The Life, Death & Undeath of the Vampel: 200 Years of Vampire Novels

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The Life, Death and Undeath of the Vampel: 200 Years of Vampire Novels

Mythology surrounding vampires has a long and vibrant history. As such, it’s unsurprising the vampel (vampire novel) has become so popular. Vampires can be found, in various incarnations, in the folklore and legends of most recorded cultures. From the strigoi of Romania to the shtriga of Albania, and the vrykolakas of Greece, the vampire is so deeply entrenched in our cultural memory that the myths and legends of old have morphed into new stories in film, television and of course, books.

Despite being relegated to subsections of horror, thriller, Gothic, or supernatural fiction, I feel the vampire novel is prevalent enough that it deserves its own genre and it would be remiss of me to keep referring to this genre without giving a reasonable rundown of it.

Vampels first began to rise at the turn of the nineteenth century, although the term ‘vampire’ had been popular in the western world for a good hundred years or so by then. As befits the titular creature that is the main feature of these novels, over the last two hundred years the vampel enjoyed a long, exciting and decidedly bloody life, before succumbing to the stupidities of paranormal romance and the international phenomenon that is Twilight. Since this untimely death, the vampel has been reborn and is now happily undead.

For your education, entertainment and amusement, may I present the Life, Death and Undeath of the Vampel.

Vampel - Carmilla (1872)

Life

Vampel - Dracula, Bram StokerContrary to popular opinion Dracula was not the original vampel, although it certainly cemented the vampire myth in mainstream circles and formed the basis for a lot of the more common tropes of the genre. A little story called (appropriately enough) The Vampyre was the original vampel, published in 1819 by John William Polidori. It was a short work, and arguably not truly a novel, but it was the first fictional fantasy to successfully feature vampirism in a literary narrative (I’m distinguishing here between literary fiction and the tales of folklore, myth and legend). It also established the vampire as a charismatic, charming killer. The story was little-known at the time, but well received by those who were aware of it. Even so, it was half a century before another work would appear that came close to emulating it. In 1872 Carmilla was released, bringing us not only a wonderful work of fiction but also the prototype for the now-infamous lesbian-vampire archetype. Dracula would not come until the close of the nineteenth century, in 1897, by which time certain things were accepted where vampires were concerned: they drank blood, had pointed fangs, and couldn’t abide the kiss of sunlight.

Vampel - The GoldenBram Stoker’s novel solidified the vampire as a classic villain of fiction, and several popular film vampire films began to come out in the 1920s (the unofficial Nosferatu in 1922 and Dracula in 1931), it wasn’t until the advent of comics and mass market paperbacks in the 1940s and early 1950s that vampels really took off. With classic works in vampire horror (‘Salem’s Lot) and even science fiction (I Am Legend) regularly released well into the 1970s, by the time Anne Rice released Interview With A Vampire in 1976, the world was as hungry for vampels as a new-born vamp craves blood. The vampel went from strength to strength for the next thirty years, with the continuation of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and the publication many cult hits such as Fevre Dream (1982), The Vampire Tapestry (1980), They Thirst (1981), Lost Souls and Children of the Night (both 1992), and The Golden (1993).

In the early 90s Laurel K. Hamilton released the first Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel, a series that became immensely popular and introduced a whole new generation to the vampel. The start of hit TV series Buffy the Vampire in 1997 (1992 if you count the film) propelled the vampire to the forefront of popular culture and there it has happily remained. Vampels kept coming thick and fast well into the noughties, with the release of epic works like Bite (1996), Sunshine and Let the Right One In (2004).

Then something terrible happened.

Twilight.

Vampel - The Twilight Saga

Death

Whether you are a diehard fan of the Twilight saga or (like me) belong to the camp who find it insufferable and ridiculous, there is one fact that is undeniable: Twilight changed the vampel dramatically. Between 2005 and 2011 as Stephanie Meyer’s books were unleashed on an unsuspecting world, the vampire went from fearsome creature of the night to fangless, tamed, idiotic love bunny. Thanks to Edward Cullen the creep factor in the vampire legend ceased to be the insidious, insatiable lust for human blood and irresistible, seductive, but deadly charm, and morphed into the image of guy who is several hundred years old yet inexplicably spends all his time hanging around with teenagers, stalking them, watching them sleep, and stoically resisting their attempts to seduce him because it’s not quite the Christian thing to do…you know, we have to get married first.

Vampel - Anita Blake Narcissus In ChainsVampires refusing to feast on human blood was not a new concept. Rice tackles it head on as a core dilemma for one of her main characters. Joss Whedon gave us Angel, the tortured vampire with a soul, who is as deadly and disturbing as they come when he’s Angelus, but when in possession of a soul can’t abide the thought of killing AND YET, he still kicks ass. Other Urban Fantasy series such as Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld show us vampires who need to feed, and are deadly, yet don’t have to actually kill, a middle ground that allowed for slightly more human versions of these ancient monsters that, despite being a little bit fluffy, retained their fangs.

