Friday, April 15, 2016

Tomorrow Sucks

The anthology TOMORROW SUCKS (1994), edited by Greg Cox and T. K. F. Weisskopf, showcases science-fiction vampire tales. Some are vintage stories familiar to devoted fans; most have more recent publication dates. Weisskopf concludes the book with a short essay, "An Anthropological Approach to Vampirism." Disclosure: This volume includes "Vanishing Breed, by my husband, Leslie Roy Carter (first published in my CURSE OF THE UNDEAD, 1970); it's the earliest story I'm aware of to propose that Earth's vampires originated on a different planet, and it inspired my vampires-as-other-species series. If you're curious, you can find the titles of novels and stories in this fictional universe here:

Vanishing Breed Vampire Universe

The rest of the contents: "Pillar of Fire," by Ray Bradbury; a twentieth-century man rises to undead life in the distant future. "And Not Quite Human," by Joe L. Hensley, another older story; an alien invasion force conquers Earth, and the action takes place on a starship carrying Terran "specimens" who turn out to be far from ordinary. "The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady," by Brian Stableford; in an alternate-history seventeenth-century Europe, the world is ruled by vampires whose condition arises from an infectious disease, which the protagonist studies in an attempt to find a weapon against the vampire overlords. "Born Again," by S. N. Dyer; another story in which vampirism is caused by a microorganism. "Kaeti's Nights," by Keith Roberts; a father narrates what happens when his supposedly dead daughter comes home on regular visits and sets him straight about the truth versus the myths of vampirism; "Pyotr's Story," by Spider Robinson; a "Callahan's Bar" episode about friendly vampire Pyotr, a member of another species, who filters blood rather than literally drinking it and incidentally prevents his donors from developing hangovers after heavy imbibing. "Fleas," by Dean Ing; vampires defined as parasites and subject to predation by creatures still higher on the food chain. "Leechcraft," by Susan Petrey; members of Petrey's vampire species, the Varkela, roam the Russian steppes and trade their healing and horse-trading gifts for blood, and in this story, a Varkela man time-travels from the nineteenth century into the present and falls in love with a modern woman. "Shambleau," by C. L. Moore, the oldest item in the book; interplanetary adventurer Northwest Smith falls victim to a shapechanging predator in the seductive guise of an exotic alien girl, although her true form is a Medusa-like "writhing scarlet horror." "The Stainless Steel Leech," by Roger Zelazny; in the far future, a vampiric "werebot" becomes friends with the last surviving traditional vampire.

TOMORROW SUCKS has a companion volume featuring science-fiction werewolves, TOMORROW BITES (1995).

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Live Girls

LIVE GIRLS (1987), by Ray Garton, is a far cry from the romantic "good guy vampire" fiction that began to flourish during the 1980s. After a grim prologue featuring the kind of character a reviewer for the Innsmouth Free Press website calls "Doomed Teaser Guy," we meet unfortunate New Yorker Davey Owen. His girlfriend has just left him after yet another argument about his low-level job at a small publishing company. Meanwhile, Walter Benedek, Doomed Teaser Guy's brother-in-law, drops in at his sister's home and finds a gory crime scene. The imagery of these opening scenes sets the tone for the book with tawdry, trash-strewn streets, gloomy weather, and the horrific slaughter of Walter's sister.

Wandering the city, mired in depression, Davey stumbles upon a sex club in Times Square called Live Girls (which we glimpsed in the prologue). There he has an encounter that leaves him drained in more ways than one, although he doesn't realize the true nature of the "smeared lipstick" he notices on the girl's mouth afterward. Any reader halfway attentive to the blurb and cover illustration, of course, knows the title of the novel (and the club) is ironic; the "live girls" are undead. After losing his job later that day, Davey returns to Live Girls for a second time, despite the blood he'd noticed in an intimate location after the first visit. Although he has no idea what's happening yet, the erotic addiction of a vampire's feeding is obvious to the reader. At the same time, Walter Benedek, determined to find out what became of his missing brother-in-law, starts watching Live Girls and notices Davey's repeated visits.

