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'The Vampire Archives,' edited by Otto Penzler

With the undead now firmly ensconced into the pop culture firmament, the 80 tales in this collection offer an absorbing overview of who they are and where they came from.

October 25, 2009|Richard Rayner | Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place" and writes the Paperback Writers column, which appears monthly at

The Vampire Archives

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."

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