Friday, September 6, 2013

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, ed. by Alan Ryan (1987): At Dawn They Sleep

My my, but is this a tasteful, refined anthology of vampire stories! It simply drips pedigree like so much blood from a fanged maw. The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (Penguin, Oct 1988), for the most part, stars classy creatures of the night, so refined and polite you could practically invite them to the publisher's cocktail party (after all this is Penguin Books we're talking about; it simply wouldn't do to have the hosts drained before the petits fours are served - leave those kinds of déclassé shenanigans for the folks at Zebra). I really appreciated that late editor/author Alan Ryan (Cast a Cold Eye, Dead White) chose such stories, which convey weirdness, unholy hunger, and chills with understatement and insinuation. Although he notes in his short introduction that the writers included "explore the vampire myth in new ways... the variety of twentieth-century vampires is dazzling," there is very little re- or de-mythologizing of the monster here: reading these stories in the 21st century, I was pleasantly surprised to see that all the traditional tropes are present and accounted for - in fact, this is where they were created. Sometimes you just want old-school.

What's most satisfying is the sheer quality of the writing itself. Some writers go for subtle intimation; others for pulpy thrills; still others prefer thoughtful, genteel bloodletting. Ryan did a stupendous job of gathering all kinds of vampire fiction, dating back nearly 200 years, into one volume, and it's all very good to great. I've dipped in and out of this book since I was in high school, but only these past couple weeks did I really make an effort to read (almost) all of it; I'm happy to report this antho is a must-have, an absolute must-have, for horror and/or vampire fiction fans - as well as plenty other folks who like great short fiction. Plus you can't deny the pure black-winged awesomeness that is the Edward Gorey (below) cover.

Arranged chronologically, we begin with the usual suspects undead: Varney the Vampyre, Carmilla, Dracula. No surprises there. It's easy to see why "Dracula's Guest" was a deleted chapter from Stoker's original Dracula (1897); not bad in and of itself, it adds little to Harker's journey to Dracula. I didn't reread J. Sheridan Le Fanu's pre-Drac "Carmilla" (1872) but lordy how I love its first movie adaptation, Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970)! That counts, right? Sure it do. M.R. James presents a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale - I think - for "An Episode of Cathedral History." Other supernatural classicists like Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, and F. Marion Crawford come around too, in good form all. Solid foundations for the horrors to come...

On, then, to the classic pulp writers, who knew a thing or two about vampires - and what they didn't know, of course, they'd make up. "The Drifting Snow" is one of the few non-HPL tales I've read from August Derleth; it's marvelous, a tale of delicate understated terror. Again, horror mingles well with a frozen landscape. What lurks out in that winter wonderland you see out the window of your cozy country home? Nobody you'd wanna meet after dark, that's for sure. Stephen King had to have been thinking of Derleth's story when he revisited 'Salem's Lot in "One for the Road."

Gerard de l'Automne was meditating the rimes of a new ballade in honor of Fleurette, as he followed the leaf-arrased pathway toward Vyones through the woodland, begins "A Rendezvous in Averoigne." Brimming with purply, pulpy poetic prose as only Clark Ashton Smith (above) can write, the story's exoticism and decadence herald late 20th century modern vampires à la Rice (who is absent from this antho as she never wrote a short story).

The foods were rich and of strange savor; and the wines were fabulously old, and seemed to retain in their topaz or violet depths the unextinguished fire of buried centuries. But Gerard and Fleurette could barely touch them; and they saw that the Sieur du Malinbois and his lady did not eat or drink at all... the stifling air was laden with unformulable menace, was constrained by the spell of a black and lethal necromancy.

Moore wrote many SF stories featuring her proto Han Solo; here, with Shambleau herself

"Shambleau," the first and most famous story by early female speculative fiction writer Catherine L. Moore, is an overheated tale of horror-fantasy-science fiction straight from Freudian depths. It's pretty awesome: a space pirate named Northwest Smith rescues a feral young woman from a Martian mob and discovers those ancient Earth myths just might be based in reality after all. It's rife with perverse sexual imagery, all writhing wetness and delicious revulsion:

In nightmares until he died he remembered that moment... a nauseous, smothering odor as the wetness shut around him - thick, pulsing worms clasping every inch of his body, sliding, writhing, their wetness and warmth striking through his garments as if he stood naked to heir embrace.

No surprise it became a big hit with the Weird Tales crowd. An erotic horror classic!

The foggy, moonlit courtyard of an abandoned dwelling, perfect setting for a vampire tale, features in Carl Jacobi's "Revelations in Black" (see a cool comic book adaptation of it here). Stuff I love also featured: a bookish guy obsessed with a mysterious tome and a lovely lady of the night. Not that kind of lady, however: That face - it was divinely beautiful, the hair black as sable, the cheeks a classic white. But the lips - ! I grew suddenly sick as I looked upon them. They were scarlet...

