Tuesday, September 14, 2021

A Taint in the Blood

It's hard to believe S. M. Stirling's A TAINT IN THE BLOOD (2010) has already passed the ten-year mark since publication, which qualifies it as an "older work" by the criterion I've been using for these posts. The trilogy of which it's the first volume may be undeservedly obscure among the vampire fan community, since Stirling is best known for his alternate history science fiction. So here's my attempt to remedy that omission.

Stirling's Shadowspawn trilogy takes obvious inspiration from Jack Williamson's classic DARKER THAN YOU THINK (1940). There's even an explicit homage to that novel in one passage of dialogue. Like Williamson's Homo lycanthropus, the Shadowspawn embody the truth behind the legends of werewolves, vampires, witches, demons, incubi, and cruel gods who demand human sacrifice. Myths and fairy tales worldwide preserve ancestral memories of the prehistoric Empire of Shadow. These creatures can leave their bodies and, while incorporeal, wear different shapes. They can twist probability to perform feats that look like magic to ordinary mortals. At death, if they successfully transition, they become permanently incorporeal and much more powerful than in the "birth body." Silver hurts them, and sunlight and nuclear radiation have deadly effects on the incorporeal form. Stirling updates the concept with references to DNA and quantum entanglement. For instance, in order to assume the astral form of another animal or person, his vampires must ingest material containing the DNA of the chosen subject. They have immense power to control human minds and manipulate the target's perception of reality, including the ability to "carry" the psyche of a victim within their own mental landscape, indistinguishable in all sensory respects from the material world. The Shadowspawn can even extend this captivity beyond the subject's physical death, granting a nightmarish sort of immortality. Members of the Homo sapiens nocturnus species frequently indulge in the consumption of human blood for the pleasure of it, although while still in the birth body they can enjoy ordinary food. Moreover, they require blood to fuel "Wreaking," the exercise of their psychic gifts. In the process of Wreaking, they sometimes speak a sinister, ancient tongue called Mhabrogast, which is either the native language of Hell, the operating code of the universe, or both.

Adrian, the hero, and his cruel yet charismatic twin sister Adrienne are among the few near-purebloods, having a higher percentage of Shadowspawn genes than anyone previously born since the fall of the Empire of Shadow. Their twin children (conceived several years before A TAINT IN THE BLOOD through Adrienne's incestuous rape of Adrian) are, of course, even less human, but the second and third volumes of the trilogy strongly imply that, under Adrian's care, they may grow up valuing humanity as he does. Adrian remains recognizable as a dangerous, inhuman predator even while he struggles against his darker urges, determined to live as a "good" monster. To fuel his powers, he drinks bottled blood, which tastes terrible. As part of Adrienne's ongoing love-hate obsession with her brother, she kidnaps his human lover, Ellen, who until that night has no idea of his true nature. Adrian has broken away from his species' bloodthirsty lifestyle and is trying to live as nearly as possible like an ordinary human man. He works with his old friend and mentor from the Brotherhood, a secret organization fighting against the Shadowspawn. Most of its members, ironically, carry a higher than average proportion of nocturnus genes and use the resulting psychic abilities to protect ordinary humanity. In the process of Adrian's rescue of Ellen, the couple gets entangled in the Brotherhood's fight against a long-term plot to reduce Earth's overpopulation (as the Shadowspawn see it) and restore the vampire-shapeshifter-sorcerers' open rule over humanity. The sequels, THE COUNCIL OF SHADOWS and SHADOWS OF FALLING NIGHT, narrate the outcome of this conflict.

The main limits on the Shadowspawn's power arise from their sociopathic level of sadism and their reluctance, as solitary predators, to trust each other. Only their residual human genes enable them to work together at all. Despite their preternatural powers, they are on average no more intelligent than ordinary people; in fact, reliance on their psychic gifts tends to make them mentally lazy as well as arrogant. Since they've bred with their human prey over the millennia, near-purebloods are rare, and many members of the general population have some measure of the vampires' paranormal mental abilities. Depending on the percentage of Homo sapiens nocturnus genes, the resulting traits range from simple talents for reliable "hunches" to psychic powers that approach those of true Shadowspawn. Both the vilest tyrants and the holiest saints tend to have high proportions of nocturnus DNA, the latter reacting against their predatory instincts. Individuals who fall in the middle of the continuum, with enough Shadowspawn genes to crave blood but not enough to gain nourishment from it, become deranged serial killers. Some people willingly submit to the monsters and embrace the roles of "renfields" (servants and employees) and "lucies" (blood donors). Lucies are bound to their masters or mistresses by a blend of fear, addiction, and sometimes adoration, while renfields serve from a variety of motives, from the purely mercenary to a sense of obligation for favors received.

