Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I, Strahd

P. N. Elrod, author of the Vampire Files series, started her career writing game manuals for TSR, the company that created Dungeons and Dragons. If you’ve played D&D, you may remember the Ravenloft campaign setting, a realm of haunted castles, vampires, werewolves, and other vintage horror motifs. That setting originated with a game module called “Ravenloft,” in which player characters confront an awesomely powerful vampire lord, Count Strahd von Zarovich of Barovia, D&D’s Dracula figure. After publishing several of her Jack Fleming “Vampire Files” novels, Elrod was commissioned to write Strahd’s autobiography. In I, STRAHD: MEMOIRS OF A VAMPIRE (1993), the Count narrates his early life and transformation into a vampire. He does not start out evil, and Elrod skillfully portrays his descent into darkness.

In life, as a noble warrior, battle-hardened and sometimes harsh, but honorable, Strahd hasn’t had time for a family. At the beginning of the story, he welcomes his much younger brother, Sergei, to his castle. Never having had the chance to know his brother in the past, Strahd sincerely rejoices in this new relationship. At first, he doesn’t resent Sergei’s youth, attractiveness, and pleasure in life. But then both of them fall in love with the same woman, Tatyana. She becomes engaged to Sergei, while thinking of Strahd only as a cherished elder brother. Strahd’s love for Sergei transforms to bitter jealousy of the young man’s enjoyment of all the happiness the Count’s warrior life has barred him from. Making a pact with the powers of darkness, Strahd slays his brother and rises as a vampire nourished by Sergei’s blood. The Count’s declaration of love to Tatyana, naturally, has a tragic outcome. Horrified, she leaps from the castle balcony to her death. The vampire lord Strahd evolves into a bloodthirsty tyrant, while an enchanted mist springs up to wall off his realm from the other planes of the multiverse. For the rest of his undead existence, he seeks Tatyana’s reincarnation in one maiden after another, although every such relationship ends in disaster. This obsession and his craving for power become his sole passions.

Elrod makes Strahd an interesting, rounded character whom we can sympathize with even though he eventually becomes a monster of supernatural evil. She infuses his voice with hints of dry humor and wry wit that help to individualize him. Despite his tragic fall, he retains a sense of responsibility for the domain he rules with stern justice. Strahd develops into a credible combination of the tormented Byronic anti-hero of Gothic vampire tradition, the romantic vampire perpetually seeking his lost love, and the Dracula-like undead lord dominating terrified subjects from his haunted castle.

As well as a short story about Strahd, “Caretaker,” in the anthology TALES OF RAVENLOFT (1994), Elrod also wrote I, STRAHD: THE WAR AGAINST AZALIN (1998). In this sequel, framed by a scene in which Dr. Rudolph Van Richten, Ravenloft’s Van Helsing figure, discovers Strahd’s memoirs, the vampire lord forms an unstable alliance with the powerful lich (undead wizard) Azalin. Their eventual shift to open hostilities, of course, doesn’t destroy either of them, since media tie-in fiction has to “return the toys to the box” intact. Even so, the book is an exciting horror-fantasy tale that reveals a bit more of Strahd’s character. Readers don’t need any acquaintance with D&D to enjoy these Ravenloft-based novels. All the information required to understand the stories is included in the texts, so they stand on their own as dark Gothic adventures.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

Anna (Bite Club) said...

This is one of the few books I've kept over the years. My friends were always trying to figure out a way to get me involved in their D&D games and Ravenloft was definitely the way to do it. I had no idea that there was a sequel!! Thanks for another great look back at the books that started many a love affair with vampires.