 My god how I hate this cover

Moving into modern day with Fritz Leiber's essential, oft-anthologized "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes," about an urban photog and a model fit for the new world of advertising and consumerism. Familiar names Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Ramsey Campbell, and Charles L. Grant all have good solid work included, stories in their own inimitable voices and styles. Two excellent stories I've reviewed elsewhere on this blog: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's "Cabin 33" and Suzy McKee Charnas's "Unicorn Tapestry." Expectedly, "Pages from a Young Girl's Diary" is Robert Aickman's stately, measured, interiorized account of said young English girl's introduction to a mysterious gentleman at a turn-of-the-century ball while her well-to-do family vacations in Italy.

In some ways the most romantic thing of all is that I do not even know his name. As people were beginning to the leave the party, he took my hand and this time held it, nor did I even affect to resist. "We shall meet again," he said, "many times;" looking so deeply and steadily into my eyes that I felt he had penetrated my inmost heart and soul... I could only murmur "Yes," in a voice so weak that he could hardly have heard me...

Aickman tiptoes in his own manner up to a finish of fate accepted, something I rather enjoy in my vampire tales. "Pages" won the 1975 World Fantasy Award for best short fiction, and is a shining example of that classiness I was talking about.

Horror and humor mix delightfully well in R. Chetwynd Hayes's "The Werewolf and the Vampire," the kind of story Gahan Wilson would probably love to illustrate. Written in a breezy, British vernacular, these travails of a young man who discovers he's a werewolf and can confide only in a Cockney family of vampires are witty and even charming. Loverly!

And editor Ryan's own story, "Following the Way," has to be one of the most sensitively written stories I've read for this blog. His easy way of relating the intellectual pursuits of a young student at a Jesuit school and the relationship he builds with an older, inquisitive priest who gently tries to convince him to join the order over quite a few years, is utterly authentic; the story carries you along with conviction and its payoff feels just right, even if expected. Especially when expected! I only wish there had been a paperback collection of Ryan's short horror fiction back in the late '80s or so; today it'd be a stone-cold classic.

Tanith Lee's "Bite-Me-Not" wraps up the 600-page anthology; Ryan has saved one of the best of the lot for last. Lee entrances the reader with this truly dark fantasy, rich with strange and medieval imagery - usually something I cannot tolerate (I mean I can't even do Game of Thrones, books or show) - although leavened by sympathetic characters and prose that recalls a half-forgotten fable from the mists of history:

For Feroluce and his people are winged beings. They are more like a nest of dark eagles than anything, mounted high among the rocky pilasters and pinnacles of the mountain. Cruel and magnificent, like eagles, the somber sentries motionless as statuary on the ledge-edges, their sable wings folded about them.

1952 If magazine illustration of "Drink My Blood" - more here

And of course no vampire anthology would be complete without the legend himself, Richard Matheson - someone who definitely knew a thing or two about vampires, and made up what he didn't. Here we have "Drink My Blood," which ends on a chilling note of horror and hope; it's a classic Matheson twist and a story that has stuck with me for a gajillion years since I read it as a young teenager, but under the title "Blood Son." Shy, odd little Jules reads an essay in class. Doesn't go over well.

"When I grow up I want to be a vampire."
The teacher's smiling lips jerked down and out. Her eyes popped wide. 
"I want to live forever and get even with everybody and make all the girls vampires."

Boy, I hear ya buddy. I hear ya.


Ty said...

This one brings back the memories. I first read this anthology soon after it came out, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. By modern standards, it probably reads as if no big deal, but back in the pre-Internet days it was nearly awe-inspiring, if for no other reason than a lot of these stories weren't necessarily easy to find but were well known in the horror community.

Alas, I have misplaced my copy. Perhaps it's time I hunted for another.

John said...

The copy I got from a charity shop had a slightly goofy but colorful rendering of Kinski's Nosferatu on the cover. Probably why I picked it up in the first place, since this kind of monster anthology generally isn't for me.

I'm glad I did read it, or most of it, at any rate, for one reason in particular: P. Schuyler Miller's "Over the River"' which I rank with I Am Legend for best vampire-related anything I've encountered over the years. That true rarity in horror fiction, atale told from the monster's viewpoint that renders this perspective more terrifyingly alien, rather than less, as well as conveying the torment of a particularly terrible form of addiction. A story that somehow makes the vampire's monstrousness a credible threat without dispelling its otherworldly horror.

me said...

Got this as a present,I think, back in '87 when I was but a young lad of 11. I read the thing to pieces, and tracked down a hardcover copy with the Gorey cover a few years back on Amazon. I've always been a fan of the traditional vampire( red eyes and fangs, no sparkles please), and while this is a fairly conservative representation, there are the more updated vampire types like the sci-fi vampire of "The Mind Worm" and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain, which is more in line with a "noble" vampire type.

"Shambleau" reminds me of Colin Wilson's "The Space Vampires", filmed as "Life force" in 1985. Years later when I read the novel, I discovered that the novel was more philosophical and nuanced, with references to M.R. James, rather then naked space vampire girls running amok in London!

Will Errickson said...

Didn't mention 'em in my review for space, but "The Mind-Worm" and "Over the River" are, indeed, excellent tales as well. Thanks for the reminder guys!

Unknown said...

Hell yeah. One of my all-time favorite books. I have the Edward Gorey cover paperback and I have read it so many times the spine is held together with duct tape. That book introduced me to MR James, Richard Matheson, and so many more. Episode of Cathedral History is still one of my all-time favorite stories.