The spread of Christianity across Europe had a lot to do with cleaning up the mythology of the vampire, promoting the idea of a more human, sophisticated monster, while the rise of Gothic literature in the 19th century began exploring the vampire's more sympathetic and seductive qualities in works such as The Spectral Horseman, The Vampyre and Carmilla. The penny dreadfuls (cheaply sold pamplets or chapbooks) of the mid 19th century marked something of a return to the gory, gruesome nature of the vampire with characters like Varney the Vampire, but it was Bram Stoker's Dracula that so successfully pulled together the most sensational elements, offering us the first vampire to be both evil and seductive, the embodiment of supernatural sin, and a metaphor for the parasitic diseases of the time.
It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that the vampire began to change again, with the likes of Dark Shadows, Anne Rice, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro putting a more human, romantic spin on the mythology. In many ways, they were just rolling back the clock to the pre-Stoker Gothic romances, but their interpretations wer the first to begin stripping away the evil from the vampire. It is largely due to the success of Barnabas Collins, Lestat, and Saint-Germain that vampires today are so humanized and romanticized as sympathetic (and often heroic) staples of urban fantasy, YA fiction, and romance.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of authors out there who remember what vampires used to be . . . who are more than willing to play with the darkest, most sinister aspects of the myth . . . and who aren't afraid to be creepy, spooky, gruesome, and disgusting. While this is no means an exhaustive list, these are the books that have earned a place of honour on my "supernatural, scary-as-shit" vampire shelf.
►I Am Legend by Richard Matheson: Do yourself a favour and forget the mutant/zombie themed movies. Go back the the source, read the original story, and discover for yourself just how terrifying it is to be the last man alive in a world filled with vampires.
►Salem's Lot by Stephen King: One of King's shortest and most effective novels, this is a complete throwback to the days of Dracula. King gives us vampires that are evil, ugly, supernatural, and altogether worthy of both our fear and our revulsion.
►Necroscope by Brian Lumley: Quite possibly the only series to ever make me pause, put down the book, and walk away to collect my senses, these books are absolutely glorious in their gruesome depravities. Lumley's vampires (Wamphyri) are monsters in every sense of the word - immortal, superhuman, telepathic, parastic monsters. Ignore the Lost Years books, but be sure to check out the Vampire World trilogy for an epic fantasy take on the origins of the Wamphyri.
►Draculas by Crouch, Kilborn, Strand, and Wilson: A wild, bat-shit crazy, over-the-top romp through what deliberately feels like a B-grade 80s gore-fest. The authors set out to reverse decades of "sparkly, bare-chested, sexually ambiguous, romantic nonsense" and make vampires scary again. They succeeded.
►Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons: An intriguing take on the evils of human history, putting forth the idea of psychic vampires as the puppet masters behind our darkest villains. Lacks something in terms of the supernatural, but definitely succeeds in building a new vampire archetype.
►They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon: If Swan Song was his answer to King's The Stand, then this is his answer to Salem's Lot. Another old-school "good versus evil" tale with an army of vampires beginning their quest for world domination in Los Angeles. Bloody, gory, and action-packed, this was a fun read with a range of heroes to face off against the vampire master.
►The Keep by F. Paul Wilson: This was one of the strangest, darkest, most exciting vampire novels I've ever read. When the protagonists are a group of Nazis trapped in the Transylvanian Alps, sent to investigate a haunted keep that's steeped in murder, you know the vampire element is going to be something special and unique.
►The Stake by Richard Laymon: This is Laymon at his cruel, black-humored best, with a story about a mummified corpse and a writer's plans to remove the stake through its heart as the ultimate PR stunt for his upcoming book. This one is more about the belief in vampires than vampires themselves, especially when the deranged serial killer escapes his asylum and begins hunting down the those he believes to be vampires, but then there's the final twist . . .
►The Passage by Justin Cronin: A book that could almost be a prequel to I Am Legend, Cronin messes around with the mythology of the vampire, twisting it with that of the zombie, and setting is all in an plague-infested apocalyptic wasteland. The story wears thin after a while, and the ending is a bit more hopeful than I had expected, but still a scary read.
►The Strain by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan: While I haven't read this one yet, the series sounds like a perfect counterpart to The Passage, with a more contemporary look at the vampire that's as much political thriller as it is old-school horror.
►13 Bullets by David Wellington: This is another one that I've yet to read, but have heard very good things about. Gory and action-packed, it follows up the career of the FBI agent who stopped the last vampire rampage 20 years ago, with the mistress of vampires spreading her taint from the sanitarium where she lies imprisoned. The first in a series, the rest of the books are subtitled historical, vengeful, and gruesome.
That's just a start . . . I'm curious to hear what your favourite "supernatural, scary-as-shit" vampire picks would be. Please leave a comment below!
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