Something To Sink Your Teeth Into: A Guide to The Best in Vampire Fiction Audiobooks
The word Vampire occupies a strange place within the popular imagination. On the one hand, it is a word dripping with connotations and instantly conjures images that are an amalgam of kid’s Halloween costumes, a posturing Bela Lugosi and The Count from Sesame Street.
On the other hand, it is a word that runs a fascinatingly varied gamut of definitions. Covers a huge everything from snarling, animalistic beasts that terrorize and devour, to fresh-faced adolescent heart-throbs that sparkle in the sunlight, all the flavours of nightwalkers are covered by the one word.
To see how striking the range and variety of creatures covered by the word ‘vampire’ is, imagine the ‘Twilight’ Series of vampire based teenage romances (a painful exercise for lovers of vampire fiction I know, but bear with me…) now imagine that instead of a fresh-faced teen pin-up who looks he’s just walked off the set of an advert for skin cleanser, the creature depicted by Max Shreck in the 1922 film Nosferatu was playing the lead. Spot the difference?
Both are ‘vampires’ but you can’t really imagine Count Orlock having an angsty pout about whether or not to take the blood of his victims, whilst his feral, rat-like appearance, (not to mention his questionable manicuring habits) mean that playing the suave ‘romantic’ vampire wouldn’t quite fit.
For fans of vampire literature and audiobooks, it is precisely this variety in the depictions of the ‘creatures of the night’ that make the subgenre so fascinating and appealing, but also somewhat difficult to navigate.
With well over a century of noteworthy nosferatu having been committed to print and so many different visions of what undead bloodsucker actually ‘are’, choosing a title to get your teeth into can be a bit like going on Transylvanian Tinder: Do you want the romantic well-spoken vampire or the pestilent beast like variety? A classic tale or a modern reinvention? Slow burning and literary or pacy and pulpy?
Luckily, before you drive yourself batty (batty, bats, see what I did there? Oh mercy!) working out where to ‘stake’ your claim on this genre, there is a helpful guide that will give you some pointers and help you find your preferred brand of bloodsucker.
So, grab your garlic and crucifix and enter freely and of your own will…
1. The Vampyre – John Polidori
It’s a stormy night the early 1800s, a group of friends and literary giants including Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron are confined by the weather to a house in the Swiss Alps and decide that to pass the time they will challenge each other in a friendly competition, each being challenged to write the most frightening horror story they can think of to share with the group.
This is the familiar story told to explain the origins of the young female Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus). What is often overlooked or forgotten about this meeting of literary titans and the resulting output, is that another contribution, made by Lord Byron’s physician John Polidori, also made a huge impact upon the horror genre and the visons of Vampirism that would haunt the coming centuries.
Polidori’s The Vampyre was not an entirely original composition, being based as it was on Byron’s own ‘Fragment of a Novel’ and featuring a character that might as well have been named Bord Lyron considering how closely based upon the figure of his patient Polidori’s character Lord Ruthven was.
Questions of originality aside there is no disputing the fact that The Vampyre was hugely influential and all but created the image of the ‘romantic’ vampire that would become such a staple of the genre (meaning Polidori is indirectly responsible both for Dracula and The Twilight series. Ah well,you win some you lose some).
The story, which centres around the exploits of Lord Ruthven as he travels and claims victims has a distinctly folkloric, fairytale-like feel to it that is particularly evident in the conclusion.
For a tale that predates Dracula, the vision of the vampire here is remarkably well-formed, if a little limp in the retelling. The style is wordy and obviously ‘of its time’ but is well worth checking out for those looking for a more ‘folksy’ or ‘literary’ vampire tale or who are interested in tracking the development of the genre. Audiobook versions are available on Audible and for free through Librivox and video streaming platforms.
2. Varney the Vampire
Despite the alliterative title that makes it sound like a cartoon character from The Beano or Dandy, Varney (subtitled The Feast of Blood) is one of the earliest and most influential Vampire ‘novels’.
Before diving headlong into the book however, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, the text was written as a serialised text (one of the famed ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the era) and is discussed as the work of more than one author. The result of this serialisation and multiple contributors means that at times the text can be somewhat confusing with contradictory ideas or plot points and themes.
