Two centuries ago, Dr. John Polidori’s story “The Vampyre” was published, and vampire literature was born. The Vampyre's Legacy series has charted the evolution of the genre over two hundred years, taking one story from each decade to use as a case study. But the most recent decade presents a problem: the period is still too
Two centuries ago, Dr. John Polidori’s story “The Vampyre” was published, and vampire literature was born. The Vampyre’s Legacy series has charted the evolution of the genre over two hundred years, taking one story from each decade to use as a case study. But the most recent decade presents a problem: the period is still too recent for us to choose with any certainty a single work that defines or typifies the shape of vampire literature during the 2010s.
And so, the final post in this series will do things differently. Instead of one vampire story to represent the decade, let us take a look at ten –– one for each year — to better appreciate just how many different varieties of vampire are haunting the imagination of the reading public…
2010: The Comedy-Historical Vampire
Seth Grahame-Smith had a bona fide pop culture phenomenon on his hands with his 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the following year he attempted a similar trick with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. But this time, instead of the English literary canon, he drew upon American history for his horror mash-up.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is presented as a diary belonging to the sometime president, one that charts his lifelong battles against vampires. The premise lends itself to all manner of wacky comedy; however, the novel ends up playing itself largely straight, making the humorous touches all the more successful. Notably, Grahame-Smith makes a point of treating Lincoln with respect, his portrayal of the statesman being more hagiographic than parodic. By depicting vampires as being involved with the institution of slavery, the story is also able to fuse Lincoln’s real-life achievements with his fictional undead-busting antics.
Just as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies initiated a fad for books like Ben H. Winters’ Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009) and W. Bill Czolgosz’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim (2011), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter belongs to a wave of tongue-in-cheek historical-horror hybrids — although to give credit where it is due, Grahame-Smith’s novel was not the first, as A. E. Moorat had already explored similar territory in 2009 with Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter. Many found that the joke got old fast, but Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is strong enough to stand up even when the novelty of its gimmick has worn off.
2011: The Crimelord Vampire
B. E. Scully’s novel Verland: The Transformation revolves around true crime author Elle Bramasol as she works on a book about Eliot Kingman, a successful film director recently convicted of murder. Kingman’s trial was colourful even by the standard of Hollywood scandals, with a professed necromancer named Zor Pithador turning up in court, and Elle’s research reveals further levels of strangeness. Not long before the crime, Kingman had developed an interest in vampires: his last film had been on the subject, and he had managed to procure what purported to be the diary of a vampire named Verland.
Verland: The Transformation is really two stories, with the saga of the titular vampire unfolding through diary excerpts alongside Elle’s investigation of the Kingman mystery. The narrative of Verland’s life and undeath begins in the nineteenth century and follows the vampire as he tests the limits of his new abilities and watches the world change around him. Wars and atrocities take place, while art and culture continue to evolve (Verland is particularly amused by the development of vampire fiction, as he reads Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, Dracula, and a novel from the seventies that is presumably Interview with the Vampire). The diary also includes multiple nested stories, so that we learn not only of Verland but also of the vampire who turned Verland, and so on back further still.
Much of the material in Verland’s historical sequences will be familiar to anyone who has read vampire fiction before, and the basic philosophical theme — that the behaviour of vampires pales in comparison to the wars and atrocities of mortal humanity — is one already made by Guy Endore in his 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris. More interesting is the present-day plot thread, which draws heavily from crime fiction: Elle’s mission to find the association between Kingman and vampires is ultimately a detective’s mission to work out the motives of a killer, albeit given a supernatural twist. Like most detective stories, it hinges upon a scheme and a motive. We learn that Kingman desires a world in which a vampiric elite rules over a race of mortal chattel; but being an up-to-date despot, he is not planning to condemn humanity to unwilling slavery. Instead, he intends to weaponise modern media culture: “Look at the way people worship celebrity. Look at how they prostrate themselves at the feet of the rich and famous… Do you think we’d have any problem selling people on the idea of spending their lives among creatures more magnificent than their wildest imaginings…?”
As with many satisfying hero-villain pairings, Elle Bramasol and Eliot Kingman are two sides of the same coin. Elle turned to writing about murderers after the death of her mother, while Kingman became obsessed with immortality as a result of his father’s death. The conflict between the two leads to a climactic battle of wills that successfully blends the crime and vampire genres.
