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.