by Bram Stoker
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. By the close of the year—if we
survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial
killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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experimental fiction
Bram Stoker had colorful stories ready for those who asked about the
origins of his novel
Dracula. By one account, he fell ill after eating shellfish,
and dreamed of his vampire villain. In an even more dramatic anecdote,
Stoker recalled a meeting in New York with future President Teddy
Roosevelt, who offered an idea for scintillating story: “why don’t you make
your main character a supernatural criminal?”

Literary historians have their own theories about the real-life role model for
the un-dead vampire. Some have aimed to link the malevolent Count
back to Stoker’s friend and associate, actor Henry
Irving, who shared many physical attributes with
Dracula. Others have traced Stoker’s vampire back to
a historical figure, Vlad the Impaler—a 15th century
Transylvanian nobleman whose patrynomic was
Dragwlya or, if you prefer, Dracula. This was no doubt
the source of the name Stoker assigned to his archfiend,
but the attributes and mythos of his notorious fictional
character were probably constructed from a variety of
sources. These may have included early vampire stories
such as John Polidori’s "The Vampyre," James Malcolm
Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu's
"Carmilla"; works of folklore such as Emily Gerard's essay
"Transylvanian Superstitions" (1885) or W. Henry Jones
and Lewis L. Kropf’s
The Folk-Tales of the Magyars (1889);
Charles Boner’s 1865 guide to Transylvania; and William Wilkinson’s
1820 study
An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Or, put another way, Bram Stoker was a careful man, who kept track of the
details. Even before he wrote
Dracula, he demonstrated these skills as a
civil servant, theater manager, and personal aide to Henry Irving.  Or one
need merely look at Stoker’s first book, a less than scintillating, but carefully
compiled study entitled
The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (1879).
We should hardly be surprised that this same author did his homework before
writing Dracula.

You probably think that this methodical, detail-oriented approach might work
for a civil servant, but not for a horror author. Horror cannot be approached in
tiny increments, but requires big, bold effects, at least if you judge by current-
day efforts. We need buckets of blood, armies of zombies, platoons of
poltergeists. Yet if this is your assumption, you would be wrong. And Stoker’s
novel Dracula is all the proof you need. True, this book moves forward with all
deliberate speed—legal jargon for slowly, in case you didn't know. Everybody
gets delayed repeatedly in this book, not just Van Helsing and the other vampire
hunters, but even Dracula himself. The chess game they play with each other is
filled with feints and counter-feints, bluffs and rebuffs, misdirection and
misperception. The action, such as there is in this book, is spooned out in tiny
spoonfuls. But the suspense never dissipates, rather builds. The catharsis we
seek is intensified by Stoker’s careful layering technique.

I hardly expected this. I came to
Dracula, the novel, with low expectations, filled
with familiar ideas drawn from low-budget vampire movies and pop culture
treatments of the undead. I thus came anticipating clichés.
Unwitting host:
"Count Dracula, would you like a glass of wine?"
Dracula (in thick accent): "I
never drink wine!" But the effect of reading this book was much different than
what I expected. Instead of encountering tired formulas, I felt as if I were seeing
this story with fresh eyes, and a new appreciation of its inherent creepiness, a
mixture of aberrant psychology, trauma center drama in the transfusion room,
and dark eroticism where no safe words exist to limit the danger. Stoker could
hardly have achieved this if he had served up slash and dash action. Instead we
are lured into the depths of this book, lulled into credulity by the meticulous
realism of the details, and the oh-so-gradual manner in which Stoker alerts us to
the full scope of the horror surrounding us.

Yes, horror can work the most marvelous effects in just this way. After all, no
haunted house is scarier than your own home, the secluded place where you
have just locked the doors, on the lazy assumption that all is normal and safe.
And Stoker repeatedly violates our sense of safety in this book, allowing dark
forces to enter into the most vigilantly protected asylums; indeed, in some
instances, they find their way into an actual asylum,
where patients are treated and kept safely under lock
and key. But this is merely emblematic of the root level
anxiety of
Dracula, a novel in which the safe, secluded
places—in our heart, in our home—are repeatedly violated.
This is a powerful effect, but cannot be rushed.
Stoker understands this, and from the opening pages
of his novel, he builds his effects with the care of a hunter
laying an elaborate trap for his prey.