2012: The Traumatic Vampire
Glen Hirshberg’s novel Motherless Child introduces us to Natalie and Sophie, two young mothers who spend a night with a musician — who is, in actuality, a vampire. Finding themselves transformed, they realise that their old lives are over and that their families are now in danger. The two women pass their children over to Natalie’s mother for safety and go on the run together.
On paper, Motherless Child sounds like a vampirised version of Thelma and Louise (1991). But as fetchingly high-concept as this pitch may be, author Glen Hirshberg turns out to have something more sophisticated in mind. The novel uses the motif of the vampire to explore trauma and its aftermath: once Natalie and Sophie are cut adrift from everything in their lives except one another, the story explores their psychological states with intelligence and sensitivity. The fantasy elements mingle with mundane details, as seemingly trivial diversions like pop music or Pixar films become sources of profound comfort for the two protagonists. Meanwhile, the two vampires responsible for this state of affairs — identified simply as the Whistler and the Mother — are presented as abstract, impersonal figures, embodiments of trauma rather than full characters.
Faced with such emotional burdens, Natalie and Sophie at least have each other — although their relationship is far from free of uncertainties:
More than anything, Natalie wanted to move to the bed, take Sophie’s hand, sit beside her. Lay her head against Sophie’s shoulder. But she didn’t dare. Or maybe just couldn’t. Fear. Friendship. Desire. Regret. Remorse. Loneliness. Longing. Hunger. Terror. It was getting so hard to tell the difference between any of those things. If she’d ever been able to. If anyone really could.
2013: The Fantasyland Vampire
Joe Hill’s novel NOS4A2 posits that certain people have the ability to alter reality through magic objects. Victoria McQueen, a young girl keen on cycling, has access to a magic bridge that can appear and disappear when wanted, and will transport her to wherever she needs to be – a useful trick when searching for lost property. One of these jaunts puts her in contact with Maggie, a teenage librarian who can discover secret information using a set of magic scrabble tiles.
Maggie tells Vic about a person with powers of a more sinister sort. His name is Charlie Manx, and his magic object is a car — a vintage Rolls-Royce Wraith with the number plate NOS4A2 — that can transport its occupants to a land formed from Manx’s imagination. Like a twisted version of Peter Pan or Willy Wonka, Manx is fond of taking children to this land where they can enjoy Christmas all year long — at a grave cost to their psyches.
Despite this warning Vic becomes a captive of Manx. She manages to escape, however, and grows to adulthood. She comes to dismiss her experiences with a teleporting bridge and teenage witch librarian as mere childish fancy, and is encouraged to see her ordeal in Charlie Manx’s Christmasland as no more than a screen memory for a more materialistic form of evil: child molestation.
That is, until the librarian Maggie pays a visit; drug-addicted and unstable, she reveals that Charlie Manx has returned. Before long, it will be time for Vic to rescue her own child from Christmasland.
NOS4A2 is a study of childhood imagination, one that recognises that childhood is a time of boundless possibilities and potential, but also a time of great anxiety and uncertainty. It depicts both aspects vividly, and then introduces a new perspective when Vic grows up, bringing a set of adult concerns to the narrative.
Charlie Manx, the villain of the novel, comes to symbolise a range of different fears. He is the intangible bogeyman of childhood fear. He is also the nightmare of every parent — the child predator (although he resents this comparison: “I am no kiddie fliddler… The fires of hell are not hot enough for such people”). He can also, perhaps, be taken to represent a parent’s fear of what they might become if they fail in their role. During the story we learn that he was a failed husband and father prior to his monstrous turn; his first wife called him a vampire, which led to him adopting this motif in his fantasy world.
After he takes them to Christmasland, the children captured by Manx undergo vampiric transformations. They enter a state where they will never grow old because they are not fully alive, and develop mouths filled with pointed teeth. They also lose empathy — all part of Manx’s aim of granting them eternal innocence. “Innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know,” remarks Maggie. “Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don’t know any better.”
In the darkly fantastic, even cartoonish world of NOS4A2, the symbol of the vampire serves as a multi-faceted lens through which to analyse the fears of children — and the fears around children.