These three novels sparkle with lively characterization, sharply witty dialogue, and complex worldbuilding. The exposition of Shadowspawn evolution and biology is fascinating, and I wished for lots more of it. Adrian comes across as an irresistibly engaging good-guy monster. Ellen, while imprisoned in the luxurious private community that's essentially a very comfortable Shadowspawn livestock ranch, never succumbs to despair and even holds her own against Adrienne, at the same time making friends with some of the other lucies and ultimately cooperating in her own escape. Yes, the Shadowspawn-lucy dynamic includes sadomasochism, but it's only implied and discussed, never graphically portrayed. I'm thoroughly squeamish about such things, yet nothing in the trilogy squicked me. I consider A TAINT IN THE BLOOD one of the best vampire novels of the new millennium so far, a thrill no fan of scientifically explained vampires, werewolves, and magic should pass up. Although the third volume concludes with potential hooks for more stories, unfortunately as far as I know there's no prospect of additional sequels.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs

NICE GIRLS DON'T HAVE FANGS (2009), by Molly Harper, begins the comedy-suspense-paranormal-romance Half-Moon Hollow series. Small-town librarian Jane Jameson tells her story in the first person, in an engagingly sardonic tone but not snarky enough to make her unlikable. I sympathized instantly with her being fired from her library position for budgetary reasons. She retreats to a nearby bar, where she meets a tall, dark stranger named Gabriel Nightengale (sic). After a long discussion about English literature, he walks her to her car, which she begins carefully driving home. When it breaks down, she staggers into a ditch, gets shot by mistake for a deer, and awakens as one of the undead. Not unnaturally, when she finds herself in a bed in Gabriel's house, she suspects him of drugging and kidnapping her. Once he manages to convince her that he's a vampire and now she is, too, she's less shocked than we would be.

In this version of the present-day world, vampires came out to the public shortly before the turn of the millennium. Although legally protected for the most part, they're still viewed with distrust by most people, with the killing of a vampire by an ordinary mortal automatically classified as self-defense. The majority of vampires lead peaceful existences, as they always have, now with the convenience of openly willing donors, bagged blood, and even synthetic blood. While the sun doesn't necessarily destroy them, they're highly vulnerable to it, although they can go out in daylight in some circumstances. They're sensitive to silver, but reactions to religious objects depend on their beliefs during their mortal lives. As Jane discovers to her dismay, ordinary food tastes like ashes. She gets much of the necessary background information on her altered lifestyle from THE GUIDE FOR THE NEWLY UNDEAD, quotations from which serve as the novel's chapter headings.

She returns home, where her undead extrasensory perception reveals that she's sharing the house with her recently deceased elderly aunt. Jane conceals her changed status from her living family members, a choice that seems to me like an unnecessary complication, given that everybody knows vampires exist. This deception doesn't extend past the first book, anyway. The town's vampire community takes in the heroine, leading to a job in a telemarketing call center, which turns out as dismal as one would expect. The dominant member of the vampire equivalent of the welcome wagon, Missy, develops from an annoyance to a serious antagonist. Jane gets accused of murdering another vampire and has to face the local vampire council. Meanwhile, naturally, romantic tension builds between her and Gabriel. In a later book, she works in an occult bookstore, a job much more suited to her temperament and skills. In the second volume, werewolves take center stage, and judging from the titles of some novels in the expanded series, witches and other supernatural-related beings hang around Half-Moon Hollow, too.

The breezy narrative style entertained me without becoming insufferably irritating like Betsy's voice in Mary Janice Davidson's series (as I, at least, found it after a couple of books). The setting and characters of NICE GIRLS DON'T HAVE FANGS supply quirky variations on the contemporary fantasy trope of a community where supernatural creatures exist side by side with mundanes. The series offers suspense, lovers' trials, and occasional danger along with lots of humor, as the heroine adjusts to unlife in a small-town, suburban environment.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Vampire Archives

