Ten Literary Vampires You Won't Have Heard Of
Big bads who bump in the night.
Count Dracula, Lestat de Lioncourt, Edward Cullen, Bill Compton.
They’re the most famous undead, known from Lost Angeles to Transylvania. The vampires who made it big, if you will. But they aren’t the only blood suckers in town, even if you discount the rest of their supporting casts. The night holds other blood drinkers. We all love vampires, they are the king monster and have penetrated our culture to a frightening extent but most of us have barely scratched the tip of the iceberg.
Without knowing these vampires, however, you don’t know vampires at all.
1) Lord Ruthven
The antagonist from John Polidori's The Vampyre, Lord Ruthven was based on his then-employer, Lord Byron. He was a studied attempt at character assassination. As a result, Ruthven embodies the poet’s worst habits, obsessed with young, virginal, women and their money. A compulsive gambler and philanderer, Ruthven has no redeeming qualities at all! It’s easy to see the point Polidori was making about his patron. Ruthven is the oldest novel based vampire in the English language, and there are few princes of the night that preceded him.
Conceived for the same ghost story competition that spurred Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein, The Vampyre was first published in 1819, the year after the gathering at Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. Unfortunately, for Polidori, most of its success stemmed from "Byron mania" and the novel only served to make the poet more popular.
2) Lord Byron
Speaking of Lord Byron, he is no stranger to the undead. As well as being the model for pretty much every male vampire ever, he appeared in Tom Holland’s novels The Vampire, The Secret History of Lord Byron, and its sequel, Supping with Panthers, as a vampire. Unlike most of the undead, Holland’s vampire remained young by drinking their relatives’ blood. They are literal ‘bloodkin’. Byron also appears in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard, not as a vampire but one of their victims. Cursed with an inherited monster he is driven to write perfect poetry by the vampire’s influence. He and his fellow poets are caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. They long for freedom but dread the loss of talent that will accompany it.
3) Varney the Vampire
While High Gothic established many of the vampires on this list, Varney comes from the other direction. Appearing in penny dreadfuls, Varney was a monster of a different calibre. Crude and violent, he lacked the finesse of the vampires who had preceded him. Written in a huge arc of stories, with 232 chapters, Varney was officially set at the beginning of the 18th Century. Confusingly though, the story featured references to the Napoleonic Wars and 19th Century life. The other issue is that at times the character’s nature is unclear and he seems like a greedy mortal acting as they believe a vampire should. Despite this, his vampirism is confirmed on several occasions.
The story focuses on his attempts to inflict troubles on a formerly wealthy family, the Bannerworths. It’s implied Varney may actually be a part of the family, and the cause of their poverty, but this is never confirmed. Ultimately, after attempts to redeem himself, he commits suicide by jumping into Mount Vesuvius. One version of his origin story suggests he was a cursed during the English Civil War, after selling out a Royalist to Oliver Cromwell.
Whatever we may think of the work on its own merits, it's nice to know that fanfiction existed long before the internet.
Featuring in a poem, Christabel, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Geraldine is actually the oldest vampire on this list, created in 1797. She was the first female vampire too, setting the precedent for the women who would come after her. The poem is set in a medieval castle and details an almost fairy tale situation. Christabel, a young woman, finds Geraldine after she was abducted in the woods. The poem’s end has Christabel’s father falling under Geraldine’s spell. We are told that the two women share a bed, too.
Geraldine bears a strange, but undefined, mark on her skin. Rather than overtly revealing she is a vampire, Coleridge places hints throughout the poem. Dogs bark at her, she is unable to cross running water and a dead tree mysteriously bursts into flame in her presence. All the signs of her being supernatural are there, but because the poem is unfinished there’s no payoff and Geraldine’s true nature is never confirmed. Coleridge intended the poem to be five parts, but in the end, only two were published.
Written by Sheridan le Fanu, Bram Stoker’s boss at the Dublin Evening Mail, Carmilla walks on dangerous ground. Published in the late Victorian period it clashed with the social conventions of the time. Not only is she a vampire, she preys upon young women in an unholy form of lesbianism. Cursed with lethargy, Carmilla stays with the main character, Laura’s, family after been left on their doorstep by what appears to be a female relative. She seems to be ill at first, her strength recovers as the young women of the Hungarian town begin to sicken. Eventually, her attention turns to Laura and the two begin a passionate affair, that’s stopped by the discovery that Carmilla is, in fact, an ancient vampire from a small estate long swallowed up by the local forest.