Irresistibly drawn to Live Girls, Davey becomes involved with Anya, the woman he first encountered there. Amid the raw, blood-tinged sex, the reader immediately recognizes what she's doing to him, something he takes a while to figure out. His compulsive desire for Anya battles with the scruples inculcated by his fanatically religious mother. Walter approaches him on the pretext of an interview for an article and notices Davey seems ill, afflicted the same way Walter's brother-in-law was. Davey's female friend Casey also becomes concerned about his health and gets involved. Together investigating Live Girls and its sister establishment, the Midnight Club, they realize actual, supernatural vampires lurk there.

LIVE GIRLS will appeal to hard-core horror fans. Especially frightful are the grotesque, yet pitiable creatures whose transformations have gone wrong. Although this isn't primarily a sympathetic vampire novel, neither does it fall under the "all vampires are evil, destroy on sight" trope of classic horror. The undead antagonists are balanced by two characters—Davey and Casey—being transformed into vampires against their will. The good guys triumph, sort of, but only at great cost.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Off the Beaten Orbit

OFF THE BEATEN ORBIT (1961; first published as GALAXY OF GHOULS, 1955), compiled by distinguished SF writer and editor Judith Merril, isn't a vampire anthology as such. But it does include three vintage vampire tales (two being a couple of my all-time favorites), plus two other stories with some vampire content. It also features two werewolf pieces. This anthology holds a special place in my heart. I first heard of it from my high school boyfriend, who described some of the contents to me but never got around to lending me the book. I'd given up on ever actually seeing the elusive paperback when I stumbled upon it in a used book shop, long before Internet searches existed. (There are several copies available on Amazon at present.)

One vampire story, "Share Alike," by Jerome Bixby and Joe E. Dean, delves into one of my favorite tropes, vampires as a naturally evolved species. It centers on a symbiotic relationship between a vampire and a human sailor, the only survivors of a shipwreck, adrift in a lifeboat. Ray Bradbury's classic "Homecoming" explores the plight of an ordinary mortal born into a family of fairly benign "monsters." (They get their blood supply from a funeral home where some of their members work.) I've always been fascinated by Bradbury's portrayal of the "monsters" as normal and their human son as a mutant (long before THE ADDAMS FAMILY and THE MUNSTERS). In "Blood," one of Fredric Brown's trademark short-shorts (what's called flash fiction nowadays), a vampire couple flees in a time machine to the distant future to seek an era when humanity will have forgotten about their kind, with a disastrous and funny outcome.

In Bruce Elliott's unique werewolf story "Wolves Don't Cry," a zoo wolf wakes up one morning as a man, a change he finds deeply disturbing. In "The Ambassadors," by Anthony Boucher, Mars turns out to be inhabited by intelligent wolves, and the werewolves of Earth become interplanetary mediators. There's a vampire allusion at the end of the story.

Some other outstanding pieces include "A Way of Thinking," by Theodore Sturgeon, featuring an odd variation on a voodoo doll; an early "John the Balladeer" tale by Manly Wade Wellman, "O Ugly Bird!"; and "Triflin' Man," by Walter M. Miller, whose backwoods heroine deals decisively with an alien (advance scout for an invasion) who left her with a half-human baby after a one-night stand. Creatures such as mermaids, demons, and doppelgangers also populate the anthology.

The book ends fittingly with "Mop-Up," by Arthur Porges, in which the last man on Earth after a nuclear holocaust encounters a vampire, a ghoul, and a witch.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Vampire Encyclopedia

If you're looking for a wide-ranging, informal yet informative guide to vampires both folkloric and fictional, pick up Matthew Bunson's THE VAMPIRE ENCYCLOPEDIA (1993). (Many bargain-priced used copies of this trade paperback are available.)

Entries include authors, books and short story titles, historical figures, countries and cultures, many varieties of vampires, items harmful or lethal to the undead, animals associated with vampires, and a sprinkling of miscellaneous terms such as "Art," "Plague," "Red Hair," "Satan," etc. A reader can dip into this compendium on any page and be sure to find an entertaining bit of lore.

The lists scattered throughout the volume constitute my favorite feature: Methods of detecting vampires, protecting against them, destroying them, and preventing vampirism in the first place; how someone becomes a vampire; historical "vampire" serial killers; vampire-related plays, poetry, films, and prose literature. There's no table of contents, though, so the reader has to stumble on these resources by leafing through the book.

