fledgling

fledglingFledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.

***

Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.

The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.

***

Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.

The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.

Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.

***

shoriA great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.

Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.

Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.

Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.

While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.

***

Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.

misfits and monsters

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits &Monsters is, not surprisingly, pretty strange. Goldthwait–a man known for his incredibly dark sense of humor– writes, produces, and directs the new comedy series airing on TruTV with a fully self-aware sense of the absurd. So far, the half-hour episodes play more like Tales from the Crypt than the Twilight Zone. Foul language abounds, blood flows freely, and even the background characters are scathingly cynical. Truly, there is something for everyone.

It Begins With Bubba
misfits & monsters
Seth Green is not a werewolf in this show

Misfits & Monsters begins its run with “Bubba the Bear”, a fairly standard tale of a children’s cartoon come to life. Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as a mild-mannered voiceover actor whose work comes back to bite him. Bubba the Bear is the role he inherited when the original voice actor had a breakdown and was institutionalized. But Bubba isn’t happy with how he is portrayed, and breaks into the real world to make his point. Graphically.

The episode’s dialogue is at once predictable and surprisingly, deeply snarky. Confronted by Bubba, Green’s character justifies his work with,“Stuttering’s just a tradition…like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Hugh Grant.” And when Bubba comes for revenge, he declares it “time to get all Revenant on your ass.” 

“Bubba” ends exactly as you expect it to, which is quite all right.

A Shaggy Dog Tale
misfits & monsters
A political animal

The second episode is “Face in the Car Lot”, a 1970s-set extravaganza of politicians and other creatures of the night. Starring David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) as car-salesman turned presidential candidate Del Wainwright and Tara Lynne Barr as the plucky reporter trying to prove he’s a werewolf, this episode plays like an extended comedy sketch.

When asked what scandals may come up during the campaign, Wainwright confesses, “I ate a toddler once. When I was a werewolf.” This is not enough to derail his campaign–not by a long shot. A hippy vampire shows up with evidence of the crime, but  the political machine just keeps rolling. Many of the lines are lifted almost verbatim from current commentary, tweaked lightly for lycanthropy. It is at once enjoyably silly and quite uncomfortable to watch.

More Misfits & Monsters, Please

There are six more episodes to round out the first season, but TruTV doesn’t give viewers the opportunity to binge. Which, based on the first two installments, I totally would. What I’ve seen so far of Misfits & Monsters is refreshingly goofy. The show is smart enough to be interesting but not so full of itself to wear out its welcome. The stories presented thus far are pretty standard, with the plot twists broadcast early on. But Goldthwait still gives them enough of a snarky twist to make their conclusions funny and satisfying anyway.

I would have to categorize Misfits & Monsters, broadly, as familiar tales well-told. And I look forward to more of that in the rest of the season.

nightbird

Nightbird by David Busboom is an entertaining, richly written debut novella that I wish were a full-length novel. The language is evocative, the premise interesting, and the plot straightforward without being predictable. Isaac, the first-person narrator, describes his deflowering by a mysterious woman, and what becomes of his life because of her. There are no shocking twists, here, just a steady journey into darkness.

nightbird
Lilith

Nightbird shares its predatory feeding and psychic enslavement with traditional vampire fiction. But Nightbird’s titular monster is not truly a vampire. She is Lilith, the sexual demon of Biblical legend, now a red-haired predator hunting in modern day Illinois. Busboom incorporates a trove of Lilith lore into his tale, from the early Babylonian legends to modern artistic interpretations of her attributes. He also includes an impressive amount of cultural references–Theda Bara, H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lang and Tod Browning, among others–that hint at Nightbird’s background mythology.

The novella is full of wonderful imagery, as when Busboom reveals one of the supernatural beings that plague Isaac: “He wore a mask of uncanny whiteness, gleaming like an oval of ice”.