It's been speculated le Fanu was inspired by Christabel, but Carmilla confirms not only the nature of the monster but her sapphic desires. There is no accident or coincidence. She even projects herself into the heroine’s life at an early age through dreams. At the end of the novel, she seems to be on the cusp of returning, despite being killed by a stake through the heart and decapitation.
6) Karl von Wultendorf
The hero of Freda Warrington’s Blood Wine Trilogy, Karl is a German vampire. Traveling to Britain in the 1920s he works as a scientist in Cambridge. He’s a suave, complicated character who falls in love with a mortal girl, Charlotte Neville. In turn, she becomes obsessed with him. Mounting passions on both sides, lead them down a dark path, one that only has horror at its end. In their love Karl turns her without the permission of the king vampire, causing him to fall from grace. What makes Warrington’s vampires interesting is that decapitation is not the end for them, they can grow a fresh body and head, given time. In addition, the trilogy reaches a point where no more vampires can be made. World War II is on the horizon and its looming horrors will render the vampires unnecessary.
The writing is sumptuous and straightforward. Warrington manages to bring the characters to life along with the historical period.
7) Joshua York
Created by Game of Thrones’ writer, George RR Martin, who described the novel as "Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain", Joshua York is one of the heroes in Fevre Dream. Under his direction, a 19th Century Mississippi steamboat becomes a haunt for vampires. Travelling up and down the river so that they can meet York is a moderate who believes that humans and vampires must work together. He has created a potion that allows vampires to control their "red thirst." This means they are free of the need to feed on humans. Some vampires welcome him, hailing him as a messianic "pale king." The other members of the species have other ideas. They hijack the boat and use it as a source of dark terror along the river. Only Abner Marsh, York’s mortal partner, has the courage to hunt it down and put a stop to the madness.
Martin’s vampires here are not actually undead, but another species, one that has lived alongside and preyed upon humanity for millennia. They are highly adapted to feeding on and surviving off human blood.
8) Kate Reed
Originally created by Bram Stoker for Dracula, Kate Reed ended up on the editing room floor in the English language edition. She appeared in the novel’s Icelandic version, forgotten until Kim Newman revived her for his Anno Dracula series of novels. Newman’s first act was to transform her into a vampire. Both versions of the character are journalists and close to Mina Murray. In Dracula itself, Kate witnesses a black magic ritual conducted by the Count for his new followers. This brings her back in contact with Mina.
What’s interesting, in the Anno Dracula universe, is that becoming a vampire doesn’t cure Kate’s myopia, or make her beautiful. She remains typically Irish, with red hair and freckles. She’s also stubbornly socialist, Fabian and opposed to Dracula’s tyranny. Passionate and fiery, the character has been a key mover in the opposition to vampire control over Newman’s world. During the four novels, she aids in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, creates a dhampir to battle the Red Baron, witnesses Dracula’s death in the 1950s and investigates the mysterious Johnny Alucard. As a result, she is a fascinating character, who provides a strong moral voice for the series.
9) Sonya Blue
By contrast, Sonya Blue is a punk: angry and dangerous. Created by Nancy Collins, she is a rebel, in a world of terrifying monsters. A vampire who killed her sire and now wreaks a bloody swathe of revenge across the night. Unlike most of the characters here she lives in what has become a standard urban fantasy world. Vampires are not alone there’s more than one sort of supernatural creature. Sonya has fought them all. Perhaps to underline the punk nature of the stories, Blue is neither sexy nor alluring. Instead, she is a gut-punching badass who doesn’t care what others think of her, a real product of the early 1990s. Blue also appeared in crossover fiction, where she was caught in the middle of a war between two vampire elders, prior to dispatching them both.
10) Zillah, Twig and Molochai
Three vampires from the wrong of the tracks. Zillah, Twig and Molochai appear in Poppy Z Brite’s homoerotic hymn to the Goth subculture, Lost Souls. Travelling around America in a van, they give rides to hitch-hikers in return for sex and blood, enjoying alcohol and drug-fuelled orgies, that usually leave their passenger dead. Their story really comes to a head, and an end, when the boy they pick up proves to be Zillah’s son, Nothing. Setting off a terrifying and tragic chain of events, which changes their world forever. They show the sheer destructiveness of being able to party all night and never have to fit into society. Despite this, even though Zillah dies during the novel’s end, it is clear that the vampires’ life of partying all night and doing whatever they please will never really end.
Like Joshua York, these vampires are not undead but are a different species, a mutation of humanity. Young forever, even the oldest vampire barely looks more than middle-aged, they can party all night without slowing down. In many ways, they are everything we could ever want to be, as well as everything we fear.