There's no denying that vampire fiction is among the hottest genres in literature these days. If you like a bit of romance, angst and brooding with your fangs, you'll perhaps be a fan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (also known as the Sookie Stackhouse or True Blood books). If you prefer your bloodsucking creatures of the night to be a shot of straight-up terror, you'll be interested to check out Guillermo del Toro's The Strain trilogy which he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan, or both The Passage and The Twelve, the first two books in a planned trilogy by Justin Cronin. All of these vampires are contemporary, with stories set mostly in modern-times. But this genre, where gothic horror often meets romance, is no johnny-come lately; the vampire has a long, colorful, terrifying history in literature.
The first instances of vampire tales originally appeared in eastern European folklore. Some of these stories began to trickle into western European literature in the 18th century, and German and English authors started to put their own spin on the myths.
The short German poem, The Vampire (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelde, is often cited as being the first major work to mention these mythical undead creatures but vampires really became a popular phenomenon in the 19th century. Wander through the selection of vampire books below - if you dare - and then let us take you on a spine-tingling trip through time with our timeline of literary vampires.
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A group of friends were holidaying in a villa near Lake Geneva during the unseasonably cold “year without a summer.” John William Polidori, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley decided to pass the time with a ghost story competition. This epic gathering produced two of the first vampire tales in English literature - Polidori’s The Vampyre and Lord Byron’s unfinished Fragment of a Novel. Mary Shelley’s entry was to become the basis for her classic contribution to horror, Frankenstein.
Vampire stories started to become more popular in this period and they also began to make their way on to youth reading lists. James Malcolm Rymer published Varney the Vampire as a series of penny dreadfuls (which were an early type of pulp pamphlet aimed at working class adolescents). The serialization proved to be very popular, so much so that it was later published as a single epic book. The story was highly influential on future vampire lore, perpetuating many themes common in vampire tales today such as having fangs leaving two puncture wounds, coming through a window to attack a sleeping maiden, hypnotic powers, and superhuman strength. Varney was also the first example of a sympathetic vampire who loathes his own condition but is helpless to stop it.
Sheridan le Fanu's classic novella Carmilla was the one of the first to successfully add erotic fixations into vampire literature, with a female vampire seducing the novel’s heroine to draw her vital fluids. This was also one of the first examples of the lesbian vampire trope.
Dracula by Bram Stoker; the quintessential vampire book is published. The book mixed medieval myths and previous vampire fiction with sex, blood and death to create a novel that struck a chord with late 19th century Britain. Stoker’s vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, helped create a trend for heroes willing to fight the undead. After Dracula, authors continued to create vampire stories but most failed to captivate reading audiences in the same way. No new concepts were introduced until the golden age of science fiction.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson popularizes the use of vampires in science fiction in his post-apocalyptic vision of a world crippled by a disease that induces vampirism. The book has been adapted into multiple films over the years. I am Legend is often referred to as the first modern vampire novel.
Stephen King, the master of modern horror, pens Salem’s Lot and thereby re-opens the doors of vampirism to a new set of fans. The book puts vampires into a sleepy Maine town in the 20th century and mayhem ensures.
Anne Rice publishes her Vampire Chronicles and things start to change. This multi-volume series re-invigorates the concept of erotic vampires found in Carmilla, the gothic novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The book also steps away from vampires being treated as intrinsically evil and portrays them as romantic anti-heroes caught in a poetic and tragic web.
Gothic subculture and vampirism merges. Rice’s popularity inspires many romance writers to delve into fantasy helping push the paranormal romance craze which has become one of the largest sub-genres in romance publishing - these authors include Christine Feehan’s Dark series and Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series among many others.
Vampires are once again at the top of the bestseller lists. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, begun in 2005, has sold millions of copies worldwide and turned an entire generation of young girls onto fantasy and vampires. Charlaine Harris began her Southern Vampires/Sookie Stackhouse series in 2001, and enjoyed tremendous popularity. Both Meyers and Harris made it to the screen, too, in movies and television respectively. While borrowing from the past, both authors have added their own flavour to the myths. Meyer’s vampires continue to play the role of the romantic and tragic hero, but her universe lacks the steamy sexuality of Rice’s novels, while Harris sets her world in an alternate history where vampires have lived among humans for thousands of years in hiding only to reveal themselves after a medical breakthrough produces a synthetic blood which they are able to sustain themselves without killing people. And there is plenty of sex in those ones.
Perhaps as backlash to the popularity of those series that focus heavily on romance, relationships, sex and the emotional aspects of vampirism, there has been a recent resurgence of popular literature involving vampires as terrifying, powerful, unsympathetic monsters who view humans as a food source. Among them are the aforementioned trilogy from Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro, known as The Strain, and Justin Cronin's first two, The Passage and The Twelve. Cronin's trilogy is due to complete in 2014 with the publication of the third book, The City of Mirrors.
While their popularity in bestsellers may ebb and flow, vampires are here to stay, and it seems our fascination with the myth of the immortal, blood-feeding undead is sticking around, as well.