Bunson made some puzzling choices. For instance, there's no apparent pattern in how he decided which fictional works get separate entries from their authors' names and which don't. For instance, THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY, by Suzy McKee Charnas, rates entries for not only author and title but the protagonist, Dr. Weyland, as well. As much as I love Charnas's modern classic, it's strange to see it treated this way when several more high-profile books aren't. Many different countries and ethnic groups are referenced, but some with essays several paragraphs long and others merely with cross-references to related terms. And at some points Bunson's alphabetizing is downright bizarre. "La Llorona" appears under "La," yet the novel LA BAS is listed as "Bas, La," as if he mistook the adverb for an article. Still, these quirks don't significantly interfere with the enjoyment and utility of the book.

THE VAMPIRE ENCYCLOPEDIA includes an eleven-page bibliography divided into short stories, novels, and nonfiction references. The list of vampire organizations at the end, of course, has mainly historical appeal, although the venerable "Vampires Are Us" (aka the Count Dracula Fan Club) still operates at the same address.

In contrast, J. Gordon Melton's THE VAMPIRE BOOK: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE UNDEAD, now in its third edition, is a weightier tome with longer, more detailed, updated entries and a more extensive bibliography. Both of these guidebooks are useful and entertaining, and since their subject matter doesn't completely overlap, they would complement each other as additions to a vampire enthusiast's library.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sacrament

If you haven't read any of Susan Squires' "Companion" series, try the first book, SACRAMENT (2002). You can find a complete list of the Companion novels and novellas here:

Susan Squires Companion Index

This novel combines Regency fiction with Gothic horror, two genres that can be blended effectively, as illustrated by Jane Austen's NORTHANGER ABBEY. Like a typical Regency romance, SACRAMENT features a plucky heroine in trouble, an egoistic rival beauty, an arrogant but magnetic hero, and the select society of the ton. On the Gothic side, it includes vampirism, archaeology, forbidden medical experimentation, imprisonment, torture, sinister monks, and ancient secrets. The action ranges over a wide variety of settings, such as London, Bath, Vienna, and the exotic remoteness of the Carpathian Mountains. Sarah, alone in the world aside from a would-be fiance for whom she has only lukewarm feelings, faces the risk of losing her family estate to enigmatic aristocrat Julien Davinoff. Her desperate attempt to save her inheritance leads to unexpected revelations about why Davinoff wants her land; a vampire of extraordinary age, he uses the tunnels beneath the ruins on Sarah's estate as a cache for the priceless souvenirs of his very long life. Sarah learns the truth about Davinoff when she becomes entangled in her alleged friend Corina's campaign to win his love. When Corina's seduction fails, she imprisons him in her cellar and forcibly addicts him to laudanum. Sarah rescues him, although she suspects him of perpetrating a series of vampiric murders. She uses her up-to-date knowledge of medicine (gleaned from her physician suitor) to break the addiction and uncovers his secret. Realistically, she gets her image of vampires from Dr. John Polidori's scandalous tale, "The Vampyre." She feeds Davinoff her blood to save his life anyway, and he reveals to her the true, non-supernatural origin of his vampirism. His yearning to make her his eternal mate by transforming her yields to his nobler impulses, and he flees from the temptation. Sequestered in a secret vampire monastery in the Carpathians, he takes the Vow that will separate him forever from human society. Sarah pursues him into the wilds of Eastern Europe, where she fights for her love in a confrontation with the eldest of all vampires.

SACRAMENT offers an unusual variation on vampirism as an infection. The Companion is a symbiotic organism inhabiting a well on the grounds of the monastery. A parasite that lives on red blood cells, it bestows long life, regeneration, and rapid healing on its host. The host can also exercise certain extraordinary powers—e.g. mental influence, limited teleportation—by focusing the energy provided by the Companion. A vampire needs to ingest blood to nourish the Companion and becomes sensitive to (but not destroyed by) sunlight. A prospective vampire can be transformed by drinking the blood of an existing one—or by drinking the infected water from the well, but then he or she must have vampire blood in order to change rather than die. Squires convincingly frames this information in terms plausible for the characters' understanding in the context of nineteenth-century science. The reader can sympathize with Davinoff's conflict between his love for Sarah and his loyalty to the rigid laws that, he believes, provide the only ethical way of life for his kind. Sarah is a strong heroine who grows in self-knowledge and self-confidence throughout the story, until she attains the capacity to ignore the strictures of her society when they stand in the way of winning love. Davinoff does have an annoying tendency to fall into the "eternally cursed" mindset of the all-too-typical brooding vampires of many romances, but he gets over it. SACRAMENT and the other works in this series offer fans a fresh angle on the familiar tropes of the genre.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Secret of the Pale Lover