The second thing to consider is the text’s length. If you are going to pick up an actual text copy of Varney, you might need to do a few push-ups first as it is a very substantial tome. As a result, audiobook readings of the text can tend to be very lengthy and you may feel like you need to join the armies of the undead just to have any prospect of making it to the end.
On the plus side, Varney is a highly influential text, being the birthplace in print of such tropes as the ‘vampire at the window’, dual puncture wounds on the throat from fangs and the vampire’s hypnotic powers.
It also borrows a strand from werewolf fiction by presenting Varney at times as a sympathetic character (for a list of great werewolf literature available in audio format check out my article on just that topic that can be accessed here). The geological grandeur of his ultimate demise and even the methods behind his multiple revivals earlier in the text are also notable for their romantic melodrama. For those not put off by its length or looking for a lot of bat for their buck, Varney would be a great choice.
3. Carmilla – Sheridan Le Fanu
If you asked most people to name a nineteenth-century vampire story written by an Irish author and featuring a predatory creature feeding on a young woman with heavy sexual undertones most would immediately think of Dracula.
However, there is another novella, one which predates Stoker’s most famous creation by 26 years, that includes all of the above. Carmilla, the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, also has the distinction of being the first lesbian vampire story, skirting dangerously close to causing outrage in its buttoned-up era, due to its none too subtle suggestions of a homosexual attraction driving the eponymous female vamp.
Anyone who has read Dracula before coming to Carmilla will see some striking similarities. For example the descriptions of Carmilla in comparison to those of Lucy in Stoker’s novel and the similarities between Le Fanu’s vampire expert Baron Vordenburg and Stoker’s Van Helsing (who also has a name similar to Hesselius, from whose casebook the story emerges).
Carmilla is available on audiobook as a stand-alone tale and is well worth the investment on its own. However, I would recommend getting hold of Le Fanu’s ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, a collection of his short horror stories that include Carmilla.
4. Dracula – Bram Stoker
No list of Vampire texts would be complete without the Grand Daddy of them all. By no means the first but without doubt the single most influential vampire story ever written, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a bona fide classic.
Whilst many make the mistake of thinking that they ‘know’ Dracula through Hollywood movies, the novel itself can be quite a surprise. Not only in details often missing from the celluloid versions (Dracula’s appearance and particularly his huge moustache being a major example) but also in the fact that with the right reading, Stoker’s Dracula still retains enough atmosphere to be genuinely unnerving.
The epistolatory nature of Stoker’s narrative makes it perfect for audiobook reading as the listener is able to dip in and out between the various narrators, whilst this choice of structure drives the action forward in what is in many ways a fast-paced adventure narrative as much as it is a horror novel.
Having been around for such a long time, the novel obviously has many readings. The two I would most highly recommend being the unabridged Naxos version, read by a cast including David Horrovitch and Jamie Parker and the recent audible version read by noted actor Alan Cummings (who played Eli Gould in The Good Wife and fittingly ‘Nightcrawler’ in X-men) and the ever terrifying Tim Curry (Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s IT).
5. Interview With The Vampire – Anne Rice
Another more modern title that is often overlooked on account of its famous movie production is Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.
Whilst the on-screen version is excellent and well worth the time of any fan of vampire movies, the detail, character development and historical references interlaced with Rice’s narrative make the novel worth the price whether you have seen the film or not.
The novel’s premise is mostly explained by the title and as promised features an account of being a card holding member of the hordes of the undead narrated by a bona fide vampire. Louis de Pointe Du Lac, the bloodsucker in question, narrates the tale with a melancholy weariness that comes straight from the Varney the Vampire mould of the tragic vampire.
It is a testament to Rice’s writing that the characters are so well rounded, showing a depth of personality and idiosyncrasy that can sometimes be missing from the standard cookie-cutter vampires that populate some more modern pulp fiction.
Rice’s novel spawned 11 sequels, of which many agree only ‘The Vampire Lestat’ is of comparable quality. Speaking of quality, there are a number of versions of the book available as audio and the quality of the recordings varies somewhat. For both clarity of recording and quality of delivery I would recommend the reading of the unabridged work by Simon Vance, though if you are pressed for time, prefer a deeper, more sonorous voice in the reading and can tolerate grainer quality in the recording, F Murray Abraham’s reading of the abridged version is also very good.
