The Vampire Literary Canon

"Carmilla" by David Henry Friston
“Carmilla” by David Henry Friston

Now, how can we possibly talk about gothic literature without mentioning the vampire genre? Of all the creatures that go bump in the night, vampires have long been a favorite of writers and readers alike. Today of course, the word brings to mind the type of teenage vampire love story popularized by Stephanie Meyer. To have a true appreciation of the genre however, I urge you to check out some of the classic stories that established the concept of vampires as we think of them today and informed the countless vampire novels that followed:

1. “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori (1819)

Polidori Vampyre coverThis short story is often considered the beginning of the vampire genre. It was written by a young physician named John Polidori, although it was originally attributed to his friend Lord Byron. Polidori was first inspired to write this story during the same summer retreat in which Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein.

“The Vampyre” contains many of the classic tropes of the vampire genre. It features a wealthy and seductive vampire by the name of Lord Ruthven who survives by drinking the blood of innocent young women. He has superhuman strength and cannot be killed by bullets. The story focuses on a young man named Aubrey who becomes Lord Ruthven’s travelling companion and slowly discovers to his horror the true nature of his friend. With beautiful young women dying left and right and a mounting sense of terror, this short story sets the tone for the original concept of the vampire tale as horror story.

You can find the full text of “The Vampyre” from Project Gutenberg.

2. Varney the Vampire by James Malcom Rymer (1847)

Varney coverI must confess, I have not read this one yet, but it’s on my list—or maybe not: the Goodreads reviews say it is longer than War and Peace and lacks a coherent plot. Nonetheless, one cannot deny its place among the classics of vampire literature.  Originally published in serialized pamphlets, Varney the Vampire—subtitled: “Feast of Blood”—belongs to the category of 19th century literature known as Penny Dreadfuls. It tells the tale of a nobleman named Sir Frances Varney who, though a vampire of sorts, often evokes sympathy in the reader. From my understanding, there are multiple plots throughout the story that involve seducing and drinking the blood of young women—I’m sensing a theme here.

3. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1871)

Carmilla coverNow, this one I am truly ashamed not to have read yet. Carmilla is a novella written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and was also originally published in serialized form. The most striking thing about this work is that it prominently features a female vampire—and like her male counterparts, Carmilla preys primarily on young women. The story is well known for its strong lesbian overtones and has had a strong influence on the works of vampire fiction that followed.

4. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

dracula cover 2The iconic classic vampire story. I read this one when I was in sixth grade or something, so I’m seriously overdue for a reread. Dracula is a must-read if you want to have a true appreciation for the vampire genre—although I will admit it does get slow and boring at times. The story is told in an epistolary style, composed of letters, diary entries, and captain’s logs written by the various characters. This book establishes many of the tropes of the vampire genre including being repelled by garlic and crucifixes, being weak in the daylight, being unable to enter a home uninvited, and lacking a reflection. Most of what I remember from my initial read of this book is Lucy getting her blood sucked like ten million times and copious use of the word “voluptuous.”

5. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (1976-2014)

Interview with a vampire coverI would credit Anne Rice for transforming the vampire genre from the gothic tales of horror of the 19th century into what it is today. These books are written from the perspectives of the vampires, making these creatures sympathetic protagonists rather than pure evil enemies. While Louis and Lestat may not much resemble the high school heart-throb vampires featured in many of today’s vampire novels, Rice’s books establish such tropes as serious romantic relationships with humans, explorations of the ennui that accompanies immortality, and the moral struggle of the reluctant vampire. I also began reading this series in middle school and into high school, so my opinions on it are a bit dated, but here’s what I remember: The first book, Interview with a Vampire, is told from the perspective of Louis who I found to be kind of wimpy and obnoxious. The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned are told from Lestat’s perspective and are much more interesting. The books after Queen of the Damned start to get weird, and I don’t particularly recommend them.

After Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the vampire paranormal romance genre blossomed. It’s hard to pick just a few books or series to canonize, but a few of my favorites are the Den of Shadows series by Amelia Atwater Rhodes and the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead.

What are your favorites? Are there any great books that you think I’ve left out of the canon? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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