Welcome to our first Vampire Thursday! All September, it’s all vampires every Thursday. Today we have unearthed a very special guest. Writer and editor Tom English of Dead Letter Press is a true aficionado of classic vampire stories. His Literary Vampire series traces the rise of the undead through time. He graciously agreed to talk about vampires, books and the allure of evil.
IFP: How did Dead Letter Press get started?
TE: Oh gosh, it’s a long story – but I’ll try and give a short version. I’ve been addicted to books for many years now, but my bibliomania was particularly out of control around 2004. I was buying up all these wonderful collections of classic ghost stories that were being released by the specialty presses: hardcover editions produced in small press runs of 250 to 600 copies. (Ash-Tree Press, Midnight House, and the now-defunct Sarob Press are just three that immediately come to mind.) As with most addictions, my bibliomania was slowly bleeding me and my bank account dry. Sometime in early 2005, during a sober moment, I realized that if I didn’t want to end up on the street eating out of trashcans, then I needed to STOP BUYING BOOKS! So, for months, I’d surf the net, browsing on-line catalogs, watching books on eBay, etc., knowing that I could look, but I couldn’t touch, salivating, lusting. At some point, I got this crazy idea that could only have come during a biblioholic’s version of delirium tremens: if I published my own limited editions, I would get to keep a copy of each one – strictly for filing purposes, mind you. I even rationalized that I could make a little money doing it, so I must have been pretty feverish at the time! Anyway, once the idea took root in my brain, I couldn’t help myself. I was like a wino who dreams of seeing his personal label glued to the bottle. I did start out slowly, however, doing short runs of chapbooks. But eventually, I fell under the sway of the book sirens once again: I edited and published Bound for Evil, an unbelievably long anthology of fantasy and horror tales exploring the incredible power of – what else? – books.
IFP: What is the Literary Vampire series?
TE: The first thing I published, under the Dead Letter Press name, was Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, a saddle-stapled chapbook limited to 26 lettered copies. It sold well – much better than I’d hoped – so the following month, I published George Sylvester Viereck’s House of the Vampire. These were the first two volumes in what ultimately became a long series of limited-edition chapbooks, reprinting all the poems, stories and novels that played a significant role in the evolution of the vampire sub-genre. My desire with the series is to map out chronologically the literary journey that began with a few poems by a handful of German Romanticists, ran through such essential works as Polidori’s The Vampyre and Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and culminated with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thus far, I’ve published about two dozen volumes in the series. At first, I was doing almost one a month, but the last couple of years, I’ve been concentrating more on my fiction writing and have slowed publication of the remaining titles in the series to one or two a year. I hope to release the next volume, A Morbid Fascination, soon. (“Soon” is such a wonderful word! So is “hope”! I hope to. Soon! How’s that for being nebulous?)
IFP: Why vampires? Why not ghosts or werewolves?
TE: The classic ghost story is actually my first love. I’ve even written a few of my own. In fact, my first published story, “Lightning Rod”, is a ghost story, which appeared in All Hallows #43 (The Journal of The Ghost Story Society), in 2007. I fell into the vampire thing quite by accident. I was searching for something I could reprint under the Dead Letter Press banner, something which had fallen into relative obscurity, but which deserved to be (sorry) resurrected. If I had unearthed an old, unknown ghost story, things probably would have turned out differently. But the story that got my attention and really sucked me in was Polidori’s The Vampyre. The story wasn’t “lost” by any definition, but at the time, The Vampyre was unfamiliar to many readers. What interested me about the Polidori “novel” – written about 80 years before the publication of Dracula – is how much the villain, Lord Ruthven, resembles Stoker’s vampire count. Lord Ruthven is dangerously attractive and hypnotically controlling; he’s descended from satanic nobility; and he’s deathless. Sound like someone else we know? There are plot similarities, as well. Polidori’s protagonist, Aubrey, suffers from a nervous collapse after coming face to face with the supernatural. Jonathan Harker has a similar breakdown in Dracula. In both stories, there are calculated attacks upon women who are close to, and emotionally-connected-with, the protagonist: Aubrey’s sister, in Polidori’s story, and Harker’s wife, Mina, in Dracula. And then there’s the sexual appeal of the vampire, sufficiently undercover in Stoker’s Victorian novel but more obvious in The Vampyre. But, as much as these similarities fascinated me, it was Polidori’s own story that really hooked me. I think that, to some degree, I identified with the young doctor. He was a man of science with literary aspirations, who, according to Lord Christopher Frayling, had the misfortune of coming too close to a real-life “vampire” – his employer, Lord Byron. Similarly, I’m a chemist for a large company, but I much prefer to be writing, and I’ve had a few vampires in my own life, control freaks who were continually sucking the life out of me, using my talents and resources but giving nothing in return. I think anyone who’s been in a similar situation will immediately understand the frustration. Most of us have at least one vampire lurking in our lives. By the way, Harlan Ellison vividly illustrates this idea in his “vampire” story “Try a Dull Knife”.
