The best books about vampire myths and their cultural fascination

Who am I?

I have written more than 20 non-fiction books on a wide range of topics. I was trained as a chemist and physicist, and as both an author and a journalist I am mostly concerned with the sciences and how they interact with the broader culture – with the arts, politics, philosophy, and society. Sometimes that interest takes me further afield, and in my new book The Modern Myths, I present a detailed look at seven tales that have taken on the genuine stature of myth, being retold again and again as vehicles for the fears, dreams, and anxieties of the modern age. Ranging from Robinson Crusoe to Batman, this list also inevitably includes Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula – leading him to examine how we have used the legend of the vampire in the past and present.

I wrote...

The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination

By Philip Ball,

Book cover of The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination

What is my book about?

Myths are usually seen as stories from the depths of time--fun and fantastical, but no longer believed by anyone. Yet, as I show, we are still writing them--and still living them--today. From Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein to Batman, many stories written in the past few centuries are commonly, perhaps glibly, called "modern myths." But I argue that we should take that idea seriously. Our stories of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes are doing the kind of cultural work that the ancient myths once did. Through the medium of narratives that all of us know in their basic outline and which have no clear moral or resolution, these modern myths explore some of our deepest fears, dreams, and anxieties. We keep returning to these tales, reinventing them endlessly for new uses. But what are they really about, and why do we need them? What myths are still taking shape today? And what makes a story become a modern myth?

In The Modern Myths, I take the reader on a wide-ranging tour of our collective imagination, asking what some of its most popular stories reveal about the nature of being human in the modern age.

The books I picked & why

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The Vampire: A New History

By Nick Groom,

Book cover of The Vampire: A New History

Why this book?

Nick is a professor of English at the University of Exeter in the UK – but he is better known as the “Prof. of Goth”, being interested in all things Gothic. He is an example of the generation of humanities scholars who have broken down traditional boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, having written on topics ranging from Shakespeare to J. R. R. Tolkien and Nick Cave. Nick’s book on vampires is a comprehensive history that traces the evolution of these creatures from feral beasts of folklore to the aristocratic Dracula and his screen portrayals from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee. His book leaves no doubt that, whatever else vampires might be, they are an important cultural phenomenon.

Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella

By Christopher Frayling,

Book cover of Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella

Why this book?

Frayling’s book is very much a forerunner of Groom’s, being one of the first serious (but also immensely readable) studies of the vampire in culture. This one keeps its sights trained more on the nineteenth-century vampire. It begins with The Vampyre, the story written by John Polidori at the Villa Diodati at the same infamous gathering that spawned Marty Shelley’s Frankenstein. Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, but the two men fell out badly, and Polidori’s aristocratic bloodsucker Lord Ruthven is widely regarded as modeled on Byron. Although now little remembered, The Vampyre began the Victorian craze for vampires that culminated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Frayling is the perfect guide, being not only a cultural historian of wide learning but also a splendid communicator.

Our Vampires, Ourselves

By Nina Auerbach,

Book cover of Our Vampires, Ourselves

Why this book?

Auerbach’s book takes the vampire story into more contemporary territory and, some might say, into more treacherous waters. Although beginning again with Polidori, she follows the evolution of the vampire tale through to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger (starring an elegantly wasted David Bowie). She shows how homoeroticism has been a part of the vampire narrative since its nineteenth-century inception, notably with Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, and how readily the narrative lent itself as an allegory of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. I don’t agree with all of Auerbach’s interpretations, but she has some zinging one-liners.

The Cambridge Companion to 'Dracula'

By Roger Luckhurst,

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to 'Dracula'

Why this book?

Although this book focuses on just the most famous vampire narrative of all, you don’t need to look far into Dracula to find universal vampire themes: sexuality, paranoia, misogyny, xenophobia, psychoanalysis, and the sacred power of blood. This collection of essays also sets Stoker’s tale within the wider context of the Victorian vampire boom, and looks at what became of his tale on stage and screen. It shows how Stoker was tapping into richer, deeper seams than even he realised, making Dracula “one of the most obsessional texts of all time, a black hole of the imagination”, in horror expert David Skal’s words. “The most frightening thing about Dracula’, says Skal, “is the strong probability that it meant far less to Bram Stoker than it has come to mean for us.”

The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies

By Gregory A. Waller,

Book cover of The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies

Why this book?

Where does our fascination with “the undead” (Bram Stoker’s original title for Dracula) come from? Waller’s book delves into the dark thoughts and fantasies that propel our violent obsession with these “creatures of the night”, looking in particular at the themes that have evolved in vampire narratives in horror films and literature during the twentieth century – starting with the classic of German expressionism, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. He shows how the vampire story merged with and spawned the myth of the zombie in the second half of the century, particularly in Richard Matheson’s1954 crossover novel I Am Legend – itself the progenitor of the “zombie apocalypse” stories that crystallized in the subversive movies of George Romero. You come away from this book with a sobering sense of the darkness that lies in our deep psyche – but also of what cathartic purpose it might serve. 

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