Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims
The dying days of summer—hot and bright or fog-drenched and rainy—are a suitable time to escape to another century and into the Old World where vampires lurk in musty tombs and sometimes in the candlelight of high society. Michael Sims' collection, Dracula’s Guest, does include Stoker’s title story, but it is also a gathering of kindred pieces that lay out tales both plain and highly-embroidered of the pernicious beings known as vampires. These old school blood-drinkers do not sparkle handsomely in daylight and are decidedly and viciously carnivorous.
Most of these tales pre-date Stoker’s Dracula and some, despite the title, predate Queen Victoria’s reign. The prose is naturally much, much heavier than you will find in modern popular fiction, but given the subject that can add to the suspense. The earlier stories in particular are often written to pass as factual accounts, but those penned later on for the booming 19th-century magazine market have types of characters that are rather more accessible and familiar. For example, in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne," a young girl of great pluck and, thankfully, great stamina—not unlike Anne Shirley of Green Gables—is selected for a prime position as an elderly lady’s companion for a marvelous trip to Italy.
Aleksei Tolstoy’s “Family of the Vourdalak” is a very well-written tale of a young French diplomat alluringly waylaid in Serbia. Also notable are the opium-laced classic, “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O'Brien, and the revenge tale, “Luella Miller,” by Mary E.Wilkins Freeman. It is interesting in these later stories to see the protagonists’ characters expand and unwind until their faults become entwined in the horrific revelations.
Sims included the competing, immortal stories of Lord Byron (“The End of My Journey”) and that of his nemesis, John Polidori (“Vampyre”), both Regency tales of honor and despair. Coming from the same period and circle of friends as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there are distinct similarities in histrionic (by modern standards!) style but they are as naught compared to “Varney the Vampyre,” by James Malcolm Rymer. Its peculiar phrasing must be read to be appreciated, but I recommend not drinking a beverage while doing so as giggles are hard to avoid. “Varney” was written in more than 100 installments, and this first piece would probably best be declaimed loudly in front of a like-minded audience to achieve its full effect.
Editor Michael Sims has selected many enjoyable stories for his collection, and his brief introductions to each give just enough background to ease the reader’s understanding without murdering the suspense or hurling them into the realm of bone-dry academia.