Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Madness Season

THE MADNESS SEASON (1990), an epic novel by C. S. Friedman, features a unique blend of alien invasion with vampires—one vampire, anyway. Earth has been conquered by an interstellar gestalt civilization called the Tyr, who have absorbed a variety of subject races. The overlords capture and isolate all geniuses and other individualists to forestall any rebellion among the subdued population. Faster-than-light technology is impossible for the people of Earth, so they can travel outside this solar system only through the intervention of the Tyr—or so the Tyr claim. The protagonist, Daetrin, who appropriately teaches evening college classes in art, lives as obscurely as possible. As he has throughout his long life, he keeps a low profile, making himself appear blandly average. His last conspicuous action was joining the futile human rebellion against the alien Conquest three centuries earlier, when he fell in battle and passed for dead. Nevertheless, the Tyr notice he's somehow abnormal and transport him off the planet, partly to keep him from unsettling the peaceful compliance of their human subjects and partly to study him. Most important, they consider him dangerous because his unnatural longevity means he remembers the time before the Conquest.

Daetrin's race, of whom no others survive as far as he's aware, have lifespans measured in centuries or millennia. Dark-adapted, they aren't killed outright by sunlight, but exposure quickly becomes excruciatingly painful. The body defends itself by developing a high fever. They feed on blood, but since the twentieth century Daetrin has survived on an artificial nutrient drink he has invented. He believes himself to be human, afflicted with a "biochemical problem" he handles by ingesting his potion. He rejects certain vague memories to the contrary as delusions. Surely his recollections of flying or changing into animals can't be real, can they? As a captive of the Tyr, he can't get immediate access to a laboratory to manufacture his artificial nourishment. He has to resort to sneaking out of his cell and feeding on caged animals. Drinking fresh blood awakens more of those memories in greater vividness, until he can't deny their reality.

Over the course of the novel, he meets several types of aliens. At one point he comes upon a group of human colonists who reject his offer of help in their resistance to the Tyr because they don't accept him as human. He develops a relationship with Kiri, a female-identified Marra, a member of a species whose essential being consists of pure energy. They wear bodies like clothes, and with each new corporeal form, an individual Marra builds a new identity. At present, Kiri lives the identity of a healer. In his association with her, Daetrin fully embraces his nature as a blood-drinking shapeshifter. With her help, he mounts his own rebellion against the Tyr. Through their bond, she helps him expand and enhance his shapeshifting power. They also discover that, by taking human form, she can nourish him with human blood. By the end of the book, he becomes enlightened as to his true nature and the purpose for the evolution of his species.

The story is narrated mainly in Daetrin's first-person voice, interspersed with third-person sections from other viewpoints, including Kiri's. Friedman does an impressive job of portraying the inner lives of aliens with very different mindsets and world-views from human, such as the Marra and the component species of the Tyr. The major focus, however, naturally centers on Daetrin's journey of self-discovery.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Teeth

Although the YA anthology TEETH (2011), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, isn't very old, it may have been overlooked by many vampire fans, so if you didn't notice it upon publication, do check it out. All the contents except a poem by Neil Gaiman first published in 2008 consist of eighteen stories (and one other poem) original to this volume. The editors' introduction gives an overview of vampire folklore and classic fiction, with a quick survey of the most influential twentieth- and twenty-first-century works. Contributors include luminaries such as Suzy McKee Charnas (author of THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY), Ellen Kushner, Melissa Marr, Lucius Shepard, Emma Bull, Delia Sherman, and Tanith Lee.

