Three reviews and the first part of a feature on vampire fiction that originally appeared in Black Static #1:-
BOOKS WITH BITE
Fashions change, movements come and go, but our fascination with the vampire remains a constant, and at times this monster’s popularity has threatened to eclipse the genre of which it is such a significant part. Both Polidori’s The Vampyre and ubertext Count Dracula triggered an almost obsessive concern with bloodsuckers in the general population, or at least that part of it interested in the literature of the fantastic, and there is strong evidence that we’re in just such a period at the moment. In his 1998 overview of the year in Horror, Stephen Jones recorded that more than 15% of books published in the genre featured vampires and nine years on there’s no sign that the bubble has burst, with the shelves in bookstores groaning under a plethora of spin offs from the Buffyverse and Anne Rice wannabes, complete with Gothic trim, while the critical success of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian has conferred the cachet of literary respectability on the subgenre.
Here at Case Notes we get to see more than our fair share of books with bite, and so a round-up of some recent titles seems in order.
In the aptly titled Blood Red (Berkley paperback, 416pp, $7.99/Earthling Publications hb, 331pp, $40) James A. Moore creates the affluent coastal community of Black Stone Bay and then turns it into the personal playground of master vampire Jason Soulis. People disappear at an alarming rate, victims of Soulis, who is assembling his own private army of the undead. Most newly made vampires are not very bright, and by keeping them safe for a few days Soulis hopes to increase his progeny’s chance of survival. He is also engaged in an experiment to create another master vampire like himself.
The story is told through the eyes of a motley crew of well realised characters, none of whom have the full picture. There’s drop dead gorgeous student Maggie who supplements her college grant by working as a high class call girl and becomes a vital element in Soulis’ plan. Fellow student Ben, a skilled computer hacker, is fixated on Maggie and will do anything to protect her, while another student, Kelli Entwhistle, becomes involved when two young boys whom she baby sits disappear. Boyd and Holdstedter, the detectives investigating the disappearances, infuse the narrative with a Tarantinoesque touch of black humour. Nor does Moore let human beings off the hook as regards moral culpability, providing two compelling bad guys in the form of pimp Tom and a crooked cop who preys on vulnerable college girls.
On the night of Halloween, Soulis unleashes his vampire horde on the town and all the chickens (bats?) come home to roost.
Bottom line, this is pretty much a textbook example of small town America in peril, the kind of thing Stephen King does so well, with echoes of ’Salem’s Lot in the text and, although it’s never stated, I got the distinct impression that the book is part of an ongoing series, with hints of events that took place before Soulis’ arrival in Black Stone Bay and a major plot strand left unresolved at the end.
Regardless of that, Blood Red is certainly worth reading. Moore is a writer who knows what he’s doing and exercises complete control over the material. He takes on a large cast of characters, each of whom is convincingly portrayed, with the kind of attention to detail and subtle touches that invite empathy by ensuring they are never less than three dimensional. There’s a wealth of subplots, such as Maggie’s problems with her pimp, all of which enrich the narrative, and the writer takes no prisoners, really putting his characters through the grinder with no guarantee that anyone will get out the other side, so that the reader can take nothing for granted. The action scenes are well done, particularly at the end when Soulis and the vampires cut loose, with an almost cinematic feel to the mayhem taking place on the page, though I have to concede (minor whinge) that by this point I was getting rather tired of the comic cut out antics of Boyd and Holdstedter. There’s nothing in Blood Red that is strikingly original or takes the vampire in a new direction, but it’s an entertaining book, with a wealth of genre tropes put through their paces by a writer of considerable ability, and well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
There’s a more familiar urban centre under threat in Clark’s London Under Midnight (Severn House paperback, 214pp, £9.99), with vampires coming up out of the river Thames at night to feed on the capital’s citizens. Clark has dabbled in this subgenre before, but doesn’t seem able to come up with an original angle, making do with grounding the vampire menace in a foreign culture. Vampyrrhic had a Viking twist and this time around there’s an African connection, the god Edshu having decided to test London and its people with a vampire plague. Fortunately, though the word is never used, there’s a shaman conveniently on hand, perched atop a pole alongside the river, to explain things to the hero and tell him how to get rid of the vampires.