Before I first read SECRET OF THE PALE LOVER (1969) by Clarissa Ross, a friend described it to me as a book in which the heroine marries a vampire without realizing it—a fairly accurate summary. This is a fun read for anyone who enjoyed the Gothic romances of the sixties. Like just about every one of those paperbacks, SECRET OF THE PALE LOVER has a cover illustration of a terrified young woman running by night from a scary old house—in this case, a castle in France, labeled in the tagline "a satanic chateau."

Eve Lewis, a student of the occult and witchcraft legends visiting Paris, meets Count Henri Langlais, a charismatic aristocrat with "hypnotic eyes." He tells her about his nephew Leonard, who suffers from a mysterious chronic affliction of the blood. Count Henri attributes the hereditary "weakness" to an ancestral curse. It turns out that the Count and his nephew frequent the same seaside resort Eve plans to visit next. A male friend who would like to become more than that persistently warns her against the trusting the Count. Nightmares begin to plague her, including dreams of the Count presiding at a Black Mass. Her research uncovers legends of witchcraft and vampirism in the town of Langlais. Still, after spending time with the Count and his nephew at the resort, Eve becomes attracted to Leonard. It's obvious that the Count is matchmaking between the two young people. When Leonard and his uncle vanish with no notice or farewell, she's deeply hurt, until she receives a letter inviting her for an extended visit at their chateau. With the letter comes a cameo pendant; a spider hidden in it bites her. She buys a remedy at a strange little shop that, when she tries to find it again, has allegedly been abandoned for years. In short, she endures a sequence of sinister events foreshadowing horrors that may or may not lurk at the chateau. Once at the Langlais estate, she encounters the kinds of eerie phenomena one expects to find in a Gothic novel. Her suspicion that the Count belongs to a satanist cult proves correct. As is typical of such novels, she wrestles with ambivalent feelings toward her charming but enigmatic would-be suitor.

When Eve learns that the young man she originally began to care for at the resort was not Leonard, but an actor hired by the Count to impersonate his sickly nephew and draw her into a romantic attachment, she's plunged into the conflict that builds to the novel's climax. She and the actor, David, fall in love and confront the Count, who confesses the truth about Leonard. Count Henri seems remorseful over the deception and acts with incredible generosity toward the couple. As Eve gets swept along in his plans, it's obvious to the reader that she's being gaslighted (with, it's hinted, the aid of drugs). This novel isn't precisely a vampire romance, even though the heroine succumbs to a vampire's allure for a while, and whether it has a happy ending depends on one's point of view. Ambiguity (for the heroine if not the reader) and creeping fear haunt the story to the final page.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Single White Vampire

SINGLE WHITE VAMPIRE (2003), the earliest published (but not the first written) novel in Lynsay Sands's Argeneau family series, may not quite count as "vintage," since the series is still going strong, with one or two new books every year. SINGLE WHITE VAMPIRE is over ten years old, however, and deserves the attention of paranormal romance fans who might have missed it. It's the funniest vampire romantic comedy I've ever read.

Reclusive Lucien Argeneau has become famous for his bestselling paranormal romance "fiction"—actually straightforward narratives derived from his family's history. Kate Leever, a new romance editor for his publisher, faces the challenge of persuading the author to participate in publicity for his work. He has no interest in book tours or anything else that would require leaving home. When he doesn't answer her letters (in fact, he hasn't even opened his mail in weeks), Kate arrives at his house, luggage in hand. Disgruntled by her intrusion, Lucien can't get rid of her despite his best efforts. "In his experience, people were a bother and never failed to bring chaos with them. Women especially." Kate becomes acquainted with his family, including his matchmaking mother, Marguerite. Naturally mutual attraction seizes them, regardless of Kate's puzzlement at Lucien's odd behavior and his resistance to getting involved with any woman. Eventually she maneuvers him into attending the Romantic Times convention, and hilarity ensues. The scenes at the con will be especially entertaining for writers.