Some highlights: One of my favorites, naturally, is Charnas's "Late Bloomer," which departs from the ancient, naturally evolved vampire of her novel to explore the traditional undead. Aspiring musician Josh, while working in his cousin's antique shop, gets entangled with a pair of vampire antique collectors, a woman and a teenage girl. He learns that a vampire turned in her teens never matures, remaining young mentally as well as physically. When circumstances force him to become a vampire himself, he discovers firsthand the poignant truth that the undead love beauty and the arts but have no creative spark of their own. In "The Perfect Dinner Party," Cassandra Clare and Holly Black portray a young vampire putting her master's lessons into practice while "entertaining" a human girl brought home by the protagonist's brother. "Things to Know About Being Dead," by Genevieve Valentine, rather than featuring a European-style vampire, comprises the first-person experience of a girl who has recently become a jiang-shi, a creature whose soul can't escape her body because of her sudden, violent death. To complicate her unlife, the spirit of a male classmate who committed suicide attaches himself to her. In "Sit the Dead," by Jeffrey Ford, young protagonist Luke has to take a turn watching over a newly dead girl, who of course rises as a vampire and has to be dispatched. The narrator of Tanith Lee's "Why Light?", written in her usual lyrical style, is a seventeen-year-old female of a naturally evolved vampire species, long-lived but not particularly hard to kill. Her people drink both animal and human blood, gently taken without harm to the donors. The heroine, prized for her rare ability to tolerate sunlight so well she could live by day if she wished, resentfully enters an arranged marriage where she perceives herself as valued only for her genes. The story traces the development of her relationship with her light-shunning fiance.

Personally, I don't think much of the anthology's rather bland title, which could refer to many topics other than vampires, including werewolves, sharks, or even dentists. Nevertheless, this is a book no vampire fan should miss.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Look for Me by Moonlight

Mary Downing Hahn's excellent YA vampire novel LOOK FOR ME BY MOONLIGHT (1995) reads uncannily like a deconstruction of TWILIGHT (2005), aside from the fact that the better-known work came out a decade later. Cynda, the teenage first-person narrator of Hahn's story, leaves her mother's household to live with a father she's seen very little of since the divorce; in her new home, Cynda meets a ravishingly handsome, poetic vampire who makes her feel appreciated and grown-up. The title comes from Alfred Noyes's melodramatically romantic poem "The Highwayman": "Then look for me by moonlight. . . . I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way." Echoing throughout the text, the lines sound enchanting at first but later become ominous.

Cynda's parents divorced when she was six, after which her father remarried (to a younger woman, a former student of his) and moved to Maine. Her mother married a naval officer, so that Cynda has also had to adjust to frequent cross-country moves. As the novel opens, when she is a rebellious sixteen-year-old, her stepfather gets assigned to a three-year tour of duty in Italy. It's decided that Cynda will try living with her father and stepmother in their small town in Maine, where they operate an eighteenth-century ocean-front house as an inn and her father writes bestselling mysteries. Although it's an isolated existence, and she finds the old house more forbidding than attractive, at first things aren't bad. She likes her five-year-old half-brother, Todd, and gets along reasonably well with her young, pregnant stepmother. Local lore claims the house is haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl who was thrown into the sea with her throat slashed. Cynda later learns that the history of the property includes other girls murdered in the same way. She doesn't encounter any ghosts to begin with, though. Although it's the off-season, when the inn is usually empty, the pale, handsome, reclusive poet Vincent Morthanos shows up out of nowhere to rent a room. He spends the days shut away, allegedly writing. In the evenings, he charms Cynda and her father and stepmother. Todd and the family cat, on the other hand, abhor and fear the unusual guest. Cynda sneaks out of her room night after night to meet this man, who appears about thirty years old. Meanwhile, her relationship with her family deteriorates. She has become acquainted with Will, the housekeeper's teenage grandson, but in Cynda's eyes he lacks appeal compared to the sophisticated older man secretly courting her.

Despite Vincent's romantic facade, he isn't actually a "good" vampire. That's not much of a spoiler, since it's foreshadowed by the story of the murdered girls. Furthermore, the reader can easily perceive the warning signs under the surface of Cynda's slanted narrative. The more deeply she gets involved with Vincent, the more isolated from her family and Will she becomes. By the time she realizes Vincent's true nature, it's almost too late. His hypnotic power prevents her from even speaking the word "vampire."