There are many surprises here for readers who come to the
novel with expectations drawn from on-screen depictions of
Dracula. First and foremost, you will be shocked by how
rarely the vampire actually shows up during the course of
the narrative. By my estimate, he appears in the flesh on
only around 15% of the pages. And even when he does enter
a scene, it is often for a mere cameo shot. He prefers to tease
his victims, and by extension the reader. But he is all the
more feared for the faux reticence. When he does act, he does so suddenly, and
fiercely, and without compunction. As such, he is the most dangerous of all
adversaries, much more so than those blustery opponents who immediately
themselves launch into the fray.

You may also be surprised by the high tech trappings of this novel. Stoker
published his book in 1897, and goes out of his way to include the latest
advances of his day. We find the phonograph playing a prominent part in the
story—even though very few people owned, or had even had encountered, this
device in Victorian days. We also find reference to the London Underground, to
modern medicines and medical techniques (notably transfusions, which were
dangerous and rarely attempted until the identification of blood types during the
early 20th century), to manifold (a predecessor of carbon paper), to portable
typewriters, and other advances of the Victorian era. This assortment of gadgetry
may seem strange, at first reading. After all, the Dracula story seems more like a
myth from the ancient past than a modern urban legend. But Stoker realizes that
the horror is intensified if it can co-exist with the latest manifestations of science
and rationality. A vampire from  long ago Transylvania, is hardly as frightening
as the bloodsucker who may be seated next to us on the subway.

The main thrust of Stoker’s plot is to emphasize this shift from the folkloric to
the everyday. Count Dracula, we learn early in this book, wants to move to
London.  The book opens with the diary entries of Jonathan Harker, a British
solicitor who travels to Transylvania to assist the Count on his relocation plans.
He gradually—and everything horrible happens gradually in the gruesome
book—comes to realize that Dracula plans to pump him for information and
assistance, along with English conversation lessons, but will then pump him in
other more literal ways. He needs to escape, but Dracula has made him a virtual
prisoner in the confines of his isolated castle.

When the action shifts to England, Dracula’s range of options—and potential
victims—widens. He is protected, moreover, by the rationalism of the age. In
Transylvania, the suspicious peasantry were on the lookout for him, but in the
midst of a booming metropolis, no one suspects the presence of a vampire. Yet
in time, a leading medical expert, Abraham Van Helsing, is called from his native
Amsterdam to consult on a peculiar case. He concludes—yes, gradually!—that
the only plausible explanation is one that none of his colleagues would believe,
namely an outbreak of vampirism in Merrie England! Van Helsing now faces a
triple challenge: he must protect his patient, convince the non-believers whose
assistance he requires, and above all, he must track down and destroy Count
Dracula. Each of these is fraught with danger, and a high likelihood of failure.  

The other unexpected twist in this novel is primarily a technical matter of
perspective and pacing. The entire book is presented in the form of letters,
memorandums, news reports, diary entries and other documents. If you
mapped out the narrative on a flow chart, it would look like a maze. Stoker
moves back and forth in chronological sequence. He shifts narrative voice. He
presents key facts and plot elements from both trustworthy and deceived
narrators.  At times, incidents are explained only a hundred or more pages after
they initially occur. He even mixes in a malapropisms and clumsy phrases into
Van Helsing’s speech patterns, no doubt to emphasize his foreign origins but
also with a gleeful desire to throw one more obstacle into the reader’s path.  In
other words, the structural complexity here is far beyond what you might expect
from a work of genre fiction. And a work with so many moving parts could easily
falter, as the story shifts from narrator to narrator, like the baton in a relay race.
One drop, once false move, and everything could come to a sudden halt.

But Stoker never falters. The reader follows eagerly, and each transition in this
ever-changing story seems to amplify the suspense, and intensify the mounting
sense of dread that pervades these pages.  In the final stages of the story, all the
narratives converge—from four different directions. At this point, we will receive
the catharsis that we sought. And here the methodical Bram Stoker shows that
he can also dispense with formalities, and resolve all matters with a bloody and
brutal elegance.

We are almost sorry to see Count Dracula leave us at this point. He has lived up
to his end of the bargain, serving as a formidable and frightening adversary. And
we are just as sad to say farewell to Van Helsing, who ranks among the most
intriguing heroes of nineteenth century adventure fiction. But even if Stoker left
them behind, others have stepped in to fill the gap. Dracula has risen from the
grave again and again, most notably in some 200 movies, and a host of other
bloodsucking protagonists have developed their own franchises. But if you
haven’t read the original Dracula, let these wannabes and imitators wait. The
first great vampire book is still the best.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs:
The Hidden History
, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: January 5, 2016