Saturday, September 15, 2018

Progeny of the Adder

Leslie H. Whitten's PROGENY OF THE ADDER (1965) bears some obvious resemblances to the later novel THE NIGHT STALKER (discussed here last month). Whitten's novel also centers on the hunt for a serial killer who stalks a large city and turns out to be a vampire. The murders pile up, and the investigation gradually uncovers more and more anomalous features, mainly the draining of blood from the bodies. The crimes are traced to a foreigner with a shadowy, suspicious past, who has left a trail of carnage in several different countries. While THE NIGHT STALKER takes place in Las Vegas, the murders in PROGENY OF THE ADDER plague the very different environment of Washington, D.C. The two settings have in common multi-ethnic populations of tourists and temporary residents among whom a criminal can hide. Whitten's protagonist, Harry Picard, as a homicide detective on the police force, confronts the case from an insider's perspective, unlike the outsider's viewpoint of the crusading reporter in THE NIGHT STALKER. Also, by the climax of Whitten's novel, Picard has a personal stake in the case, because the killer threatens a policewoman whom the detective cares for. In a chilling detail unique to this novel, the dead women appear as emaciated as if they had been starved for weeks before their murders.

Narrated in a conventional third-person style, rather than the mock-documentary format of THE NIGHT STALKER, PROGENY OF THE ADDER develops at a more deliberate pace than the later book, although still with plenty of suspense and violent action scenes. Although the task force identifies the suspect, Sebastian Paulier, about halfway through the novel, that discovery marks only the beginning of the real quest for the murderer. They learn his address and search his home, but he has fled. They have to spend the rest of the book tracking him down, with several near-miss confrontations. The team listens to Picard's vampire theory with an open mind and readily accepts the idea that anti-vampire measures might have an effect on a homicidal maniac who believes himself to be a vampire. They conscientiously arm themselves with crosses, holy water, etc. To their astonishment, although probably not the reader's, these weapons work surprisingly well. Picard's cross-cultural research into vampire legends is recounted in detail. It does come across as a little amusing, from a post-1970s perspective, when he earnestly informs his colleagues of vampire lore factoids that, thanks to Anne Rice, the TWILIGHT series, and countless other books and movies, have now become inescapable features of popular culture.

Whitten's vintage horror story creates a sympathetic hero and a striking, scary villain in the context of a well-constructed police procedural plot. Fans of the old-fashioned, murderously bloodthirsty vampire will enjoy this novel.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Night Stalker

Most dedicated vampire fans have probably seen the vintage TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER, which was followed by a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, and spawned a short-lived series, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. The original movie began as a novel by Jeff Rice, working title THE KOLCHAK PAPERS. The iconic horror and SF writer Richard Matheson (author of I AM LEGEND) adapted it into a screenplay, and the novel was published as THE NIGHT STALKER (1973) after the TV broadcast of the film. The author structures the book in documentary style, inserting himself into the narrative, with a letter from Carl Kolchak to Jeff Rice and a prologue by Rice himself explaining how he became acquainted with Kolchak and compiled the facts of the case. The main text comprises Las Vegas journalist Kolchak's first-person story of the murder mystery and his involvement in it. The few third-person accounts of incidents he couldn't have witnessed are framed as Rice's reconstructions from the available reports.

For at least half of the book, the characters realistically assume that the multiple murders of young women in Las Vegas have been committed by a human serial killer. Kolchak pushes for recognition of links among the crimes as well as a connection to thefts of blood from blood banks. His editor, with whom he's constantly at odds, tries to rein him in, while the police resent his interference and only grudgingly allow him access to information. Kolchak does have some allies in law enforcement, though, including an FBI agent. One thing I like about this novel is that the police don't look stupid, as they do in much horror fiction. They're fairly efficient and, on their own terms, sensible. They do, however, reject Kolchak's theory too vehemently, in my opinion. When the reporter maintains that the killer is probably a deranged homicidal maniac who believes himself to be a vampire, the bloodless condition of the bodies makes this idea seem perfectly reasonable.

Later in the book, evidence begins to accumulate that the suspect, Janos Skorzeny (born in Romania, naturally), may in fact be supernatural or at least preternatural, rather than a very strong but quite human lunatic who looks strangely youthful for his alleged seventy years of age. The story moves along at an unrelenting pace, victims piling up as Kolchak researches vampirism and the suspect's past. The gruesome scene discovered by the police and Kolchak when they break into Skorzeny's lair constitutes one of the more horrific moments in the vampire fiction of the 1970s. The law enforcement agencies' subsequent cover-up of the truth about the killer and his destruction, foreshadowed in the prefaces, seems to spring inevitably from the incredible nature of the crimes.

