as I've always been a sucker (no pun intended) for a good love story. Finally, while I've never been a fan of over-the-top gore and violence, I've always been a fan of horror/thriller books and movies. I don't go for slasher films and stuff like that, but more of the type of horror that scares you with what's implied than what's shown, and then shows a glimpse of it for effect. I find that the best vampire books utilize that versus the in-your-face gore of more mainstream traditional horror. These various attributes of the vampire mythos are almost always woven into whatever story is being told, and the breadth of settings for vampires in fiction is vast. I've read everything from historical fiction to futuristic sci-fi and everything in between. It's a very versatile genre, but it's dependent on whether the author can avoid falling into cliche traps while keeping make it interesting.

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Seeing as though my love of this genre inspired me to begin working on a vampire novel of my own, I thought it would be fun to list some of my favorite vampire books. These are the ones that inspired me to try writing my own and the ones that I keep going back to when I need to get my horror fix. I'm not listing them in any particular order apart from the first one...

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The father of all vampire novels. Even though there were other vampire stories that were published before Stoker's book in 1897 (a few of which I also love and which will be discussed below), it was this one that birthed the genre and is considered the masterpiece from which all subsequent vampire literature and film are derived. I've probably read this book twenty times in my life (so far) since the first time I cracked it open as a twelve year old. For those who haven't read it (and may want to), I won't spoil the story for you, but this is one special book. It's told in an epistolary format through the voices of all of the main characters and chronicles the story of how the titular Count Dracula arrived in Victorian England and nearly spread his curse around the world. The story is exciting and thrilling, and Stoker did a masterful job not only with the action sequences, but with some slow-burning and truly terrifying moments that are as chilling to read the tenth time as they are the first. Almost everything that is commonly accepted about vampires comes from Dracula. Yes, Stoker pulled a lot/most of it from folklore sources, but here it all crystallized in the best vampire book of all time (and one of the best novels of all time in any genre). If you haven't read this book, even if you're not that into vampires or horror, I highly recommend you read it at least once. It's that good. My personal favorite version is the annotated one shown below. My wife got it for me as a Christmas present several years ago and the annotations opened up a whole new world of understanding of how Stoker wrote this masterpiece.

Now I'm going to get into some older short stories that predated Stoker which are favorites mine before getting back to newer novels, beginning with one of the best...

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This novella was published in serial form in 1871 and 1872 and predates Stoker by a quarter century. It's not as well known which is a shame because in my opinion it sits alongside Dracula as the greatest of the old vampire stories. It tells the story of Laura and her father who vacation for an extended period of time in the Styria region of Austria and are troubled by the new friend they've met named Carmilla. The story evolves into the tale of how the Countess Karnstein, who was a vampire, terrorized the region for hundreds of years, Carmilla's connection to the Countess, and Laura's experiences during and after their friendship. I don't want to give anything away because there are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but I will say it's as chilling and thrilling a story as Stoker's book and an absolute favorite of mine.

Varney the Vampire (or the Feast of Blood) by James Malcolm Rymer

This one is a little more unusual in that it's a pretty meandering tale that was serialized in the "penny dreadful" format popular at the time of its publication. It dates from 1847 and as such is even older than Carmilla or Dracula. The story centers on the villainous Sir Francis Varney and his reign of terror against the wealthy Bannerworth family. It's not as tight a story as others, but it's still enjoyable and an essential and classic example of pre-Stoker Victorian-era vampire literature.

The Vampyre by John William Polidori

Along the same lines as Varney the Vampire is this short story which, dating from 1819, is the earliest example of vampire literature I'll be discussing. It is widely considered to be the first work to meld the folklore with the romantic horror/fantasy elements we now take for granted as part of the genre. It tells the story of the vampire Lord Ruthven and the terror he inflicts upon his unsuspecting new friend Aubrey. As with Carmilla, there are some plot twists that I won't spoil here, but it's a really cool story and definitely one worth checking out.

Now to get a bit more modern (or at least twentieth century)...

