Urban Fantasy 101: Vamping Out

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Vampires, in a Nutshell

If you’re familiar with my Urban Fantasy 101 series, you probably know that I’ve written about the way the genre thinks and writes about vampires on the regular. I’ve shot down the idea that there’s some kind of universal vampire-ness, that every culture that has a bloodsucker in its mythologies, has a vampire. I’ve talked about how difficult it is to empathize with vampires that used to (or still do) own people.

But let’s briefly talk about vampires as a whole.

We can trace the literary vampire back to Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmillaand Bram Stoker’s Dracula, two works that ultimately inspired generations of writers who went on to write vampires in fiction. Currently, the tradition of writing vampires in speculative fiction has led to some pretty rigid constants that appear across the genres.

In fiction, vampires are usually:

  • Mostly immortal (old age, illness, most kinds of injuries can’t kill them)
  • Hard to kill (in fiction, killing a vampire requires: special weapons, decapitation, fire, and/or sunlight)
  • No longer subject to aging (or age slowly enough that it isn’t visible)
  • Not technically alive (some vampires have very slow pulses or heartbeats, others can eat and drink human food, but most of their bodily functions are nonexistent)
  • Physically and psychically stronger than humans
  • Incapable of sexual reproduction without scientific or magical aid
  • Previously originally human (i.e., not another form of non-human supernatural like a werewolf or faerie)
  • Capable of creating other vampires via an exchange of blood and/or saliva.
  • Capable of controlling humans or some kinds of animals.
  • Only able to go out and about after dark

There are other aspects that long-running vampire authors have adopted for their own works (i.e., vampires running cities, silver allergies, alternative ways of creating vampires), but those are honestly the basics.

Now that we’re all up to date, let’s move on to talking about vampires in urban fantasy!

The Draw of Vampires in Urban Fantasy

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of urban fantasy series that have vampires as main characters or series-long antagonists across their run. In the urban fantasy genre, vampires exist in this weird space where they’re “just people too”, but also apex predators capable of and willing to rule the world. The urban fantasy genre has an amazing track record of providing interesting new interpretations of these long-existing supernatural beings and that means that we get vampires in being kind of awesome in different ways.

While I’ve got some big beef with how fleeting the diversity in much of the genre seems to be – especially in the pro-published works that make it big – one thing that I do like, is that the vampires in the genre are kind of everywhere. I don’t want to be like “diversity of job representation” but honestly… I do love that I can pick up a book and have vampires doing all of the things. It’s not enough for me for vampires who are solely villains, masters of the city, and supernatural criminals. And that “diversity of job” is kind of, one of my favorite things about the genre. The evolution of vampires from skulking figures of the night to detectives, writers, law enforcement, and duelists, is one of the coolest things about the way vampires in the genre have evolved.

The Good, The Bad, and the Awfully Upsetting

The Good

  • Many urban fantasy writers that use vampires as main characters or even as recurring villains are clearly interested in exploring what happens to humanity in undeath.
  • Not all of the vampires in the genre are sexy. In Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, vampires are so gross and straight up corpse-y (they’re beings controlled by necromancers so almost like a cross between lit-vamps and zombies) that the first time I read one of the books in that series, the experience was shocking.
  • Sometimes, you get a dhampir out of the deal.
  • Even when vampires are sexy, they’re still frequently creepy as hell (in a totally acceptable way)
  • The use of alternate (or actual) history in vampire series can be super interesting and intricate (Karen Chance’s Masks has Mircea Basarab as a baby vampire in Venice several hundred years ago and it’s amazing)

The Bad

  • Vampires as unquestioned and justified rulers of the supernatural world – and, some of the human one. This translates to vampires as stand-ins for oppressors in stories that never acknowledge this particular privilege or the, oft problematic, power imbalance.
  • In the same vein, many series where vampires are “masters” (of each other, of humans, of other supernatural species) still tend to use them in allegories for the oppression marginalized people face. So, they’re oppressing everyone they can get to, but they’re also “just people” who’re oppressed by humans somehow.
  • Since many writers can’t figure out how to handle undead brain development, you get a slightly squicky edge to the relationships they end up in. Jean-Claude is 500+ to Anita’s 30-ish, Edward was more than a hundred years older than Bella, and countless other old as hell vampires wind up in relationships with young adults and… it’s rarely addressed or handled well.

The Awfully Upsetting

  • Many people writing vampires use them as stand-ins for all kinds of predators. In my experience as a reader and arm-chair researcher looking at the urban fantasy genre, I’ve noticed that vampires in the genre are more likely than any other form of supernatural being to be: rapists, abusers, pedophiles, human traffickers, and slave owners. (And considering my complicated feelings about how sexual assault alone is handled in the genre? I’m not too pleased with much of what I’ve read.)
  • For various reasons, many authors eschew writing about vampires of color in their work. (Laurell K Hamilton’s reasoning for not having m/any Black vampires is melanin-based and bullshit) So my stance on that is that if you’re capable of writing the imaginative concepts required for urban fantasy, but can’t imagine brown vampires darker than a paper bag… You’ve got a problem.
  • The Anita Blake series.

Why you should be reading urban fantasy books focusing on vampires.

I’m a sucker for a well-written vampire and speculative fiction is full of them.

As with the shifters in the genre, what makes the presence of vampires in urban fantasy interesting to me, is the way that many of the authors using them reinvent the proverbial wheel. While many – too many – authors revert to tried and true staples for vampire-hood in the genre, there are enough writers who take the chance to reinvent vampires as something more or different than what they already are.

I live for interesting interpretations of the supernatural beings and, for the most part, I’ve managed to find some amazing work that has made me rethink the vampire in media. I like urban fantasy that makes me want to write urban fantasy and lately, there’ve been a ton of series that reignite my love of vampires in the genre to the point where I’m not just having a ball reading about them, but I want to create my own content from something aside from being petty as heck.

Notable Authors

  • Anne Rice
  • Laurell K Hamilton
  • Stephenie Meyer
  • L. A. Banks
  • Karen Chance
  • Kim Harrison
  • Jeaniene Frost
  • Nalini Singh
  • Chloe Neill

Recommendations/Where To Start

  • Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Vampire Sorority Sisters series
  • WOC In Romance’s tag for Vampires
  • Anne Bishop’s Lake Silence
  • Jennifer Blackstream’s Deadline
  • Karen Chance’s Dorina Basarab series
  • Montiese Mckenzie’s Awakening of the Spirit series
  • Vaughn R. Demont’s The Vampire Fred
  • Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Certain Dark Things
  • Nathan Burgoine’s Triad Soul
  • Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series (several books have vampire main and/or supporting characters)

Bonus Media Recommendations

Now, what are some vampire-focused urban fantasy writers and series that you think are must-reads for anyone coming in to this part of the genre? (And yes, self-recommendations are welcome here!)