This novel foregrounds the pedophile implications of a love affair between a teenage girl and a man who has lived longer than a normal human lifespan. And Vincent, unlike Edward in TWILIGHT, doesn't even pretend to be close to her age. Most readers would find the seductive behavior of an apparent thirty-year-old toward a sixteen-year-old disturbing even if he weren't ruining her health by drinking her blood. The narrative reinforces the analogy through Cynda's feelings of shame and her inability to tell her father and stepmother the truth, even if she could speak freely, because they wouldn't believe her. Only reaching out to Will finally gives her a chance at freedom, along with a bit of help from the ghosts of Vincent's earlier victims. This novel has a mass-market edition in print, so if you're a fan of YA vampire fiction, do check it out.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fledgling

It's hard to believe FLEDGLING (2005), by Octavia Butler, is already over ten years old (thirteen, to be precise). Therefore, it falls into the time period for books I've been tacitly classifying as "older works," so it's eligible for discussion here. Also, it probably qualifies as "overlooked" within vampire fandom, because Butler is mainly known for SF, not fantasy or horror.

As one would expect from a distinguished science-fiction writer, this novel is an exciting, fresh approach to the motif of vampires as a naturally evolved species. Although the Ina, as they call themselves, have their own origin myths, they don't know for sure whether they came from another planet or evolved alongside humanity on Earth. They can't breed with Homo sapiens, but they depend on human "symbionts" not only for blood but for emotional connection. These vampires' venom is addictive, so that once bonded, their symbionts, of which each Ina has a household full to avoid draining any one individual, can't leave their Ina or even want to. In addition to the ravishing pleasure of donating blood and sometimes sharing sexual passion with the Ina, they also gain the advantage of improved healing and extension of their lifespans to a couple of centuries. Shori, the first-person narrator, looks like a child, even though she is really over fifty years old (still childhood for her species). At the beginning of the novel she has lost her memory after a brutal attack that destroyed her home and killed everyone in it except her, both Ina and human. A young man driving by picks her up and quickly becomes enthralled by her. Gradually she discovers her true nature, connects with other Ina clans, gathers a new group of symbionts, and searches for the murderers of her family. She discovers she is targeted for assassination because she's the product of a breeding experiment that added melanin to her genetic makeup (so she's dark-skinned rather than pale like her kin) through insertion of human DNA, in order to reduce her sensitivity to the sun. (Ina don't disintegrate or burst into flame in sunlight like movie vampires, and unlike any folklore or pre-NOSFERATU literary vampire. They're just terribly vulnerable to its damaging effects.) Most of her kind think this hybrid origin makes her an abomination. Thus the novel explores racism from an unusual angle, as well as delving into issues of power and sexuality.

In case you missed FLEDGLING upon its original publication, check it out.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Undead

Another older vampire anthology well worth tracking down, THE UNDEAD (1973; paperback 1976), edited by James Dickie, ranges beyond the familiar, often-reprinted stories and, as the title hints, includes a few pieces that aren't quite traditional vampire tales. The reader encounters some of the usual suspects, such as Stoker's "Dracula's Guest," "For the Blood Is the Life," a haunting portrayal of love beyond the grave by F. Marion Crawford, and "The Room in the Tower," by E. F. Benson. Other works in this volume might be less familiar, even to some devoted vampire fans.

In Manly Wade Wellman's "When It Was Moonlight," Edgar Allan Poe meets a vampire revitalized by moonlight, like Polidori's Lord Ruthven and Varney the Vampire in the penny dreadful novel of that name, a motif seldom used in more recent fiction. "The Canal," by Evelyn Worrell, about a lonely vampire woman trapped on a barge by the power of running water, was adapted for an episode of NIGHT GALLERY. "The Tomb of Sarah," by F. G. Loring, "Revelations in Black," by Carl Jacobi, and "The True Story of a Vampire," by Eric, Count Stenbock (a sympathetic rendering of a vampire unwillingly obsessed with a young boy) offer various other takes on the traditional undead. Lesser known, "The Old Man's Story," by Walter Starkie, tells of a girl seduced and transformed by a vampire in the archetypal Eastern European setting.

