For the last 200 years, vampires have haunted popular fiction, becoming such a cultural icon that we take them for granted. Originated in European folklore, this undead creature comes out at night to drink human blood using their sharp fangs, turning their prey into undead like themselves. Although many of their specific characteristics are dependant on the story, common tropes include the idea that vampires generally cast no shadow, that holy water, garlic, and sunlight weakens their powers or kills them, that they have no reflection in mirrors, and that some can turn into bats or wolves. Most have a sensuality that charms their victims, whose only defense is a wooden stake or silver.
Although one of the most well-known and oldest novels to draw from, Dracula was not the first vampire story. The first published vampire tale was actually by an English physician, John Polidori. Polidori was the young personal physician to Lord Byron, and in the summer of 1816, he traveled with Byron to Geneva. 1816 was called ‘The Year with no Summer’ and indeed that June, when Bryon and Polidori entertained their friends Mary Godwin (Shelley), her step-sister Claire Clairmont (who had been Byron’s lover), and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the weather was cold and dreadful. Stuck inside on a dark and stormy night, the young Romantics entertained themselves reading scary stories, and Byron challenged them to create their own. From this contest came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre.
Polidori’s story The Vampyre is credited for making the vampire into a sexy, charismatic, and charming monster – an aristocratic character who may have been inspired by a work by his employer, Lord Byron. In a passage in his epic poem The Giaour (1813), Lord Byron alludes to the traditional folkloric vampire who is cursed to drink the blood of his loved ones, taking their lives to sustain his undead body. Polidori took this unfinished tale by Byron and developed it into his own tale.
The manuscript lay forgotten for three years until coming into the hands of Henry Colburn, who published it in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine under “The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron.” Obviously the credit to Lord Byron was incorrect, but the tale was lauded as a masterpiece – Goethe proclaiming it Byron’s best work. Polidori tried to establish his rightful authorship but the public was not interested. The success of the work was helped along by Byron’s status and popularity.
Polidori had pursued a love of literature throughout his short life, although his father pushed him to study medicine. This love attached him to Lord Byron as his physician, although he struggled under the popular author’s shadow.
The publication of his work being attributed to Byron didn’t help that struggle. After his failure at proving his authorship, Polidori tried to pursue new ventures, including law and becoming a monk – that was denied him because of his authorship of The Vampyre. Unfortunately, his depression couldn’t brave the turbulent storms of authorship and his contentious relationship with Byron and Polidori ended up committing suicide in 1821 at the age of 25 by drinking a beaker of cyanide.
Varney, The Vampire
The first vampire story to refer to sharpened teeth, Varney the Vampire was first published in 1845-1847 in a series of weekly cheap pamphlets known as ‘penny Dreadfuls.’ The serialized gothic horror tale introduced many of the vampire tropes known to modern audiences, through the vampire Sir Francis Varney. When the penny dreadfuls featuring Varney were put together into one book it totaled an astounding 667,000 words in 232 chapters. Author James Malcolm Rymer wrote up to 115 popular novels for English bookseller and publisher Edward Lloyd, including the popular String of Pearls in which the infamous villain Sweeney Todd makes his debut. String of Pearls (1846) and Varney the Vampire were co-written with Thomas Peckett Prest, another prolific author of penny dreadfuls.
Carmilla is an 1872 novella by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. One of the earliest works of vampire fiction, it predates Dracula by 26 years. Carmilla was first serialized in the literary magazine Dark Blue in 1871 and 1872, before being reprinted in Le Fanu’s short story collection In the Glass Darkly. Carmilla is narrated by Laura, a young woman who is preyed upon by a female vampire named Carmilla who is later revealed to be the undead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. Read more about finding copies of Carmilla here.
One of the most popular and noted of vampire books, Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker was first published in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company. The original first edition was bound in striking yellow cloth with red lettering. The first issue does not have the last page advertisement for Shoulder of Shasta, another book by Bram Stoker. The first US edition was released by Doubleday & McClure Co in 1899.
This Gothic horror novel is now considered a classic tale that has had a major impact on the cultural views of vampires. When it was first released it wasn’t nearly as popular but enjoyed minor success as an adventure novel. Stoker did not make much money from the tale, or the other writing he did to supplement his job as a theatre manager. He died in 1912, and when the unauthorized adaptation Nosferatu was released in 1922 his widow sued the film company and won. In 1931 an American film version was released, and the popularity of the book soared. It has remained in print since, and the character of Count Dracula has become a cultural icon that has inspired many adaptations since.
I Am Legend
Published in 1954 by Walker and Company, I Am Legend is a science-fiction horror novel by American writer Richard Matheson. Although it is considered one of the first modern vampire books, it was also seminal in the development of zombies in popular culture, beginning with George Romero’s classic movie Night of the Living Dead (1968). In 2007 the novel was adapted into a film starring Will Smith.
Interview with The Vampire
Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976 and was the first work in the Vampire Chronicles series by Anne Rice. That series has sold over 80 million copies worldwide. The story revolves around the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt and is set in New Orleans in the 18th century. Rice took a decade off of writing the vampire novels from 2003 when Blood Canticle was published, until 2013 with the publication of the 10th book Prince Lestat. The series currently consists of 13 novels, the latest Blood Communion, published in 2018.
In 1994 Interview with a Vampire was made into a blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, Antonio Banderas, and Kirsten Dunst.
Dead Until Dark was the first of The Southern Vampire Series, published in 2001 and later adapted in the popular HBO series True Blood. Author Charlene Harris takes vampires into the rural setting of Bon Temps, Louisiana, where Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress, falls for a bad-boy vampire.
Twilight, the beginning book of the popular young adult romance series by Stephenie Meyer, was published by Little Brown and Company in 2005. The four-part series features the star crossed lovers Bella and the vampire Edward, whose romance is complicated not only by Edward’s immortal curse but also by the attractive werewolf Jacob. All of the books were extremely popular and adapted into feature films.
Published in 2005 by Little Brown and Company in New York, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova reconstructs the story of Dracula through a young woman’s journey of discovery about her family and the truth about Vlad the Impaler and the legend of Count Dracula. It became the first debut novel to become number one on the New York Times bestseller list in its the first week of sales.
Kostova and Biblio share the same home base of Asheville!
Described as a biographical action horror mash-up novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith. Released in 2010 by Grand Central Publishing, multiple signed copies and first editions are available on Biblio.com at very reasonable book collecting prices. The story weaves Lincoln’s biography with the ‘real truth’ about his secret life hunting vampires from an early age in Illinois when they killed his mother, through his presidency and eventual assassination and beyond death.
The Vampire in Literature: A Critical Bibliography (1989) by Margaret L. Carter.
The Everything Vampire Book: From Vlad the Impaler to the vampire Lestat – a history of vampires in Literature, Film and legend (2009) by Barbara Karg, Rick Sutherland, Arjean Spaite.
Blood and Roses: Vampires in 19th Century LIterature (1999) by Adele Olivia Gladwell.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.