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, as in I'd read every single one of his books up to about 2010 or so. I started to get turned off by a lot of the repetition in his themes, some of his more bizarre and vulgar passages (and it takes a LOT to turn me off with vulgarity), and his insane persona on social media (I'm not going to get into politics here, but King has been more unhinged than usual over the last decade) which turned me completely off of his stuff. However, my favorite book is still one of his finest and is the only true vampire novel he ever wrote. It was his second ever published novel, released in 1975, and tells the story of the nefarious vampire Kurt Barlow's arrival in a small Maine town called Jerusalem's Lot (Salem's Lot for short). Little by little, children and adults alike begin disappearing and re-emerging as vampires, spreading the curse throughout the town. Protagonist Ben Mears, visiting the town for some inspiration for the novel he's writing, witnesses this horror and barely makes it out of the town alive. The entire story is gripping, terrifying, and ends somewhat ambiguously (which I like), but what makes it truly excellent is that unlike in many of his books, King takes the classic "less is more" approach to the terror in the story. I've always found that a few effective sentences which let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination can be ten times scarier than bludgeoning them over the head with graphic wordplay and King succeeds immeasurably in this book. Also worth checking out are the two related short stories he published in Night Shift: the first, "Jerusalem's Lot" is a creepy prequel to the novel while "One for the Road" is a truly terrifying story of what happened to one unfortunate family on a snowy winter night a few years after the events of Salem's Lot. I can't recommend these three works of King's enough to any vampire lover.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Dating from 1954, I Am Legend is a gripping story that only has two main characters in it. Robert Neville is the only survivor in Los Angeles where vampirism has spread across the world infecting everyone. By day he scavenges for supplies and research materials on how to cure vampirism and along the way, he has developed efficient methods for killing any sleeping vampires he encounters. By night, he stays barricaded in his house fending off vampires trying to come inside (including one particularly creepy former neighbor who torments him by continuously calling out his name). After years of this lonely existence, he meets a fellow survivor named Ruth who he allows into his house. Without giving the rest of the story away, all is not as it seems between Neville and Ruth and the end of the story is both bleakly despairing and surprisingly uplifting. One of the best, even if it was turned into a fairly lousy movie starring Will Smith.

That brings us to one of my favorite series...

The Anno Dracula Series by Kim Newman

This is a series I had been hearing about for years but hadn't gotten around to checking out until 2014 or so. I won't get too bogged down in the details, but in a nutshell the series is predicated on the supposition that Dracula survived his encounter with Jonathan Harker and his band of friends at the end of Stoker's novel. It is a world where vampires and humans live openly side by side and all of the inherent struggles that come when two competing races and their cultures collide (gee, that sounds kind of familiar...). The books are each set in their own time period as follows in order: Anno Dracula (set in 1888 London), the Bloody Red Baron (set in 1917 during WWI), Dracula Cha Cha Cha (set in 1959 Rome), Johnny Alucard (set in 1980s America), and One Thousand Monsters (an interquel of sorts, set in 1899 Tokyo). All of these books feature main character Genevieve Dieudonne, a 450 year old French vampire. Her longtime human companion and lover Charles Beauregard is also present in a few of the books although being human, he eventually succumbs to old age in a way Genevieve obviously does not. What makes Newman's books stand out besides the excellent writing is the amount of historical research and accuracy contained within. He also weaves into the stories numerous historical figures both real and fictional (for instance, real life people like Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Red Baron alongside fictional characters like the aforementioned Lord Ruthven, Dr. Jekyll, Victor Frankenstein, and so on). There's a lot of classic dark British humor (which I'm a fan of) and the books are simultaneously frightening and hilarious (in spots). All in all, it's one of my favorite book series, vampire or otherwise, and one I can't recommend enough.

I think I'll end it here, although I will add that the comic book miniseries 30 Days of Night is an excellent example of vampire fiction translated to the comic medium. There are also two series of books I've been meaning to check out for a while: The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin (which has just been launched as a TV series) and the Vampire Zero series by David Wellington. And before anyone asks, no I haven't read Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and I don't think I ever will. I enjoyed the first book Interview With the Vampire (and the movie) but from what I've heard it got pretty bizarre after that (as did Rice herself). Perhaps I'll check it out some day, although not before I read the Passage trilogy or the Vampire Zero series.

So there you have it, my favorite vampire books. What do you think? Have you read any of these and if so, do you agree or disagree with me? And are there any other good ones you've read that you think I should check out? Please let me know!

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