New Blood: Five Vampire Novels that Subvert the Myth
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Vampires are defined by transformation. Typically, they are people transformed into immortal monsters, which in turn transform into wolves, bats, and occasionally a very dense mist. In recent years, vampires have transformed into pearlescent-skinned pretty boys, who threaten not only to drink your blood, but also to elope with your daughter. It's a fascinating reinvention, but perhaps not the one that horror readers had been waiting for.
For those of us who grew up in a time when the vampire was a figure to be feared (and perhaps staked), the idea of settling down with a vampire can be a bridge too far. We may be just a little traditional, but we think that human/vampire relationships are wrong… unless your name is Mina Harker.
For us, the best vampire novels are the ones that put a new spin on things. If you’re a fan of wholesome, old-fashioned vampire fiction, you might enjoy these nosferatu novels that put a fresh twist on the concept of the sanguivorous night creature.
Sheridan Le Fanu: Carmilla
Bram Stoker’s epistolic Dracula may have cemented his position as the Irish novelist with the strongest claim on modern vampire fiction, but Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is another Irish vampire novel that predates Dracula by fully 26 years. Beyond that, Carmilla is so thoroughly different from the majority of vampire fiction that it stands out even now.
First things first, Le Fanu’s vampire is a woman, which (given the book’s Victorian origins) fundamentally changes the nature of the threat. Further, where Dracula falls for Harker’s wife, the never-quite-explicitly-lesbian vampire of Carmilla certainly demands a lot of attention from the victorian ladies on whom she preys. As a result, the whole affair unfolds as something closer to a psychological horror than the supernatural horror you might expect from a vampire novel.
Like so many classic novels, Carmilla suffers somewhat for the fact that it predates (and indeed influences) so much of what we have already read. As a result, we can’t describe it in too much detail without essentially explaining it all away. Moreover, the modern reader will find that there are twists that are all too easy to see coming. With that said, it’s still a fantastic read for fans of the genre.
Anne Rice: The Vampire Lestat
There was a time when Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire would have been considered the ultimate subversion of the vampire novel. Presented entirely from the point of view of the soulful Louis, it tells the story of a vampire cursed to eternal unlife, forced to sustain himself by drinking human blood, and confessing all of this to a lone journalist in the course of a book-length interview.
However, thanks to the success of Neil Jordan’s incredible adaptation, Interview with the Vampire has been normalized to some extent. By comparison, the sequel, The Vampire Lestat, has become the strange twist on its predecessor. In a world in which Louis detests the eternal life to which he has been consigned, Lestat is a vampire who takes an almost childish glee in his immortality, exercising his strange powers whenever he sees fit.
Where the first book presents Louis as a man plagued by Lestat’s inhuman appetites and powers, The Vampire Lestat presents us with a figure who is simultaneously far closer to the traditional vampire, and in many ways more sympathetic.
[Fair warning: There are endless books in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, but after Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat they take a pretty precipitous drop in quality. Proceed with caution.]
For the most part, when we are introduced to a vampire, it tends to happen as in Stoker’s Dracula; they are already the consummate supernatural predator at the peak of their powers. On top of that, they’re also almost universally cool. It doesn’t seem fair that vampirism, along with its other dark gifts, should bestow superhuman coolness on its victims.
Fortunately, Fred is the polar opposite of all that. A stuffy accountant in life, he has become a stuffy nocturnal accountant in death. Early in the book, he describes his miserable attempts to “feed” on ordinary humans, eventually leading to his cooking the books for a local hospital in exchange for blood.
“I recorded my journeys in the hopes that, should another being find themselves utterly depressed at the humdrum personality still saddling their supernatural frame, they might find solace in knowing they are not the only one to have felt that way.”
It’s a thoroughly unglamorous story of a vampire who is as far as you could possibly get from the aristocracy of the night, and at the same time Fred is strangely compelling. On some level, you know that you should be bored by a person whose plans for their immortality extend no further than late night video rentals… but it Fred’s down-and-dirty practicality makes his vampirism more interesting than most modern vampires.
Justin Cronin: The Passage
As a genre, the vampire novels tend to go in one of two directions. In the first, the vampire novel is often set at a particular point in the past and sees humans oppose the ageless night creature. In the second instance, as in Interview with the Vampire, we see the world from the perspective of a creature that has lived through the ages relate the story of having done so.
Cronin’s The Passage narrowly avoids both by being set in the near future, a post-apocalyptic Earth ravaged by a virus whose effects you can probably already hazard a guess at. Where Cronin really excels is in the flavor of the novel. In situations where your vampirism is scientific rather than supernatural, it’s all too easy to lose the feel of the vampire. Here, small touches like the mention of the fact that the virus originated in bats give the reader just enough of a nod towards vampire myth that it all holds together.
The Passage is far from a typical vampire novel, and the fact that the majority of the book’s events take place (effectively) after the collapse of civilization lends it a feel closer to The Stand than Salem’s Lot. On top of that, the conspiracy angle works a lot better here than in Anne Rice’s novels, in which the “talamasca” always felt somehow bolted on to the broader vampire stories being told.
George R. R. Martin: Fevre Dream
It seems almost impossibly strange that George R R Martin has achieved such worldwide acclaim for his Song of Ice and Fire, without that fame ever really overflowing into his (voluminous) back catalogue. Between you and us, part of the reason is that the vast majority of his work doesn’t quite hold up to the same intense scrutiny as Game of Thrones, but Fevre Dream is no less enjoyable for it.
Set in 1872, Fevre Dream tells the story of Abner March, a down on his luck steamboat captain who dreams of manning the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi. March is introduced to a wealthy businessman named Joshua York, who helps finance the construction of the dream riverboat. The two then co-captain the steamboat, though York and his cadre of associates are never seen on deck before dusk.
If the above description seems a little scant, that’s because Fevre Dream, like all great vampire novels, has a few excellent twists that we’d really rather not spoil for you. In any case, the real key here is the sense of time and place. While Interview with the Vampire explores the idea of the 19th century American vampire, it never does so with the sense of depth and immediacy that Fevre Dream does.
Beyond that, Martin gives his vampires a level of social and cultural development beyond most books. It might seem a simple touch, but it’s enough to put Fevre Dream high on any list of must-read vampire novels.