Vampire fiction has a long and distinguished pedigree in English. From the moment that Robert Southey introduced the British Isles to the concept of the coffin-sleeping undead at the turn of the 19th century, the authors of vampiric stories have mirrored the changing face of the society that reads them.
And yet, scholars have largely turned a blind eye to one lingering question: Which of these authors were, themselves, nosferatu? Was night-stalking Lord Byron secretly a daywalker? Could it be that Anne Rice’s innate understanding of deathless sexiness is itself a result of her fellowship in the camp of the undead?
Until we understand which writers have been secretly propagandizing for Dracular overlords, our understanding of the place of vampires in anglophone culture will never be fully complete. So in the interest of bettering the cause of human understanding and avoidance of unwilling resurrection, we present the following field guide to secretly vampiric authors, past and present.
John William Polidori
Best-known vampire book: The Vampyre (1819)
While the concept of vampires goes back at least as far as Balkan folktales from the middle ages or earlier, its history in the English-speaking world began in earnest with Dr. John William Polidori’s novel The Vampyre at the turn of the 19th century. The book itself has as high-class an origin as any bloodsucker book could ask for, having been born at a Swiss chalet, in the same spooky story contest where Mary Shelley hatched the idea for Frankenstein. The contest entry for another participant, Lord Byron, was the tale of an aristocratic Englishman who is secretly an ancient, unkillable force of evil. Being too lazy to actually write the story himself, Byron passed along the idea to his personal physician and party guest, Polidori, who spun it out into his novel three years later.
Polidori had always had an adorably puppy dog-ish devotion to Byron — that mercurial, temperamental, but undeniably sexy man of the late-night hours. So it’s not surprising to see the doctor’s depiction of the book’s vampiric main character, Lord Ruthven, take on a certain erotic charge. Ruthven is described as cruelly sadistic, mockingly contemptuous of others, yet desperately desired by those around him for reasons even they can’t entirely explain.
He is, in other words, a pathetically obvious stand-in for Byron himself, and Polidori’s almost unwilling attraction to his questionable friend marks him out as a classic human thrall of an undead overlord.
Verdict: Not a vampire, but Byron… vampire all the way
Best-known vampire book: Dracula (1897)
The real breakthrough moment for vampires in the English-speaking world came just before the turn of the 20th century with the publication of Bram Stoker’s appropriately immortal novel Dracula. Stoker’s story of a Transylvanian count who takes residence in the U.K. in order to launch a centuries-old plan of vampiric conquest and enslavement became the source of pastiches, spinoffs, and cliches almost from the moment it arrived. As a result, its influence codified many of the basic elements of vampire storytelling for the next half-century or more: the foreign, undead aristocrat whose cosmopolitan charm and suave allure stood in for English fears and paranoias about the allure of other nations and races; the bloodsucking conversion process (targeted, invariably, against either women or the more effeminate among the male set) that reads alarmingly like seduction; the tricks and traps of the vampire hunters that range from wooden stakes to garlic to sunlight to good old simple beheadings.
Stoker’s own biography is almost the inverse of his noble-born immortal count, but it’s still fittingly enigmatic for the writer of the seminal work of undead fiction. Born to a middle-class Protestant Irish family in the 1840s, Stoker’s life grew progressively more bizarre: Among other things, he took a keen interest in the occult studies of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as the history and practices of the Freemasons. Cultivating a public reputation? Seeking inspiration for a never-materialized new hit story? Perhaps. Then again, it’s just possible that somewhere along the way, Stoker had acquired a membership to the most elite secret society of all.
Best-known vampire book: ’Salem’s Lot (1975)
’Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s second published book after the breakout success of 1974’s Carrie, concerns (obviously) a writer who returns to his childhood hometown in (obviously) rural Maine, only to discover gradually but gruesomely that the entire society is in thrall to the undead.
If the vampire stories of the Victorian era had used their monstrous antagonists as allegories for the deepest fears of the fading 19th century, King’s novel was an encapsulation of post-Watergate suspicions that government corruption had infected all levels of the community. But just as notable as King’s modernizing of the vampire novel is his decided and inarguable resemblance to creature of the night himself.
