Garlic and Crucifixes
by M.J. Hearle
In my last post, I took the vampire – or more to the point the people who write about vampires – to task. The thrust of my argument was that the vampire has become overexposed to the point that it no longer possesses the ability to frighten or entrance anymore. Thanks to the Twilight fallout, our poor nightstalker has been relegated to little more than a boddice-ripper lust object. No doubt you’ve seen him – a pale faced fellow with amber eyes staring moodily from a thousand book jackets. Like Fabio, only less tanned and wearing a shirt. I suggested, as storytellers, we leave the vampire alone for a decade or so and explore other less popular supernatural mythologies. Give the Count some time to get his bite back.
Because the last post was a little ranty (though entirely tongue in cheek), I thought I might take the opportunity today to write something positive about the vampire. It’s only fair – if I’m gonna call for its death, I should try and celebrate its life. Or non-life, considering the creature we’re dealing with here. So, without further adieu, here’s a selection of my favourite novels featuring vampires.
(Oh yeah, I haven’t included Dracula because it’s Dracula and you should have read it already.)
1.) Salem’s Lot (1975) by Stephen King
Anybody who has taken a cursory glance at this blog, is probably unsurprised to see me starting off the list with a Stephen King book. I love the guy. He’s the reason I do what I do but more than that he’s just a damn good writer. The cannily observed portrait he paints of small town life in Salem’s Lot is the sort of writing that would have won him praises from the critical community if only he’d been writing in a more reputable genre. It’s literate, poetic and evocative. Luckily, King never cared about being reputable so we are treated to one of the most terrifying vampire plagues ever committed to the page. Some critics accuse King of spending too long on the soap-operish aspects of his narrative, however this criticism never really washed with me. The horror that befalls the townsfolk of the Lot is all the more chilling because of how much time we’ve spent getting to know the characters. Even if we don’t necessarily like or sympathise with all of them, we believe in these people and can’t help fearing for them when night falls. Because there is something horrible in the dark. An ancient evil with glittering red eyes and long sharp teeth. The vampires in Salem’s Lot aren’t interested in romance, they feel no angst – feel nothing at all, in fact except a deep, gnawing hunger. Date them at your own risk.
Lumley’s Necroscope series was something of a phenomenon in the late eighties. The series actually continued into the new millennium, morphing into the Vampire World and E-Branch series, but I don’t feel qualified to comment on these books as I’ve only read the first two – Necroscope I & Necroscope II. What’s great about Necroscope is that it reads like an old–fashioned spy thriller. You have British Intelligence pitted against the KGB, government conspiracies, chase sequences, exotic locations, but woven through all this boys own adventure stuff, is some truly creative and bizarre supernatural notions. Let’s start with the term ‘Nercroscope’ itself (which I believe Lumley invented?), basically it means ‘someone who can speak with the dead’. Nothing too strange about that in horror fiction, but then you go and throw mind bending concepts like the Möbius Continuum, necromancy, necrophilia, ESP warriors, trans-dimensional hopping, astral projection and that’s just in the first couple of hundred pages. The vampires themselves are far more original than your standard pale-faced, pointy teeth variety. Necroscope was the first vampire book I read that posited the vampire as a physical parasite not just a spiritual threat. One isn’t turned into a vampire by being bitten on the neck – that would be far too simple – instead, Lumley’s vampires reproduce by creating ‘seeds’. These tiny little pieces of organic matter worm their way into your nervous system, gradually transforming your physiognomy into something more (or less) than human. Because of this, you can’t despatch these creatures with a simple stake through the heart. You need to completely eradicate them on a cellular level, otherwise they’ll just regenerate, which means fire. Lots of fire. Even then, you’d be wise to treat the ashes cautiously.
Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles were the Twilight of their day. Just like Twilight, they even spawned a couple of major Hollywood films. The first, Interview with the Vampire, starred Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and was pretty fantastic. The second Queen of the Damned, is utter garbage and not even worth a glance for curiosity’s sake. Neither of the films, managed to fully replicate the dark eroticism of Rice’s novels. While Interview with the Vampire, is a great gothic read – the Vampire Lestat is my favourite, due to its centuries-spanning epic scope. I love me some history mixed with my horror. Lestat is a highly entertaining character, at turns devilish, pitiful, frightening, and hilarious. He’s not much for brooding, but for those who like their vampires broody, Rice has created the king of broody vampires in Louis, Lestat’s on and off again companion. Certainly Edward Cullen and his like owe a massive debt to Interview’s Louis, and his melancholic musings on bloodlust and immortality. And while we’re on the subject – if we’re going to compare Twilight with the Vampire Chronicles, as romantic fiction, I would argue that the sensuality in Rice’s work is much more evocative, despite (or perhaps because of) its ambiguous nature. There is no such thing as gay or straight in the vampire world, and if nothing else Rice’s books should be applauded for challenging the mainstream’s sexual preconceptions.
Matheson is one of the horror genre’s true luminaries, despite most of his fiction being limited to short stories and novellas. If your only exposure to I Am Legend is the recent Will Smith movie, then I suggest you track down the original source material, as the movie pretty much eschewed all the political and social commentary that made the story so special. The premise of being the last man alive on a planet overrun with vampires could be a little pulpy in the hands of a less skilful writer, but the procedural realism of Matheson’s style never allows the material to be anything less than compelling. Not to mention, sad. I Am Legend is one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read. Especially, the last page where the reader finally discovers the bitter poignancy of the title.
Lindqvist’s vampire novel was compared by many critics to early Stephen King so naturally I was curious about checking it out. Just like King, Lindqvist never favours horror over character, so we’re treated to lyrical passages about the difficulties of growing up, with the supernatural stuff kept firmly on the edges of the narrative and never overplayed. Also, like King the true monsters in the novel aren’t the ones that drink blood. Lindqvist knows that the human race’s capacity for cruelty is infinitely more terrifying than a supernatural creature. Ultimately, Let the Right One In is a love story, and while it might not be the stuff to leave young girls hearts a flutter, it is nonetheless sweetly innocent and rich with pathos.
Wow – just…wow. There’s epic novels and then there’s Cronin’s The Passage which, weighing in at gargantuan 766 pages of itsy bitsy type, gives some of Stephen King’s novels a run for their money in terms of sheer size. Speaking of King, Cronin definitely owes a debt to the master, in his depiction of a virus based apocalypse (similar to The Stand) and telekinetic children (see Firestarter or Carrie). He also owes something to Richard Matheson as the book deals with another post-apocalyptic world ruled by vampires. That said, The Passage does not read as being derivative of past works. Cronin’s voice is so strong, his writing so impressively accomplished that even if you may have come across aspects of this story before, it nevertheless feels fresh and innovative. The vampires – or Virals, as they’re called in the novel – are truly monstrous, creations of a biological warfare experiment gone wrong, however there is also something deeply pathetic about them. Some small part remembers what it was to be human, and while they are inarguably dangerous there is no true wickedness in these creatures. Just an emptiness that longs to be filled.
I picked up The Strain because I was a huge fan of del Toro’s directorial work, in particular his Spanish horror films. I was curious to see if his lyrical filmmaking abilities would translate to the written word. Largely, they do. The book begins with a dark fairytale, not unlike those found in Pan’s Labyrinth, before morphing into CSI style techno thriller, as a small band of people try and stave off the vampire plague which is threatening Manhattan. It’s this blend of the supernatural and scientific which gives the novel a unique flavour, as most vampire fiction tends pick a side and stick with it. Like Cronin’s novel, the vampires in The Strain are ravenous animals driven by hunger, however we are offered glimpses that this is only the first stage of vampirism and in fact these howling monsters will evolve into something infinitely stranger and more terrible.
So, that’s my list of favourite vampire novels. It’s short and not at all comprehensive, and I know there is a distinct lack of YA Vampire stuff, but these are the novels that came to mind when I decided to write the blog.
What’s your favourite vampire novel?