Once again, welcome to my column. Come freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring. I’ve spent October exploring some of the more unexplored facets of the immortal undead in popular culture, from some unsung triumphs of cult films to my favorite vampires from comics, video games, and anime. It’s almost Halloween and I’ve already covered advanced undead nerdery so I can’t think of a better way to bring the season of horror to a close than with a tribute to the stories that inspired almost all of the selections I’ve shared with you this month.
There are thousands of vampire stories spanning every medium of entertainment worldwide, but today I’m strapping on my old school for the ink and paper delights that took bloodsucking corpses out of rural folklore and made them immortal pop culture icons in the first place. These are the top five influential novels and novellas that gave birth to everything from supernatural romance to the entire zombie genre along with the myriad variations of vampiric horror itself, and I’m counting them down for newbies and discussing them for the veterans.
I’m tossing away my hipster leanings just for today and instead of drawing attention to the things you haven’t seen yet I’m exploring the best of the best. The ones we all know and love. The ones you can’t get around referencing whenever vampire fiction is discussed. The undisputed classics. And if you haven’t read these works of literary genius, consider this is your mandatory reading assignment. This is ground zero for tales of the undead.
5. Interview with the Vampire
It’d be easy to lay the blame for the current predicament of “vampire fiction as swooning tween romance” at the feet of Anne Rice. After all, this book almost single-handedly changed the public perception of the undead from repulsive satanic monsters to brooding misunderstood poetic souls that could be portrayed by the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. It’d be real easy.
But try reading the thing. Interview with the Vampire is a hyperliterate menagerie of gorgeous metaphorical imagery and atmosphere. There’s a reason that this book changed the pop culture landscape regarding the portrayal of vampires. At the time, it was stunningly original and it remains a compelling and unique read to this day.
Rice not only changed the world of the night by getting into the heads of this breed of morally challenging immortal predators, but she remains an avid peruser of all things vampire even three decades after her famous novel was published. I’ve found her commenting on various vampire-related articles around the web and she even complimented one of my reviews once. Is this article just a really roundabout secret brag topic? Maybe.
Any way you look at it, you probably have the success off Rice’s vision to blame for Stephanie Meier and her army of impersonators and legion of barely-literate fans. But don’t blame her. All she did was write one of the most legendary vampire stories of all time and give us a new view of a classic monster.
4. Salem’s Lot
The thing about Salem’s Lot is that it is such an obvious story. I mean, vampires kill people in the night, and then the victims become vampires and kill people in the night, and so on. It stands to reason that with this exponential spreading of the nosferatu plague that an entire community could be overtaken and converted into vampires in fairly short order. But nobody really did it like Stephen King did it.
Not only did King take the most classic folkloric version of the vampire and transplant it into the modern age for one of the most definitive takes ever, but he used it to cast a metaphorical shadow over our amusingly naïve idealized view of small town life.
The vampires that invade the town of Jerusalem’s Lot are an allegorical extension of the small-mindedness that prevails in many isolated small communities and their willingness to deny that the outside world can affect them. To paraphrase Jaws, the townsfolk are so wrapped up in their own routines and prejudices that they are willing to ignore this particular problem until it flew in the window and bit them in the ass.
The other side of that allegory is small town life being invaded and enveloped by the outside world, which mirrors some of the themes of the novel that inspired King to write Salem’s Lot –which I’ll get into later. King has repeatedly stated that Salem’s Lot is his favorite of his own works and it’s a fine pick. He has a lot to be proud of there.
Obviously that Bram Stoker fellow and that thing he wrote are the most influential author and work of all time regarding vampires. Ever wonder what inspired him? That’s right, before there was Dracula, there was Carmilla; the ultimate imposing houseguest.
Victorian horror made itself indispensable in the age of repression by disguising its tales of terror with sexual metaphor. Carmilla not only predated Dracula in popularizing the vampire and its symbolic alternate exchanging of bodily fluids, it outdid it by making the core relationship a hardly veiled homosexual one.
That’s right, this is the genesis of the lesbian vampire genre, and it’s done with such grace and elegance that it puts to shame everything that came after. Le Fanu’s prose is delectable and his portrayal of a sweet-tempered, bright, charming young girl secretly preying on the daughter of her host in the night while forming a genuine and almost obsessive attachment to her during the day is something that has yet to be equaled.
The adaptations of this one have run the gamut from artsy (Blood and Roses), to creepy and sexy (The Vampire Lovers) to borderline misogynistic (The Blood Spattered Bride), but nothing yet has fully captured the spirit of the original novella.
2. I Am Legend
What’s really interesting about Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic undead masterpiece is that it isn’t that influential in the vampire genre. But what it did do is inspire the zombie genre as we know it today. George R. Romero has outright stated that this was the book that gave him the concept that became Night of the Living Dead, which has since fueled and inspired….pretty much the entire current zombie-based pop culture overdose.
Another interesting aspect of I Am Legend is the way it incorporates science into the narrative, exploring why it is vampires are how they are while discarding impractical superstition along the way. In this version, vampirism is a disease that the protagonist intends to cure and his observations and studies include everything from whether a vampire can cross running water to the significance of the cross in warding them off. It’s still refreshing today and must have been earth-shattering back then.
If there’s one thing Matheson does consistently better than anybody else, it’s irony. His trademark is devastatingly dark and cynical endings where the protagonists reap what they’ve (often unexpectedly) sewn over the course of the story, or otherwise end up totally screwed by some unforeseen horrible twist of fate. The ending/title line of I Am Legend is the best example of that, not only among Matheson’s work, but arguably in all of fiction. Accept no imitations.
Obviously, this is the big one. A novel so ubiquitous that it appears nobody has even bothered attempting to count the number of copies sold. But rest assured it’s a lot. It’s been adapted over and over and over again in film, television, comics, and onstage and the character himself has invaded every single aspect of our popular culture beyond almost any other fictional concoction. No matter where you go or what you do, there is no getting away from Dracula.
The resurgence of vampire chic over the past couple of decades has led to a lot of semi-literate criticisms of this Victorian relic. Check the many one star reviews on Amazon for details and to experience brilliant critically analytical opinions like “OMG I cant believe i actually finished this book. It is a miracle that this book ever started the vampire crazzzzzzze…”
What makes Dracula such an amazing example of horror is its sheer originality. Yeah, I know I said Le Fanu did some of it before Stoker, but this particular story works on so many levels it almost has no top or bottom. From the xenophobic underpinnings of a foreign immigrant seducing the proper ladies and spreading their “disease” to political analogies about the monarchy preying on the people or the spread of corruption to the veiled sexuality and commentaries on love and faith there is an almost unlimited amount of material for philosophical discussion. It kind of puts modern popular literature to shame.
And then there is the actual format. Anyone can write a book from the characters’ point of view or the third person. But to concoct such an amazing story out of journal entries, personal letters, newspaper reports, and the like? Dracula was the literary equivalent of a found footage film in the 1800’s and I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything like it.
And even if you take all of that away from it, it’s still beautifully written and coined tons of quotable lines that permeate horror fiction to this day. Yeah, this book is better than almost all other books, vampires or no vampires. And there’s no possible argument that it isn’t better than what we’re being fed in popular culture today.
And with this I conclude my Vampire Appreciation Month festivities. Now all that’s left is for all of you fine readers to go out and get that candy. Have a safe and cosplayful Halloween and happy haunting, everyone.