Dear Readers, I started my foray into the world of vampires as a young and tender lass of twelve. I suppose technically I think I read a Bunnicula book when I was eight or so, but I don’t really remember and anyway, Bunnicula was a rabbit. It doesn’t count. Back to the point - I started with Anne Rice.
I was a voracious reader at a young age, and I had actually tried to read Queen of the Damned when I was nine or ten. My mother stopped me and told me that I wouldn’t understand it, and should read it when I was older. She was, of course, entirely correct. Anne Rice writes difficult books, and I simply didn’t have the experience or sophistication to appreciate her quite yet. In seventh grade I was a world-weary almost-teen and I was definitely ready. I read The Vampire Lestat first, even though it’s technically the second in the series. It didn’t matter. I was hooked.
Anne Rice is a sensual writer, (so much so that she has written straight-up erotica under a pen name), and she made vampires sexy. I hadn’t read Dracula yet so I had no idea what literary baggage vampires might carry with them. As far as I was concerned they were beautiful, deadly, occasionally amoral and frequently religious, and totally fascinating. Rice tells her stories with a focus on character and history, which is something I haven’t encountered much in other vampire books. Since her main characters are the vampires themselves, not humans interacting with vampires, she gets to play with a really long timespan.
The character of Lestat snagged me initially, but as I tore my way through her entire catalog of books the way she interacted with history was what kept me coming back for more. Anne Rice’s true originality is that she gives you hundreds of years of history through the perspective of one character. In my ten years of reading vampire fiction, I have yet to discover another book or author who does this successfully.
Eventually I did get bored with her. There are a lot of things to be said about Anne Rice and one of them is that when you read fifteen of her books in a row they start to get repetitive. This is probably true of just about any author. There’s only so much tortured sexual bloodletting I can get my head around in a month. So much for Anne Rice. I didn’t want her, but I was still totally hooked on vampires - or at least what I understood vampires to be. Unfortunately for me, I hit this point about a week after Twilight was released.
At the risk of sounding really hipster, I probably read Twilight before you. I definitely read it before it got famous. Like Harry Potter, Twilight took a little while to really hit the mainstream. I happened to be looking for vampire books just as it arrived, so I snatched it up and read it immediately. I was a freshman in high school, about fourteen. Twilight knows its target audience. I swooned. I dreamed. I loved it. I read it over and over. At about the fifth reading I realized that it was total crap and didn’t compare in any way to Anne Rice. Sparkly vampires? Seriously? Even Rice, who writes pretty sympathetic undead characters, manages to make them menacing at least half the time. The Cullens just aren’t scary. Sorry. Carlisle is a doctor for chrissakes.
I could probably write you a dissertation on all the things I dislike about Twilight, but the only relevant one right now is that these were not the vampires I was looking for. It did put me in a suitably angsty mood though, so I reread Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ books for fun. I had read In the Forests of the Night when I was thirteen, which is, coincidentally, the same age she was when she wrote it. I still have a serious soft spot for her. Her early books aren’t particularly deep or meaningful, but they’re still a lovely little insight into the mind of a bored, angsty, somewhat counterculture thirteen-year-old girl. Parents with rebellious teenage daughters should read her. They might learn something.
Back to vampires - this was the point where I gave up and read Dracula. I don’t know why I resisted for so long. I’d seen the movie with Gary Oldman and enjoyed it. Dracula pretty much set the canon for every vampire book that followed it. It’s an important book to read if you like vampires, or horror, or fantasy. I read it and all of a sudden my perception of vampires changed drastically. Bram Stoker’s vampires are evil. Like, seriously evil. Dracula can turn into a bat, or a fog, or a wolf/dog and he really likes nubile virgins. He’s still a highly sexual character (he sort of collects brides after all) but it’s bad sexuality, which I was not expecting. There’s a lot of repression and Victorian stigmas about bodies and sex and fidelity in there that I didn’t understand at the time.
