A Guide to the Modern Vampire for Adult Readers
This is an overview of adult vampire novels since 1975, the last 40 years. It is not exhaustive – in fact, you’ll probably notice a few important books and series missing. Nonetheless, if you’re an adult looking for a good book about vampires, most of whom were turned over the age of twenty or so, this list will get you started.
‘salem’s Lot by Stephen King, 1975
I’m going to start this list with a book that I think marks the end of an era: Stephen King’s ‘salem’s Lot. The novel follows Ben Mears, who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to discover that its residents are turning into vampire one by one. King’s main vampire, Kurt Barlow, embodies the old-school vampire: he’s European and sophisticated, though hidden and distant from the reader’s view. Barlow is very much the Other, staying in line with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla. Not much is revealed about his personality or background, ensuring that he holds his monster status pretty firmly. The vampire’s traits are at once campy and classic, paying loving and humorous homage to the vampires of ancient lore and old Hollywood.
The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, 1976-present
It didn’t take long after ‘salem’s Lot for Anne Rice to step up and change the vampire game completely with her 1976 classic Interview with the Vampire. This book was the first story told in English from the point of view of a vampire and was also the first commercially successful portrayal of vampires as sympathetic, complex beings. Rice introduced the world to her beloved Louis du Point du Lac and his rapscallion lover, Lestat de Lioncourt. Louis is famously conflicted about living off the blood of humans, carrying his guilt throughout not just this book, but through most of his appearances in The Vampire Chronicles series. It’s not until the most recent installment, Prince Lestat, that Louis seems to forgive himself at all. He and Lestat appear to be complete opposites until the second book (The Vampire Lestat) brings Lestat’s tortured past to light. Throughout the series, Lestat evolves from a recklessly selfish and vain young vampire to a wise but powerful (and still vain) figure that other vampires turn to for aid. By the time one gets through Prince Lestat, one can see how Louis and Lestat have learned from one another whilst also staying a bit the same, in keeping with Rice’s assertion that if humans were immortal, time would only cause them to become more themselves. If you love vampires, you cannot miss this series, not one book. If you can’t stand the idea of reading all eleven (plus the two New Tales of the Vampires books: Pandora and Vittorio the Vampire), at least read Interview. It’s had an incalculable influence on nearly all vampire books, films, and TV shows since its release.
[Editor’s note: see Natalie’s Last Spookstore review of Queen of the Damned (number 3 in the series) and interview – not with the vampire, but – with artist Micah Brenner.]
The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, 1980
This is a much-overlooked essential for readers of the vampire tale. Composed of five separate novellas, The Vampire Tapestry captures five different views of Dr. Edward Lewis Weyland, a vampire attempting to navigate through modern life. The first three novellas are from the point of view of humans close to Weyland, and the last two are told from his point of view, giving the reader different angles and distances from which to observe the creature. Charnas’s book is at once a throw-back and push forward in vampire mythology. Weyland’s vampirism is attributed to biological rather than supernatural causes, an idea first introduced in 1954 by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend*. Weyland is humanized in the way that Rice’s Louis and Lestat are, but he comes across as much more practical and simple in his approach to life. The collection is certainly horror, though very subtle. It’s scariness is the kind that creeps up on you when you least expect it and is so well-hidden it takes you a moment to realize it’s there. Charnas gives her vampire a bit of an alien trait as well: he does not extract blood via fangs, but rather by a needle-like appendage under his tongue.
*I’m leaving I am Legend off this list because it had a much greater influence on zombie stories than vampire stories. I’d sooner recommend it to a zombie fan than a vampire fan.