2014: The Hard-Boiled Vampire
The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buelhman is set in the New York of 1978 where, in the subways and tunnels that run below the city, lives Joey Peacock. A vampire since the age of fourteen, Joey operates alongside a small gang of fellow undead who were turned immortal in various different decades, their personal histories granting such nicknames as Old Boy, Baldy and Billy Bang. Having collectively woken up from the American dream, the vampires are left in a world where all that matters is simply surviving from night to night, and where the little pleasures in life are warped by sadism:
I mean, who’d want to turn a nice mom-looking woman who worked in programming for WNET down in Newark? That’s the PBS station. I fucked with her once acting like the Count from Sesame Street. “How vell do you see in the dark? How many fingers am I holding up? Vun? Two? Yes! TWO Fingers! HAHAHAHAHA!” I was just trying to cheer her up, but she cried so hard she had a convulsion or something,, or thought she was having one, which is what most vampire medical issues are—ghosts of problems we can’t actually have anymore.
The Lesser Dead makes a concerted effort to drain the vampire mythos of its romanticism. Joey Peacock’s backstory is borne not from Gothic melodrama, but from arbitrary, petty cruelty: he managed to drive away a disliked housekeeper, Margaret, by framing her for theft, only for her to return as a vampire and get her revenge. Vampirism itself is reduced to a matter of bodily functions, with vampires compared to washed-up alcoholics and blood-drinking discussed in much the same terms as going to the toilet (and, indeed, the novel goes into unusual detail about vampire defecation). Far from being suave Byronic rebels, the vampires are fountains of trash-talk, bickering and casual racism. The idea of fusing the vampire underworld with the criminal underworld is hardly new, but rather than the colourful supervillainy of Verland or the countercultural hipness of Sunglasses After Dark, The Lesser Dead becomes a study in the banality of evil.
The main plot of the novel deals with Joey and his gang coming across a group of mysterious vampire children. After doing some investigation — in the process straddling the line between hardened criminal and hard-boiled detective – Joey becomes convinced that the children are victims of molestation at the hands of an older vampire. This is a development that does something to establish degrees of morality within the novel’s otherwise nihilistic world: all vampires are predators, but some predators are more depraved than others.
However, there are still more twists in store, mostly playing with the ambiguity of age that comes with the vampire mythos: an immortal who resembles a child may be older, more cunning, and more dangerous than they appear. When all appears to be wrapped up, The Lesser Dead ends with one final revelation, adding a fresh new coat of cynicism to the exploits of Joey Peacock.
An accusation often directed at twenty-first century vampire fiction is that it its vampires are too soft; that the hideous walking corpse of folklore has been sanitised into a sparkly dream-boy love interest. The accusation is not entirely fair — it could be argued that the figure of the romantic vampire goes back to John Polidori’s decision to model Lord Ruthven around Byron — but the contention that vampires should be returned to their horrific roots did inspire some noteworthy variations on the genre.
The Vampire of Plainfield by Kristopher Rufty pits the undead against the real-life murderer Ed Gein. The inspiration behind a pantheon of fictional villains including Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill and Leatherface, Gein not only killed at least two people but exhumed corpses from graveyards to fashion macabre household ornaments. To work as a story, The Vampire of Plainfield creates a vision of vampirism so hideous that even Ed Gein could look like the lesser of two evils.
Set in 1954, the novel portrays Gein as a man who robs graves to feed his perverted desires, but who is not a killer — at least not at first. The deaths only start when he unknowingly disinters the grave of a vampire patriarch, reviving the monster by removing a stake from its heart. The vampire is an inhuman being with a fang-lined mouth, talons for feet and leathery bat wings; recalling Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), it sets about turning residents of the smalltown setting into vampires. Gein’s two known victims, Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, turn up in the story as a vampire and vampire hunter respectively, the latter revealed to be the member of a clan that had killed the vampire patriarch in the first place. Gein is initially used by the vampires as a Renfield-like servant, but later turns against them, entering the climactic battle in a suit made from a woman’s skin.
Casting Gein unambiguously as the hero would have been perhaps a little too twisted, and so the novel uses Bernice Worden’s fictitious grandson Timmy as its central character. An adolescent boy who apparently gets his sex education from lurid horror comics, Timmy reacts to the supernatural goings-on with a mixture of fear and intrigue at the possibility of fantasies fulfilled.