Humor, sensual love scenes, and a touch of suspense keep the novel un-put-downable. Of course in the end Lucien acknowledges Kate as his life mate. This story provides a smooth introduction to the premise of the series—that the Argeneau clan originated in lost Atlantis, where they perfected submicroscopic "nanos" that circulate in the bloodstream to keep their hosts perfectly healthy, fast-healing, eternally youthful, and immortal. They can also read and control minds (but not the minds of their life mates). Because the nanos consume blood in performing their functions, immortals—the label they prefer to "vampires"—have to ingest blood frequently. They avoid unnecessary exposure to sunlight because the nanos work overtime to repair sun damage, requiring the host to drink more blood than usual. In the modern era, they supply their needs with bagged blood, never drinking from live victims except in emergencies. They can also eat ordinary food and engage in normal sex, which is especially intense between life mates. They deliberately keep their numbers low with restrictions on child-bearing and transformation of others into immortals.

My only minor complaint about these books is the virtually total absence of the link between blood-sharing and sexuality that, for me, forms a major appeal of the vampire archetype. Often the need for blood remains so much a routine part of the background that the Argeneau family might as well be immortals from the HIGHLANDER universe. But it's one of my favorite vampire series anyway.

It's interesting to contrast the current covers of the book with the original. Here are the two presently displayed on Amazon, both of them making the story look darker than it really is:

This third image is the cover of the original paperback from 2003, light and fluffy, emphasizing the romantic comedy dimension of the story. Personally, I like this one best. The recent covers strike me as too generic as well as too dark; they don't offer anything to distinguish this book from any other vampire romance on the shelves.

The 2003 blurb matches the tone of the cover, playing up the comedy as well as making Lucien sound like a traditional vampire rather than an SF creature. It even mentions "religious symbols," which of course have no effect on Argeneau immortals. In short, it appears that the publisher wasn't sure what to do with this innovative approach to vampires and tried to make the first book look and sound as much as possible like something readers would find familiar.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Blood Is Not Enough

Ellen Datlow's earliest vampire anthology, BLOOD IS NOT ENOUGH (1989), contains both reprints and new stories written for this book. As implied by the title, the anthology emphasizes not-so-ordinary stalkers of the night. Datlow introduces us to energy vampires and inhuman predators as well as more traditional vampires in unique situations.

The oldest tale in BLOOD IS NOT ENOUGH, "Lazarus," by Leonid Andreyev (published in the early 1900s), envisions the title character, after his rising from the tomb, as more undead than alive, casting a blight on everyone he meets. Datlow includes one familiar modern classic, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes," by Fritz Leiber. The girl of the title, a mysterious model whose ad photos fascinate the public, drains life from her victims by feeding on their emotions. She may be the first literary example of vampirism as a metaphor for mass media. After Leiber's, the next-oldest story in the volume is "Try a Dull Knife," an urban horror piece by Harlan Ellison. All the other contents come from the 1980s. One of my favorites, "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be," by artist Gahan Wilson, re-imagines "The Walrus and the Carpenter." The drolly grotesque beach-strolling characters from the Alice novel become a pair of humanoid aliens (as far as the reader can determine what they are) who entrap and feed on their human victims like Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter eating oysters. "Down Among the Dead Men," by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, places a traditional vampire in a Nazi concentration camp, where his predation goes almost unnoticed amid the non-supernatural horrors surrounding him. "Carrion Comfort," by Dan Simmons, was later expanded into his horrific psychic vampire novel of the same title.

The newly written stories include works by Tanith Lee, Joe Haldeman, Pat Cadigan, Steve Rasnic Tem, and other distinguished names in speculative fiction. "L'Chaim!" by Harvey Jacobs introduces us to a club whose vampire members carefully cultivate human proteges over the long term to create special "vintages" for important occasions. "Good Kids," by Edward Bryant, explores energy draining from an unusual angle. "The Silver Collar," by Garry Kilworth, which Datlow describes as the "most traditional" tale in the book, frames a supernatural vampire lover in a Gothic setting.

Except for "Lazarus," each story is followed by a paragraph or two from the author, giving the reader insights on the story's origin and inspiration. Ellison's afterword runs for several pages, an essay in its own right.