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, 1982
Martin is the first of many writers to take Rice’s cue and set a vampire tale in the antebellum American South with a focus on New Orleans. (There’s something about the way Rice, Martin, and, later on, Poppy Z. Brite, describe the city that make it seem like the perfect place for vampires to live.) Martin covers immense territory in this novel, structuring the story with his now characteristic intertwining storylines. Initially, the novel alternates between the point of view of Abner Marsh, a human steamboat captain who unwittingly takes on a vampire for a business partner, and Sour Billy Tipton, the human lackey of a second, immoral vampire. Marsh’s timeline introduces us to the book’s vampiric hero, Joshua York, who is trying to develop an alternative to blood for vampires. Tipton’s timeline presents us with Damon Julian, the novel’s antagonist, who isn’t happy with York’s plan. This novel proves Martin’s ability to handle other genres outside of fantasy, with Fevre Dream sticking to the traditional historically-set gothic novel for his vampires.
Necroscope series by Brian Lumley, 1986-present
Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series starts as a horror-spy novel cross that grows into a science-fiction adventure. Lumley’s mythos is expansive and unique, featuring vampires as aliens who rule another planet. He’s not the first to have this idea, though his take is arguably the most successful. The first book, Necroscope, was published in 1986 and appears to still be running with a steady, dedicated fan base. Necroscope is a brutal yet gently paced introduction to Lumley’s mythos. Harry Keogh is hired by the British E-Branch for his ESP-related talents, in particular, his ability to communicate with the dead. Harry is set apart from Russian E-Branch agent, Boris Dragosani, in both skill and demeanor. While Harry talks to the dead as a “necroscope”, Boris must eviscerate the dead in order to listen to their bones and entrails. The two are set apart as perfect foils and given equal time on the page. This allows for substantial development of both characters, making both complex and morally ambiguous (a fact that becomes more relevant for Harry as the series continues). The vampires take backseat in this first installment, with Boris agreeing to awaken one in hopes of stealing its abilities for his own personal takeover. Lumley’s talent for portraying gore and violence is one that will make you appalled and unable to look away at the same time, the feeling all horror writers aim to invoke.
James Asher series by Barbara Hambly, 1988-present
The world of the past is vividly portrayed in Barbara Hambly’s historical mystery Those Who Hunt the Night. James Asher, a British intelligence agent, first gets caught in the world of vampires when one Don Simon Ysidro asks for his assistance in capturing the murderer of several London undead. Those Who Hunt the Night is the first of six James Asher novels in which James and his wife Lydia cannot seem to escape their association with Ysidro and vampires in general. In the second book, Traveling with the Dead, the two set of on separate treks across Europe, tracking a vampire James believes has become entangled with a spy who plans to force the creature to forge an alliance between the undead and Britain’s enemies. From the start, and increasingly so as the series progresses, Lydia, a biologist in an era before women’s rights, plays a refreshingly prominent role in each novel and avoids the virgin-who-must-be-protected trope set forth by Stoker’s Dracula. Ysidro has much of Lestat’s charm, though he’s much harsher and more distant in his demeanor. He seems to be a combination of Anne Rice’s famous dandy and Suzee McKee Charnas’s practical professor. Hambly’s series carves out its own space in the history of vampire stories, perhaps setting the long-lasting trend of featuring vampires in mystery stories, one which continues with Charlaine Harris’s ever-popular Southern Vampire Mysteries (see below).
Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite, 1992
Long before Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, Poppy Z. Brite tackled the strife of a teen facing the trials of both adolescence and vampirism in Lost Souls, albeit in a much grittier, sparkle-less fashion. The main character, Nothing, is the quintessential lonely outsider who feels separate from his peers and his adoptive parents. Nothing embarks on a journey with the indulgent, controlling Zillah and his two companions upon learning that he is a vampire. Brite’s novel is erotic, dark, and brutal, beautifully intertwining teenage hedonism and rebellion with the vampire myth. Nothing, Zillah, and the others indulge in alcohol and sweets along with blood, which seems a lead-in to Grace Krilonovich’s drug-laced The Orange Eats Creeps (see below) and the first novel to draw a blatant link between vampirism and the tendency towards addiction. Aside from early myths, Lost Souls is perhaps the first major story to feature vampires as a separate species born to human women. Nothing embodies teenage alienation, leaving behind a comfortable but bleak life for the shocking and violent life of vagrant young vampires. Brite introduces another noteworthy trait to the vampire myth: her vampires evolve as a species, and not only for the better. The younger ones lack sufficient fangs and must use weapons to drain their prey, something the older vampires look down upon. To this day, Brite is the only writer to utilize this idea, giving her young vampires a unique sense of separation from others. Lost Souls is also a very mature take on the teenage vampire, making the novel a better fit for adults than young adults.
Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman, 1992-present
Where does one begin with Kim Newman’s incredible and ambitious Anno Dracula? Newman began with the question: What if Dracula had won? What if he survived Stoker’s famous novel? Newman proposes that he would have taken over England, making himself Queen Victoria’s consort and creating a world where humans and vampires must co-exist. In the first novel, a streak of Jack-the-Ripper-like killings plague London, marking the first stage of Dracula’s attempt to take over the world. The book is rife with artistic references from literature to film, featuring appearances of both new and already-existing characters. [Editor: It’s true – the number and variety of characters is staggering – everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Salem Lot’s Kurt Barlow to GB Shaw’s Mrs. Warren.] Some make brief appearances while others stay on as major players. This trait alone makes Newman’s world feel vast and complete, stretching over the imaginations of creators throughout history. In a sense, Newman has also asked, what if Dracula and all of these other characters were real? What effect would they, and especially he, have on history? Later books are set during World War I and the 1960s, stretching from Victorian times to the modern era. Newman presents the idea that the immortal vampire is the best creature to turn to for an understanding of history, having lived through all of it. One of his main vampires, Kate Reed, realizes the true cause of war at the end of the second novel, The Bloody Red Baron, after noticing detailed, first-hand similarities between the conflicts she’s lived through. Newman proves the vampire is the perfect vehicle for exploring human nature. They not only share our external and emotional traits, they often must cope with a life that lasts eternally, learning more about us than we could ever hope to discern on our own.
The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, 2001-2013
Recommended for fans of True Blood – which is based on these books – and mysteries in general, Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Series represents another breakthrough in the vampire myth. Harris adds a few more concepts, including the “fang banger” or a human who hangs around vampires. Kim Newman also had a set of humans like this in Anno Dracula, but Harris gives it a modern twist with the name. The main character, Sookie Stackhouse, refers to her mind-reading talent as a “disability,” an odd, but charming way to refer to such a thing. Be forewarned, the first novel Dead Until Dark is not terribly well-written, though it does give a good introduction to Harris’s vampire world, and the writing does improve with each book. Another warning: the series has a lot of sex scenes, many of which will seem gratuitous and forced. However, if you enjoy a good, smutty romance novel, you’ll certainly like The Southern Vampire Series.
Plus a ton of short stories, companion books and anthological homages
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2004
Let the Right One In is arguably the best vampire novel since Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls. An atmospheric, haunting, and disturbing work, it is also emotionally deep and powerful. Oskar is an outsider at school with a murder fascination. He spends most of his time alone until his strange new neighbor, Eli, moves in. Eli never comes out during day and keeps her windows blocked with newspaper. She visits Oskar at a snow-covered playground with no shoes and barely enough clothes to keep a person warm. When Eli finds out Oskar is being picked on at school, she encourages him to “be me a little” and fight back. At once a coming-of-age story and a love story, Let the Right One In is a standout vampire tale. Eli’s condition is portrayed in a subtle manner. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist never describes her as having fangs and only uses the word “vampire” once in the whole novel. Recommended for any vampire fan, especially those who enjoyed the Swedish and American film adaptations.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, 2005
This tome might be a bit intimidating, especially with its slow pace and occasionally dry language, but Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is an essential in the modern vampire canon. A young woman attempts to finish the research of her late father, who was looking into the life of the infamous Vlad the Impaler, the real-life Wallachian prince who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel is dense, dark, and intelligent, a long read for sure, but a worthwhile one. There are many an unsettling scene throughout the story, with one towards the end that will make the time spent reading worth it. For the vampire reader who also loves literary fiction and historical fiction, this one should be at the top of your reading list.
