Mandatory Reading: The Greatest Vampire Stories of All Time

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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

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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

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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.

3. Carmilla

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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.


  • MrMLK

    How about Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin?

    • Nick Verboon

      Who is this upstart author of which you speak? Thanks for the reminder. I obviously need to read that one. It must be pretty great if you’d consider it a better (if less influential) pick than any of the above.

      • MrMLK

        I’ve read all of the above, except Carmilla, which I am going to read this weekend. Thanks for that.

        I would place Fevre Dream after Dracula, but before all the others. I also might swap I am Legend and Salem’s Lot. Have to think about that.

  • Noah

    You should try out a book called Sunshine. I don’t know how to summarize it, but the blurb on the front calls it “pretty much perfect.” The guy who says that is Neil Gaiman.

    • Gaiman has never lied to me. So many books out there and so little money to buy them with. I feel like the guy in “Time Enough At Last” except my bank account broke instead of my glasses.

  • David R

    Dracula is really an astonishing piece of work. It’s kind of the “Treasure Island” of vampire stories, in that basically everything that came after was using it as source material.

    It’s also extremely creepy if you can get with it. I remember being pretty surprised at that; I expected the book to be “scary for its time” and what I got was a book that’s pretty much just scary.

    • MrMLK

      One of the things that I find so interesting about it is that – unlike all the other books on the list – Dracula only appears in a handful of pages.

      For anyone who want to get deeper into this book, there are a couple of annotated versions, and both are excellent.

    • It’s just a great all around piece of literary art, but it’s also like LOTR in that modern readers just can’t get into it and it drives me nuts. If this generation can’t handle Stoker and Tolkien, what’s going to happen to Shakespeare in a few decades?

      I’m looking forward to seeing Dario Argento’s take on the character when it hits Region 1 DVD. I know everyone hates it, but like Stoker there seem to be less and less people who really “get” Argento.

    • Sara Clemens

      The first four chapters (Jonathan Harker’s Diary) remain some of the most legitimately terrifying I have ever read. I try to reread the whole book every year, but if I can’t make the time I at least read these chapters.

      The great thing is if you don’t mind ending on a note of complete despairing uncertainty, they stand alone quite well, ha ha!

  • Sara Clemens

    Mmmm, Carmilla. If this were a top 10, I’d definitely include Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls and Nancy A. Collins’s Sunglasses After Dark to round out the beginnings of the modern urban vampire.

    • I first conceived this as a top 10 list of short stories but it’s been so long for many of them and some I can’t even remember the title of. I decided to play it safe for a change and stick with the absolute classics. Thanks for the recs!

  • Stephen King has two shorts in “Night Shift” that act as a prequel and epilogue to “Salem’s Lot”.

    “Jerusalem’s Lot” has more a Lovecraftian “Rats in the Walls” atmosphere but “One for the Road” is a straight up whiskey gut shot of vampirism goodness.

    • I have One for the Road in a vampire short story collection and it’s creepy as all hell. Need to get with Jerusalem’s Lot (and more of King’s collections in general). I love Rats in the Walls so you sure worded that recommendation correctly to get my attention. King also has a sequel of sorts written into his Dark Tower series in books 5 and 6 that cover what happened to Father Callahan after he left town.

  • the best vampire movie of ALL time is Vampire’s Kiss. but not really in the way that the makers and it’s star intended. Search youtube for it. You won’t be disappointed.

    • Have you ever tried sitting through that entire film sober? Well I have. Wouldn’t recommend it.