I’ve done a lot this summer. I went on holiday to Menorca, I saw the overgrown ruins of an old cottage back home in Solihull, and, most excitingly of all, I read a lot of books.
Some of them were distinctly average – Cary Elwes’ memoir of The Princess Bride, As You Wish, was wonderful for learning bits and pieces about one of my favourite films, but the writing was dodgy. And some books I read were kind of bad – I only got three pages into Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned before I cringed so hard that the cringe ran all the way down my arm and flung the book back onto the shelf.
Overall, though, it’s been a very good season for reading for me. Here are some absolute gems I gobbled up.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
There’s a reason Cloud Atlas got a Man Booker nomination, and it’s because it’s bloody good – my favourite read of the summer, I’d say. Through the stories of six different people, all from different points in time, Mitchell weaves a tale of interconnected lives, exploring how deeply linked the past, present, and future can be. Sounds complicated, but it’s really not – just sit back and let Mitchell take you for a ride through 19th-century Polynesia all the way through to a post-apocalyptic future, and be touched by each story in its own unique way.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
It’s rare that a scary story actually, you know, scares me, but Shirley Jackson has managed it. Written in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is the grandmother of all those haunted house stories that have now become movie clichés. Four strangers stay in the spooky and bizarrely-architectured Hill House for a season to see if they spot any ghostly goings-on that previous residents have reported. And lo and behold… they do. Jackson’s prose is absolutely charming, the characters are believable – and the protagonist’s anxiety all too real – and the events that unfold are spooky as heck.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
It wouldn’t be a list of books I liked if it didn’t include a top-notch piece of YA fiction. Patrick Ness has impressed me in the past – More Than This and The Rest of us Just Live Here got firm five-star reviews from me – and A Monster Calls was no exception. 13-year-old Conor starts to get visits every night from a huge, monstrous yew tree at a time in his life when he really doesn’t have time to be dealing with monsters. While the monster seems sinister and violent, he only seems to want to tell Conor stories… You’ll easily devour this one in a day or so and be sobbing by the end, if my experience is anything to go by.
Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe
I’ll admit, I’m getting a little tired of ‘part memoir, part ____’ books, but it doesn’t seem to stop me from reading them. Comedian Sara Pascoe’s part memoir, part exploration of the evolutionary psychology behind our attitudes towards gender and sex is exactly that, and it’s hilarious. As a feminist text it doesn’t entirely stand up – it’s very much a ‘pop feminist’ kind of book, not exactly a set text on a gender studies course – but for a brief and fascinating introduction to the world of evolutionary psychology and how it affects (or doesn’t affect) our view of gender roles, it’s excellent. It’s also very honest, and very, very funny.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
For me to read and enjoy a post-apocalyptic story, it has to be very good. Enter Riddley Walker. Hoban has taken an approach to post-apocalyptic landscapes that I haven’t seen before: protagonist Riddley lives a good two or three thousand years in the future after a nuclear war destroyed the world as we know it, and humanity has been sent back to the iron age. But there are still hints of what the world used to be like… and hints that it hasn’t all been lost. Most interestingly of all, though, is the language that Hoban has used – the entire book is written in a future version of a south-eastern English dialect. Like a rural Clockwork Orange.
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Welcome to the first Magic Monday! On Mondays I’ll be posting a blog that has something to do with fantasy, horror, sci-fi, or anything else a little bit magical.
To start things off, let’s take a look at vampires. Books about our old blood-sucking friends are more popular now than ever, but with all the pulpier titles out there, it’s easy to miss some of the classics. Here are five super important novels about vampires every fan can enjoy if they want to really get their teeth into the genre.
1. Carmilla (Sheridan Le Fanu)
Not that many vampire fans seem to have read Carmilla, which is surprising considering it’s a story about a lesbian vampire. Published in 1872 and pre-dating Dracula by a couple of decades, it tells the tale of Laura, an aristocratic young woman who is tempted astray by the vampire Carmilla. Considering it appeared at the height of the backlash against decadence and the New Woman, it’s clear why this went down so well. Conservative readers enjoyed the satisfaction of that darn homosexual woman being defeated by a good strong man in the end (sorry, spoilers) and letting the poor virgin woman go free. It’s a classic hero/adventure story at heart, but its choice of monster has proven to have quite an impact. Plus, cool lady vampires.
If you want to read more of Dracula’s roots, Polidori’s The Vampyre is fairly essential reading too – since it’s a short story I’m afraid it didn’t make this list.
2. Dracula (Bram Stoker)
It’s impossible to read up on vampires in lit without spending some time on Bram Stoker’s classic. In Dracula, the villain is truly a monster: unsympathetic, terrifying, and with no goal other than death and drinking your blood. He plagues our modern British protagonists with his scary old-world creepiness, and is defeated in the end by the heroes. Unsurprisingly, Dracula set the stage for a lot of vampire novels to come. From the odd sexual undertones, to the charming characters, and the way a compelling story manages to be carried by sub-standard prose, it’s easy to see how big an influence the tale has been.
3. Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)
Widely regarded as the second most influential vampire novel ever written (gee, I wonder which was number one), Interview signals a noticeable shift in literature’s approach to vampires. Suddenly, we’re rooting for the monster. Our protagonist Louis is bookish, philosophical, and sensitive, and struggles with his new immortality. For what was probably the first time, the vampire is given a real voice. If we want to get analytical, I could say that this shows a change in the politics of the author and readership: if the vampire represents the conservative’s nightmare (think of the foreign degenerate Dracula and sexy gay Carmilla), switching him to a sympathetic character shows a markedly liberal shift. Either way, Rice’s rich prose tells a story with a depth that no one else has ever quite matched in the vampire genre.
4. Lost Souls (Poppy Z. Brite)
Lost Souls was quite obviously written by a teenage goth in the 80s. For some that’s a redeeming feature, but I can imagine it being an irritation too. A hugely popular cult novel in the early 90s, Lost Souls seemed to fade into obscurity for quite a few years, but a recent reprint means it could gain traction again. It’s a wild and raucous tale of untamed, modern vampires, living a life of bloodlust, drugs, and rock and roll. The subtle sexual undertones of older vampires are eschewed in favour of something a little more, er, explicit. Graphic and sometimes violent sex scenes abound, interspersed with gore, incest, rape, and good old-fashioned murder. Oh, and a lot of blood. Not for the faint-hearted (or anyone without a completely cast-iron stomach, for that matter), Lost Souls brought the vampire novel to the modern age, and somehow managed to balance horrific gore with the lost and isolated feelings of youth. Aw.
5. Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)
Before you have an aneurysm, I’ll reassure you that I’m not recommending this one based on the outstanding quality of its writing. This list is really about understanding the generic tradition of the vampire and how it has changed over time – and, unfortunately, Twilight is incredibly important when it comes to vampires in literature. It’s been alarmingly popular in the few years since its release, and it’s difficult to ignore a book which has become such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness (terrible though it may be). In Edward Cullen we see the ultimate in the broody, guilt-ridden vegan brand of vampire. The love and romance aspect of the vampire story is hiked up to the extreme, with protagonist Bella’s life pretty much revolving around her relationship with the abusive Edward. Romance – and abusive romance – isn’t uncommon in vampire tales, but the narrative usually admonishes it, or at least presents it in a way that allows the reader to see it for what it is. The Twilight series does not. The shift towards creating vampires for teenage girls to enjoy is interesting, and something that could easily be a good read. If only the novel to reach this level of popularity had actually been a good one.
What are your favourite vampire novels? Comment below!