Busboom also has a knack for visceral description that is vividly. beautifully gross:

“A pale, warty body sparsely covered in gray-blue hair…Thick, webbed fingers clenched and unclenched with a slow, trancelike rhythm. The horrible round eyes were open, but vacant. From its slackened mouth snaked a long, forked tongue, the prongs of which were embedded deep in the right side of my chest. The creature pressed and bulged against me…”

These living, breathing descriptions are the strong points of the novella. Even something as simple as a roast beef sandwich is compelling.

nightbird
An older Lilith

Which is why I wish for a longer version where the many mystical elements had been expanded on with more description. The motives behind some of Isaac’s actions would have come across more effectively, for me, if certain background details had been fleshed out to give a better sense of the mythic structure beneath the story. In particular, occasional specifics of Isaac’s quest for knowledge would have gone far in establishing the ancient threat. The details we are given seem like a gloss:

“In my final year of high school…I’d been in communication with college professors and visited the campus library. A close survey of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Arslan Tash amulets had supplied terrible clues to her nature, methods, and desires, but talks with several students of archaic lore in town—and correspondence with many others elsewhere—had made it difficult to determine what was true, what was legend, and what was outright conjecture or manipulation.”

Isaac may have understood what was going on, but I didn’t feel the character shared enough of his knowledge with the reader. Not that blunt exposition is needed, but a sprinkling of well-placed hints would have given additional depth to the narrative and additional urgency to the plot.

So what is the take-away for Nightbird?

Get it. Read it. It’s worth it. My criticisms come from wanting more. Nightbird is a strong story, full of dark ideas, dramatic imagery, and fantastic use of language. David Busboom’s skill as an author is clear, and I look forward to seeing him hone it further.

Preacher, the comic book-inspired series that debuted on May 22 on AMC, is so far a cautiously-paced, blackly funny critical darling of a show. I am not familiar with the original Vertigo comic book, so I can’t compare the adaptation to its source material. But three episodes in to a ten episode run I am enjoying Preacher immensely. There is a catchy if still-murky premise, a sly wink to its unavoidable irreverence, and a great attention to character details that I hope the show will sustain.

The Preacher himself
The Preacher himself

Preacher takes place in the dusty Texas town of Annville, where Jesse Custer has returned from a life roughly lived to serve (unsuccessfully) a shrinking flock at the failing All Saints Congregational Church. He still drinks heavily, still smokes like a chimney, and cannot quite abandon his ability (and willingness) to beat the crap out of deserving people. He refuses the bait when his ex, Tulip, shows up to try to persuade him to take on another “job”. She won’t take his no as a final answer. The vampire Cassidy literally falls from the sky into the middle of Jesse’s fight with his past. Then the mysterious alien force comes knocking and finds a home in Jesse, and the series can rightly begin.

That summary brings us to the end of the pilot. It isn’t until halfway through episode 3 that Jesse begins to explore the power he only discovered at the end of episode 2. Cautiously paced, indeed.

The charming Tulip O'Hare
The charming Tulip O’Hare

The main characters are likeable in a really bad decision kind of way. Dominic Cooper broods with charm as the rumpled, doubting Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga is sweet, wickedly sarcastic, and dangerous as Tulip O’Hare, and Joseph Gilgun is cheerfully deranged as Cassidy (So far, the dissolute, 119 year old vampire Cassidy is my favorite character. His accent is almost impenetrable and his habits are disgusting. Blood may be the life but booze is more fun, and boredom appears to be his primary enemy. And somehow, improbably, he is Jesse’s best friend).

Because of the strength of the casting the characters all have surprising depth to them, considering how little information we actually have about them and what drives them. Even the secondary and supporting players are rounded out, written with a great deal of intelligence, sympathy, and cutting wit.

And Cassidy, the resident vampire
And Cassidy, the resident vampire

But then, Preacher’s dominant trait seems to be its dark, sharp humor—which ranges from panicky Russian Satanists to news reports of Tom Cruise exploding, and from a frequently referenced “bunny sound” to a cocktail of “rubbing alcohol, coffee machine descaler, and a bit of the stuff dripping off the back of the air conditioning unit”. There are several…invigorating…fight scenes, perversions, fetishes, and debauchery, struggles with faith, and a strong moral center who is not actually our hero. Sunglasses are used to great effect. And there is an exceptional soundtrack, with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash leading the way.

