Fans of vampire fiction may be interested to hear about a genre which does not feature angsty teenaged bloodsuckers or bodice-ripping paranormal romance. In fantasy novels, vampires tend to be more elegaic and horrifying figures than those who appear in more mainstream horror novels and for this reason I find the sub-genre of vampire fantasy fascinating. Although there are not a lot of examples of such novels around, the originality and power of those that do exist makes me wonder why more contributions have not been made to this genre. Perhaps the best examples that I can think of are Jack Yeovil’s creation The Vampire Genevieve, Sarah Ash’s Tears of Artamon trilogy, Oliver Johnson’s Lightbringer trilogy and the fantasy game worlds of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, TSR’s Ravenloft and Games Workshop’s Warhammer. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the most famous fantasy world of the lot – Middle Earth – also has vampires in it!
Games Workshop’s Black Library novels tend to be something of an acquired taste for most and in my view the earliest books from the 1980s are by far the best, largely because in those days the company used to utilise the talents of genuinely good writers rather than simply authors known for doing series tie-ins – a crucial distinction I feel. Jack Yeovil’s Genevieve novels are an example of just how good the early Warhammer books were – witty, well-written, character-driven and above all accessible to readers without any prior exposure to the Warhammer universe. Anyone put off by the clunky prose of the better known Gotrek and Felix novels will be pleasantly surprised by how engaging and readable Yeovil’s stories of Genevieve, a four hundred year old vampire with the outward looks of a beautiful sixteen year old maiden, are. Genevieve makes an appealing central character, being essentially valiant, resourceful and courageous while the vampire blood running through her veins means that she must also constantly fight the urge to surrender to the evil within her. The novels are also remarkably anarchic and genre-busting bearing in mind the time when they were written and often joyfully play havoc with the cliches of genre fantasy. Anyone who enjoys Jack Yeovils’s Genevieve books should, rather than reading any of the other, largely mediocre, Warhammer novels, seek out those he wrote under his real name of Kim Newman. The Anno Dracula series for example, while being set in the ‘real’ world rather than that of Warhammer, similarly exhibits Newman’s trademark black humour, strong plotting and originality while sharing the vampire theme.
Sarah Ash’s Tears of Artamon trilogy is set in the fantasy world of Rossiya, which is heavily influenced by Eastern European mythology, particularly tales of vampires and werewolves. The hero, Gavril, is forced to accept his family’s dark legacy of demon-inspired powers derived mainly from an evil creature called the Drakhaoul. Ash’s series is based on the real-life Dracula, Vlad Tepes, who was similarly reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for great power and his people’s freedom. Although the later volumes in the series do not really live up to this fascinating premise, the first book, The Lord of Snow and Shadows is moody, atmospheric and often terrifying – just as any true vampire novel should be. Oliver Johnson’s Lightbringer trilogy is also set in a dark world whose people are threatened by vampires. Johnson was heavily influenced by David Gemmel – the king of heroic fantasy – in writing these books and it shows. The characters are strong and believable, there are great action scenes and Johnson brings a genuine sense of gravitas to proceeding with his weighty prose. The Lightbringer trilogy perhaps has a somewhat old fashioned storyline in terms of the usual battle between good and evil that is to be decided by a single hero figure, but the vampiric villains elevate the story by bringing a real sense of threat to our heroes.
Although not strictly a fantasy world as such, White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade merits a mention because it contains perhaps the most fully realized vampire mythology I have ever come across. VTM paints a complex picture of an ancient vampire society that is divided into numerous clans and sects which, between them, pretty much cover every vampiric archetype that has ever appeared in film and literature. In my view almost every vampire in fiction that has appeared since VTM first came out owes something, knowingly or otherwise, to this live action role-playing game. Both the Dungeons & Dragons ‘fantasy horror’ setting of Ravenloft and the vampires in Games Workshop’s Warhammer owe a considerable debt to VTM, although they both successfully adapted their undead creatures for the needs of fantasy role-playing. In particular in this context I should mention Games Workshop’s brilliant creation of the Space Marine Chapter called the Blood Angels. Basically futuristic vampire knights, the Blood Angels are essentially good guys fighting on the side of the Imperium of Man against demons and aliens. However, as heroes they are as dark as they come, being constantly afflicted by guilt, shame and rage over their true, hidden vampiric natures.
Going back to the very beginnings of epic fantasy, the term vampire was also used by J R R Tolkien to designate mysterious bat-like creatures serving the Dark Lords Morgoth and Sauron. Tolkien names one of these, perhaps the most powerful, Thuringwethil, the ‘woman of secret shadow’. In the First Age of Middle Earth it is told that these creatures in winged form, made large and armed with talons of steel, came into service of the enemy and performed many great and terrible deeds for their foul masters. So there you have it – I hope that his brief tour of vampires in fantasy shows that these undead creatures have a strong contribution to make to the fantasy genre and certainly do not deserve to be ignored in favour of more traditional fantasy staples like dragons and unicorns. After all, even the great Tolkien made use of vampires in his writings!