Datlow's follow-up anthology, A WHISPER OF BLOOD (1991), fulfills its title's implications by ranging even further from the undead bloodsuckers of legend. Although packed with brilliant stories by big names in the horror field, it includes a few pieces that I wouldn't classify as vampiric even by my own very elastic standards. My favorite in this volume, the wryly humorous "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" by Suzy McKee Charnas, almost traditional compared to most of the others, stars a Jewish grandmother who refuses to move on after death and instead lurks in spectral form in her old apartment, absorbing small amounts of blood to sustain herself. "Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?" by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, strikingly different from her classic Saint-Germain series, presents a hospitalized victim being drained of not only life-energy but memories. Additional contributors include Robert Silverberg, Barry N. Malzberg, Karl Edward Wagner, and Jonathan Carroll, among others. This book also includes authors' afterwords, and all but three of the stories are original to it.

Margaret L. Carter Carter's Crypt

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Prince of the Night

Jasmine Cresswell's PRINCE OF THE NIGHT (1995), set in Italy in the mid-1800s (with a prologue in 1836), has the surface appearance of a Gothic romance but morphs into (or reveals itself as) science fiction. The story centers upon Count Dakon, a member of a small group of extraterrestrials stranded on Earth, males who can breed with human females but always produce male offspring. In the prologue, he succumbs to his nearly irresistible mating compulsion with a servant girl chosen for her "unimaginative" personality, in hopes that she'll survive the experience. Even if a human woman isn't killed by her Vam-pyr mate's bloodlust, she is likely to die in childbirth. The girl in the prologue doesn't live past the first, frenzied copulation. Bitterly remorseful, Dakon vows never to mate again.

In 1859, English heroine Cordelia Hope (a symbolic name, since she represents hope for the redemption of Dakon and rejuvenation of his species) travels through Italy with her cousin, Lady Mary, to the Villa of the Three Fountains, an estate belonging to their family. Or so they believe, but everyone they meet insists the property belongs to the Count of Albion. When they arrive at the villa, they're informed that the Count never allows female visitors in his home. Naturally, they prevail upon Dakon to let them in, and of course he and Cordelia feel an instant attraction. Upon their first meeting, she has erotic, terrifying, multi-sensory telepathic visions that baffle her, although thanks to the prologue the reader has an inkling of the cause. She has always been preternaturally sensitive to others' emotions but has no idea why she reacts so strongly to Dakon. Struggling to resist the allure, she finds herself drawn to his bed as if in a trance. He displays his strong sense of ethics by rejecting the temptation to mate with her, even though she has catastrophically arrived at the very time of his periodic "cresting." Most of his fellow Vam-pyr regard killing inferior Earthlings on the same level as killing animals, a philosophy Dakon rejects. (The species has a sort of hokey name, but since linguists don't seem sure of the ultimate origins of the word "vampire," I can suspend disbelief enough to accept that it might come from an extraterrestrial source.) In addition, Dakon further proves his fundamental nobility by risking his life for his human neighbors as a covert freedom fighter in the Italian rebellion against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

PRINCE OF THE NIGHT follows the general pattern of Gothic fiction, with Cordelia a reluctant guest at Dakon's estate, enmeshed in the mystery of the villa's reclusive lord while trying to disentangle the problem of his alleged ownership of the property she thought she'd inherited. As we'd expect, she proves uniquely suited to mate with Dakon because of her telepathic and empathic gift. He tries to stay away from her, despite the agony of resisting the mating drive. As their relationship develops, complications arise from Lady Mary's personal plight and Dakon's dangerous pretense of supporting the Austrians while actually leading the revolutionaries. Over halfway through the book, Cordelia learns that Dakon belongs to an extraterrestrial species, their numbers steadily decreasing since they were marooned on Earth four thousand years earlier. However, she doesn't fully believe him until the evidence becomes undeniable. Meanwhile, the captain of the local Austrian troops becomes convinced she is a spy. This novel abounds in suspense, sensuality, historical atmosphere, and an interesting variation on vampires as aliens.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sunshine

Robin McKinley's SUNSHINE (2003) begins as the first-person narrative of a young woman who works as a baker at her family's coffeehouse and has a sometimes difficult, although loving, relationship with her mother. In the opening scene, Rae (original name Raven, nicknamed Sunshine) decides she can't take the regular family Monday night movie gathering and instead drives out to the lake where her family owns a summer cabin (never used since the death of Sunshine's grandmother, the only relative on her vanished father's side she's had any contact with). McKinley writes Sunshine's voice in a rambling, chatty style that conveys tons of information about her background and daily life without making the pages of shameless exposition feel at all lumpy. She loves her baking, despite the predawn hours and odd schedules. She's fond of her stepfather, Charlie, and her half-siblings. She has a boyfriend, Mel, a tattooed motorcycle enthusiast who also works at the coffeehouse. She enjoys interacting with the customers, who resemble an extended family. She likes her eccentric landlady, who lives in the main part of a farmhouse where Sunshine rents an apartment on the third floor. We've learned all these facts about the protagonist by the time she gets to the lake. Then, on page 10, we hit the sentence, "When I was ten the Voodoo Wars started."