Two tales by Clark Ashton Smith are included. "The End of the Story," set in Smith's imaginary French province of Averoigne in the eighteenth century, portrays a lamia lurking in a ruined chateau. "The Death of Ilalotha," taking place in an exotic fantasy kingdom, features a seductive witch who rises from the dead as a demonic predator. I've never seen either H. P. Lovecraft's "The Hound" or Ambrose Bierce's "The Death of Halpin Frayser," both offering unconventional variants on the undead, in any other vampire anthology. Bierce narrates the title character's encounter with the revenant of his over-possessive mother. In "The Hound," a pair of treasure-hunting tomb robbers become the prey of a monstrous creature from the grave.

The book begins with six lines of verse by Yeats, a haunting poem by Richard Wilbur, "The Undead," and an introduction by the editor that gives an overview of vampire folklore and nineteenth-century vampire fiction. All the stories definitely merit the labels of "classic" or "vintage," the most recent dating from 1940 (Wellman's).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Feast of Blood

One early vampire anthology worth getting, if you don't already have all the stories in it, is A FEAST OF BLOOD (1967), edited by Charles M. Collins. This paperback compilation begins with a thoughtful nine-page overview of the development of vampire fiction, up through Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (1954). Collins's discussion necessarily hits only the highlights but does a decent job of exploring how "Images of the Vampire" (the title of the introduction) have transmuted and multiplied since John Polidori's "The Vampyre" appeared in 1819.

The contents are: "The Mysterious Stranger" (an anonymous story translated from German, which uncannily foreshadows several features of DRACULA), "The Vampyre" (Polidori), "Dracula's Guest" (Stoker), "Wake Not the Dead" (Johann Ludwig Tieck, although more recent scholarship suggests that Tieck may not have been the actual author of this work), "Revelations in Black" (Carl Jacobi), "Schloss Wappenburg" (D. Scott-Moncrieff), "The Room in the Tower" (E. F. Benson), "Blood Son" (Richard Matheson, a tale also known by the titles "Drink My Blood" and "Drink My Red Blood"), and "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" (Clark Ashton Smith). The table of contents includes the publication dates of the stories, a useful feature I'm always glad to find in a reprint anthology. For some unexplained reason, they're not arranged chronologically but, as far as I can see, in a completely random order.

All these stories hold up well regardless of their age, while displaying the changes in narrative style and attitudes toward vampirism that evolved over a period of (at this book's publication date) a century and a half.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula

Loren D. Estleman presents Bram Stoker's classic as told by Dr. Watson in SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA: THE ADVENTURE OF THE SANGUINARY COUNT (1978). The novel begins with an introduction in which Estleman, as "editor," narrates the discovery of Watson's long-lost manuscript. The rest of the book unfolds the "truth" about Count Dracula's invasion of England from the viewpoint of Holmes and Watson, with a preface by Watson explaining that Stoker's novel contains bits of deliberate falsification to omit any mention of Holmes's role and magnify Dr. Van Helsing's. In a credible pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle's style, Watson begins the adventure at the point where Sherlock Holmes first becomes aware of it, when a journalist from Whitby consults him about the shipwreck of the mysterious "death ship" in Whitby Harbor. It's expected, of course, that most readers will be familiar with DRACULA and thus will follow Holmes's investigation in full knowledge of what really happened to the doomed vessel.

Holmes and Watson later track the "Bloofer Lady" and run into Van Helsing's team preparing to stake the undead Lucy. From Van Helsing, the great detective hears the incredible tale of Count Dracula's journey from Transylvania to England. Throughout the novel, Holmes's investigation intersects the activities of Stoker's characters, but Holmes and Watson don't directly confront the vampire lord until late in the story, when Dracula's threat finally becomes personal. Appropriately, the detective's role in the case ends with Dracula's shipboard flight from England back to his homeland. Holmes and Watson learn the ultimate outcome at second hand.