In addition to famously dwelling in the least accessible reaches of rural New England, and maintaining a schedule, lifestyle, and an ability to defy death that would make Rasputin blush (dude survived a direct hit from a car, just for starters), King has also been frozen in an ageless state that could fairly be described as “non-specifically ancient” throughout his career. He’s not only a vampire, but it could be reasonably argued that he’s not even trying very hard to hide it. Still, given King’s recent and high-profile stances against corporate power and in favor of trans rights, it has to be admitted that he makes a strong case for vampire kind.
Verdict: Vampire (complimentary)
Best-known vampire books: The Vampire Chronicles series (1976-2018)
Ever since the Victorian era, vampires in fiction have stood in for all the sexual urges, temptations, and repressed fears burbling below the surface of a repressive society. But until the late 20th century, subtext is where those messages stayed buried: charged little winks to audiences that may have led to genre success, but could never actually be stated out loud by any character on the page.
It would take until the 1970s for those themes to finally take center stage. Not coincidentally, it would take a woman to do it. When Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire reached bookshelves in 1976, it was a watershed moment for vampire novels — the first time a mainstream book had prominently featured vampires that were gay, campy, and unapologetically fabulous.
For that alone, you might mistake Rice for a classic vampire-infected propagandist for the cause, but the case is a little muddier than that. Rice had a famously ambivalent relationship with the Catholicism of her youth, first turning away from it in favor of sexy gothic monster books, then embracing it in the early 2000s to pen a series of Christ-themed religious fiction, then finally rejecting the Church once more over its conservative social positions (“It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group,” she wrote on her Facebook page at the time). Even so, religious flirtation is canonically one of the few things a vampire can’t tolerate even in small doses, so this is one case in which the jury is no longer out.
Verdict: Not a vampire
Laurell K. Hamilton
Best-known vampire books: Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series (1993-present)
Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire novels are like the final evolution of an undead Pokémon. Where Anne Rice made vampires sexy but still took pains to remind readers that they were fundamentally the stuff of nightmares, Hamilton’s Anita Blake series is more like the merrily obscene aesthetic of a 1970s grindhouse flick. Her characters bash, slaughter, and jump one another’s bones (animated or otherwise), but it’s all in good fun. With her books, the sexy and violent vampire has reached a Looney Tunes stage of madcap romp, and audiences can’t get enough of it.
But does that make Hamilton herself a vampire? I’d argue to the contrary. Nothing serves the vampire cause less than undermining the air of looming menace that they’ve been cultivating since the 15th century. Vlad the Impaler worked for that nickname, dammit, and the last thing they need is for an airport novel to make a stake through the heart look fun. No, Laurell K. Hamilton isn’t among the denizens of the undead. She’s the one thing they’ve come to fear this millennium: a good punchline.
Verdict: Not a vampire
Best-known vampire work: What We Do in the Shadows (2014, 2019-present)
While What We Do in the Shadows isn’t actually a work of prose fiction, and Waititi isn’t actually an author, who is to say what constitutes true literature, anyway? Regardless, What We Do in the Shadows, which Waititi co-created along with his fellow New Zealander Jemaine Clement (the two wrote and directed the original 2014 movie) is surely the most culturally pervasive piece of vampire-themed fiction to reach mass audiences over the past few years. Just as importantly, it marks the necessary next step in the inexorable movement of vampiric lore from creeping terror to sexy camp to outright comedy with only the faintest twist of terror to remind us of its origins. Two centuries after its English-language birth, the vampire genre has at last been metaphorically defanged. We humans have taken its blood and sucked it dry for our amusement.
And what can we say about Taika Waititi? Here is a director and writer who started out charmingly likable, beloved by both audiences and critics; he was happily invited into our homes; rapidly wore out his welcome; and, almost before we knew what had happened, he has curdled into an odorous pestilence we couldn’t seem to be rid of (when you lose the Chris Hemsworth demographic, you know you’re in trouble). And yet, here we are, coming back for more, year after year, drawn to him by a force we are powerless to explain — when it comes to Our Flag Means Death, we are all Renfields. And what, after all, could serve the vampire cause better than to trick us into thinking the threat had passed? My friends, we haven’t just found a vampire. We have found their king.