Welcome to The Nocturnal House, Snarklings! It seemed like the best thing to call the new section of Gothic Charm School wherein the Lady of the Manners talks informally about books, because over the years, the Lady of the Manners has stayed up far, far too late into the night, reading vampire books.
Yes, vampire books.You see, I read a lot of vampire books. Well, lots of books in general, but a vast amount of my personal library are about the fanged children of the night.
It seems that whenever I’m online (and sometimes in real life, away from the computer), random people ask me for my recommendations for vampire books. Hence The Nocturnal House! Here’s the basic information:
– The Nocturnal House isn’t quite going to be the Gothic Charm School book club, but there will be MODERATED comments, in the hopes of getting some interesting discussion going.
– The Nocturnal House is going to be a bit more informal in stylistic tone than the usual sections of Gothic Charm School. In other words, the Lady of the Manners will be setting aside the third-person affectation while lounging about in The Nocturnal House.
– Clicky-link disclosure! The links to books here in The Nocturnal House go to Powells.com, and are partner links. Which means that if you click one of those links and buy the book, I will, in theory, eventually earn a small amount of money. Who knows if it will amount to anything, but hey! All proceeds will almost assuredly be spent on my addiction to Fluevogs and fancy hats.
So! When people ask which vampire books I think are worthwhile, what is the very first book title that I blurt out? Oh, you sillies, can’t you guess?
Yes. Start with the bat-winged great-grand-daddy of them all, Snarklings. Trust me on this one. There are other vampire stories that came before (hello, “Carmilla” by Le Fanu, anyone? Yes, go read that and Polidori’s “The Vampyre”), but Dracula has cast a long shadow since its publication in 1897 for some very good reasons.
Count Dracula is the King Vampire of literature. He’s evil, he wants to leave his collection of vampire brides in Transylvania to find new thralls in England, and he’s mind-controlling a poor lunatic in an asylum. No moping about his lost humanity, no angsting about being a damned thing, no falling in love with women centuries younger than himself, just flat-out evil. I appreciate that in a vampire. (That’s right, there is no vampire/human love story in Dracula, no matter what the various Dracula movies put forth. The only interests Count Dracula has in Lucy Westenra or Mina Harker are motivated by hunger and control. No tender feelings of romantic longing at all.) That’s not to say I don’t appreciate those other, more classically Romantic-with-a-capital-R, soul-searching traits in vampire books, but those sorts of character motivations need to be handled delicately, else they become tedious very quickly.
Also, Dracula is not the main character. He’s the looming shadow of evil, an outside force bent on corrupting and destroying everything in his path. There is no reasoning with him, there is no placating him. Instead, the group of threatened sweethearts and friends must band together to try to discover what is going on so they can save themselves and society. It’s an adventure story driven by a monstrously evil creature that is just human enough to feel not just menacing, but malicious. In addition to that, there’s the churning sexual subtext to Dracula, all about being overcome and swooning ecstasy. From Chapter Three, during Jonathan Harker’s run-in with Dracula’s Brides:
“Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.”
Or from Chapter Sixteen, an example of the seductiveness of predatory evil:
“When she advanced to him with outstretched arms and a wanton smile he fell back and hid his face in his hands.
She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said, “Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”
There was something diabolically sweet in her tones, something of the tinkling of glass when struck, which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another.
As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell, moving his hands from his face, he opened wide his arms.”
However, for all that I’m an enthusiastic Dracula fan (and at last count, I have 15 different editions of the book), I have to admit that it is a very flawed book. The epistolary style is sometimes hard to follow, the writing is sloppy in parts (for heaven’s sake, don’t read Dracula with any expectations of tightly-knit continuity, you’ll only give yourself a headache), there are sections that drag on and on and on, and, to quote Cleolinda:
“Van Helsing talks like a lolcat. He does. An extremely educated doctor-of-all-sciences lolcat who suddenly can has law degree about two-thirds of the way into the story.”
This is the most accurate (and entertaining!) description of Van Helsing I’ve ever read, and the last time I re-read Dracula, I kept cracking up because I was translating Van Helsing’s broad swathes of dialog into exaggerated lolcat syntax.
But it is a classic. Jonathan Harker falling prey to Dracula’s brides, Mina’s strange, dreamlike journey to find the sleepwalking Lucy in a graveyard, the trials and tribulations of the bug-eating Mr. Renfield, the confrontation with the transformed Lucy, Dracula’s corruption of Mina — all of these scenes exert a lingering, nightmarish power, and no adaptation in any other media has ever come close to portraying the chilling imagery of the book.
If you really want to learn about the book, I highly recommend getting an annotated version, to have footnotes about the plot and historical context of the story. I have a fondness for the New Annotated Dracula, edited by Leslie S. Klinger.
Not only is it full of footnotes, but he frames the whole thing as if the novel were a real historical document of events that happened to real people. As in, Bram Stoker knew the Harkers socially, and convinced them to allow him to collect and publish their correspondence to warn the public about the menace of Count Dracula. I found this endlessly entertaining, but your suspension of disbelief may differ. If that doesn’t sound like the sort of annotations you’re looking for, then you may want to stick with the Norton Critical Edition.
So there you go, Snarklings. Go get a copy of Dracula and read it. In a few weeks, I’ll tell you alllllll about another vampire book I really like. (This whole Nocturnal House thing isn’t just an excuse for me to re-read my favorite books about fanged monsters, I swear.)