Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Vampire's Apprentice

THE VAMPIRE’S APPRENTICE (1992), by Richard Lee Byers (which has no connection or similarity to the YA series by Darren Shan), begins with one of the most harrowing scenes of a vampire’s first awakening buried in his coffin that I’ve ever read. Protagonist David Brent knows ahead of time that he will arise as a vampire. Or, as Carter, his maker, labels their kind, an Olympian. David, however, wakes up with no knowledge of how to use his powers, and there’s no sign of Carter, who was supposed to help him adjust on his first night. So David has to dig his way through not only the casket but the concrete vault and six feet of earth on his own. He quickly discovers the lies behind the glamour and power implied by the term “Olympian.” Having expected eternal youth and a prospective future of wealth and power in which he would no longer live as a “nobody,” he finds that the traditional vampire weaknesses (such as running water, which doesn’t even make sense, as he ponders with outrage, and the lethal effect of sunlight, which, of course, isn’t traditional but an invention of the movies, but we seem to be stuck with that notion) are real. But unfortunately the alleged vampire gifts don’t come with anything like the ease and grace he anticipated. Worst of all, he learns that all vampires wear the true appearance of decaying animated corpses unless they exert a deliberate effort to project an illusion of normal humanity. Moreover, contrary to Carter’s promise to guide David into the esoteric pleasures of a superhuman existence, the older vampire reveals that he transformed David only to torment him and has no intention of becoming his mentor.

One facet of this novel’s system of vampirism that annoys me, as it does whenever it appears in fiction, is that vampires apparently have to kill whenever they feed. Even after David gets over his initial panic and inability to control his bloodlust, he’s still compelled to kill his victims. That premise has never made sense to me. A vampire, as a corporeal undead creature rather than a ghost, has to conform to some physical limitations even though he’s supernatural; how can a normal-size man ingest enough of a person’s blood within a few minutes to make the victim die of blood loss almost instantly? Of course, this device serves a vital narrative purpose by enhancing David’s anguish over what he has become and forcing him to confront soul-wrenching challenges while trying to hang onto his true self. He starts out by taking blood from elderly, dying hospital patients but soon ventures to the outside world and gets tangled in more complicated situations.

His attempts to improve his situation and manipulate mortals by exercising his new powers go wrong more often than right. No matter how well he manages to deceive ordinary people with his illusions, he remains constantly aware of his true state as a walking corpse. Under an assumed name and disguised physical appearance, he tries to reconnect with his parents. He succeeds with his mother but less so with his more suspicious father. His attempt to form a relationship with a woman also produces more disappointment than fulfillment. Carter threatens people David cares about, and it soon becomes clear that the “master” vampire has more complex motives and is weaving a more devious plot than David first realized. At every turn, he becomes more painfully conscious of how far short his new “life” falls from both Carter’s promises and the images in popular culture.

Deconstructing the image of the glamorous, seductive vampire that was already popular in the early 1990s, in THE VAMPIRE’S APPRENTIC Byers creates a portrait of undead existence fraught with both horror and pathos. It’s far from an optimistic story, but grimly fascinating in its way.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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