Since the tangled past is already well known to the characters, they don’t spend any time rehashing it for the audience’s benefit. What is referenced is not well-explained, but there is a distinct air of Big Mysteries to be revealed somewhere down the line. It takes a little work to keep up, but the show is interesting, and not knowing the context is not such a big deal. Yet. But it will be.

It’s that cautious pacing. At this point, it’s beginning to feel nearly soap-opera slow—like the first season of True Detective, but funny. We are still finishing the set-up. Many things are beginning, but the threads are not connected, yet, and the writers aren’t tipping their hand. Right now there are many questions and many hints as to what may be coming, but the story arc hasn’t truly begun to bend. The first three episodes have been laying a lot of groundwork without filling in too many details. They have given us a fascinating peepshow of abilities, potentials, and motivations, with enough quirks and jokes to make us care.

But now I think Preacher’s plot needs to speed up and dabble a little more deeply in exposition to keep the audience fully involved. Going into episode 4, I am hoping for some serious, plot-making action. Three weeks is a long time to go without it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

He Never Died
He Never Died

He Never Died is a small-scale horror movie that just happens to star Henry Rollins. That was quite enough to get my attention.

Now, I haven’t checked in with Henry Rollins in a couple of decades. It’s good to see that he hasn’t changed much at all. He is still physically imposing, sharp-eyed, and stern. He also has great comic delivery. The starring role he takes on in He Never Died is a real showcase for what he can do.

A few spoilers are coming.

The movie itself is lightweight, with a number of weaknesses. But the script is surprisingly funny, with Rollins’s deadpan performance turning joking lines that border on witty into actual laughs.

Rollins’s character, Jack, is a man of few words. He expresses himself with many eloquent, put-upon sighs and a few unnatural roars. He is slightly chattier than Rowdy Roddy Piper, but not by much. His Jack is a man with big scars, many tattoos, and a purposely limited life. He doesn’t work, drive, drink, or socialize. He eats at the same diner every day. He plays bingo at the local church three nights a week. He buys mysterious contraband from a rogue medical intern every few days. He also happens to be immortal. “I’m in the Bible if that means anything,” he offers by way of explanation.

Then his previously unknown nineteen year old daughter shows up with the intent of getting to know him and interrupts his routine. And soon after, somebody is out to get him.

Rollins is a funny man—he knows how to play this character for all its worth, and his delivery is so dry as to be purposefully ironic. His Jack is so literal, and so sub-clinically annoyed by the people around him, that his reactions can’t help but be funny.

So when Jack is finally prodded to open up to an interested waitress, he recites a resume that includes everything from truck driver, soldier, horse breeder, tinsmith, blacksmith, retail manager, cook, and businessman to prison inmate, medic, and farmer. It is like he is reciting the phone book from memory—or recreating the list of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.

Here are a few more of the many, many examples of his dialogue that made me laugh in this movie:

How will Jack find someone to do what he wants? “Money. People like Money.”

How did he get maced in the eyes by his aged landlady? “She’s spry.”

Why is he using pliers to pull bullets out of his forehead? “If I leave the bullets in it’ll heal over and I’ll get migraines.”

It’s hard not to love this.

Yes, there is a heavy-handed religious theme running through the action—less in-your-face literal iconography (that is reserved for the promotional art) than a handful of repeating symbols and figures of unavoidably obvious portent. We aren’t allowed to miss them.

Rollins having a bad day
Rollins as Jack, having a bad day

He Never Died is not a subtle film, and I think it wishes itself to be more clever than it actually achieves. The plot is pretty much a straight line, with the attempts at giving it a crime mystery to supplement the horror playing as awkward rather than deep. The convolutions built into to the story seem simplistic and underdeveloped, not true machinations but things for Jack to do that will let him show off his powers. The inherent violence in the tale is uneven, presented as either over-the-top gore or oddly restrained take-downs that coyly stop before real damage occurs or refrain from showing it.

While Henry Rollins is unmistakably the star, the other actors (Booboo Stewart, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, and Steven Ogg, among others) are enjoyable to watch in varying degrees, with their characters’ weaknesses coming in large part from the thinness of the script. None but Rollins rises to great (but let’s face it, everyone except Rollins is effectively a plot device in this), but all are good enough to make this a solid little film.