2016: The Parody Vampire
Given that the stage adaptations of Polidori’s “The Vampyre” inspired various spoofs, vampire parodies are almost as old as vampire literature. And just as vampire literature has evolved over the centuries, vampire parodies have changed and shifted in turn, always finding a new way to lampoon whatever form of the undead is in vogue.
Jim McDoniel’s An Unattractive Vampire is a novel that pits the modern, sympathetic and physically attractive vampires of urban fantasy and paranormal romance against their earlier, scarier counterparts in folklore. The main character is Yulric Bile, a vampire of the old school — tough to destroy and repulsive to behold. But after awakening from a long sleep he finds that nobody recognises him as a vampire:
“I am not a mummy,” Yulric barked, letting loose his long-bottled rage. “I am not a werewolf. I am not a ghost. I am not a zom-whatever. I, dear children, am Yulric Bile. And I am a real vampyr.”
And with that dramatic statement, bells sounded from all over the club and the sprinkler system went off.
The reason for this confusion, Yulric learns, is that vampires have transformed since he has gone away. They are now prettier and more popular with the public – but at a great cost, as it now takes only a simple stake through the heart to kill them. And so, Yulric sets about pulling together a team of ancient vampires from around the world to show the newcomers how to do things properly.
The central joke of An Unattractive Vampire is not enough to sustain an entire novel, but Jim McDoniel avoids this issue by filling out his cast with weird and wonderful characters. We meet Amanda, a battle-hardened vampire slayer whose insistence on Goth fashions leads to much corset-related inconvenience. Simon, her precocious eight-year-old brother, so much a bookworm that when he misbehaves Amanda forces him to watch television as punishment. Vermillion (née Rusty), an acne-troubled adolescent who wants to become a vampire. The cast of The Phantom Vampire Mysteries, a popular TV series created by real vampires, who embody everything Yulric loathes about the new breed – even though he is addicted to the show itself. Catherine, a woman in a coma whose dreams are visited by Yulric. Even the Aztec death-god Tezcatlipoca turns up. And, of course, there is the novel’s omniscient narrative voice, the wry observations of which make it a cast member in its own right.
The actual plot remains negligible, but thanks to its offbeat characters, An Unattractive Vampire nonetheless ends up a tangy fruit salad of a novel.
2017: The Transgender Vampire
The motif of the vampire is ripe with symbolic potential. Over the decades it has been used to represent everything from homosexuality to capitalism, and each new generation has brought forth different authors from different backgrounds to find new ways of connecting the vampire theme to their own experiences. One of the many examples of this is “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, a novelette by the transgender writer K. M. Szpara.
Originally published in Uncanny Magazine, the novelette tells the story of a transgender man named Finley who is attacked and fatally injured by a vampire named Andreas. Feeling remorseful, Andreas saves Finley’s life — in a manner of speaking — by turning him into a vampire.
In the world of the story, the existence of vampires is treated as a mundane fact of life, so much so that vampires are fully recognised by the medical establishment. Those new to vampirism — like Finley — are able to get treatment and support for their condition, but doing so involves a significant amount of bureaucratic red tape. Indeed, becoming a vampire is rather like undergoing a gender transition — as Finley, being both transgender and a vampire, can confirm.
K. M. Szpara’s attempts to draw parallels between vampirism and being transgender are by turn inventive, humorous and touching. The story takes the melancholy notion that a vampire can never again watch the sun set or rise – an old idea that had been previously used by Anne Rice — and relates it to the emotions that can arise from transition: Finley, we learn, felt a similar melancholy at the fact that his hormone treatment cost him his singing voice. This original and heartfelt novelette was justly honoured at the Hugo, Nebula and Tiptree awards.
2018: The Recursive Vampire
One of the more controversial authors in twenty-first vampire literature is Dacre Stoker, great grand-nephew of Bram Stoker. Working with co-writer Ian Holt, he was responsible for Dracula the Un-dead, a 2009 novel that was billed as the official sequel to Dracula and the sort of follow-up that Bram Stoker himself may have written. However, it turned out to be a substantially revisionist work that re-imagined Count Dracula as a misunderstood hero, and gave him action-packed adventures that had owed more to horror-superhero films like Blade (1998) and Van Helsing (2004) than to Victorian literature. This should not have come as a surprise, as Ian Holt originally conceived the story as a screenplay prior to taming with Dacre Stoker to write it as a book.