6. The Gilda Stories – Jewelle Gomez
In a similarly drained ‘vein’ to Rice’s novel and set in a similar time period (at least in part) The critically acclaimed The Gilda Stories is notable not only for the lustrous quality of the writing and treatment of the vampire narrative but also in its representation of a black female bisexual vampire. Again, much like Rice but with her own fiercely original twist Gomez exploits the ‘immortality’ element of the vampire myth in order to present the character in various ‘lives’.
These varied lifetimes spread over many years and across a variety of locations allow her to imagine character inhabiting the guise of other ‘characters’ as she metaphorically swaps in and out of these various skins exploring and applying the vampire mythology in a variety of situations and scenarios.
7. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova
Perhaps of less literary merit but nonetheless entertaining is ‘The Historian’ a recent and hugely successful book which is to vampire literature what Dan Brown is to the study of art history, but then whoever said every audiobook had to be Dostoyevsky?
Like one of the fabled vampire hunters armed with stakes, holy water, and garlic the listener should go into this novel forearmed by forewarning. If you want a great work of highbrow horror fiction, look elsewhere, if you want fun, facts and fangs, then this might be up your street.
The books central premise, that ‘Dracula’, (by whom the author means Vlad Tepes the real historical figure) is, by means of vampirism, still alive, is an interesting one and the novel’s reliance upon implausibly detailed letters in an attempt to echo the structure of Dracula make it an easy book to dip in and out of.
If accepted for what it is right off the bat, is a great piece of pulpy horror escapism. On a long bus journey, flight or just lazing on a beach, The Historian does enough with its weaving of gorgeously depicted locations, historical details and action to keep the listener entertained.
Yes. the initial intrigue seems to fade toward the middle, yes the extended scavenger hunt style plot is held together by some ludicrous coincidences, clunky dialogue and romantic entanglements even more bloodless than some of the victims and yes the ending will simply infuriate some, but still…
Despite its lofty pretentions toward some kind of elevated worthiness, The Historian remains a somewhat cheesy popcorn adventure story that is, at its heart, the literary equivalent of a standard Hammer Horror vampire flick. Sometimes, that’s enough.
8. Anno Dracula – Kim Newman
From a book that apes Dracula to one that re-imagines its conclusion and runs with the consequences. In a strikingly original angle, Anno Dracula imagines a world in which Dracula’s bid to infiltrate British society were successful.
Having defeated Van Helsing and vanquished the other heroes of the novel, Dracula climbs to the upper echelons of English society, even going so far as to Marry Queen Victoria. This allows him to spread the vampire curse amongst the upper crust of London society and provides him with power and influence. In a manner similar to Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the text is littered with cameos by characters from other texts (including a great number of vampire novels) as well as historical characters who fit into the narrative at various junctures. Critically well-received, Anno Dracula spawned a sequel and is a well-plotted mix of classic horror and alternative history.
9. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Speaking of well-plotted, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is the sort of well structured and developed work one would expect from King and is possibly the most legitimately chilling entry on this list.
In various writings about this work, King has discussed how his vision of the vampire was influenced by the images he saw in old EC era horror comics and that with Salem’s Lot he sought to reject the sanitised suit-wearing lothario vision of the vampire and instead make them more physical and tangibly, flesh tearingly real.
Built around a simple premise in which, instead of moving to the Carfax estate of Victorian London as Dracula did, a creature of the night instead decides to settle in the fertile feeding grounds of small-town America Salem’s Lot is a genuinely frightening listen not for the faint-hearted and should be applauded for returning the vampire to its rightful position as a creature that inspires real fear.
Bonus left field listens:
For those still thirsting for more, there are a few other slightly more off the wall listens worth a try.
Sharonah Fredrick’s lecture on ‘Vampire Lore from Transylvania to Peru’ available for free on Youtube is an entertaining and fascinating slice of non-fiction presented by a knowledgeable and engaging lecturer that gives a great insight for anyone interested in the history and folklore that influenced the literature above.
The BBC Radio drama Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula will be hugely appealing to fans of either literary giant and weaves the worlds of the two together with admirable creativity. The action, though predictably a little melodramatic, is well-acted and available for free on Youtube.
And there you have it. A whistle-stop tour of over a century of vampire literature. Hopefully more than enough for you to sink your teeth into.