Monday, August 8, 2011

Lesser-Known Vampires

     If the only vampire novels you’ve read are Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series or Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” volumes, you’re missing out. Serious vamp fans should read the classics ‑ “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu and “The Vampyre” by John Polidori – but here are six of my favorite, lesser-known vamp stories.
     If you’re surprised to learn that “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson (Orb Books) is a vampire novel, that’s because the recent Will Smith film adaptation decided vampires were overdone and old-fashioned, and so replaced them with “fast zombies” (yeah, they’re not overdone, are they?). The novel treats vampirism as a plague caused by a virus, and comes up with pseudo-scientific explanations for most of a vampire’s powers and weaknesses. It’s deservedly a classic; someone should film it sometime.
     Another science fictional treatment of vampires is found in “The Empire of Fear” by Brian Stableford (Skyhorse Publishing), which postulates a 19th century dominated by vampires who zealously guard the secret of conversion, and the scientists who try to find and replicate the cause. These vampires are not evil per se, at least no more so than they were when human, but they are potentially immortal and extremely hard to kill. Some real historical characters are made vampires in the book, including Vlad Tepes (the historical Dracula). This book is back in print in the U.S., after barely being released (and with a misleading and ugly cover) years ago. It’s probably of more interest to science fiction than horror fans.
     More historical personages, and virtually every literary vampire, shows up in “Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman (Titan Books). The book starts out by wondering what would have happened if Dracula had defeated van Helsing, Harker and the rest and continued his invasion of England. Among other things, he changes Queen Victoria and makes himself her Royal Consort, making him virtual ruler of the British Empire. Also, being a vampire is now seen as desirable for political advancement. Meanwhile there’s a Jack the Ripper type killing vampires with a silver scalpel. Most of the vampires are evil, but at least one is an ally of the humans. This is also again in print, riding a wave of steampunk it seems, though it’s not really steampunk.
     If you extend the definition of vampire beyond bloodsucking, then Dan Simmons’ “Carrion Comfort” (St. Martin's Griffin) is another fine book. The vampires in this volume have mental powers and can control other people, deriving nourishment from the mental feedback. Their preferred method is to make their victims commit horrible deeds.
     I first heard about “The Family of the Vourdalak” by Alexis Tolstoy (out of print, to the best of my knowledge) because it was the basis for “The Wurdulak,” a segment of the 1963 Mario Bava Italian horror film “Black Sabbath.” It starred Boris Karloff as a type of Slavic vampire who preys on those he loved. (Very creepy. Karloff would have made a good Dracula.) For years after I saw the film on TV, I tried to find the story in vampire anthologies. I finally found it in the 1992 book “Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula,” edited by Christopher Frayling. The reason it was so hard to find, apparently, was that it had never been translated into English. Now that book is out of print, and I don’t know if the story has been published elsewhere.
     Finally, "The Power and the Passion" by Pat Cadigan (included in “Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror,” edited by Ellen Datlow, Tachyon Publications) is about a vampire killer who is as nasty as the vampires themselves, which the story argues is the only type of person who could be an effective vampire killer.
     Another time I may list some of my favorite vampire films and television shows. If you have any favorites, let me know.


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