Monday, October 15, 2012

Those Who Hunt the Night

THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT, by Barbara Hambly (1988) is a "good vampire / bad vampire" novel with a strong period atmosphere. In late nineteenth-century England a husband-wife investigative team, Prof. James Asher, an Oxford don who doubles as a spy, and his wife Lydia, a doctor, are commissioned by Simon Ysidro to find out who has been murdering London's vampires. Actually, to call Simon "good" is less than accurate; Hambly's undead resemble Anne Rice's in their amorality, violence, and detachment from humanity. Simon does, however, refrain from the worst excesses and contract a good-faith alliance with James, and the two of them attain, if not friendship, mutual respect. Hambly emphasizes the psychic dimension of vampire predation; Simon and his kind perceive human emotions, and they crave the "high" of fear and torment as much as the blood itself. Thus they have a plausible reason to need to kill when they feed. Their vulnerabilities, aside from a stake through the heart, include sunlight and silver. Besides Simon, James, and Lydia, striking characters include a guilt-driven vampire monk and Blaydon, a "mad scientist" character whose son has become a mutant vampire. The novel's title has an ironic triple application—to the vampires, to the fanatical Blaydon, and to James in his role as detective.

The power of illusion Simon wields to pass for human and control the minds of mortals depends on regular feeding. The longer he abstains, the less human he appears and the less psychically powerful he becomes, an interesting angle on vampiric gifts. In the sequel, TRAVELING WITH THE DEAD, Lydia takes a journey across Europe with Simon. Along the way, she becomes fascinated with him, and he grows to care for her in his fashion. One thread of this novel particularly illustrates Simon’s inhumanity: Realizing Lydia can’t travel with him unchaperoned, he hires an older woman as her companion, using his mind control to make the companion fall in love with him. He ruthlessly manipulates her, encouraging her to embrace a glamorous, romantic vision of vampirism, all the while regarding her with casual contempt that sharply contrasts with his admiration for Lydia. The last two novels in the series, BLOOD MAIDENS and THE MAGISTRATES OF HELL, take place amid the international tensions preceding World War I in Russia and China, respectively. James and Lydia are engaging characters, especially Lydia, who combines a brilliant, analytical mind with awkwardness and a reluctance to let anybody see her with her glasses on. Her attraction to Simon, mingled with doubts about whether the emotion is really hers or a product of his supernatural influence, never weakens her devoted love for her husband. The settings display the in-depth historical research one would expect of Hambly. As far as her portrayal of Simon Ysidro is concerned, she has the gift of cloaking him in the allure typical of fictional vampires while never letting us forget how dangerous he is.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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