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Books that Bite
By Martina Bexte

The days are getting shorter, the trees have donned their autumnal cloaks, and the harvest moon hangs low in the sky. Pumpkins are ripening in fields waiting for excited children to gather them up and carve them into scary Jack-O-Lanterns. But the surest sign that October has officially arrived was the happy discovery I made the other day while pushing my cart through our local department store. It was elusive at first but to a true connoisseur, unmistakable. I rounded a corner and there was the indisputable proof - aisles and aisles of Halloween candy. The store was packed to the gills with a smorgasbord of sweet and chocolaty treats. I took a deep, appreciative whiff, and knew I had no choice - I'd have to make a quick detour to the book department to check for horrific new releases. Because what better way to spend a chilly late October eve than curled up beside a crackling fire, hot drink in hand, bag of Halloween candy nearby, poring over a scary book ... even more satisfying, a book that showed some fang, a book with bite.

The idea of the immortal, and often immoral, blood-drinking monster that haunts the night has held thrall over many different civilizations from Africa and India to the North American plains and of course over its region of origin, the gloomy mountains of Romania and Transylvania. Vampire stories have not only been handed down through myth and legend, they eventually and inevitably had their dibut in books, were sold as dime novels, were presented as stage plays, and are broadcast to millions as television series or feature movies. Vampire fiction, however, remains by far the favorite format. Bram Stoker's groundbreaking classic, Dracula, is the first that comes to anyone's mind. It was published in 1897 and has never been out of print. It was my immediate choice from that otherwise mundane list of required reading handed out by a Grade 10 English teacher. Sure, I could easily write a definitive essay about night creatures, immortality and gothic suspense. Not! As it turned out I had to read Dracula numerous times before I actually figured it out, and I probably still missed a nuance or two.

But while Stoker's novel is the most widely read vampire classic, there were authors who explored undead characters long before him. Lord Byron and cronies exchanged vampire tales in the early 1800's and Byron's good friend, John Polidori, would eventually publish a tale about Ruthven, The Vampyre, in 1819. Edgar Allan Poe penned Berenice in 1833 and Varney the Vampire appeared around 1840. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu brought readers the haunting story of Carmilla in 1872. Other influential authors like Keats, Kipling, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austin, Andrei Turgenov and Leon Tolstoy also explored the vampire archetype. By the turn of the last century vampire stories were turning up everywhere from comics to pulp fiction to silent movies. The craze eventually died out in the 50's and it took another twenty years or so before a good-looking blonde vampire named Lestat injected some fresh blood back into the fanged genre. Anne Rice's novel, Interview With The Vampire, is written from the point of view of a young man, Louis, who finds himself irrevocably drawn to Lestat, and to his dark and immoral world. Her book was a runaway smash hit, followed by a long list of best selling sequels.

About the same time a relative unknown by the name of Stephen King published Salem's Lot. His was a simple story of a small Maine town over-run by vampires until only a few citizens are left unchanged. King's strength has always been in his characterizations and readers embraced those he portrayed in this spooky story. The book was a smash hit and catapulted him into literary success. This was the first horror novel that scared my socks off, and not just because I was reading it home alone at night with tree branches scratching against my bedroom window - at least I thought they were branches!! In short order, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro brought readers Count St. Germain, Fred Saberhagen created the Vampire Files and Richard Matheson the unforgettable I Am Legend.

The vampire tale gained a whole new literary foothold and despite a few ebbs and tides, continues strong. More and more authors experimented with immortal themes and characters. Robert McCammon, a much-underrated writer, held me enthralled with his deliciously evil tale, They Thirst, in which an army of vampires, lead by Prince Vulkan, vow to take over the world in a bloody, swift, sweeping wave. Another landmark vampire novel is Dan Simmons' 1990 offering, Carrion Comfort. His psychic vampires are chillingly malignant. The book weighs in at over eight hundred pages but its myriad and multi-layered characters, (even the bad guys), are so engrossing that I would have loved a sequel. Speaking of sequels, we vampire fanatics never seem to get enough of them. Elaine Bergstrom's otherworldly Austra vampires, first introduced in Shattered Glass, is another recommended choice. Laurell Hamilton's fan base grows steadily ever since her introduction of Anita Blake, vampire killer. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer - now there's a girl who kicks un-dead butt, not only in her dark and often very adult-themed television series, but also in the growing list of novelizations penned by many well known SF and fantasy authors.

But let's not forget Canadian authors - there are a notable few who have written some outstanding vampire fiction. Tanya Huff's series (beginning with Blood Trail), is set in Toronto and features ex-cop, Vicki Nelson, her vampire sidekick Henry Fitzroy, (who writes romances and happens to be Henry the VIII's illegitimate by-blow), and her on-again, off-again boyfriend and fellow cop, Mike Celluci. Alternating between gritty action and generous dollops of humor, this is not to be missed. Garfield Reeves-Stevens' innovative Blood Shift is a fabulous mix of brutal hit men, a government conspiracy, shady Jesuit priests, a mysterious blood disorder and slam bang action. Too bad this book saw limited release and is out of print. Two Canadian ladies who share the name Nancy and a talent for clever vampire fiction, Nancy Kilpatrick and Nancy Baker, should also be added to your undead reading list. Baker's, The Night Inside, is outstanding. The romance genre has also embraced the vampire hero. Linda Lael Miller's delightful series, beginning with 1993's Forever and the Night, is a prime example. Her three sequels only get better, introducing readers to alternate dimensions, vengeful vampire clans, and a host of otherworldly creatures.

Nor are kids overlooked when it comes to a good vampire story. From Bunnicula and the purple puppet Count on Sesame Street to Darren Shan's recent The Vampire's Assistant, the vampire has sunk his pointy fangs into the hearts of every reading age group. Indeed his allure seems nothing short of inescapable. So, what is it about that makes the vampire one of fiction's most enduring and popular characters? How can he be so thoroughly evil, yet elicit readers' complete sympathy and undying devotion? Is it those sharp, threatening fangs and the fact that he can drain you dry in minutes? Or his dark, dangerous good looks, and yes ladies, his utter sexiness? Is it the way one long probing look can mesmerize with eyes as bright as fire? The fact that he can disappear in the blink of an eye, often taking the shape of a bat, a wolf or a wisp of smoke? Because he could be your next door neighbor or some ages old and noble prince? Or because he can live forever and grant immortality to a chosen few? It's all these reasons and more that keep readers hungering for vampire stories, with an appetite that's as voracious as any blood-drinker's. Publishing fads come and go, but the market for vampire fiction remains constant.

Too many offerings read like generic rip-offs and are quickly forgettable, but every so often one or two stories stand out to be added to the list of vampire classics. Which are on my list of all time favorites? That's easy: Salem's Lot, They Thirst, Carrion Comfort and Bloodshift. Neither the books I've mentioned here nor my short list of personal favorites begin to scratch the surface of the many vampire novels and anthologies available in bookstores, in libraries and also via the Internet. Nor should vampire tales only be read in October, the perennial season of ghosties, ghoulies and other things that scratch at your window at night. Any time of the year is a good time to cuddle up and get cozy with a book that bites. So pull up a nice comfy chair, pour yourself a hot toddy, grab a fresh bag of candy and sink your teeth into one!
See also Ghoulies and Ghosties Across Genres, October 2000.
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