Today is Bram Stoker’s 170th birthday, so it seems as perfect a time as ever revisit some of our oldest monster friends. These hulking stars of these classics of science fiction and fantasy literature cast long, looming shadows over the entire genre, and have remained icons for a reason. Books like Dracula and Frankenstein still deliver scares these many decades later; meanwhile, personalities such as Sherlock Holmes are universally known and constantly updated for a new generation. It’s impossible to calculate the affect these titans have had on the SFF landscape. So how could authors resist playing in those worlds the second they entered the public domain?
Today, our favorite monsters and mystery solvers are experiencing entirely new adventures. Some books invent whole new characters for them to interact with, others mash up multiple monsters to maximize the mayhem, and others simply build upon what the original authors created. No matter which way you slice it, these 10 classic monster books—with a twist—are perfect reading for Stoker’s birthday, or any day!
A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny
This is the crown jewel of retold classics, the standard by which all others should be measured. Zelazny’s short novel is pitch perfect in every way and is obviously tailor made for fall reading (too bad we just missed recommending it for Halloween). In 31 chapters, one for each day of the month, Snuff the dog draws us into a deadly Game between openers and closers trying to bring about the end of the world via monsters from the Lovecraftian mythos. Snuff’s master is an urbane gentleman named Jack, who carries with him a very special knife. The other players include a foreign vampire count, a mad Russian monk, a sinister vicar, Sherlock Holmes, and an odd man named Larry Talbot who has a certain…full moon affliction. This novel is a true delight, and, increasingly, a hidden gem worth rediscovering (even though it won a Hugo, it has gone in and out of print). I go back to it it every October, one chapter per night, and it’s always a highlight of my reading year. The mystery is laid out slowly, keeping you guessing, even when all the clues are in plain sight. If you want the gold standard of Victorian literature mash ups, this is it.
The Anno Dracula series, by Kim Newman
What do you get when you reimagine Dracula as Queen Victoria’s new consort? A ripping good series that packs a whole crowd of classic Victorian stories and figures together into a traincar, making for a hilarious and utterly wild ride. It’s alternative history, balanced with a big dash of horror and fantasy. The series was once out of print, but renewed interest brought it back from the dead—appropriate—and Newman has continued to write new volumes ever since, each more incredible than the last. If you like Anno Dracula, also check out Newman’s other Victorian-infused series about Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ famous nemesis. They’re just as witty and well written.
A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman
Never one to shy away from a good reference, Gaiman brings us what is perhaps one of his best short stories. First written for a Sherlock Holmes anthology and since collected in his short fiction collection Fragile Things, this bon mot of horror pits the singular detective against his most terrible foe yet—Cthulhu. All is not as it seems as the detective tries to solve a very unnatural crime. It’s a chaotic mix of the best of Doyle and Lovecraft, told with a mastery and finesse that is pure Gaiman. A graphic novel version of the piece, published by Dark Horse Comics, was just announced, and will be in stores in 2018!
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore
Speaking of graphic novels, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add the spectacular League to this list. It’s a shame the rather dull Hollywood adaptation has poisoned the well on this series, because it’s a lot of fun, full of twists and turns that keep you guessing. Moore pulls no punches and uses his cast of borrowed Victorian heroes and villains in exceedingly clever ways. Where else can you find a vampiric Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo working together? Wipe your mind clean of the adaptation and start fresh with the original You won’t regret it.
Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw
Dr. Greta Helsing (does that name sound familiar?) has followed in her illustrious family’s footsteps, and uses her medical background to care for sick monsters. Her life is quiet—dull even—until she’s swept up into a murder investigation that has left supernatural London paralyzed with fear. It’s a gripping story, dripping with charm, and full to bursting with classic creatures and literary easter eggs (including a reference to Varney the Vampire, one of the first vampires in fiction). The book is a delight, its stark horror leavened with humor to create a modern day urban fantasy that turns old Victorian tropes on their heads to create something new and exciting. It’s reportedly the first in a new series, so now is the time to check it out.
Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest
Lizzie Borden, like Jack the Ripper, is a real person who has become sucked into fiction because of the circumstances around them. In this case, murderess Lizzie Borden is given a chance to clear her name and explain just what she was doing with that axe of hers—turns out, it was defending humanity against an invasion of Lovecraftian beasties. Priest is at her very best in this book, which is sharp-edged and deeply creepy. Maplecroft is an inventive and tense novel told through letters in the old Victorian epistolary style and it works beautifully. If you want an atmospheric read this Halloween, this should be at the top of your list.
Paperback $15.29 | $16.99
The Diabolical Miss Hyde, by Viola Carr
Victorian monsters pair well with steampunk, and The Diabolical Miss Hyde is a wonderful example of just that. Eliza Jekyll is the daughter of the infamous two-faced doctor, and she follows in his disastrous footsteps. After ingesting his elixir, she discovers her own unstable other half, Lizzie Hyde. Eliza is a crime scene detective and soon finds herself tangled up in the crime of the century, desperate to stay one step ahead of the murderer and keep her other half under wraps. This urban fantasy continuation of the Jekyll and Hyde story is full of interesting new characters. Steampunk and Victorian monsters, a match made in…probably not heaven, but you get the idea.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss
Sticking with Dr. Jekyll for a moment, we have this wonderful, relatively recent novel, which puts a focus on the women in the Victorian classics we know and love. Mary Jekyll sets out to find out more about her father’s shadowy past and, with the help of Sherlock Holmes, meets other women desperate to do the same. Alongside Catherin Moreau and Justine Frankenstein, they discover a secret society of powerful, morally bankrupt scientists who will do anything to stop them from prying into their affairs. Goss’ book is full to bursting with strong women and enough adventure to make you need a fainting couch and smelling salts. It’s a thrilling gothic tale, told with style, aplomb, and more than a few hilarious metafictional asides from the feisty protagonists.
Power of Darkness: The Lost version of Dracula, translated by Valdimar Ásmundsson
Time for something a little different: the discovery of this translation of Dracula rocked literary circles a few years ago, because the story behind it is absolutely bonkers. In 1900, Valdimar Ásmundsson set out to translate Dracula into Icelandic for publication in that country. Flummoxed by what he saw as plot inconsistencies, he didn’t just translate the book…he rewrote it entirely, adding new characters and reworking the entire plot. What’s even crazier is that this wasn’t discovered until 2014! Translated into English for the first time, Ásmundsson’s “corrected” version of Dracula is a bizarre joy. He added elements of penny dreadfuls, making the story sexier and scarier, while trying to explain away the supernatural aspects of Dracula himself, turning the famous vampire into a cult leader. It’s amazing this version exists at all, and it’s a must have for any fan of Dracula or vampires.
Pride and Prometheus, by John Kessel
Finally, get your pre-ordering finger ready, because you are definitely going to want this one as soon as possible. Award-winner John Kessel acts as matchmaker to Victor Frankenstein and Mary Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice), and the result is a startling mix of Victorian darkness and Regency charm. Victor promises to make his creature a bride, but gets swept up in romancing Mary Bennet. She falls for the mercurial doctor as well, but can’t shake the feeling he has a dark secret he isn’t telling her. In the background lurks the creature, patience thin, ready to do what it takes to get his own happily ever after. I wonder if Mary has any unnecessary spinster sisters just sitting around? Put this on your most-anticipated list now—it’s out February 13, 2018.
What are your favorite stories featuring the classic characters of Victorian horror?