IFP: How do you find all these olde vampire stories?
TE: Being a book collector helps; I’ve uncovered a few of the stories in some of the older anthologies I’ve collected. In many cases, the stories are listed in reference works such as Supernatural Index, but simply have not been reprinted for decades. Reference works are indispensible, by the way. I have some hefty tomes by E. F. Bleiler and Mike Ashley, among others. And I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to correspond with Peter Haining for several months before he died. He was a great encouragement to me and provided me with some of the texts he’d acquired during his many decades of editing themed anthologies. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful editor.
IFP: Who is your favourite olde vampire? Not counting Dracula, please.
TE: Not counting the Count? That’s difficult; Stoker’s vampire character has such an incredible mystique. And all the movie versions and literary offshoots have only added to that mystique. So, I’ll take an easy out and pick the “psychic vampire” Reginald Clarke from George Sylvester Viereck’s 1907 novel The House of the Vampire. I find the character particularly sinister, because he hangs out with the best writers, artists, and musicians of New York City, siphoning off their creativity and appropriating their talents; and particularly terrifying because he has the ability to suck your brain dry of everything that makes life worthwhile – possibly to the extent of leaving behind nothing but a babbling idiot.
IFP: What impact did Dracula have on vampire stories?
TE: Bram Stoker wasn’t the first to tap the vein of vampire lore, but he was the most thorough: he drew upon several hundred years of folklore; he dipped into Romanian history (specifically, that of Vlad the Impaler, the original “Dracula”); he took inspiration from Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and probably from Polidori, as well; he included all the major motifs, such as shapeshifting, mind control, the absence of the vampire’s reflection, the use of the crucifix and garlic to ward off a vampire attack. In the process, Stoker codified an entire subgenre of horror fiction. And the resulting novel greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. If not for Dracula, I don’t believe we’d be witnessing the same degree of interest in vampires today. The 1931 film version of Stoker’s novel created a lasting hunger for vampire movies and the films have, in turn, helped to maintain interest in the novel, spawning an ever-growing subgenre of literature.
IFP: Bloodsucking plants. Is that the weirdest vampire story you’ve read, or is there a contender?
TE: No. Far weirder things await us – like the missing link in Phil Robinson’s 1881 story “The Last Vampire”. Or how about the bloodsucking pillow in Horacio Quiroga’s 1907 tale “The Feather Pillow”? Actually, that’s not quite right, but I don’t want to be more specific than that, because I don’t want to spoil the story for potential readers. (Only a vampire would suck all the fun out of a good story.)
IFP: If you could only take one weapon to defend yourself against vampires, what would it be?
TE: Consecrated garlic bread. (You can actually buy this at your local market; it’s on the shelf next to the Melba toast.)
IFP: Who is the sexiest vampire?
TE: Hands down, it’s Carmilla.
In his 1871 novella Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu updated the femme fatale and gave us the Countess Millarca Karnstein, the female equivalent of Count Dracula (two decades before Stoker started researching his novel). The Countess is charming, beautiful, and quite dead. In the guise of Carmilla, she’s a sweet, sensual, young girl. Her character has inspired several erotic vampire movies.
Carmilla, by the way, has many of the same traits as Dracula: In addition to having fangs, she sleeps in her coffin and is essentially a nocturnal being. (But like Dracula, she’s not totally confined to the darkness). She’s a shapeshifter and takes the forms of a cat and a snake. She has supernatural strength and can move through walls. And she gets her foot in the door of her victims through false pretenses.
IFP: Who is the scariest one?
TE: I’m not sure if I would say any of the older vampire stories are truly scary. They are almost always atmospheric, frequently macabre, and at times unsettling. However, I do recall a genuinely creepy section near the end of Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy”; but this 1835 novella isn’t really what most of us would categorize as a vampire tale. (Sorry, I’m not exactly cooperating again.) But the story did serve as the inspiration for Mario Bava’s 1960 film Black Sunday, which is definitely a vampire classic! Readers beware, though; the novella is nothing like the movie.
Uh-oh, I detect the first rays of dawn upon the eastern horizon. The time has come to make a hasty exit. Thanks for having me here at Innsmouth Free Press!