Still. He Never Died resonates with me like some sort of cheerful, mutant offspring of They Live and The Prophecy. It’s the kind of movie that you can watch repeatedly and still have fun with. And I think that Henry Rollins is to thank for that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Before any more time goes by I’d like to review A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—a strange, small, Persian-language vampire movie set in Iran but filmed in California. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, it began making the rounds of film festivals almost two years ago and was finally released online in April. So far it has only pulled in about $500, 000 at the box office. But while it isn’t a money-maker, it is a popular darling. The low-key, positive word-of-mouth about it never stopped—and for good reason.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night claims to be a vampire spaghetti western, and in some respects it is. But it is also a stylized horror film, a supernatural romance, and possibly even an avant garde coming-of-age story for our human hero. This is one of those weird, beautiful little movies that straddles classic and experimental in interesting ways and is well worth the hundred minutes it will take to watch it.

In broad strokes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a decaying western town where the life of a young man rapidly losing hope intersects with the existence of a vampire willing to show a measure of mercy. The town, called simply Bad City, is a bleak landscape of factories, tiny houses, packed apartment blocks, chain link fences, and graffiti. There is a railroad, and oilfields, and flat, dusty stretches of scrub. Bad City has its wealth, but it doesn’t trickle down.

Amirpour plays with incongruity throughout the film. Her vampire is a predator, one who will slaughter her chosen prey with no mercy and then steal anything of value she can easily carry away. But she is also capable of letting a young boy go under the implied threat in her question, “Are you a good boy?” She spares a not-entirely jaded prostitute, telling her the shared truth “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.” And when she meets Arash, stoned out of his mind and wandering the streets dressed as Dracula, she makes the decision to bring him to her home when he tells her, “I’m lost.”

And lost he is. Arash knows he is being pulled inexorably into a criminal life, and his only chance to save himself is to get out. “Let’s leave Bad City. Come with me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone” he begs the vampire. His wants, her mercy, and the decisions they make while knowing they do not know each other are the core of the story. Desperation is a serious driver.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Arash and the Vampire
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Arash and the Vampire

The black-and-white cinematography in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is gorgeous, at turns hallucinatory and starkly real. There are elements of Eraserhead, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In (the original, not the remake) in the lighting and atmosphere, and even something reminiscent of The Last Picture Show in the setting. Sheila Vand as the unnamed vampire and Arash Marandi as Arash, the young man who courts her are both luminous, beautiful creatures. It is hard to look away from any of Amirpour’s actors—even the criminal Saeed (Dominic Rains) and the aging prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) are rendered beautiful in their dusty, night-ridden world.

An amazing, electronica-heavy soundtrack carries along the story’s shifting moods effectively. For example, the opening scene has Arash walking past an open trench full of discarded bodies to the distorted rhythm of a tinny, carnivalesque song slowing down like a music box in need of winding. In between the songs there are strange, still moments without dialogue that only deepen the soundtrack’s effect. Even when the characters speak with each other, the dialogue is spare, structured, and often oddly formal, with much of the emotional weight remaining with the music.

But Aminpour doesn’t stand strictly on formality. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night she makes clever use of several old tropes. Classic vampire postures are reinterpreted here, with the vampire girl lying awake on the bed in her basement bedroom during the days, or her black chador billowing behind her like wings while she rides a stolen, completely incongruous skateboard through a deserted neighborhood. Beneath her flowing cloak, this vampire wears jeans and a striped tee shirt. And her basement room seems to be made of remembered eighties high-school trivia—a mirror ball, not-quite Madonna and Bee-Gees posters, string lights, a turntable and records. But against the teen-aged backdrop, there is something incredibly mournful in the young vampire’s face, framed by the black chador, her dark eyes ringed with kohl, blood smeared around her mouth like lipstick.