Anne Rice and Amelia-Atwater Rhodes used vampires as main characters. They were dark and occasionally scary, but they were also mostly the good guys. Bram Stoker never even suggests that redemption might be possible for Dracula. He is evil, he has no soul, and he must be destroyed. The fact that he is a highly sexualized fantasy for the women of the story just makes him worse. Mina and Lucy experience two different sides of his sexuality, proving him to be an emotionally complex character as well as a demon. Suddenly the world of vampire literature actually became literature for me, not just escapism and indulgence. Anne Rice took one aspect of Stoker’s vampires and expanded upon it, making them hypersexual and introspective. Atwater-Rhodes took the same aspect and simplified it. Stephenie Meyer took a flying leap off a cliff of Mormonisms and came up with glitter and abstinence. Dracula was a complete vampire in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and it totally spoiled me. Vampires are just way more interesting when they’re actually evil.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova could be read as a companion piece to Dracula. It’s really a historical fiction more than a fantasy book. Dracula himself is pretty much exactly as he appears in Bram Stoker, but Kostova focuses intently on the history of the man Vlad Drakul, the bloodthirsty Prince who actually appears in history. The Impaler is known for massacring huge numbers of people by sticking them on pointed stakes and leaving them to die slowly. This guy allegedly incurred the wrath of God and was cursed to live forever by drinking the blood of innocents. Stoker got the idea for Dracula from these legends, and Kostova develops the same story into a rich tapestry of history and horror. Her book was scarier to me than Stoker’s, because it’s written like a history book. It feels true. You absolutely cannot tell which parts are fact and which are fiction. On the other hand, it’s kind of dense and hard to get through. You really have to be down for absorbing the history part. She’s not messing around. I love The Historian but it’s not a book I recommend for the fainthearted. It’s a fabulous addition to the vampire canon and I think any true vampire aficionado should read it, but it’s not for everyone.
When I found Sunshine I fell in love. Robin McKinley was already one of my favourite authors and now she was writing vampires? Swoon. And her vampires are super evil, the kind of evil that means they’re going to take over the world in a hundred years. They’re the kind of evil that gets inside your mind and can’t even speak words that reference the sun. They are also completely nonhuman. Even Dracula can pass for a human occasionally, but McKinley writes vampires that are so alien you can feel them there even when they’re quiet. They have no human traits. They don’t even live in the same plane of existence. Her vampires live in a kind of otherspace that coexists and overlaps with the human world, but also slides diagonally through and wraps around it and encompasses several more dimensions than we are used to.
Sunshine doesn’t neglect the sexuality of vampires either. There’s a two-page kiss scene that is possibly the sexiest thing I’ve read in a vampire book ever, and it ends in a completely satisfying way that leaves all the ends dangling. Constantine, the major vampire character, shows definite signs of falling in love with the main character, Sunshine, over the course of the book. She is definitely attracted to him but there’s an added dimension of ‘this can’t happen because vampires and humans just aren’t compatible.’ It makes for a lot of tension in the story, particularly because she also has a human lover with whom she shows no signs of falling out of love. If you’ve read Dracula you may see some serious parallels.
Robin McKinley took an aspect of Dracula - that of an evil vampire fascinated by a human - and rewrote it. She expanded it and gave it depth. Anne Rice focused on sex, Robin McKinley focuses on humanity. Sunshine has to deal with a relationship with a creature that might kill her at any moment. The book is surprisingly thoughtful. It deals more with evil as a concept than Dracula does. It also features as a main character a bitchy baker who just wants to make elaborate desserts for the rest of her life. It’s more sensual than any vampire story I’ve ever read.
I love vampire literature. I think the recent pop-culture trend towards vampirism is, like the undead, both wonderful and terrible. I like that vampires are getting a lot of attention, because they’re fascinating and I think they deserve a lot more serious analysis than they get, but I don’t like the kind of vampire that keeps getting portrayed. We’re not seeing the Constantines and the Draculas in vampire TV, we’re seeing the Edwards and the Aubreys. We’re not seeing evil. Maybe I’m complaining unnecessarily, but I just don’t like flippant vamps. In my head vampires are all tied up with Victorian sensuality, and I want to see that portrayed, not angsty faux-goth love affairs with eyeliner. I hope pop vamps lead people to the real meat of vampire literature. I hope at least a few get addicted and go hunting for the heart’s blood of the genre. I hope they find these books and sink their teeth in. I hope they understand the struggle with evil. I hope they find the literary merit of vampires.