This book comes across as a believable piece of Sherlock Holmes fanfic, which I think any fan of Doyle's series would enjoy. As a vampire novel, it's simply a retelling of DRACULA filtered through an observer who remains mostly distant from the action until the climax. The Count appears onstage even less than in Stoker's original. A much better vampire fiction crossover of the two classic characters is Fred Saberhagen's THE HOLMES-DRACULA FILE (also 1978), a sequel to his own inimitable reinterpretation of Stoker, THE DRACULA TAPE (1975).

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vampires: Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories

VAMPIRES (1987), edited by Alan Ryan, amply fulfills the promise of its subtitle, "Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories." Beginning with Lord Byron's cryptic "Fragment" and John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (the first known vampire story published in English), it includes almost all the classic nineteenth-century stories and the highlights of vintage fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, up through Richard Matheson's "Drink My Blood." Since only one story per author is included, the editor had to choose one each among the many vampire tales written by Matheson, Robert Bloch, M. R. James, and E. F. Benson. He covers the rest of the twentieth century into the 1980s with an excellent selection of widely varied tales. At this point, of course, choices have to be subjective, since there's room to include only a fraction of the "great." As for the two classic Victorian novels, VARNEY THE VAMPYRE is represented by its first chapter and DRACULA by the outtake known as "Dracula's Guest."

Ryan prefaces each story with background information about the author. Two appendices list major vampire films and twentieth-century novels (all of those post-1970 except Matheson's I AM LEGEND and Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD). The checklist of novels amounts to a representative sample of the best, since presenting all the outstanding book-length vampire fiction from 1970 to the mid-1980s would require an extensive bibliography. What makes this anthology uniquely valuable is that the stories are in chronological order, and the publication dates (or, in the case of "Dracula's Guest," the presumed year of its writing) are given with the titles in the table of contents. For anyone seeking a comprehensive overview of vampire fiction in English, this is THE indispensable book to read.

In case you want to acquire a copy of this volume, it may be easier to find under the title of the second edition, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF VAMPIRE STORIES.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Soft Whisper of the Dead

Late horror author and editor Charles L. Grant set many of his stories and novels in the Connecticut village of Oxrun Station, his counterpart to Arkham or Castle Rock. THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD (1982), set in the nineteenth century sometime after the Civil War, is a vampire novel in the Victorian Gothic style. Grant establishes the setting with atmospheric descriptions of a cold, windy night in November. Out of nowhere, a strange woman arrives at the railroad station, accompanied by a man—or a wolf-like dog—or no one? We learn that the visitor, Saundra Chambers, is a girlhood friend of the heroine, Pamela Squires, daughter of the richest man in town. Pamela and Ned Stockton, an upstanding young police detective, secretly hope to marry, although her father has chosen a man of higher birth and wealth for her. Saundra has returned from her travels abroad oddly changed. Though Pamela has no idea of the reason for her guest's peculiarities, the reader understands why the cool, reticent woman isolates herself in her room by day. To Pamela's shock, her father abruptly announces his engagement to Saundra. Meanwhile, people begin to die or simply disappear. Ned catches glimpses of the wolf and hears rumors of a mysterious man named Count Braslov, never seen except as a fleeting shadow until near the climax of the novel. And some of the murder victims begin to return from the dead.

As a story of a Dracula-like vampire trying to take over an isolated New England town, THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD inevitably brings to mind Stephen King's 'SALEM'S LOT, but without the onstage gore. Grant's work has been described as "quiet horror," a description that fits this novel well. Creeping tension and supernatural dread rather than overt violence set the dominant tone. The genre-savvy audience knows exactly what's going on in Oxrun Station, but the pleasure of waiting for the characters to realize the truth (with the help of a wise old servant in Pamela's household) and wondering whether they'll prevail over the vampire lord rivets the reader's attention.