The novel portrays Kolchak as the archetypal world-weary, hard-drinking, authority-defying veteran crime reporter, dedicated to unearthing the truth despite the futility of that endeavor. The murderer is neither the charismatic vampire of film and romance, a ruthless aristocrat in the Dracula mode, nor the bloodthirsty, nearly mindless animated corpse of folklore. He displays cunning and intelligence by evading capture through many decades of murders and false identities. We get no glimpses of his inner life, however; through Kolchak's eyes, we see him as purely a monster to be destroyed. The book ends with an appendix reviewing the "Jack the Ripper" case and a bibliography purporting to list Kolchak's research materials.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Repentant

If you enjoy reading about "monsters" who transform from evil to good, or in some cases at least not-so-bad, you'd like THE REPENTANT (2003), edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg. This compilation of thirteen original stories isn't exclusively a vampire anthology but, rather, ranges over all the most familiar types of humanoid monsters. It includes works by many major authors, such as Jody Lynn Nye, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, James Lowder, and Thomsen himself. The categories, with three or four stories in each, are: Werewolves and Witches (I'm not sure why they're lumped together, since the editors could surely have found enough items to fill two separate sections), The Dead (walking dead other than vampires), The Undead (vampires), and The Demonic (including one Lovecraftian entity). As indicated by the book's title, all the creatures in these tales are in the process of atoning for the "evil" of their existence.

The vampire section showcases works by several big names. Tanya Huff's "Sceleratus" narrates a flashback to an episode when vampire Henry Fitzroy clashed with the Inquisition in Italy. In P. N. Elrod's "Slaughter," good guy vampire Jack Fleming deals with one of his kind who gives the rest of them a bad name. "Intercession," by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, features her millennia-old character, Count Saint-Germain, in the seventeenth century. In editor Thomsen's contribution, "A Hollywood Tradition," a vampire regales a journalist with secrets behind the myths of the film industry.

Although there's no extensive editorial commentary, the anthology begins with a short general introduction, prefaces each category with a few introductory paragraphs, and provides a brief biography of each author. Lovers of monsters with consciences should make sure to check out this book.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Mark of the Moderately Vicious Vampire

The reader can instantly guess from the title of THE MARK OF THE MODERATELY VICIOUS VAMPIRE (1992), by Lionel Fenn, that it's a humorous novel. It hits all the notes of classic vampire fiction and film, satirizing features of Stoker's DRACULA, Universal and Hammer horror movies, and 'SALEM'S LOT. Count Lamar de la von Zaguar arrives on a dark and stormy night in the seacoast village of Assyria, Maine, with two goals: (1) To find a woman to become his immortal mate, and (2) to take over the town as a base for wider conquest by his potential undead minions. An anonymous letter summons the nominal hero, actor and Scottish baron Kent Montana (who stars in a series of other novels as well, none of which I've read), to save the community, his occasional summertime "home away from home."

Count Lamar's coffin washes ashore in the midst of an unnatural storm, not in a derelict sailing ship like the more illustrious Count, but in a purple dinghy. The vampire breaks off a fang in the rough landing, causing him to leave one puncture mark on his victims' necks rather than two. After settling in the sinister, abandoned mansion that overlooks the village, he recruits an insect-eating minion (who has trouble adjusting to his new diet), transforms the obligatory trio of voluptuous brides, and hires a greedy real estate agent to buy up all the property in town for the "Master." Bloodless corpses, mysterious fog, hints dropped by a grizzled, retired pirate (who carries a stuffed vulture on his shoulder instead of a parrot), and random bat and wolf sightings impel Kent Montana to consider the possibility of vampirism. Townspeople inundate him with cryptic remarks about the supernatural menace but remain stingy with hard facts. A local couple repeatedly implores him to kill their deceased daughter, one of the vampire's victims. To hunt down the bloodsucker, Kent joins forces with a former girlfriend, a clergyman, and a professor who travels the world, along with his beautiful assistant, using his occult expertise to destroy monsters. The minister proves to be far from a courageous holy warrior but does his best to "save the soul" of a woman at risk of being seduced by the Count. The professor shares alleged esoteric vampire-hunting lore, all of which turns out to consist of factoids familiar to everybody from horror movies. The group wanders cluelessly around the mansion, arguing about whether the coffin will be hidden in the most obvious place or the least obvious place. Naturally, in defiance of conventional wisdom, they split up. At the climax, a torch-bearing, pitchfork-waving mob storms the villain's lair. Meanwhile, Kent, confronting the vampire face-to-face, resorts to a technique from a Christopher Lee film that any fan will recognize.

Because THE MARK OF THE MODERATELY VICIOUS VAMPIRE is a parody, it doesn't invite us to identify with the characters or particularly care about their fates. It's a fun story that exists mainly to allow the alert reader to spot the vampire cliches and other stray pop culture references peppered throughout the text.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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