Amirpour is skilled with these contrasts. There are ripples of playfulness, even silliness, generated by the skateboard and by the wanderings of a fat, placid cat. There are also elements of the surreal in characters like the silent man in a fancy western shirt, full female makeup, and a delicate head scarf dancing with a balloon, or the multiple unnamed people dumping bodies into the open pit in full daylight. The combination is one of carefully weighted unease and amusement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Vampire, Cat, and Arash
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Vampire, Cat, and Arash

In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has created a small jewel of a vampire movie. With understated but well-placed gore and a reliance on what is not said, she makes a movie that is at once familiar and still asks her viewer to think. Even her final scene strikes a note of uncertainty, questioning what had seemed until then a foreseeable resolution. I enjoyed the discomfort. I look forward to what will come next.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

T.M. Wright in 1992
T.M. Wright in 1992

The horror author T. M. Wright passed away on Halloween. By pure coincidence I had just reread his 1991 novel The Last Vampire when the news of his death came down.  Wright was a skilled storyteller with an often surprising imagination and a deep sense of life’s essential melancholy, and he was quite prolific over the course of his career. While his style can be an acquired taste, I admire his way of exploring the dark and I think his work should be remembered. So please forgive any poignancy in what was supposed to be a simple review.

Although I had encountered his work when I was a kid, I didn’t recognize Wright’s name when I found a copy of The Last Vampire in a vacation rental some ten years back. I started it as a way to read myself to sleep, but the premise and the storytelling were so… different, so haunting… that I took the old paperback with me when I left.

The Last Vampire has a meandering, nonlinear narrative structure and gives a fine example of an unreliable narrator in the title character. Wright’s style is dreamlike, suffused with loss, and sadness, and nostalgia, and an ability to twist and recombine genre tropes into unexpected constructs. His prose moves quickly, and the story slips by even as it circles back on itself and retells certain resonant fragments.

The Last Vampire
The Last Vampire

The Last Vampire takes place after a nuclear apocalypse has wiped out most of humanity. Wright begins with a frame story that is never completed, and is then, after a short, unconnected section about a midnight vampire rodeo, told entirely in the first person by the last vampire himself, Elmer Land. The frame occurs about fifty years post-apocalypse, while the bulk of the novel happens shortly after the destruction. Wright repeats passages to mimic a slipping memory as Land recounts his existence as both human and vampire. Regrets creep in during the telling, and exhaustion. “I persist, even now. Persist. Persist. Resist. Cannot go away. Leave nothing, take nothing, break hearts and bones, hearts and bones…” (62). There is a mood to The Last Vampire that echoes the mood in Tanith Lee’s short story “Nunc Dimittis”—a pervasive sense of loneliness and of too much time spent merely existing.

Elmer first appears as a disembodied spirit reaching out, not so much for contact as for proof that he had been, once: “One moment we’re a living person, we have the needs of a living person, the next moment we’re an obscenity, then, moments later, we’re an apparition. I believe at this moment in my existence, I’m an apparition” (22).

And at the end of the world, what remains of the last vampire is also the last connection to the common dead:

“…they whisper to me that they never ever thought it was going to be like this, that they had expected something a bit more final, or a bit more ethereal. But they wait inside themselves, instead, and watch their bodies come apart, and they feel the awful pain that they were so certain death was going to bring an end to” (64).

Being a revenant himself, Elmer is aware of the world’s lingering ghosts. He cannot speak to them because of his own limits, but he can hear their complaints and affirm the dimming memory of their lives. It is the same affirmation he seeks for himself.

A defining quality of vampirism in The Last Vampire is the lack of one’s own senses. Elmer may hear the thoughts of the dead, but he relies on his similar ability to “read” the living to be able to see and hear the world around him. Much of it still remains beyond his experience, and he knows what he misses: “I need to talk about my first kill. Call it nostalgia, I suppose. My memory of it stirs something sweet in me. Bitter-sweet. I could never taste blood, though I’ve always wanted to”(225-6).