Vampel - FanglandUnder Meyer’s tender ministrations vampires went from deadly night-time menace to sparkly perverts masquerading as ‘good guys’, and she took the genre down with her. Despite the publication of several excellent vampels in the late noughties – Fledgeling (2005), Midnight Mass (2005), Fangland (2007) – the market was over-run by Twilight and Twilight-esque novels. This plague became so virulent that it spawned 50 Shades of Grey and a million other shallow and insubstantial erotica novels. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Twilight phenomenon was its ability to drag down vampel series that had, previously, been riding high.

The popularity of the Twilight model and in particular the demand for erotica drove Laurel K. Hamilton to push the Anita Blake series down a whole new path, bringing it more in line with her Meredith Gentry (a.k.a Fairy Porn) series. The novels suffered for it, and what began as the addition of a little more spice in Narcissus in Chains (2001) quickly descended into debauched nonsense in 2006 with the release of Micah and Danse Macabre. Buffy had closed down its final season in 2003, and in the absence of popular vampels with bite and substance, the genre got a little lost. Even Rice’s Vampire Chronicles suffered a dip in quality and popularity, with existing fans annoyed by the newer novels, and new fans disappointed they were too dark to be paranormal romance.

Yet all hope was not lost, for in the midst of this insanity was a perky, quirky, blonde haired, vampire-loving beauty who would (eventually) save the day.

Shockingly her name is not Buffy.

It’s Sookie Stackhouse.

Vampel - True Blood

Undeath

Given the criticism I’ve just heaped on Twlight and the slough of similarly dire literary offerings that followed, it may surprise you to hear that I’m actually a huge fan of Ms. Stackhouse, although more for her television incarnation than the books. Sookie burst onto the scene in 2001, with the first of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. Despite the heavy romantic element to these books, the fact I find the writing to be less than stellar and feel the plots are repetitive and contrived to give Sookie a new love interest for every new novel, I do have a soft spot for these stories. The reason for this is very simple: Harris’s vampires are still vampires. They have the convenient option of drinking a blood substitute that allows them to ‘mainstream’ but the majority of them do this for show, while retaining their violent roots. This is further helped by the fact that, while mushy, the romance in these novels is actually grown up rather than the insipid teen-friendly nonsense depicted in Twilight (I’m sorry, but I remember being a teenager, abstinence isn’t that prevalent!). In addition they are often complicated by the fact that the men Sookie falls for are dark. Even Bill, the friendliest of them all, is dark.

Sookie bridges the gap between the vampels of old and the insanity of the Twilight era, and has gone a long way towards ushering us safely into a new revival for the vampel. With the release of True Blood (the TV series based on Harris’s books) in 2008, the world finally had what it so desperately needed – a grown up show for the kids (and adults) who had so loved Buffy, and were now ready for something a lot bloodier, a lot sexier, and far more in keeping with the vampel traditions of the pre-Twilight era.

Vampel - From Dusk Till Dawn

Vampel - Queen of KingsSince the release of the series the world has once again embraced the vampire – and the vampel – for what it was always meant to be: a bloody thirsty fiend. The twenty tens have already seen the release of some fresh new takes on the vampel, with the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Queen of Kings (both 2011) putting a historic twist on the myth, and Enter, Night (also 2011), and Animal (2015) seeing the vampel truly return to its roots in horror. With the release of new TV shows like From Dusk Till Dawn (a remake of the 1996 cult classic vampire film by the same name), that fully embrace the bloody carnage of the vampire while offering insightful social commentary, it looks like the star of our beloved vampire genre is once more on the rise.

Perhaps the most interesting development in the vampel genre in recent years is the swing back towards the origins of the vampel in long-running series that began in the pre-Twilight era and have continued into the post-Twilight revival. With the most recent publications in both Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Hamilton’s Anita Blake series receiving rave reviews and high praise for once again giving us what we all wanted: books with serious bite.

To help you out in your quest for vampels with teeth, I’m giving you all access to my totally free guide to all things vampel, aptly titled Books With Bite: Vampires. These are books that pre-date or post-date the Twilight-esque nonsense to have overrun the genre temporarily, as well as a few rare gems that embraced the new direction the vampel was running in (paranormal romance/YA) and somehow still managed to retain the essence of a true vampel. You can download it for free here.

If you’re a die-hard Twilight fan, I warn you now, tread carefully: these are not the vampires to which you are accustomed.

They bite.

Vampel - Books With Bite Vampires