As the author of a vampire novel, I’ve sometimes been asked which books about the undead have inspired me the most. That’s a hard question to answer since everything a writer reads influences him or her on some level. So I can’t really measure the degree of influence each vampire story has had on me, but I can certainly choose some books that left strong impressions that, like the scars on the throat of a vampire’s victim, are still there years after reading them. So here’s a list of my five favorite vampire novels, counting down from five to one.
Five: Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
I read this novel in my late teens and it left a huge impact. It was probably the first horror novel I read that did not pull any punches. Brite’s frank, brutal, merciless depictions of violence and sex and the emotional states of her characters hit me as hard as any book had at that time and made vampires and the people around them seem more vivid, more real than anything I had encountered before.
Four: ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King. I respect his work, have enjoyed some of it, but he’s always been hit or miss for me. This one is a hit, maybe his best. ‘Salem’s Lot is a long epic of a vampire novel that works on two levels. It hits all the beats one expects to find in a story about blood-drinking fiends, paying homage to its predecessors, and also forces readers to care about the humans caught up in the terrible events in one little town and delivers a handful of very gruesome shocks along the way. If I could recommend only one book by America’s most famous horror writer, this would be the one.
Three: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Newman’s alternate history novel asks the question of “What if Dracula had not been defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel?” Well, for one thing, he’d have married Queen Victoria! Newman does a masterful job of tying together the lives and fates of dozens of characters from all corners of literature of the time, making sense of a plot that might have seemed forced and convoluted in the hands of a lesser writer. Characters from authors like HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, and many others appear and all have a reason for being there. The novel’s two sequels, The Bloody Red Baron and Judgment of Tears, take the story further, jumping ahead in time to World War I and then the fifties.
Two: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
This, unlike the other books I’ve listed here, is not really a horror novel. Rather, it’s a brilliantly written, very eerie mystery. The book’s narrator is a 16-year-old girl who never tells us her name. In 1972, she sets out to find her father, who has vanished while searching for her mother, who they had thought was dead. The book weaves back and forth between three separate points in time and does a wonderful job of connecting Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula with his possible historical inspiration, Vlad Tepes. Kostova’s writing will addict you. This is a 900 page novel and I finished it in three days, stopping only when I was at work, driving, or asleep.
One: Dracula by Bram Stoker
This had to be first on the list; none of the others would exist without it. The story Stoker tells here is one that everyone thinks they know, whether they’ve read the book or not. Here’s what I’d recommend doing if you’re about to read Dracula for the first time. Empty your mind and forget Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and every other film version of the character. Start from page one as if you’ve never been exposed to any of the story before and let Stoker’s wonderfully creepy little collection of journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings (a great choice of how to tell his story) carry you further and further into a deepening nightmare until your nerves are as frazzled and frayed as those of the inhabitants of the book. You’re about to meet the real Dracula. He’s not going to charm you like he does in the movies. He’s far worse than that. You’ve been warned.