June 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Das Vampir

Reading the most recent Anita Blake novel has made me ponder vampire series. Nothing is more prevalent in horror literature ­ with a few notable exceptions (King's Salem's Lot, Brite's Lost Souls, and Brust's Agyar being the most notable ones), almost every vampire novel has spawned sequels. And, perhaps in keeping with traditional vampire mythology, the sequels, like the vampiric progeny, tend to get progressively weaker, until we're left with the literary equivalent of George Hamilton in Love at First Bite.

But there are a few vampire series that, even if they peak at the first book, provide enough entertainment throughout the series to be worthwhile. These series only have two things in common ­ they have vampires as major characters, and they all contain five books or fewer. The second wasn't a rule I had when choosing the series, but it turns out that, as with almost any other series, familiarity breeds contempt, and even much more talented authors than Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice (and all the authors I list are much more talented than those two) would have had trouble keeping series fresh beyond that number.

The series closest in theme to Hamilton's is Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series. Currently at three books ( Dead Until Dark , Living Dead in Dallas, and Club Dead ), the series tells the story of a small-town Louisiana girl with the wonderful name of Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie has been "blessed" with telepathy, and thus has a lot of problems with relationships, as even when she tries to shield herself, she picks up thoughts from those around her. So when she meets a mysterious man named Bill, she's pleasantly surprised to find that she can't read him at all. Soon enough, however, she finds out exactly why she can't read him ­ he's her small town's first Undead resident.

The Southern Vampire series is rooted in the romantic relationship between a human and a vampire, as well as in the increased alienation the human feels from her own society. Sookie's powers, enough to make life in the big city tough, make living in a small town (where everyone knows everyone else's business anyway), even trickier. And as she discovers more of the supernatural (including the requisite were-creatures), her world gets more complicated, but she also discovers more places where she can fit in. Of course, her world also gets complicated as a result of the murders, kidnappings, and other crimes that she encounters.

Harris's charming and deft writing style - she's a veteran mystery writer, with two other major series under her belt - make the characters come alive. Sookie could have been a stock character, and the series would still probably have sold (as just about any vampire novel seems insured a spot on the bestseller list nowadays). But Harris gives Sookie and her small-town companions (as well as the various beasties she meets) a Southern charm that makes the series stand out. At three books, the series is far from running out of steam, and given Harris's veteran skills, I've got hopes that this one will last for a good while.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tanya Huff's Vicky Nelson books (Blood Price Blood Price, Blood Trail , Blood Lines, Blood Pact , and Blood Debt ). A series of five gritty urban fantasy novels, the Vicky books were wisely ended this mid-90s series before the characters could start to get old. Like so many other vampire series, the core of these novels is a love triangle, and private eye Vicky Nelson is torn between her human ex-boyfriend Mike Celluci (who's also a police officer), and her vampiric swain, Henry Fitzroy.

Unlike Harris, Huff has entrenched her readers in urban life at its best (and worst), with more than one novel in the series resembling a police procedural as much as anything else. Vicky, a former police officer who is slowly going blind, is as developed a character as any in vampire fiction, and the evolution of her relationships with the two male protagonists (as well as the complicated relationship she has with her mother) is fascinating to watch. The villains throughout the series are fun, and threats come as often from humans (including the classic scientists messing with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know) as from the supernatural world.

Unlike most authors, Huff gives her characters a set story arc, and by the time the fifth book has ended, all of the characters have grown as much as one could hope. Nice as it might be to revisit the three protagonists (and Tanya has published an occasional short story with the characters since the series ended), this series stands on its own as a very nice five-volume story. Huff, with her touch of humor and wonderful knack for dialogue, has given her protagonists a depth that's unrivaled in genre fiction. Fans of detective and urban fantasy novels alike should enjoy this series.

Next, we come to another series that has come to an end: Nancy Collins's venerable Sonja Blue novels. Starting with Sunglasses After Dark, Collins has created a vampire series built around a simple premise: Instead of a vampire with roots in both the classically Gothic, as well as contemporary Goth, movements (and all the angst that entails), how about a vampire who comes from the Punk movement?

In Sonja Blue, Collins created a rare vampire protagonist who doesn't spend the entire novel navel-gazing. When she was turned into a vampire, she didn't mope; she got pissed off (and also went a little insane, but who wouldn't?). The five books in the series (Sunglasses is followed by In the Blood, Paint It Black, A Dozen Black Roses, and Darkest Heart) clearly show Collins's roots as a splatterpunk author, and we are treated to some brutally nasty scenes in these novels, including truly horrific acts of violence, and disturbing sex. Collins also works her share of caricatures into the book; the villainous televangelist in the first novel is a stand-in for Tammy Faye Bakker, but Collins doesn't attempt the subtlety that, for example, Margaret Atwood employed in The Handmaid's Tale. Collins uses a bazooka, not a sniper's rifle.

The series does show some aging further along, and Darkest Heart, which Collins has said is the last book in the series, lacks the spark the earlier books had. However, the series is still worth reading, if only to watch the sheer joi de vivre (or joi de un-vivre) with which Sonja deals with friend, enemy, and lover alike.

The final vampire series worth checking out is Mick Farren's Renquist Quartet (which includes The Time of Feasting, Darklost, More Than Mortal, and Underland). Farren, a former rock journalist known for psychedelic sci-fi novels, started the series off with a mostly mainstream horror story of a colony of New York vampires thrown into disarray by internal politics and external hunters. However, with the second book, the series took a turn for the bizarre that had only been hinted at previously, as Farren established vampires (and most other supernatural creatures) as being the result of long-ago alien experimentation on earth.

Had he taken the theory too seriously, the books would have come across typical cheesy sci-fi (or a late-series X-Files episode). But since Farren pervades the series with a sense of fun (while never letting the characters themselves be utterly serious about the world in which they live), we end up with a zany yet brutal world in which alien vampires mingle with ancient wizards, in which a vampiric Kurt Cobain and Lovecraft's Cthulhu can be found, and in which Nazi Mole Men and UFOs square off against secret US government immortality projects.

At the core, though, the novels are still about Renquist and his crew of vampires as they travel the globe and try to make sense of the insanity. Farren's quartet manages to be a hoot, without ever tripping too far into the ³humorous² side of the humorous horror realm.

So there you have it ­ four vampire series, all worth spending a little time on, and all of which are a lot more entertaining than most of the clichéd vampire books that tend to get the prominent exposure in the bookstores.

Next month: no vampires. I swear.