For his next novel Dacre Stoker partnered with a different co-writer, J. D. Barker, and produced a more fitting tribute to his ancestor. Dracul uses a fictionalised version of Bram Stoker as its protagonist, the story positing that Stoker had personal experience with vampires that fed into his most famous work His experiences begin with childhood memories of his nanny, Ellen Crone, a purported teenager who showed a number of peculiar and macabre traits – such as treating Bram’s blood infection by sucking from his flesh.
The narrative that unfolds is a supernatural family saga, one that places Bram Stoker’s relations — particularly his brother Thornley – alongside figures familiar from his fiction. Count Dracula appears amongst the vampire characters, as does Countess Dolingen from Bram Stoker’s posthumously-published story “Dracula’s Guest” (1914). The Hungarian scholar Arminius Vámbéry, who in reality helped Bram Stoker with his research for Dracula, turns up in Dracul as a Van Helsing-like savant willing to dirty his hands with the messier aspects of vampire-slaying. Also in the cast is Emily Stoker, Bram’s sister-in-law, who goes mad during the course of the story and begins talking in a manner not unlike Dracula’s Renfield. Recognising that Bram Stoker would have grown up with the folklore of his native Ireland, the novel incorporates the Dearg-Due, a being cited by the influential Montague Summers in his book The Vampire in Europe (1929) as an Irish manifestation of the vampire.
Dracul is not a groundbreaking novel, but it is a solid pastiche, one that tells a story distinct from Dracula while remaining reasonably faithful to Bram Stoker’s framework.
2019: The Children’s Vampire
No overview of vampire fiction can be complete without giving due credit to stories for children. After all, people these days are generally introduced to vampires not through Polidori, Stoker or even Rice, but through children’s media where vampires are amiable figures who promote breakfast cereals or teach basic numeracy. Literature for younger readers has more than its fair share of loveable vampires, from Deborah and James Howe’s Bunnicula and Angela Sommer-Bodenburg’s Little Vampire through to more recent creations.
Enter Isadora Moon, star of a series of books written and drawn by Harriet Muncaster. Isadora’s adventures began in 2016 and are still going strong in 2019, the year that saw the publication of Isadora Moon Puts on a Show.
Isadora has an unusual family tree: her father is a vampire named Count Bartholomew Moon, while her mother is a fairy called Countess Cordelia Moon; taking after both sides of the family, she has ended up with her dad’s fangs and her mum’s pointy ears. Isadora spends her time with her baby sister honeyblossom, her best friends Zoe and Oliver, and her cuddly pink rabbit that her mother brought to life with a swish of a magic wand. Together, the characters embark on a range of typical childhood activities — going to school, heading to the seaside, holding birthday parties — that always take on a touch of fantasy when Isadora’s around. Conjured up in Muncaster’s fetching black, white and pink illustrations, Isadora Moon is perhaps the definitive product of an imaginary landscape in which vampires are harmless fantasy creatures. As well as being half-fairy, Isadora rubs shoulders with such innocuous beings as mermaids, cuddly pink dragons and Casper-esque friendly ghosts.
In Isadora Moon Puts on a Show, our heroine takes part in the annual vampire ball for the first time — and gets nervous at the thought how the other, more conventional vampires will react to her passion for ballet. By the end of the story, of course, she has built up her self-confidence and provided some life lessons to the kids at home.
For many children, Isadora Moon Puts on a Show may well be their first work of vampire fiction. How many of those youngsters will grow up to write vampire stories of their own? As the twenty-first century rolls on, perhaps we will see new additions to the vampire pantheon who take after not only Lord Ruthven, Count Dracula, Carmilla Karnstein and Lestat de Lioncourt — but also Isadora Moon.
We have come to the end of vampire literature’s first two centuries. We cannot say for sure what the next hundred years will bring with them, but it is safe to say that the fertile imaginations of today’s children will help to produce the nightmares of future generations…