Otto Penzler's anthology THE VAMPIRE ARCHIVES (2009), 917 pages excluding the 110-page fiction bibliography, labels itself "The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published." Well, not quite, although it may be the largest and merits a place in every devoted vampire fan's library. Of the usual suspects, Polidori's "The Vampyre" is missing, so as an introduction to the genre, this volume falls short of completeness in that respect alone. On the other hand, "The Vampyre" has been reprinted so frequently readers would have no trouble finding it elsewhere. On the third hand, however, the same point would apply to other items such as "Carmilla," "The Horla," and "Dracula's Guest," which are included. So I'd call THE VAMPIRE ARCHIVES an extensive compilation of vampire stories (plus three poems) classic, vintage, and modern including familiar works and quite a few not so readily available. The bibliography alone justifies this volume's existence. Furthermore, it boasts a foreword by Kim Newman and a preface by Neil Gaiman, in addition to the editor's own three-page introduction.

The contents are divided into named sections that, aside from the first category, "Pre-Dracula," sometimes seem rather arbitrary. For instance, why aren't Algernon Blackwood's "The Transfer" and Fritz Lieber's "Girl with the Hungry Eyes" under "Psychic Vampires" instead of "Classic Tales" and "Is That a Vampire?" respectively? Among the three pieces under "True Stories," Stenbock's "Sad Story of a Vampire" doesn't even claim to be a report of an alleged real incident; it's simply fiction. Other categories: "Graveyards, Castles, and Ruins"; "That's Poetic"; "Hard Times for Vampires"; "Something Feels Funny"; "Love. . . Forever"; "They Gather"; "This Is War"; "Modern Masters." Speculation about the editor's classification rationale, though, doesn't detract from enjoyment of these works. Additional distinguished authors in the volume (classic, vintage, and modern) include Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Manly Wade Wellman, H. P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Tanith Lee, Anne Rice, Harlan Ellison, Brian Lumley, and many others. An introductory note about the author precedes each story. The trade paperback on Amazon costs $25.00, but considering the size and scope of the anthology, that's not unreasonable. Recommended.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Shambleau

"Shambleau" (1933), the first story professionally published by classic science-fiction author C. L. Moore, also marked the debut of her interplanetary adventurer Northwest Smith. (Does that name remind you of anybody?) This horror tale takes place in a Terran colony on Mars, inhabited by a motley horde of humans and humanoids from Earth, Mars, Venus, and miscellaneous other planets. Smith meets the title character while she's being pursued by a multi-species lynch mob. Identifying her as a "Shambleau," a word unfamiliar to him, they demand that he turn her over because they "never let those things live!" Smith responds to their inexplicable murderous rage by drawing his heat-ray gun and claiming the girl as his property. The leader of the crowd agrees on condition that Smith keep her confined. He takes her back to his lodging. At first he sees her as "a girl, and sweetly made and in danger," then as merely "a pretty brown girl-creature from one of the many half-human races peopling the planets," no more than an animal in humanoid shape. When he starts to desire her, along with the lust an instinctive revulsion grows. Yet he yields to her predatory embrace, escaping only because Yarol, his Venusian comrade, intervenes.

"Shambleau," in her quasi-human form, is capable of enticing and seducing her prey and even of arousing sympathy. Ultimately, though, Northwest Smith rejects her pathos and sexual allure as a snare. His perception of her undergoes several shifts. When he rescues her from the mob, he sees her in conventional terms as a victimized innocent. A closer look at the girl reveals animal traits, eyes with "slit-like, feline pupils" and fingers "tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat's." Later she preys upon him first in a dream, then in conscious paralysis, serpentine tendrils on her head inducing a "warm softness...caressing the very roots of his soul with a terrible intimacy" and evoking a "rapture of revulsion, hateful, horrible--but still most foully sweet," one example of the queasy blend of eroticism and loathing that pervades this scene. Her true form sprouts a "nest of blind, restless red worms...like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness" in place of hair To Yarol, who catches her in the midst of preying on his friend, Smith looks "dead-alive" like a vampire's victim in the process of being transformed. Like the victim of a traditional vampire, Smith can be restored to himself only by the slaying of the monster, which Yarol accomplishes with a trick from the Medusa legend. Her serpentine appendages link her with the Gorgon and the Lamia; probably "an older race than man, spawned from ancient seed in times before ours, perhaps on planets that have gone to dust," her kind have generated ancient myths on innumerable worlds. Yarol, who knows something of the legends of Shambleau, explains that the creature's draining of life-force acts like a drug upon victims who survive the first embrace and thereafter "keep the thing with them all their lives--which isn't long--feeding it for that ghastly satisfaction."

