VAMPIRES are fun.

They were fun -- dusty, but fun -- when Dr. John Polidori, Lord Byron's physician, published The Vampyre: A Tale in 1819, the first vampire story written in English. They were fun (three quarters of million words of it) when James Malcolm Rymer published the hugely popular Varney the Vampire in 1845. They were fun-- more subtle fun -- when the great Irish writer, J. Sheridan LeFanu, published "Carmilla" in 1872. And they were the most fun of all when another Irishman, Bram Stoker, wrote Dracula in 1897. And they continue to be fun, as George Hamilton, Frank Langella, Christopher Lee, and the spirit of Bela Lugosi will all attest.

In the last few years, we have been treated to several outstanding vampire novels, all of which have won popular and even critical acclaim. Stephen King's Salem's Lot is both modern and traditional, a homage to the master, Bram Stoker. Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire is no doubt the classiest of them. Whitley Strieber's successful The Hunger is a trendy and attractive modern version. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania, and its four sequels that chronicle her vampire's life and times through different ages, is easily the most romantic, erotic, and psychologically interesting of all. F. Paul Wilson's The Keep has a very nervous group of World War II Nazis doing battle with an evil that's even bigger than they are. And George R.R. Martin's recent Fevre Dream adds a colorful, and uniquely American, tale to the canon.

Why is the vampire so fascinating?

Our conception of the vampire is an amalgam of images: Stoker's darkly evil Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi's suave manner, his accent, and balletically graceful movement, a little from each of the novels mentioned, and a little from Frank Langella (for better or worse) and George Hamilton (definitely for better) as well.

But the vampire myth has much more substance than these flickering images suggest. The creatures are undeniably real in our imaginations, their characteristics clear and familiar. Foremost of these is the erotic element of the vampire figure, itself compounded of other elements. Here is a creature who is superhuman and, if he gets away with it, immortal. He has a compulsion for survival that is nothing less than monstrous . . . because he has more at stake than the rest of us. Yet, for all his powers, he is peculiarly vulnerable: he can be discovered and he can be killed. Vampires who survive bear out Darwin: only those who are supremely sly and canny live to have tales told about them. And if that's not attractive enough, there's always that magic touch that brings both death and eternal life: the bite.

Two new vampire novels, while disappointing in some ways, add a very interesting element to modern treatments of vampire lore.

Yuri Kapralov's Castle Dubrava is a first novel, and it must be said that he has conceived a fiction rather beyond the powers of his craft. His prose is lumpy, he handles some technical elements (including point of view) inexpertly, and he has structured the book like a mystery, which doesn't really work for this material because, first, it requires that the vampire remain in the background and, second, the very structure suggests that reason can prevail. It cannot, not with vampires. Even so, Kapralov provides a very strong historical foundation for his tale and a colorful and romantic flight of fancy at the end.

More successful is The Curse of the Vampire by Karl Alexander, author of Time After Time. Alexander's prose is clean and fast-moving, his intricate tale, neatly linking two sets of characters separated only by time, is told gracefully, and his characterization is strong, although he too uses a mystery structure and his vampire behaves rather more like a werewolf than it should.

Far the most interesting thing about these two novels is that both are set in Transylvania, in Romania. But this is not the misty and mysterious Transylvania of legend; it is modern Romania, a communist state, a country with a rigid social structure not renowned for its openness to disturbing ideas, old or new, a bureaucracy with not a moment of romance in its soul. These are not anti-communist novels, but both use the clearly defined social structure to show the vampire and his works in stark contrast. As a result, in both novels, we are treated to a dark and disturbing vision of ancient and implacable evil that has the power to disrupt not only the lives of the characters it attacks, but the very mundane and essential order of society itself.

Kapralov's vampire figure is very traditional, a handsome young nobleman who comes fully equipped with a medieval castle, now efficiently used as a museum. Alexander's creature is more a monster of the mind but, curiously, he too employs a castle doing modern duty as a museum, reinforcing the notion that communists have little sense of fun. That leaves it to the rest of us to smile and shiver and explore a little further into a body of lore that seems inexhaustible, endlessly adaptable to new variations, new themes, and new times.

As for me, I'm in agreement with one of Kapralov's characters, who is skeptical about the very idea of vampires but says, "If you do find a vampire, let me know. We'll both arm ourselves with wooden stakes and have a grand time."y