While his vampire is still a bloodthirsty monster, Wright infuses the character with a layered sense of his own identity. Elmer Land describes his state as, “…like a termite eating someone’s house up. I can’t be reasoned with, I can only be exterminated, and that is so terribly difficult” (137-8). But he still defines himself as a different thing than the vampire who made him. She was “…the archetypal vampire…a wide-eyed, quivering, and insatiable mass of fears and compulsions which, because of its own needs, eventually dooms itself”(199). Elmer was never superstitious in life; and in death escaped the trap of becoming what the legends said he should be. But the bloodlust was inescapable: “I knew so well about compulsion. Here I am, inside this creature, this old corpse that still tries to animate itself, and I want to cry my eyes out. I thank God I cannot live forever. I thank God that the house has fallen down around me and there is no more work for me to do” (262). Elmer’s remaining consciousness is still self-aware, and with that comes regrets about what his life and death have made of him. There are elements of self-loathing, but they are secondary to the great weariness of a creature that has far outlived his own wants.

In The Last Vampire, T.M. Wright takes his readers to the world’s end to endure compulsion, nostalgia, loss, and desire. These are themes that Wright has explored in other works as well. He is comfortable with them, and adept at making his reader feel what is gone. And since I am not ready to let him go just yet, my next post will look at how he interpreted those themes through a living protagonist in the first novel of his that I read—A Manhattan Ghost Story.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Stress of Her Regard
The Stress of Her Regard

Before I can attempt a review Tim Power’s award-winning novel The Stress of Her Regard, I have a confession to make. I have read this book at least fifteen times. Quite possibly more. Some books are like that, with that kind of pull. I never read another book by Powers, though—I owned a few over the years but never cracked them. Didn’t feel the need to. I had so much fun with this one, why would I risk reading something less wonderful?

Don’t get me wrong, though—this is not a deep philosophical work like some others I have reviewed. Even though The Stress of Her Regard won the 1990 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for its rich use of mythology and literary studies, it is a cheerfully well-written, rollicking, swashbuckling, action-and-garlic packed adventure that swoops from England and Scotland to the Swiss Alps and on to Rome and Pisa and Venice, before it lays its rather amorphous monsters to rest. The Stress of Her Regard is a sometimes-loopy page turner, and a very different view of vampires than is today’s standard.

“…he managed to awaken the mountains enough to talk to them, and he learned about their people, the nephelim,the pre-Adamite vampires, whose petrified bodies could still be found here and there, dormant like seeds in the desert waiting for the right kind of rain” (255)

Our story begins properly in rural England in 1816, with a very drunk Dr. Michael Crawford accidently marrying a statue–a statue that happens to be one of the nephelim. And the nephelim are all vampires. Oops. This action proves to be a major impediment to him marrying his human fiancée—especially when the jealous vampire lover kills her human rival on their wedding night. But this is par for the course with these creatures. The vampires want what they want, and will kill anyone who might distract or interfere with the object of their desire. Spouses, siblings, and progeny all become collateral damage. “Once they’ve focused on anyone, they seem to keep track of him throughout his life. And keep track, keep disastrous track, of his family, too” (53).

Dr. Crawford’s particular creature also happens to be the unnatural twin sister of Percy Shelly, making Crawford his brother-in-law and a well-loved member of the monstrous family. And while the circumstances of Shelly’s and his sister’s birth are rare, the carnal relationship the vampire has with Crawford is not: “The problem is that there aren’t any pure-bred lamiae, pure-bred vampires, anymore” (50). They may be elemental and practically immortal, but they still have to reproduce, somehow—and humans will do just fine for that.

A sphinx, one of The Stress of Her Regard's vampires
A sphinx, one of The Stress of Her Regard’s vampires

Powers manages to incorporate whatever folklore he can lay his hands on into one culture-blind, all-encompassing mythology of vampirism—according to Powers, these creatures predate human culture, and are the source of the legends about the nephelim and lamiae, the Muses, the Fates, the Sphinx, poets and doppelgangers, trolls and Balder, the Graiae and the Gorgons. Lot’s wife is pulled into the mix as a Biblical vampire, since “the nephelim were the ‘giants in the earth’ they had in those days, the descendants of Lilith, who sometimes laid with the sons and daughters of men” (95). Even caesarian sections and kidney-stones are somehow connected to them.

These vampire-serpent-nephelim are the other sentient race on Earth, and are under various circumstances combinations of stone, reptile, humanoid, and phantom. They can marry a human and give him the near-immortality of a grossly extended lifespan, or they can consume a human by drinking his blood and give him the parasitic immortality of a vampire’s host.

