Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fevre Dream

FEVRE DREAM, by George R. R. Martin (1982), is another of my all-time favorite "vampire as naturally evolved species" novels. Set in the heyday of the Mississippi steamboats, this story centers on Joshua, a vampire who, orphaned in childhood during the French Reign of Terror, grows up believing himself an aberrant human being. Eventually he realizes that he is neither human nor supernatural (religious symbols have no effect on him), but a member of a species that combines features of the legendary werewolf and vampire. He has been taught the superiority of his family over ordinary people, and he knows he must avoid daylight, but the "red thirst"—the monthly need for blood—comes upon him only at the age of twenty, adolescence for his kind. Having always considered himself "superior," he now decides that instead he is "something unnatural, a beast, a soulless monster." Aside from vulnerability to sunlight, Joshua leads a more or less normal life except for a few nights each month. At those times his uncontrollable bloodlust drives him to kill human victims, despite his best intentions. By the time he eventually finds members of his own race, his remorse compels him to seek an alternative to killing. He invents a potion that substitutes for blood, freeing himself and his followers from the "red thirst" or "fever" (hence the name of his steamboat, Fevre Dream). Joshua's rivals of his own race want to continue ruthless exploitation of their prey rather than living at peace with humanity.

In addition to giving an early example of a "good vampire-evil vampire" conflict, FEVRE DREAM is a fascinating historical novel about the Mississippi in the mid-19th century. Joshua purchases the Fevre Dream as a refuge for himself and his few allies, and he hires steamboat veteran Abner Marsh as the riverboat's captain. Abner provides the viewpoint through which we learn about the vampire race. As he grows from horror at Joshua's nature to understanding that vampires, like human beings, are individuals with both good and evil traits, he serves as a representative of the reader who gradually discovers the same truths along with him. One thing I love about this novel is the depth of the relationship between human and nonhuman heroes as they grope their way toward mutual understanding. One of my favorite lines in all of vampire fiction: When Joshua remarks that his kind have never before revealed the truth about themselves to one of the human "cattle" they feed on, Abner counters, "Well, I never lissened to no vampire before neither, so we're even. Go on. This here bull is lissenin'."

As Joshua explains to Abner, "In English, your kind might call me vampire, werewolf, witch, warlock, sorcerer, demon, ghoul...I do not like those names. I am none of them...We have no name for ourselves." In effect, his race depends for their identity on the distorted perceptions of the human prey they call "cattle." Growing up with the mistaken belief that he's human, unlike any others of his kind, Joshua feels guilt over killing. This emotion goads him into creating his potion and seeking a way to live without preying on human victims. The fact that his friendship with Abner is vitally important to his new way of life is demonstrated by the book's epilogue, long after the riverboat captain's death. Joshua places an elaborate tombstone on Marsh's grave and visits the site regularly for decades thereafter.

Like many "good guy vampire" novels, FEVRE DREAM uses its vampire species to present a fresh perspective on real-world racial differences and prejudices. In contrast to the difference between human and vampire, culturally imposed distinctions among human beings appear trivial. Joshua comments on the exclusion and destruction of human beings by their own kind in the name of superstition and prejudice: "I have seen your race burn old women because they were suspected of being one of us, and here in New Orleans I have witnessed the way you enslave your own kind, whip them and sell them like animals simply because of the darkness of their skin. The black people are closer to you, more kin, than ever my kind can be. You can even get children on their women, while no such interbreeding is possible between night and day." Also as in many books with similar themes, the evils committed by our kind against other people make the bloodlust of vampires seem relatively mild. Joshua highlights the horrors of war and the crimes of such notorious villains as Vlad Tepes and the woman who "whipped her maids and bled them...and rubbed the blood into her skin to preserve her beauty"—a clear reference to Elisabeth Bathory. Most vampires, on the other hand, kill only to get blood necessary to their survival. Human criminals such as Countess Bathory commit murder because of "an evil nature," a far worse sin than acting under a biological "compulsion." There's hope for us, though. Joshua's detached view of humanity enables him to recognize the "enlightened" members of the human race, "men of science and learning" who offer the potential for acceptance and cooperation between the two species.

I wish Martin would write more fiction in this universe, but the vague rumors of a sequel have never come to fulfillment.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


Cylver said...

Thanks so much for showcasing Fevre Dream, a wonderful book by a wonderful author. Joshua York has been a favorite character of mine for a long time. I still have my original copy. It's tattered and dog-eared from multiple re-readings, but I refuse to replace it!

SandyG265 said...

I still have my original copy too.

Seebold said...

Great review! I just finished Fevre Dream last month and loved it. Absolutely great characters including Hairy Mike, Sour Billy, Joshua Yorke, etc. Look forward to reading more George R R Martin in the future.