This novel takes place in an alternate world, similar to Charlaine Harris's and Laurell K. Hamilton's, where supernatural beings are publicly known to exist. This world's history seems to have diverged further from our own than the Harris and Hamilton versions, since some cities and countries have different names. In Sunshine's twentieth-century North America, people have apparently been aware of nonhuman creatures—collectively known as the Others—practically forever. All of them are regarded with suspicion, even angels (which are mentioned only in passing) and the occasional harmless races of demons, and many evoke outright fear and loathing. Vampires (aka "suckers") are considered the worst. At the time of the story, they control about one-fifth of the world. They have no interest in making a nonaggression pact with human governments, and even if they did, vampires have no central authority. McKinley's are what I think of as "Anne Rice vampires." They have left their humanity behind and have to make a special effort to "pass" for human. Their voices, eyes, skin, and superhumanly quick and silent movement give them away. They can drink animal blood but prefer human. They relish toying with their prey like cats and virtually always kill their victims. Sunlight destroys them, and they become more sensitive with age. Old vampires can't stand the slightest ray of moonlight (reasonably, since moonlight is reflected sunlight—this is the only work of fiction in which I've seen that premise). Very old ones can't risk exposing themselves under the open sky at all. A government department called the Special Other Forces—SOF—monitors the Others and strives to protect innocents from the more lethal ones, especially vampires. Even human magic-users are viewed warily and required to register with the government. Much of the country was devastated by the Voodoo Wars, leaving ruined cities and "bad places" tainted by magic. One bad place lies near Sunshine's family's lakefront cabin.

Since sensible people take advantage of whatever magical wards they can afford, and vampires generally avoid crowds, ordinary citizens are fairly safe as long as they stay away from dangerous areas after dark. Sunshine's solitary visit to the lake proves very unwise. A gang of vampires grabs her and imprisons her in a mansion adjacent to the tainted ground. She ends up shackled in a room with a captive vampire. The gang leader, Bo, expects the starving vampire, Con, to kill Sunshine. Con doesn't want to give his captor that satisfaction. He begs Sunshine to talk to him and keep him aware that she's a "rational creature." Although she finds him terrifying, he is the least of available evils, and they form an alliance. Recalling the seemingly trivial exercises in magic her grandmother taught her, Sunshine uses her skills to escape and get Con and herself to safety. This episode is only the beginning of her adventures. Because nobody escapes from vampires, and certainly nobody in her right mind would free a chained vampire, she decides to avoid questions by pretending she doesn't remember anything about her traumatic ordeal from the moment she reached the cabin until she made it home. However, two coffeehouse regulars, SOF agents, believe there's more to Sunshine than meets the eye. They're right: She learns her father was a powerful member of a prominent magical clan. SOF tries to recruit her. Bo remains a threat, and Con reappears in her life. Sunshine develops magical gifts she never suspected she possessed. She finds that several people she knows are more than they appear, including her two SOF friends. The division between "human" and "Other" isn't so sharp after all.

SUNSHINE beautifully portrays ordinary people more or less contentedly living their mundane lives (symbolized for Sunshine by her specialty, cinnamon rolls) while horrors lurk on the edges of their world. Although the vampire, Con, is a more vivid and intriguing character than her boyfriend, Mel, and she shares some erotically charged moments with Con, this novel isn't a vampire romance. It falls more into the category Jacqueline Lichtenberg calls Intimate Adventure, the growth of a relationship through challenges and risks. As she explains, "Instead of combat to the death on the field of Battle, the Protagonist must face trials and dangers, terrors and tests on the field of Intimacy." These trials may lead to romance (SUNSHINE hints at this outcome as a future possibility) or not. At the end of the story, Sunshine's relationship with Con is still evolving.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.