I love movies, and there’s something to be said for the actual image of sinuous vampires on the screen, but for some reason these creatures always felt more real to me when they jumped off the page. Perhaps it’s the whole “dark and stormy night” aspect of it, where the descriptions of night and terror leave more scope for my imagination. Perhaps, to get all snotty on you, it’s because this was a concept told through tales, an idea with such a rich literary history that I can’t help but nod respectfully to the works that came before (slightly covered in my Dracula piece) and the wealth of material that followed. Whatever it is, vampires and books go together like peanut butter and jelly, or monsters and disemboweling, and I love it.
Right now, vampire lit is nearly over-saturating the market. Young Adult literature is stuffed to the rafters with books that have glowing eyes or pale-skinned beauties on the cover. Thanks Twilight! It can be almost exhausting to wade through the stack of Vampire Academy or Vampire Assistant or Vampire Gangster* books out there. Adult books are similarly plagued. Thanks, Sookie Stackhouse!
* I don’t think this one is real, and I’m claiming my intellectual property rights here and now.**
Despite the abundance of vamp books, enough for anyone to fully gorge on whatever type of undead lover they fancy, it still takes finesse to get the stories exactly right. And even when the stories aren’t exactly right, there are only a finite number of ways they can be told. Vampires have been around for centuries. You’re not going to find an utterly fresh telling. There can be fresh stories, but the methods fall under the same basic structures.
1. Build off a previous story.
When in doubt, stretch out something that has been proven over time. Elaborately fan-fic the crap out of classic literature, and voilà! You’ve got a story cooking! In all seriousness, this concept can lead to some incredible reading. When done skillfully, continuing from the foundation of Carmilla or Dracula can allow for the author to get all kinds of creative, but within a limited structure. It’s been posited that the best creativity happens when there are boundaries, and these kinds of books can prove that.
One of the most successful versions of this is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Weighty, time-weaving, and at times a little lagging in the narrative, The Historian uses the Dracula myth to tell a story about scholarship, about history, and about family. Kostova used the legends of Vlad Tepes to jump start this, her first novel, but made the character of the Count a shadowy villain. The result is something that can appeal to fans of the books, because it still has that stalking terror just in the shadows, but the drama surrounding the decades of involvement between this one family and the Count is the main attraction. In this way, it’s a thoroughly modern book, expanding on an ancient premise.
This is done even more joyfully in the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman. Full disclosure—I have only read the first in this series, and even that was difficult at times. Newman’s prose is positively purple, a lush tone that fits the Victorian landscape, but you have to be in precisely the right mood to push through it. Once that happens, however, the story is thrilling. This also builds on Dracula (the book, not the legend), but in a “what if?” way. What if the heroes of Dracula failed? What if Dracula actually succeeded in spreading vampirism all over England? What would a society of humans and vampires look like? Newman fleshes this out with awesome detail and tells the story with all the Victorian luridness a vampire fan could want. Spiritual sister to Penny Dreadful, tone-wise. Also, Jack the Ripper. I’ll say no more, but check this one out.
2. Take the name but change the game.
This is what happens when the beasties are still vampires, but everything else has completely changed. This is definitely the Twilight category. They’re called vampires, but they sparkle. Or don’t drink blood. Or aren’t possessed by demons. Essentially, it’s the reverse of the last category. Results are the same (ish), but origins may vary.
I find that YA lit does this best. Scott Westerfeld, he of Uglies fame, played with vampires in two books: Peeps and The Last Days. I’m surprised that these books haven’t taken over the world, because they embody everything hot in teen lit. Smart,
sassy protagonists that speak with real but overly smart voices, a la John Green. Vampire monsters, a la everything. Set against the impending apocalypse, giving a slight dystopian feel, just like the Hunger Games. How is this not more well known? It’s all those things and readable to boot. Give Westerfeld a medal. Regardless of whatever YA bingo Westerfeld was playing when he wrote these, they are great vampire books, where the vampire is actually a human infected with a parasite. A secret society has known about this disease since Colonial times, fighting against the infected and keeping the world safe, but now Hell is about to break loose on earth with a sudden spike in infestations. Changing vampirism into an actual disease—one backed up with snippets of real parasitic science—is a cool twist and adds a new layer of depth to the vampire story.
In further YA news, Robin McKinley (you might know her from The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, or Beauty) also got on the vampire train with Sunshine. These vampires are slightly more traditional, in that they are ancient beings created through trading of blood, but McKinley severely separates them from any human bonds. Her story is set in a supernatural other-world reeling in the wake of the “Voodoo Wars,” a magic monster v. magic human battle. Sunshine, a lovely baker of cinnamon rolls, is captured by vampires and escapes, but not before rescuing her fellow captive, who just so happens to be a vampire. They have a connection, she has power, but she also already has a boyfriend. Twist! Think Twilight, but if Bella had a personality and a life beyond her romantic entanglements. The most subversive part of Sunshine is how it establishes that vampires aren’t human. They might have the same basic shape, but the differences are tangible and noticeable. Placing the vampire inside a world that is already magical lessens the hyper-intense fear of the other, but the richness of the telling makes up for it.
Just like the best stews, vampire books benefit from having a little bit of everything thrown in there. In this case, the most enduring books, the ones I find most fascinating, are those that keep the old but push forward into the new. It’s like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—there are aristocratic vamps, ones that date back to Drac and keep the same basic back story and structure, but the characters and situations she’s working with are so new and vibrant it’s impossible to look away.
My ultimate favorite example of this is a graphic novel series. American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (with a special assist from Stephen King in the first issue), tells one of the greatest vampire stories I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that the first issue seemed particularly tailored to my tastes. Cowboys? Check. The 1920s? Check. Hollywood? Check. Smart, capable female protagonist? Check. Gangsters? Check. Jazz? Check. Strangely magnetic bad boy? Check. Extreme gore? Checkity check.
The first issue of American Vampire tells the story of Skinner Sweet, an outlaw in the Wild West of the 1800s. A run-in with a train full of Romanians leaves him a new species—the first American vampire. This origin story is cut up with the tale of Pearl, a flapper and aspiring actress who gets embroiled in events way over her head. There are bad guys, semi-bad guys, and those fighting against the forces of evil. It has layers to the vampires, making some sympathetic while never forgetting these are beings with awful destructive power, power shown through gorgeous, animalistic spreads drawn by Albuquerque. It’s awesome.
I love it because it does seem so very written for me, but it’s more than that. I love it because it’s a book that respects the concept of a vampire, evil and fangs and all. I love it because it has that respect but dares to do something new. I love it because it has a sense of starry-eyed optimism (there is good and evil, and the forces of good battle tirelessly against the darkness). I love it because those set parameters get messy, there are stark contrasts but it allows the characters to blur and play with those lines. It manages to take the old Carpathian creatures (seriously, Dracula shows up in one arc a few issues in) and blend it naturally with bold myth-making of its own.
And that’s what the best books do. They create something new. Yes, films are doing this with vampires. Less often now, since even my favorite vampire films have roots in novels, but there are original vampire tales being told on screen. And yet, books are the source of the latest and greatest. Books are the things pushing the myths forward. Those pages give the undead life.