Exclusive Q&A: Otto Penzler, Editor of The Vampire Archives


Otto Penzler’s new anthology The Vampire Archives is a collection of 86 of the scariest vampire tales of the past few hundred years; the book pulls pieces from an eclectic group of writers who range from Lord Byron to Stephen King. Inside you’ll find classic tales (Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest”) mixed in with lesser known works, and few contributions that might surprise you.

“I think one of the best stories in the book is a Gahan Wilson story, ‘The Sea Was West As Wet Could Be,'” Penzler explains. “But Gahan Wilson is famous for being a cartoonist. He does a cartoon for every issue of Playboy and just about every issue of the New Yorker. Wonderful, horrifying cartoons. And hilarious.”

More of what Penzler has to say — about everything from Neil Gaiman’s foreword to the reason why tweens love Robert Pattinson — after the jump.

Flavorpill: Did you have this book in your mind before vampires took over the cultural zeitgeist?

Otto Penzler: No. It was the product of a very successful book I did for Random House called The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, which was devoted to crime stories from the pulps. Because it made the New York Times Bestseller Extended List for a couple of weeks, my editor said, “Well let’s do another big book. What should we do?” I suggested horror fiction, and he said, “Horror fiction is good, but why don’t we make it vampire fiction.” And that’s what we did.

FP: Do you think there’s overlap between the audiences for pulp and vampire stories?

OP: I’m not sure. I think there will certainly be some people who like both books, because they contain stories that were largely written in a different era. The crime book was really the ’20s and ’30s, and some stories from the ’40s, whereas the vampire book goes back to the 19th century, and comes up almost to the present day. But it does include a lot of vampire stories that were written in that same era as the pulp book, and in fact some of the stories in The Vampire Archives were published in the pulps.

FP: You’ve put together about fifty anthologies. What’s the hardest part?

OP: There are two major challenges. One is finding the best stories for the book, which entails a staggering amount of reading. For the vampire book, I read close to 450 or 500 stories. That’s the equivalent of reading 30 or 40 books, just to find the best stories. Many times I would know the best writer, but he may have written ten vampire stories, so I’d want to make sure I used the best one. Sometimes I’d try to find something less familiar; something that hasn’t been reproduced relentlessly over the years. And then, a lot of stories are listed as vampire stories, and they’re not. They’re horror stories, or they’re stories about ghouls or other frightening creatures, but not really vampires.

So that’s the really time-consuming and difficult challenge. And the other is finding who controls the rights. Finding the agent; finding out if the author is still alive, or if not, if there’s an estate. Seeing which magazine was sold three different times to three different owners and who now controls the rights to something. It’s a real detective hunts sometimes, finding the permissions holders.

FP: What is your favorite part of putting together an anthology? Is it the thrill of the hunt? Finding that one story that no one has ever read before?

OP: Yeah, you really put your hand right on it. I’ve read a lot of anthologies, in addition to reading collections by authors, magazines, and so on. To find a story that hasn’t been used in any anthology, and is so terrific that it takes your breath away, that’s really cool.

FP: What makes a good vampire tale?

OP: There are various elements that go into making any good story, and you would use the same criteria for this book, as well as any other collection of stories you’re going to read. Literary excellence. An unusual surprising element that you wouldn’t see coming or expect to find. Something original that other writers haven’t done and haven’t used. And especially for something like a vampire collection, it should be scary. Some of them aren’t designed to be. They’re actually quite funny. But if you’re really terrified while you’re reading a story — you find yourself holding the arm of your chair a little more tightly — that suggests that you’ve found a really terrific story.

FP: How did Neil Gaiman come to write the foreword to the book? Are you friends or was he just interested in what you’re doing?

OP: We’re not best friends, but we know each other in a very friendly way. Strangely enough, not through horror fiction or vampire fiction; I’m a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes Society, and he has attended a couple of our banquets.

Some of Flavorpill's favorite pop culture vampires

FP: What are those like?

OP: The dinners? Well, like any large group who knows each other and sees each other once a year, it’s a lot of renewed friendships. Sitting around, talking to each other and drinking. The interesting — or sometimes deadly — part of the evening is when people read papers. Scholarly papers examining some element of the Sherlock Holmes stories. If it’s interesting, well-written, and well-delivered, it’s the highlight of the evening. If it’s dull, people start nodding off.

FP: Why do you think vampires have taken over our culture?

OP: It comes in waves. The same thing happened when Anne Rice wrote Interview With a Vampire. Suddenly vampires were huge again. They remade Dracula, and so on.

There seems to be a character, or a literary element that never really goes away. It ebbs and wains from time to time. Why does it do that? Why is it so enduring? Good question, I’m not always sure I know the answer. I have theories. First of all, I think people like to be scared. But they like to be scared in a safe environment. You get a on a roller coaster, which is scary. They scream, and they’re scared of death, but they laugh. They know they’re safe because the thing’s not going to go off the rails.

It’s the same way with horror movies or horror stories, and certainly vampires are in the top of that area of being terrifying. Why now? Stephenie Meyer. She appealed to an audience who probably hadn’t read a lot of vampire fiction — by which I mean older girls and young women. Why do they like it so much? I have a real theory about this: All of them are in love with the vampire. Why is that? Because he’s cool. He has got good manners. He’s good looking. He’s thoughtful of his girlfriend. Whereas most teenage boys are lame. They’re at the mall with their baseball caps on backwards and they act like idiots. Girls are looking for someone a little more sophisticated and a little cooler.

FP: You’ve read so many vampire stories. Who pops into your mind when you think of the genre now?

OP: I think everybody thinks of Dracula. It’s always Dracula. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris — they’re all very successful and popular, and you know, in many ways very good, but it’s Dracula. If I were a 17-year-old girl, I don’t think I’d say Dracula. I’d say whatever the vampire’s name is in those Stephenie Meyer books.

We’re giving away two copies of The Vampire Archives; leave a comment below with your favorite vampire for a chance to win.