Journalist Ben Ashton is sent to investigate strange graffiti that is popping up all over London, “:-) VAMPIRE SHARKZ They’re Coming to Get You :-)”, and as a sideline looks into the disappearance of his old girlfriend April Connor. Naturally the two are connected. From shaman Elmo he learns of the vampires and that April has become one of them although, having a stronger will than the other victims, she is still fighting against the change. Ben, Elmo and April’s fiancée Trajan, set out to save her and avert the disaster that threatens the city, with the final battle fought on an island in the middle of the Thames.
Elmo’s explanation for what is going on was a little too pat for my liking. Why these African deities, for whom we’ve not seen the slightest bit of proof before, should suddenly be taking an interest in London is beyond me? It is, like so much else here, simply a plot convenience, a hook on which to hang the story, but one that doesn’t convince or add anything new to the vampire canon.
Allowing for the contrived nature of the plot, this is a fast paced and exciting read, with lots of twists and turns, Clark having fun with the familiar material. One particular highlight is April’s fight against vampirism, which in her mind she at times refers to as New Life and regards as a boon that should be spread to the rest of mankind so that there are moments when she comes on like a crazed evangelist, and the hunger for blood is put over well, an insatiable craving that it takes all of her will to deny. In contrast to this, yin to its dark yang, is Ben’s personal obsession, his unrequited love for April, which is holding him back and becomes the medium in which his mettle is tested. And there are suitably gory moments as well, with the image of the vampire sharks lingering in the mind, a powerful signifier of their menace, their attacks on humans as savage as they are repellent, while the final race for life and battle with the vampires is a compellingly taut end to a decent book, albeit one that was nothing special, not a novel that tried to do anything new with the tropes of the subgenre, simply polished them up a bit.
With Anne Rice on extended sabbatical Laurell K Hamilton is the uncrowned queen of the female writers producing vampire serials. Her heroine Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, lives in a world pretty much like our own except that the vampires and a whole host of other supernatural beings have come out of the closet and are living alongside mankind, tolerated as long as they abide by our laws, and with people like Anita ready to step in and dole out summary justice when they don’t toe the line.
The Harlequin (Orbit hardback, 422pp, £12.99), which is the fourteenth volume in the series, opens with Malcolm, head of the vampire church, asking Anita for help when two of his congregation are framed for murder. From Jean-Claude, her lover and vampire master of St Louis, Anita learns of the Harlequin, a secret order of vampires with incredible power and given authority to execute judgement on others of their kind. It seems that Jean-Claude and those close to him are being investigated, only the Harlequin appear to have thrown aside the rule book in favour of pursuing their own agenda.
That’s the main thrust of the book, but there’s plenty of other stuff going on, with powerful vampire Belle Morte lurking in the background and the threat of Marmee Noir, the mother of all vampires, awakening from her long sleep, plus all the usual relationship stuff that arises out of Anita’s attempts to control the ardeur, a power she has that feeds on sexual energy, obliging her to take on rather more lovers than the average healthy young woman (six, and still counting), and elsewhere we have the threat of sociopath Olaf and political manoeuvring within the ‘furry’ community, while Anita’s friend and fellow vampire hunter Edward has to cope with a son who wants to follow in his footsteps.
Yes, there’s a lot happening here, but Hamilton makes a much better fist of integrating the various plot strands than she did with Incubus Dreams, the last book in the series that I read, and it’s a better book for that, one that seems more firmly centred. The sidebar stuff, to do with relationships and the etiquette of sleeping with ‘monsters’, goes on without getting in the way of the main plot, which is allowed to build naturally, with the final showdown with the renegade Harlequin a tour de force of invention, the battle swinging first one way and then another, holding the attention even while you know it can only end with Anita and her gang on top. Hamilton is still a bit too coy about sex for my liking, going for terms like ‘lengths’ and ‘openings’ in lieu of ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’, which is begging a mortis and tenon metaphor for coitus at some future point, but if she is occasionally wishy washy in addressing the mechanics, the psychology of sex is one of Hamilton’s strong suits. In that regard there’s lots of interesting developments, as Anita and the various men in her life deal with the implications of the ardeur, while one of her lovers registers a need for S&M that causes Anita some perturbation.
To summarise, The Harlequin works very well as a stand alone novel, but also moves along the various strands that weave throughout this series, with the hint of a battle royale with Marmee Noir looming on the horizon. Prior to reading this I’d been in two minds about the series, but now I’m engaged with Anita Blake once again and curious to see where Hamilton will take the character.
(TO BE CONTINUED)