Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 15

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

VAMPIRE APOCALYPSE: A WORLD TORN ASUNDER

By Derek Gunn

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Vampires remain a staple of the Horror genre, and it could be argued that their stock has never been higher as Laurell K Hamilton and a myriad other Anne Rice wannabes stack the shelves high with product. What has changed is the nature of the beast. From the archetypal solitary creature of the night, with whom we human cattle have a love/hate relationship, the vampire has mutated into a social animal, with writers imagining clans and tribes of bloodsuckers, each with their own laws and mores, or human societies that have grown to accommodate the vampire, to accept him or her as somebody who is simply different, in much the same way that previous generations extended the umbrella of tolerance to cover other minority groups. Oh yes, the vampire is well and truly out of the coffin, and it’s going to take more than a dash of holy water and a few Hail Marys to put him back.

Gunn’s vampires are not the almost human bloodsuckers of a Hamilton or Charlaine Harris; they are unremittingly nasty, predators born and bred, the unquenchable thirst for blood their defining characteristic, and little suggestion that there is anything more to them than this, not the soul searching of a Louis or the ambivalence of a Miranda Blaylock. His template comes courtesy of Matheson’s I Am Legend, Stableford’s Empire of Fear and, most significantly, the bleak future imagined in Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss, and thus owes as much to SF as it does to the Horror genre, though his work lacks the sophistication and originality of those illustrious predecessors.

The back story, in brief. The world’s oil supply has gone belly up and in the wake of that technological civilisation has all but collapsed. In the new world order, vampires have emerged from the shadows to stamp their authority on the human race. They rule the roost, assisted by an army of thralls, quislings and collaborators who have been gifted with some of their masters’ abilities – enhanced strength and speed – and rewarded with the right to do whatever they wish with the rest of the population. The great majority of human beings live on as food stock, kept docile through administration of the ‘serum’, a chemical cocktail that slows the thought processes.

In the city ruled by vampire overlord Nero, a group of humans have found a way to circumvent the serum and are doing their own bit by way of resistance, only to provoke a vampire backlash. Forced to leave the city they set up an armed enclave in the wild lands outside direct vampire control, but they cannot survive without supplies, and so attacks on the vampire stronghold are a necessity, inviting retaliation. With the clock ticking for humanity, the stage is set for a battle to the finish with the vampires and their army of thralls.

As stated above, this is pretty much an unsophisticated story, both in terms of Gunn’s very basic prose style and the machinations of the plot, which although it shares features with the books listed above lacks their conceptual richness and originality, so if you’re looking for a new direction for the vampire subgenre better to go pick up a copy of The Historian instead. Similarly, characterisation is workmanlike; Gunn puts his people through their paces and they have credible motives for what they do, but this is not a book of psychological acuity or insight. The characters strut and puff out their chests, they fight and die and fall in love, just as we do ourselves, but it’s mostly surface stuff, with no sense of any real depth.

And all of that is beside the point, really.

Bottom line with this book is it’s not out to do anything more than entertain, to tell a gripping yarn in an appropriate manner. What we get is a backs to the wall fight for survival, with mankind going head to head with the monsters, and on that level it delivers the goods. Think Sven Hassel does vampires, with a nod in the direction of films like Blade and Underworld. The action comes thick and fast, with only a few pages to punctuate the fights, and battle scenes are where Gunn excels, keeping the reader on the edge of the seat by constantly cranking up the tension, introducing new twists and turns of fortune, and letting us know that nobody’s survival can be taken for granted. In battle his vampires come into their own, not just incredibly vicious as they rip out the throats of their opponents with barely a second thought, but able to transform themselves into minotaurs and hippogriffs, fabulous and deadly creatures from mythology. There’s also an extra frisson courtesy of the inter-human conflict, as various individuals place personal agendas ahead of that of the group and those at the top, man of action Harris and the more cautious Harrington, squabble for command, each convinced that he alone knows what’s best for everybody.

It’s not subtle and it’s not great literature, but it is solid storytelling, written with gusto, fast paced and fun, with a cinematic feel to the whole, so the fact that a movie option has been taken out should come as no surprise. Best way to deal, as with many movies, is to kick back and let the action flow over you, with brain in neutral so that you don’t stop and wonder how these people managed to elude the serum in the first place, or be surprised that the super-powered vampires and thralls are often so easily killed, or wonder about the back story of these people, rebel leader Harris in particular, though in fairness to the author this is the first in an ongoing series and the details could be filled in as the story progresses. What we have here is undemanding entertainment, ideally suited for a trip to the beach or a lazy afternoon in the back garden, nothing more and nothing less than that.

Vampire Apocalypse: A World Torn Asunder by Derek Gunn. Published by Black Death Books, pb, 215pp, $15/£8. Available from the publisher and various online outlets, including Amazon.

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