I struggled with what to call this list. Creepiest vampires? My most influential vampires? However, I never struggled with the novels that would be on the list. Recently, Gallery published Seize the Night: New Tales of Vampiric Terror, an anthology I edited as a way of planting a flag in the midst of vampire fiction and reminding readers that vampires can still be what they once were: a source of fear. I’m a huge fan of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain novels have always held a huge appeal for me. But they’re not horror novels. Some of the vampires are cold, inhuman, even sadistic, but they don’t feel like monsters to me. I don’t fear them.
Fear is the key ingredient in this list. These are the novels whose vampires have impressed and influenced and terrified me over the years. It gets harder to do as I get older. Some of these are books you may have seen on other lists. Some of them might be on your own lists. Really, the first few are books that I presume would be on every list of important or frightening vampire novels. I hope that a few of them are books you’ve never heard of and that this list will inspire you to hunt them down. New blood, as it were.
- Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975)—I thought about doing this list by counting down from 10 to 1, but honestly, you know what’s going to be on top of the list, so there’d be no suspense there. Kurt Barlow is terrifying…and that scene with Ralphie Glick at the window…shudder. King’s rumination on the nature of evil, painted against the backdrop of small-town New England and utilizing a broad tapestry of characters, is both the greatest and most terrifying vampire novel ever written. Yes, I’m including Dracula. It’s not up for debate. It’s my list.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)—Stoker’s novel was not the first classic vampire tale. Polidori’s The Vampyre predated it by nearly eighty years. But Polidori is a footnote in the story of Stoker’s success, and Dracula is one of the most indelible figures in literary history. If you’ve not read the original novel, I can only implore you to do so. Even now, it inspires fear.
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)—Adapted for film under three separate titles since its initial publication, I Am Legend is also the creative spark that laid the foundation for a great many apocalyptic fictions and films, including 28 Days Later, which is ostensibly about zombies…until you read I Am Legend.
- Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)—They say you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, but the first of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles not only launched the angst-ridden, romantic vampire…it also presented vampires who were breathtakingly terrifying. And Claudia…she’s just damned unsettling.
- The Light at the End by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1986)—The breakthrough first novel by Skipp & Spector sparked the splatterpunk subgenre and also brought vampires into contemporary New York City in a way that was funny, relatable, and terrifying all at the same time.
- Necroscope by Brian Lumley (1986)—Yes, the Necroscope novels are, at first, at least ostensibly about Harry Keogh, who has the ability to speak to the dead, but they are so much richer and more complex than that simple description implies: parallel alien vampire worlds, psychic espionage groups, time-space, teleportation…and brilliantly conceived, terrifying vampires.
- Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas (1994)—This nightmarish tale of erotic, fetishist obsession and a mysterious, underground cult film called Throat Sprockets is impossible to effectively describe. Experience it for yourself.
- Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)—This global blockbuster bestseller by Swedish author Lindqvist is perhaps the most beautifully human vampire novel ever written. The terror rises from the darkness and the unknown and the nearness of the predator, but the story’s anguish emerges from the sadness and loneliness that connect the two main characters, one of whom is a child and the other of whom only looks like one. Shudder.
- They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon (1981)—While it’s certainly not the only vampire conquest novel I’ve ever read (not even the only one on this list), McCammon’s is absolutely one of the best and most unique, thanks to its Los Angeles setting and perspective. The connection between Hollywood and bloodsucking leeches has been made elsewhere, but rarely as grimly, effectively, or entertainingly as in They Thirst.
- Mastery by Kelley Wilde (1991)—I’ve argued about this novel with several other readers, but I stand by it as one of the weirdest, most entertaining vampire stories ever. Halley’s Comet, vampire hierarchy struggles, old trains, time travel (yes, time travel), and hyena vampires (yes, hyena vampires). I love it, but even if you don’t, I can promise it will at least be unlike any other vampire story you’ve ever read.
Christopher Golden is the New York Times #1 bestselling author of DEAD RINGERS, SNOWBLIND, and TIN MEN, and the editor of SEIZE THE NIGHT: NEW TALES OF VAMPIRIC TERROR, THE NEW DEAD, and others. He is the co-creator (with Mike Mignola) of the cult favorite comics series BALTIMORE and JOE GOLEM: OCCULT DETECTIVE. Please visit him at www.christophergolden.com or on social media at www.facebook.com/christophergoldenauthor and @ChristophGolden on Twitter.