A strange and anachronistic connection is drawn between the Sphinx’s riddle and the atomic structure of carbon, silicon, aluminum, and iron to explain the myth’s origins and the vampires’ evolution:

“Each of these spheres is ‘many thousand spheres’…and it’s the number of these pieces of electricity in the atom’s outermost sphere that defines which other atoms the atoms can combine with. The pieces of electricity are the limbs by which the atom can seize other atoms, and three kinds of atoms are the bases for the three kinds of skeletons. Even the surviving legends of Oedipus describe the four-and-two-and-three as means of support” (257).

It is a stretch, but it fits among the scattershot multitude of lore fragments that Powers uses in his vampire mosaic. Many of the associations are so random as to make little or no sense, yet the inherent confusion and ignorance of the main characters lets Powers glide easily over any tenuous connections or inconsistencies and make them functional parts of the narrative. Crawford and Josephine don’t really get the big picture, Byron and Shelly don’t explain it in any great depth, and most other characters assume that everyone already knows all the finer details of the human-nephelim connection.

I know my summary of The Stress of Her Regard sounds quite messy, but Powers is a master at his craft. His pacing is surefooted and intense—constant forward motion is delivered whip-crack fast. He handles his creation with great assurance, although characterization occasionally falls by the wayside. In addition to Powers’s own main protagonists, Dr. Crawford and Josephine, the historical poets François Villon, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy and Mary Shelly are all major players in the complicated game. All of them have been marked by the nephelim as sibling, spouse, or prey, and all of them are fighting to break free of the dangerous attention. We can get a feeling for the characters, enough to differentiate them, but too much is going on to feel too deeply for any of them. But that’s okay. There’s no need to cry over characters protected by the very monsters they are fighting.

Venice, where The Stress of Her Regard hides the Graiae
Venice, where The Stress of Her Regard hides the Graiae

I did find that I disliked the main character, Crawford, simply because of the voice Powers used for him. The good doctor is invariably portrayed, both in description and in internal monologue, as a rather awkward and sort of selfish, judgmental, and whiny individual: “He toppled forward into his plodding, splashing run again, resolutely not letting himself think about how cold and wet he was, nor about how cold and wet he was likely to be in the future, now that he would have to give up his employment and return to the life of a penniless fugitive…” (182).

Fortunately, Crawford’s personal qualities are not critical to the energy or execution of the plot. In The Stress of Her Regard, Powers pulls together an amazing narrative from an unexpected range of sources in a way that will make you look at familiar tropes and fairy tales and say “I wonder if that fits…”. Enough of the sparkly vampires, the sexy vampires, the too-cool ones that pretend to be human. These are the vampires you want to read about. More than once.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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anno_draculaThere is something to be said for steam-punky Victorian supernatural dramas. With Penny Dreadful’s eclectic cast of characters churning gorily along toward the end of their second season and Fox preparing to take another stab at The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we should really take a look back at a book whose style, substance, and methodology reminds me very much of these two other tales.

Kim Newman’s 1992 alternate history/crime drama/horror opus Anno Dracula is the first of a series of wonderfully tangled novels populated by characters he pulls from pretty much everywhere—vampire fiction, pulp adventure stories, literature, history, television and films. Newman’s devious mind creates a century-spanning pop-culture wonderland in the process of constructing a fully-realized alternate world history where Dracula is not only real, but where he has become the de facto ruler of the British Empire.

This reimagined world blooms into vivid unlife when Dracula defeats Van Helsing et al., and insinuates himself into the upper levels of British society. Newman’s Prince of Darkness vampirizes and  marries Queen Victoria and sets himself up in Buckingham Palace as the Prince Consort, filling high government positions with vampires of his own making and steadily gaining control of Great Britain, her colonies, and her allies. The ranks of the powerful are full of (literal) bloodsuckers. The more things change, eh?

Of course, many of the fashionable (and power-hungry) set want to be part of this new order and seek out the vampire life for themselves. Trendy rather than cutting edge, “they were sleeping in earth-lined coffins in Mayfair, and hunting in packs in Pall Mall. This season, the correct form of address for an archbishop was hardly of major concern to anyone.” (10).

