Filler content with bloodsuckers – Part 2

And following on from yesterday’s blog entry, here are three more reviews comprising the second part of the vampire feature that originally appeared in Black Static #1:-

BOOKS WITH BITE (continued)

There’s also a vampire society of sorts in No Dominion (Orbit paperback, 248pp, £6.99), the second volume in another ongoing series, but in this case everything is very much under the human radar, Charlie Huston offering us a fusion of vampire fiction with gangster sensibility that brings to mind the freshness and noir feel of the early Anita Blake books.

Huston’s hero Joe Pitt is a vampire and native New Yorker, but affiliated to none of the Big Apple’s vampire clans, a free agent who hires out to them for work. When a new drug, one that can addict vampires, hits town Joe is employed to discover its source by Terry, nominal head of the Society. The trail takes him to the territory of another clan, the Hood, and from there to that of the biggest clan, the Coalition, whose head honcho just so happens to hate Joe with a passion. Seems like everybody wants a piece of Joe’s ass, either to kill him or to use Joe to further their own ends, and that includes the Enclave, a vampire sect with an especial interest in our hero. Things get complicated, and then some.

This is a fast paced, take no prisoners kind of book, with much more going on than my plot summary might suggest and an interesting take on the vampire novel even if you can’t quite get past the feeling that it would work just as well ‘gangs of New York’ style and without the bloodsucking twist. Pitt is an agreeable hero, one who is not afraid to mess up his hands when it’s required, but with a ‘human’ side to him, as seen in his love for his AIDS victim girlfriend, while his smart mouth and penchant for Marlowesque putdowns entertain the reader as surely as they get him into trouble with everybody else. There’s plenty of action, with gritty scenes of violence and unexpected plot twists, plus some larger than life characters, such as the ‘amiable’ Gravedigger, the cartoon cut out vampire Count with his camp followers and the barking mad white supremacist vampire who causes this whole mess in the first place. All in all, it’s an engaging mix and Huston is a writer to keep an eye out for.

Parasite Positive (ATOM Books paperback, 276pp, £5.99) is also set in New York and has a whole vampire society in hiding, but there the resemblance ends. The novel’s protagonist Cal works for the so called Night Watch, an organisation that hunts down and contains vampires, or peeps as they are known (an abbreviation of parasite positive). Cal is himself a vampire, like most Night Watch operatives, but one of the lucky ones who can control his lusts. The peeps he captures are taken to a facility where their addiction can be curtailed by drug use. While hunting down the woman who infected him, Cal finds evidence that a new strain of the vampire parasite has developed, one that can cross over into other species such as cats, and that his ‘maker’ is deliberately infecting as many people as she can. But this is only the tip of the iceberg and Cal’s subsequent discoveries have serious implications for vampires and humans alike.

Scott Westerfeld’s book offers an intriguing variation on the scientific approach to vampirism, which is here attributed to a parasite but, as the title reminds us, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To underline the point, alternating chapters of the book offer lively info dumps on the nature of parasites, how they can be both a burden and a blessing to mankind, all of this necessary spadework for the final revelation about the true nature of vampirism.

One has the feeling that the plot doesn’t quite add up, with the Night Watch being kept unnecessarily in the dark about so many things and the idea that vampires will be any more capable of combating the real threat than, say, men armed with rocket launchers seems slightly fanciful, and Cal’s reaction to what he is told is not entirely convincing, while the character of Lacey, his love interest, annoyed me like heck by constantly referring to Cal as ‘Dude’. In an Anita Blake book that woman would be gagged.

Regardless, Westerfeld does have a novel slant on the vampire archetype and does some interesting things with this old favourite. His writing is slick and assured, carrying the narrative along at a cracking pace, with moments of genuine creepiness. There are some great touches of incidental detail along the way, such as the parasite chapters, which are so often squirm inducing, and he brings humour to the table as well. In particular, within the context of the parasite he provides a convincing explanation for vampire traits such as an allergy to churchgoing and the Bible, with a modern interpretation of this phenomenon that provides the book’s biggest laugh, and shows so much chutzpah that it’s worth the price of admission alone. Succinctly put, Parasite Positive is a fun read.

Title aside, Fangland (Vintage Books paperback, 388pp, £7.99) is the most serious minded of this vampire sextet, and comes with a back cover blurb by literary heavyweight Audrey Niffenegger. Formerly a producer on 60 Minutes, John Marks writes of the world he knows, updating the archetypal figure of the vampire and superimposing it on the modern media landscape.

Evangeline Harker, an associate producer on top rated TV show “The Hour”, is sent to Transylvania to spy out a possible story on crimelord Ion Torgu, inviting inevitable Dracula jokes from her workmates, though curiously none of them seem to register the significance of her surname. Torgu lives in a remote town in the ruins of a burnt out hotel, and as it turns out is something far worse than a mere vampire, though he does consume blood in his own special way. Evangeline manages to save herself from his clutches, though she is changed by the encounter, becoming more feral, savage. But while she recuperates in a monastery, Torgu comes to America and begins to infiltrate the offices of “The Hour”, initiating a terrible plan that only Evangeline can counter.

Fangland reads like a cross between Stoker’s Dracula, whose narrative technique of letters, journal entries etc it mimics and many of whose most famous tropes are reprised, and the J-Horror film Kairo (Pulse in the Hollywood version), with its echoes of madness and disturbing vision of the spirits of the dead subtly infiltrating our world.

There are many things to commend this book. Marks knows the cutthroat world of TV news inside out, making his backdrop totally realistic, and he is excellent at characterisation, bringing these people to compelling life, their competitiveness and petty obsessions, all the inner demons that drive them on, with the rare oasis of sanity in this prime time wasteland. The writing is beautiful throughout, descriptive and evocative, but at its most compelling in the scenes of horror that punctuate the text, events that shock with their savagery, or are simply creepy, as when Torgu cuts his victim’s foot and collects the slow dripping blood in a bucket, an image that lingers in the mind in the same way the vision of Dracula scaling his castle wall did for a previous generation.

Torgu’s corruption spreads like a cancer at “The Hour”, infecting both the computer system and the people with its taint of madness, and paving the way for his ultimate goal, to unleash the innocent dead on the world, even at the cost of its destruction. If he stands for death, Evangeline is his opposite, sexuality and the life force personified and the book reaches its climax with the confrontation between these two, but not before we are chillingly reminded of all the innocent dead, the victims of concentration camps and battlefields, all the atrocities that make up human history and whose memories are ingrained in the land, dead voices crying out for revenge and closure.

It’s unnerving stuff, a story that is original yet at the same time a powerful tribute to its source material and proof, if any was needed, that there’s still a lot of life left in those bloodsucking vampires.

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