By Richard Rayner
October 25, 2009
The Most Complete Volume
of Vampire Tales Ever Published
Edited and with an Introduction
by Otto Penzler
Vintage: 1034 pp., $25 paper
"You have heard, no doubt, of the appalling superstition that prevails in Upper and Lower Styria, in Moravia, Silesia, in Turkish Serbia, in Poland, even in Russia; the superstition, so we must call it, of the vampire," wrote Sheridan Le Fanu in his classic "Carmilla," first serialized in London in 1871 and 1872. It's not just Le Fanu's language that feels antique but his ethos and geography.
Vampires no longer appall us or even stir superstitions; these days a vampire is much more likely to rise up in a high school corridor than from the graveyard mists of some decaying Eastern European pile. Audiences still want their vampires to inspire fear, but they also need them to be human, maybe better than human. Suddenly, and weirdly, vampires feel as integral to the culture as burger chains, except the undead don't chow down on Big Macs.
In "The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published," editor Otto Penzler assembles 80-plus stories that offer a survey of the genre from the early 1800s to the present day. Byron wrote a vampire poem, as did Samuel Taylor Coleridge (the wonderfully erotic and spooky "Christabel"), likewise John Keats, whose "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" Penzler includes.
Swinburne (not here) carried this sadomasochistic strain to some sort of giddy peak, fantasizing, in rhythmic and memorably swooning verse, about women whipping him and crushing his neck beneath their feet before they sucked his blood and killed him. Plenty to answer for, those English schools. Meanwhile, this longing for, and fear of, the sexual other was reflected in both Gothic and Victorian popular fiction. The femme fatale, or homme fatal, became a genre staple, often embodied in the figure of the vampire.
"I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I awoke with a scream. The room was lighted by the candle that burnt there all through the night, and I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still."
That's from Le Fanu's "Carmilla" again, a story in which both vampire and victim are young women and that laid out much of the plot paraphernalia that Bram Stoker, a stage manager for the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving, subsequently adopted for "Dracula," the most famous vampire novel of all. Stoker got his settings, sharpened stakes, garlic and crucifixes from Le Fanu, as well as the figure of the vampire hunter (although LeFanu's vampires slept in blood, not earth).
Stoker also gave Dracula mesmerizing sexual power, a trope that runs like DNA through many of the stories in "The Vampire Archives." Check out Hume Nesbit's "The Vampire Maid," "The Princess of Darkness" by Frederick Cowles, Fritz Leiber's "The Girl With The Hungry Eyes" or Everil Worrell's genuinely spine-tingling "The Canal." Ideas of sexual command, and sexual submission, tend to get writers' juices flowing, and the figure of the vampire is often all about control, about the liberating removal of free will.
"She stroked his cheek, held the back of his neck in a vice grip, all the while smiling, cat-like. Scarcely feeling her own skin, but vividly feeling the nourishment under his. He tried to repel her, laughing uneasily, taking it for an erotic game," writes Mary Turzillo in her terrific "When Gretchen Was Human," published in 2001. "Then he was fighting, uselessly. He twisted her thumb back, childish self-defence. She felt no pain. Then he was weeping, softening, walling into a trance. She kissed his throat with her open mouth. Drank from him. Drank again and again. Had he fought, she could have broken his neck. She was completely changed."
A notable exception is the work of M.R. James, perhaps the most admired of the horror writers, who is featured here three times, with "Count Magnus," "An Episode of Cathedral History" and "Wailing Well," a story originally written for a gathering of Boy Scouts (!) that starts like a romp and winds up creeping your socks off.
James' scary stuff is glimpsed in a blur, as if at the edge of the frame. "He looked at the field, and there he saw a terrible figure -- something in ragged black -- with whitish patches breaking out of it: the head, perched on a long thin neck, half-hidden by a shapeless sort of blackened sun bonnet." This evil, though described as "shapeless," still effects very real results. "Over his shoulder hung the corpse of Stanley Judkins. He had cut it from the branch to which he found it hanging, waving to and fro. There was not a drop of blood in the body."
James was the provost of King's College at Cambridge and later Eton, a scholar who never married, never had kids but had strong ideas about how supernatural stories should be written. "Sex is tiresome enough in novels," he noted. "In a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story. I have no patience with it." James was repressed, perhaps, and his fiction works by restraint, as does Ray Bradbury's famous "The Man Upstairs" and "The Death of Halpin Frayser" by Ambrose Bierce.
"The Vampire Archives" runs to 1,000-plus pages and features a multitude of styles and tones: Poe's Gothic, the sly elegance of E.F. Benson, the purple-hued terror of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton-Smith, the tough-guy smarts of Dan Simmons. We see too how the vampire-as-metaphor has evolved, encompassing not only erotic anxiety but fear of disease transmitted through blood -- which drives Richard Matheson's landmark "I Am Legend." By the time of Stephen King's "Popsy," published in the late 1980s, the vampire has become protective and paternal, another indication of who we are and what we need.
Vampire stories currently dominate the horror genre. The boom is probably rooted in the mid-1970s, when King wrote "Salem's Lot," a novel that bore many intentional similarities to "Dracula" but unfurled in a contemporary setting, and Anne Rice published "Interview With the Vampire," a novel spanning centuries and handing its hero, the vampire Lestat, a biography of lush and romantic intricacy.
Rice has written few short stories, but she is represented in this anthology by "The Master of Rampling Gate," which shows again her intimate fascination with the vampire's social network. Such an idea carries through into Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, where the vampire is no longer a symbol of outside evil but rather an outsider with immense charisma, no longer "it" but "he" or "she."
Were Dracula to appear now, he might still be saying, "I don't drink -- wine," but then he'd be rushing to see his therapist or school counselor. "The Vampire Archives" traces the arc of that long lineage, featuring useful introductions by Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman and Penzler, some stories you'll know (Maupassant's "The Horla," Conan Doyle's "The Sussex Vampire"), and plenty you won't, such as Peter Tremayne's startling and unsettling "Dracula's Chair," not to mention more bad-girl roles than even Megan Fox could ever play.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place" and writes the Paperback Writers column, which appears monthly at latimes.com/books.
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