What to read during the spooky season? Vampire literature

October 29, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

With Halloween fast approaching, to be followed by winter's cold, foggy nights and shivery days, this is the perfect time to visit a few toothsome samples of vampire literature.

Internet's World Wide Web has a page devoted to capsule reviews of vampire fiction (as opposed to vampire non-fiction, no doubt) that takes a look at more than 50 authors and titles including Barbara Hambly, Anne Rice, Bram Stoker and many others.

One mini-reviewer said he was drawn to a book called "Vampire Tapestry" due to a blurb on the jacket cover from Davis' own fantasy writer, Peter S. Beagle, who called the book by Suzy McKee Charnas "the best vampire novel I have ever read." In this case, the vampire in question poses as a professor of anthropology.

Another reader enthusiastically recommended Poppy Z. Brite's "Lost Souls" (1992), which was nominated for an award the following year.

Mainstream readers shouldn't be too quick to sneer at the vampire genre. Several people, Rice and Hambly among them, have done rather nicely writing about the usually well-mannered, always blood-thirsty creatures of the night.

"Vampire literature is an enormous subgenre in the horror field," said Hambly, a fantasy/horror/mystery writer who earned her master's degree in history from UC Riverside in 1975, specializing in medieval history. She said the study of history made it easier, two years later, to begin writing fantasy.

"It gave me a good sense of how non-industrial societies work and taught me how to research the backgrounds of societies," she said in a phone interview. In her most recent book, "Traveling With the Dead" (Ballantine, 1995, $22), sequel to the 1988 "Those Who Hunt the Night." Hambly undertook what she described as a "massive amount of research."

For instance, she traveled to Europe to make sure her locations would be accurately portrayed. "Traveling With the Dead" takes place in 1908. The action moves from London to Vienna to Istanbul. One scene takes place outside the Topkapi palace in Istanbul and Hambly assures the skeptical reader that the description of' that garden is quite accurate. "I went there, I stood there," she said.

She also researched finer points. She wanted to know whether she should have one of her characters carry a flashlight or a kerosene lantern on a midnight vampire hunt. Which would be more realistic?

"I knew there were flashlights by World War I, but how long before?" she asked. She narrowed it to 1901 or '02 but decided to use a lantern, which would have been more common for a vampire-hunter in 1908. Why go to so much effort for a vampire novel?

"Being a historian I feel that researching the times always pays off. The reader feels like he or she is there," Hambly says. "Traveling" also is a novel about people and love. Four or five intertwining love stories connect people and vampires.

"And I put this research in because I want them to be real," she said.

But the reader is still required to suspend a measure of disbelief as he or she follows Dr. James Asher, a former agent in His Majesty's service, as he tries to prevent the ultimate perversion: the conscription of the world's most powerful vampires into the secret service of a foreign power. Hambly's success can be measured by the fact that her book already is in its second printing.

Why are vampires so popular?

"Vampires are a very powerful symbol, the ultimate fantasy role, first and foremost a symbol of power. Then add an intense erotic component and it's a role a lot of people like to fantasize being in."

Hambly said she will write a third vampire novel, but not immediately. First, another fantasy called "The Mother of Winter" will be out next year. Then she will write a series of historical murder mysteries set in New Orleans of the 1830s.

Her own successful career began with a fantasy novel in 1978 written solely for her own enjoyment.

"I sold it on my first submission (to a publisher) without an agent," she said. "Market conditions were then in my favor," she added.

"I always wanted to be a writer but everyone kept telling me it was impossible to break into the field or make money. I've proven them wrong on both counts."

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