“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.” Thus Sherlock Holmes, a rare grown-up voice to counter an infantilized world of werewolves, monsters, zombies and vampires.
To scan today’s bookstore shelves is to see that the last category of fictional beings is a hot ticket. It raises a contrarian question as well: In a nation where most adults believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old, might they not also believe that vampire books count as nonfiction?
Maybe. But the 6,000-year-old-Earth types aren’t likely to be big readers to begin with. Not so the vampire-lit crowd, huge, growing and not content to sink its teeth into a single volume, as witness the success of Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris.
There are better books in the genre, notably Dacre Stoker’s new Dracula the Un-Dead. Yet, if zombie buffs have long had a better inventory from which to draw—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z can do wonders of a listless evening, after all—vampires clearly win the argument, if only in sheer literary bulk.
Witness, as evidence, Otto Penzler’s new anthology The Vampire Archives (Vintage; $25.00; October; ISBN 978-0-307-47389-9), which weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. So big is the book that, if carefully positioned atop one, it would keep all but the sturdiest of the undead from opening a coffin lid from inside, which, come to think of it, might make a nice premise for a sequel to the film Vampire’s Kiss.
Penzler, chief mysterian at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and a well-practiced anthologist, is clearly of the more-is-better school, and he turns up little gems of vampirosity from all sorts of writers. Among the better known of them are Arthur Conan Doyle (of aforementioned Sherlock Holmes fame) and the always satisfying M.R. James, who had very specific rules for spinning out a supernatural tale (no sex, lots of malevolence), as well as Edgar Poe, Ambrose Bierce, D.H. Lawrence (who would have known that Lawrence ever wrote a vampire story?), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (ditto) and Guy de Maupassant (ditto ditto).
Then there are legions of tale-spinners from the dime-store magazines of yore, perhaps best represented by Ray Bradbury, who closes a little vampire tale, as is his custom, on a note of delicious irony. (Beware the innocent kid, bloodsucker. Always beware the kid.) Stephen King gets a say, natch, and he does it with spine-tingling efficiency and sanguinary spurts. There are those who grew up outside the pulp tradition, too, such as Anne Rice and Clive Barker, who spin fine tales of their own. Only the very youngest writers seem to be missing, perhaps because there are so few suitably pulpy publications left for them to work in.
Penzler has assembled what ought to be the last word in vampire-ish verbiage. Yet, given that there’s money to be made in the puncture wounds, unreflective mirrors and pallid complexions of vampire lit, there will doubtless be many more such words to come. All we can do is hope for another fad to take its place, and soon. Killer robots? Flesh-stripping mosquitoes? Monster mutant MRSA? We’re on the edge of our seats.