Grant tells the story in an expertly crafted omniscient narrative style. One recurrent error disappointed me, "lay" for "laid" (transitive past tense); an editor at a distinguished small press such as the publisher of this book should know better. The volume is illustrated with black-and-white drawings reminiscent of Edward Gorey. Lovers of vintage horror will savor this tale.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Virgintooth

If you'd like to read a strange small-press vampire novel with many points of interest despite its oddities and flaws, try VIRGINTOOTH (1991), by Mark Ivanhoe. (It's out of print, but cheap used copies are available.) As the title hints, it narrates the odyssey of a new vampire adjusting to her changed existence. From the fledgling's first awakening into undeath and her struggles with problems both esoteric and realistically down-to-earth, the story builds to an apocalyptic climax in which ancient vampires are revealed to have reality-warping powers on a godlike level.

The opening scene unfolds an unusual perspective on the transition to undeath: The protagonist, Elizabeth, awakens from death with no memory of her mortal life, not even her name. Her "Master," harsh and sometimes outright cruel, when he isn't being whimsically kind, drags her out of the grave. It transpires that vampires in this author's mythos "eat" the personalities of their victims. The Master chooses to return Elizabeth's memories and selfhood to her. Thus she becomes a conscious, free-willed being (at least within the limits of the Master's rule) instead of a zombie-like, savage "filthy animal." While these vampires can drink from animals, human blood is of course preferred, and in the technique of preying on humans the Master trains Elizabeth with brutal efficiency. Other interesting features: As a young vampire, she suffers pain in moonlight, for the logical reason that it's reflected sunlight. The undead can't control the element of water, so falling rain creates a "veil" that dulls their senses. Wind and snow can "shred" them unless they exert all their energy to maintain their physical forms. Later she finds that food is now tasteless as well as indigestible, and she can't see TV images because of the changes in her visual perception.

On the other end of the scale from Elizabeth and the barely sentient undead beneath even her, ancient vampires have the power to crush the Master, if they combine forces against him. Nevertheless, he bluntly refutes Elizabeth's image of the romantic glamour of vampirism. She is "a leech and the slave of a leech," compelled to hide from human society—until the advent of the eternal night the Master keeps hinting at. When a group of experienced vampires offers her the opportunity to escape the Master's grip, she enters upon a new phase of her existence and learns more about the mind-control, telekinetic, illusion, and transmutation powers of the undead. Realistically, however, when fledgling Elizabeth tries to exercise these powers, she makes a mess of her efforts. There's quiet horror in her growing estrangement from humanity, not only because of her bloodlust but in the realization that she can't even remember how long it's been since she became one of the undead. Still worse, she begins to wonder how much of a free-willed person she has been since then, rather than (as she fears) a puppet of commands planted "in the depth of her soul" by the Master. When she comes upon her mother at her (Elizabeth's) grave, Elizabeth's first impulse is to treat "the old woman" as prey. She reveals herself to her mother, who accepts her daughter's transformation with surprising aplomb. Elizabeth moves back home, and the typical parent-child frictions resume with the additional layer of vampire-mortal interaction. The scenes of Elizabeth's re-connection with her mother (and cats) comprise my favorite parts of the book. She also finds a lover, even though vampires are largely asexual.

Eventually, the Master's rants about extinguishing the sun prove to be more than idle boasts. Then things get really weird. For readers willing to suspend disbelief, the climactic confrontation between the Master and the vampires who oppose him provides a wild ride.

When VIRGINTOOTH was reviewed as a new release in my fanzine, THE VAMPIRE'S CRYPT, the reviewer mentioned the ridiculously over-inflated powers of the vampire elders, a criticism I agreed with. We received a letter from the editor or author to the effect that it should have been obvious the book was meant as a satire on a certain type of vampire novel popular at the time. Well, it wasn't obvious. The story didn't impress either the reviewer or me as the least bit funny; furthermore, parts of the book comprise a believable and emotionally engaging account of a young vampire's ordeal that is too convincing on its own terms to read as satire. If that's what the author truly intended, he erred in the direction of too much subtlety, because he didn't succeed for me.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.