By the end of the story, the creature is reduced in the heroes' eyes to a "thing," an "it" rather than "she," her true shape described as "a mound like a mass of entrails." During his ecstatic union with Shambleau, Smith experiences transcendent visions, but he rejects that memory, too, as a deadly temptation. He attributes the allure she holds for him to "some nucleus of utter evil" within himself. In a defensive reaction, he convinces himself her species acts only from instinct, like a predatory animal or even a carnivorous plant, their hypnotic power being a natural weapon that's no more a sign of intelligence than the flower's aroma.

This frequently anthologized work appears with many other vintage horror stories of vampirism in WEIRD VAMPIRE TALES (1992), edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, which is available on Amazon.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Strange Story

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), career politician and prolific author, is probably remembered by the general public nowadays only as the inspiration for the annual "It was a dark and stormy night" contest. Classic film buffs may know him as author of the historical novel THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1834), on which several movies were based. Many horror fans will have read his often-anthologized story "The Haunters and the Haunted; or, The House and the Brain" (1859). Yet during his lifetime he was considered equal or even superior to Dickens.

While in college, I read Bulwer-Lytton's A STRANGE STORY (1850), one of his numerous works on supernatural and occult themes, because I was intrigued by a statement in E. F. Bleiler's introduction to Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819) that Bulwer-Lytton's sinister magician Margrave was influenced by Polidori's vampire, Lord Ruthven. Also, as I discovered, several elements in A STRANGE STORY foreshadow motifs in Stoker's DRACULA (1897).

The narrator, small-town physician Allen Fenwick, declares that his "creed was that of a stern materialist." Thus the invasion of his ordered life by Margrave threatens to overturn his entire world-view. The paranormal aspects of Bulwer-Lytton's fiction aren't portrayed as outright supernatural manifestations, at least as seen by Fenwick in his determination to discover natural causes for all the strange phenomena he witnesses, but rather as pseudo-scientific alchemy and occultism. Even when Fenwick gets hold of Margrave's magic wand and subdues the sorcerer with it, the doctor attempts to rationalize a physical explanation for the wand's effect. Like Stoker's doggedly rational character Dr. Seward, Fenwick is in love with—in his case, engaged to—a sheltered young lady. Lytton's Lilian Ashleigh is an unworldly girl in delicate health, subject to fainting spells and disturbing visions. Fenwick shows more impatience than sympathy with what he considers her flights of fantasy, of which he hopes marriage will cure her. The amoral, terribly beautiful Margrave, however, recognizes her as a gifted clairvoyant and wants to make use of her. He literally enchants her to make her forget her fiance. At the same time, his powers render Fenwick helpless to combat his schemes. Although outwardly youthful, Margrave turns out to be actually an ancient, evil alchemist, Louis Grayle, who discovered the Elixir of Life and achieved unnatural immortality. Grayle's apparent "death" and return to life as Margrave recall Lord Ruthven's death and revival in "The Vampyre." Fenwick, to protect his fiancee, has to shield Margrave and eventually help him try to brew a fresh batch of the Elixir to restore his fading youth. In a shattering scene of elemental sorcery, Lilian's health revives and the couple wins their freedom from Margrave only through the latter's destruction.

Margrave pretends friendship to the young doctor but, like Ruthven in "The Vampyre" with that story's naive hero, he systematically destroys Fenwick's happiness. Vampire-like, the sorcerer can't bear the thought of his own death and transforms into a vicious fiend when hurt or frustrated. Like Dracula passing through closed doors and windows as a glowing mist, Margarve can astrally project himself in a "shadow" form, an apparition Fenwick labels "the shining corpse," after a sort of barrow-ghost in Scandinavian legend. Similar to Dracula's manipulation of the mental patient Renfield, Margarve hypnotizes a homicidal maniac into murdering an occultist who has discovered the magician's secret. Margrave's mesmerism offers one of his most striking similarities to Stoker's later vampire. He seems to use that gift to drain Lilian's life-force, and his psychic power lures her from her bed, just as Dracula exercises psychic influence over the sleepwalking Lucy. Indeed, Lilian's trance states foreshadow Lucy's somnambulism. A STRANGE STORY also features a Van Helsing figure, Fenwick's mentor, Dr. Julius Faber, who encourages Fenwick to open his mind to the inexplicable, as Van Helsing does with Seward.