The Chicagoland Vampires Series by Chloe Neill, 2009 to present
Chloe Neill’s Chicago vampires prove that a writer can put a vampire in just about any kind of story. Merit is a twenty-something graduate student who loves baseball and musicals. Her life is pretty normal and stable, aside from her strained relationship with her father. Everything changes when she’s attacked one night and rescued from death by the vampire Ethan Sullivan. Unfortunately, this involved turning her into one of his own. At first, Merit resists assimilating into the world of the undead, but is assigned the prestigious role of Sentinel at Cadogan House, the coven of vampires that Ethan leads. Neill’s novels are a far cry from horror, though there are some bloody scenes. For the most part, she sticks with a good combination of dark and urban fantasy, building a whole secret world of hidden supernatural beings, from shapeshifters to river nymphs to fairies. Neill’s vampires are human and relatable—there are strict rules about drinking blood, they still need to eat food, and they strive to live alongside mankind. At least, Cadogan House does. That can’t be said of some of their rival Houses who make trouble throughout the series. While the books can get a little chick-lit-ish from time to time (that might not be a bad thing to all of us) they are fun, fast, and easy reads. They’re great books to read poolside or on a beach when you just want to relax and have a good time.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, 2010
In the 1973 film Ganja and Hess, a pastor describes his poor vampire friend as an addict. Since then, many others have made the connection between vampirism, but none so directly and strangely as Grace Krilanovich in The Orange Eats Creeps. Her vampires are cough syrup addicted meth heads who also crave blood, roaming around the country, having been severed from family and society. The characters are vagabond teens who steal, hitchhike, and hunt their way through life. The prose is trippy a la William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A hard one to follow at times, the book still packs a punch. These teens are brutal and selfish, rebellious, yet also human. The main character is looking for her long-lost foster sister who she think she’s detected through her vampiric ESP. Themes of sexuality and family also come up in the book, running the full gamut of teen life. If you like addiction fiction, you’ll like this book even if you’re not usually a vampire fan. If you’re a vampire fan, get ready for something unique and totally bizarre.
The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin, 2010-2016
Only two of the three books in this series have been released, but The Passage Trilogy has already made its mark as a bestseller with an upcoming film adaptation. Cronin brings back the vampire apocalypse tale, taking a cue from I am Legend by Richard Matheson and then spinning off into a massive epic tale with a large rotating cast of characters and a timeline that spans decades. At the center of it all is Amy, a little girl when the vampire outbreak begins, who appears to be the secret to the world’s salvation, a concept reminiscent of Leeloo’s role in The Fifth Element. Cronin’s vampires are straight-up monsters like they were in pre-Interview with the Vampire days. They turn into gorilla-like monsters with pointy, bat-like ears and no hair, barely resembling the people they once were. Cronin doesn’t abandon the sympathetic vampire completely, though, when he introduces the idea of a possible third vampire-like species. Best characterized as an epic dark fantasy, The Passage Trilogy is a stand-out among all the vampire and zombie-related media out there. This is a good read for fans of both monsters.
Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers 2012
Like Anno Dracula, Tim Powers’ Hide Me Among the Graves features characters borrowed from real life and previous fictional tales. John Polidori, the author of The Vampyre, is portrayed as the vampiric ghost of Lord Byron’s one-time physician. Polidori wants to claim the soul of an innocent young girl, whose mother is a prostitute-turned-veterinarian. Teaming up with poet Christina Rossetti and her artist brother, the girl’s mother seeks to stop Polidori, who tempts them with the immortality he can give them at will. The book is a rich, Victorian adventure complete with literary, artistic, and historical references that may offer an alternative to those who don’t want to slog through Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. For those vampire lovers who especially enjoy a tale set in the past, this is a highly recommended essential.
In time, perhaps we’ll add to this list. Let us know what we missed. Meanwhile… stay out of the shadows.