If you’re thinking of staying safely indoors this Halloween, writer and vampire expert Kevin Jackson has selected the finest and most frightening bloodsucking stories to curl up with
A rich vein of storytelling … Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Kevin Jackson’s childhood ambition was to be a vampire, but instead he became the last living polymath. His expertise ranges from Seneca to the Sugababes, with a special interest in the occult, Ruskin, take-away food, Dante’s Inferno and the moose. He is the author of numerous books on numerous subjects, including Fast: Feasting on the Streets of London, filmmaker Humphrey Jennings and edited The Oxford Book of Money.
His latest book, Bite: A Vampire Handbook, traces the history of the undead down the ages as well as offering a miscellany of vampiric trivia including the best places for vampire tourism, the best vampire-influenced songs, and, should the need arise, the best ways of killing the beasts.
“Though I first learned to love vampires through the movies, my only access to those movies back in the days of the X-certificate (I was about 11, and you had to be 18, or was it even 21, to see a Hammer film, amazing as that seems nowadays, when they look about as scary as an episode of Scooby-Doo) was through the medium of print – a wonderful magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland. From there, it was a very easy leap to reading the likes of Poe, and Mary Shelley, and Stoker … What larks! These days I obstinately tend to prefer vampire movies to most vampire fiction (the worst of which can be a bit pompous), but there are some wonderful exceptions: here are 10 of the best …”
1. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Probably the single most influential vampire narrative written between Dracula in the late 1890s and Interview With The Vampire in the 1970s, (Anne Rice needs no plugging here; nor does Stephenie Meyer, nor Charlaine Harris …), this was the novel which dragged vampires out of the gothic world of superstition and into the potentially even more terrifying world of science fiction. In the wake of a global war – probably a nuclear conflict – Robert Neville finds himself apparently the last man alive in all the world. But there are plenty of undead people, and every night when the sun has gone down, they attack his fortress home. There have been three film versions to date., most recently the big-budget production starring Will Smith, which had its moments; but none has captured the nihilistic chill of the original.
2. Fevre Dream by George RR Martin
A highly atmospheric period piece, set mainly on board a steamboat, plying its trade throughout the southern states of America during the 19th century. Its hero is the captain of the Fevre Dream, Abner Marsh; but Marsh has a curious business partner on board, one Joshua York, who dines at midnight and keeps the company of folk who never seem to appear in daylight. And then a series of terrible events starts to happen ashore … Now widely considered a modern classic of the form, Martin’s novel has been neatly described as an ingenious compound of Stephen King and Mark Twain.
3. Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven
An unusual digression into the horror genre by a writer more often associated with mordant satire than the biting of jugular veins. The anti-hero is a brilliant but frustrated young Cambridge academic, Richard Fountain – of “Lancaster College” – who goes off on a research expedition to Greece and comes back strangely altered; so strangely that he makes a savage attack on his fiancee, and the daughter of his academic mentor. Raven’s book, as one would expect, is thick with social detail and nuance; his interesting decision to make Greece rather than Transylvania the ancestral home of vampirism shows that he had done some proper research into the folklore of the undead.
4. Fangland by John Marks
A recent, well-constructed thriller written as a self-conscious homage to Dracula – so self-conscious that its heroine is called Evangeline Harker, after Bram Stoker’s hapless hero Jonathan Harker – and she makes the same journey into Romania/Transylvania as her fictional predecessor. But where Jonathan was a humble solicitor, Evangeline is a producer on the American network news programme The Hour (for which it is probably safe to read Sixty Minutes; John Marks once worked for that show himself, so presumably knows his media turf). The action really clicks into spooky gear when a series of mysterious crates are shipped back to the offices of the show … Mark’s novel has been optioned as a movie, and at last report was already in pre-production.
5. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Stephen King’s only major venture into vampire territory, and a masterpiece of its kind. Dickens might not have enjoyed the subject matter, but he would have nodded with a professional’s recognition at King’s basic ploy as a story-teller: spend a couple of hundred pages slowly and carefully building up a powerful sense of a real community, with lightning sketches of everyone from schoolchildren to elderly drunks … and then unleash pure evil. The chapter in which the vampire contagion finally reaches what would now be called the Tipping Point is brilliantly terrifying; on the strength of that passage alone, King would qualify as one of the grand masters of horror fiction.
6. Suckers by Anne Billson
This debut novel by Anne Billson, a noted film critic and frequent contributor to the Guardian, was highly praised by Salman Rushdie and others as a sharp and witty satire on the greedy 1980s. And so it was, but that was only part of the story: it is also a gripping adventure yarn, a tale of the nemesis that may lie in store for us if we have ever committed a guilty act, and a delicious character study of an unconventional young woman whose weaknesses (envy, malice, jealousy) only make her all the more charming to the reader. It contains one of the most chilling moments in all vampire literature: the heroine, trying to pass as a vamp in a crowd of keen-nosed killers, realises that she has begun to menstruate …
7. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Kim Newman’s series of novels about an alternative universe in which vampires are the aristocrats, politicians, power brokers and opinion-formers of the modern world is a delicious mixture of wild invention, scholarship, lateral thinking and sly jokes. In the first volume, Anno Dracula, we find out just why the Count came to England – something that Bram Stoker was tight-lipped about: he married Queen Victoria and established a dynasty of Nosferatu. Subsequent volumes include The Bloody Red Baron, in which the vampires of Britain wage ferocious air war against their German counterparts, and Dracula Cha Cha Cha, set in Rome at the time when Fellini is shooting La Dolce Vita. (One of the characters is a Scottish secret agent: Bond; Hamish Bond …) Unmissable.
8. The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein
A sophisticated exercise in unreliable narration: the novel purports to be a memoir written some 30 years after the event by a former psychiatric patient who witnessed some terrible events at the exclusive girls school she attended. But, somewhat in the manner of Henry James’s classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”, the reader gradually comes to wonder whether the true villain of the piece might not be the supposed girl-vampire who broods all day in her dorm room but the narrator herself. There are hopeful rumours of a forthcoming film version, to be directed by Mary Harron; fingers crossed.
9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
No one who has seen the justly acclaimed film version of Lindqvist’s bleak but unexpectedly humane novel will need much encouragement to seek out the original, where much that is cryptic about the on-screen story becomes clarified. The heart of the narrative remains the same – a story of friendship and love between Oskar – a lonely, sad, bullied boy – and Eli, the girl (or is she?) vampire who comes to be his protector. But the book encompasses other tales too, and makes explicit the fact that Eli’s older male companion is in fact a paedophile as well as a killer. Harsh, and uncomfortable, but compelling.
10. Dracula by Bram Stoker
The daddy of them all; by no means the best-written (Stoker was, at best, a competent prose stylist, and none of his other fictions have stood the test of a century) nor the cleverest, not even the most original … but none the less a masterpiece of myth-making, comparable only to the works of Mary Shelley and Conan Doyle. It has been said that all western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato; it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that all modern vampire fiction is haunted by Dracula. If you haven’t read it, a bloody treat lies ahead.