And also of course, the fashions adopted by the upper crust trickle down. Newman’s story begins in a new Old World where a growing number of the middle and lower class on an international scale have also chosen to become vampires, and follow their father-in-darkness where he roams: “The Prince Consort’s London, from Buckingham Palace to Buck’s Row, is the sinkhole of Europe, clogged with the ejecta of a double-dozen principalities” (5). Even vampirism can’t solve immigration issues.

Such huge, rapid social changes take time to smooth out; but that time has not yet passed when a series of bloody and politically inconvenient murders begin in the bowels of London.

Against his unsettled backdrop, Newman throws in Jack the Ripper to prey on vampire prostitutes (yes, prostitutes, because poor vampires still need to support themselves somehow). The Ripper’s continued attacks strain the fragile social and political balance that exists between the rich, the poor, the quick and the dead. London’s detectives, both human and vampire, official and incognito, must work together to solve the mystery of the Ripper’s identity and stop his brutal rampage.

The hub for the investigation is the Diogenes Club, a gentleman’s club pilfered from Arthur Conan Doyle’s work and repurposed by Newman as a nexus for the Crown’s secret agents, adventurers, and other men of influence and action. It is a gathering place for the loyal, yet fundamentally pragmatic, brokers of power. Most of them are even still alive.

One of the still-warm members of this secret government hangout is our hero Charles Beauregard, a human adventurer who is charged (at least officially) with finding and stopping the Ripper. He is aided by the equally heroic Geneviève Dieudonnè, a four and a half centuries-old French vampire who appears still to be a sixteen year old girl. These two are representative of Newman’s few original characters–they are resonant, well-developed personalities that bind the whole blood-soaked, name-dropping, convoluted confection together and make it float.

Newman’s prose is rich and dark, lit with flashes of humor. He isn’t writing solely to move the plot along. He enjoys this. Immensely. When Newman describes the desecrated throne room, you can smell the congealing blood:

“Ill-lit by broken chandeliers, the throne room was an infernal sea of people and animals, its once-fine walls torn and stained. Dirtied and abused paintings hung at strange angles or were piled loose behind furniture. Laughing, whimpering, grunting, whining, screaming creatures congregated on divans and carpets. An almost naked Carpathian wrestled a giant ape, their feet scrabbling and slipping on a marble floor thick with discharges” (341).

You wouldn’t think that “discharges” could be such a dirty word.

Newman makes it very clear that the Prince Consort is an unmitigated monster, with even his descendants tainted by the “grave-mould in his bloodline” (49). Newman dwells little on Victoria herself, but manages to disassemble her iconic persona with a few choice images: “The Queen knelt by the throne, a spiked collar around her neck, a massive chain leading from it to a loose bracelet upon Dracula’s wrist. She was in her shift and stockings, brown hair loose, blood on her face” (343).

To people his novel, Newman mined deeply into Victorian adventure and vampire fiction as well as history, modern film and television. Some of the many personages Newman works into his story-line are Bram Stoker and his wife, Stoker’s brides of Dracula, John Seward, Mina Harker, Kate Reed, Dracula himself, Elizabeth Bathory, Billy the Kid, Kurt Barlow from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Barnabas Collins from TV’s Dark Shadows, Edward VII, Beatrice Potter, Kipling’s Gunga Din, George Bernard Shaw, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarity, Orson Welles, Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), Dr. Moreau, Oscar Wilde, and Count Orlok from the legally questionable Nosferatu. There is a lot going on. It is exhausting to even partially catalogue them, and fun to spot them. Newman makes good use of every one.

And because that much research and synthesis should not be wasted, Newman follows up on a few of his long-lived mortals and surviving undead with an additional three novels set in his alternate reality–The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (or, Judgment of Tears), and Johnny Alucard—and with a smattering of short stories. They are all continuing cultural amalgams that check in at various points during the twentieth century, carrying us at last into and straight through the disco era.

If you haven’t already read any Kim Newman, I strongly encourage it. Especially if you enjoy your prose bloody and your cultural references flying fast and thick, pick this one up. You may not recognize the all the scenery, but you will certainly enjoy the ride.

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