Margrave, like Dracula, is categorized as an alchemist and a necromancer, with the two villains described in strikingly similar terms. One character speculates of Margrave, "And who shall say whether the fiends do not enter at their will this void and deserted temple whence the soul has departed,and use. . . all the faculties which, skillful in memory, still place a mind at the control of their malice?" This sentence neatly summarizes the traditional nature of the vampire in Eastern European folklore, a demon-animated corpse.

Considering Bulwer-Lytton's popularity and prestige in the nineteenth-century, it seems very likely that Bram Stoker was familiar with A STRANGE STORY. I wouldn't be surprised if the earlier novel had some degree of direct influence on events and tropes in DRACULA.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

"Dress of White Silk" and "Blood Son"

Richard Matheson, one of the great speculative fiction authors of the vintage pulp era and beyond, is probably now most widely remembered (outside SF fandom) for his works that have been adapted on film. For instance, THE SHRINKING MAN, filmed as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and I AM LEGEND, filmed several times under various titles, with the oldest, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, a low-budget Vincent Price movie, being the only one that attempts faithfulness to the book. Among others, the movies WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE are adapted from Matheson novels, too. And remember the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," starring William Shatner as an airline passenger who spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane? That's from a Matheson story. He also wrote prolifically for television. In print fiction, he created numerous vampire tales. Here I'll discuss just two, a pair of very different stories of child vampires, "Dress of White Silk" (1951) and "Drink My Red Blood" (1951), the latter also published under the titles "Drink My Blood" and "Blood Son."

Matheson generates sympathy for his child protagonist in "Dress of White Silk" (1951) by having her narrate her experience in the first person. She's an orphan living with her grandmother and cherishing two mementos of her mother, a photograph and the titular white dress. A naive protagonist whose comprehension falls far short of the reader's, the little girl, because of her youth and inexperience, remains ignorant of the meaning of her own revelations. The opening of the story tells us, "Granma locked me in my room and wont let me out. Because its happened she says. I guess I was bad." The unnamed little girl enjoys visiting her late mother's bedroom and playing with the dress. One day she shows the dress and her mother's picture to a friend, Mary Jane, who objects to the darkness in the house. Representing the viewpoint of the "normal" outside world, Mary Jane says that the mother's room "smells like sick people," the dress "smells like garbage" and "has a hole in it," and the adored mother has "buck teeth" and "funny hands." The dress then takes possession of the narrator, who remembers only a sense of being "like grown up strong." In conclusion, locked in her bedroom, she defiantly claims that her grandmother "doesnt have to even give me supper. Im not hungry anyway. Im full."

The reader, more sophisticated in vampire lore than the narrator, recognizes the clues. We know the traditional association between vampires and the stench of decay, strongly emphasized in DRACULA, and we realize the hole in the white silk dress may be the mark of a stake. We decode the mother's "buck teeth" and "funny hands" as fangs and claws. We infer that during the gap in the little girl's memory, she drank the blood of her playmate. We pity her not only because she's a lonely orphan but because she acts from instinct, not malice. As for the grandmother, she transgresses conventional morality to shelter her daughter's child. She obviously knows about the lethal inheritance carried by the little girl but takes no preventive action, aside from the vain prohibition against entering the dead woman's bedroom. She says of her deceased daughter's gown, "I should burn it up but I loved her so." In denial about her daughter's true nature, the grandmother constantly tells the child that her "momma is in heaven." Both characters, with their shared love for the dead woman, evoke more sympathy than Mary Jane, with her callous taunting. The "normal" point of view is marginalized while the reader is invited to empathize with the "monster."

By contrast, in "Drink My Red Blood" (1951), also published under the titles "Drink My Blood" and "Blood Son," Matheson uses an omniscient narrator to maintain an ironic distance from the boy protagonist, Jules. Like a changeling foisted on a human household by malevolent elves, Jules appears to be a vampire boy brought up by unsuspecting human parents. The narrative hesitates between psychological and paranormal explanations for Jules's aberrations, with the former dominant until a surprise reversal at the climax. (I assume for the sake of argument that we're meant to read the final scene as factual within the text, not a hallucination. I believe Matheson's omniscient narrative voice supports this reading.) Neighborhood rumors claim Jules was born with teeth "on a night when winds uprooted trees" and sucked his mother's blood with her milk. His parents, bewildered by his oddities, try to rationalize or suppress them. They suspect him of being retarded until he finally begins to speak at age five, with the word "Death." They combat his interest in death, blood, and vampirism by vainly trying to prevent him from reading DRACULA over and over. They finally give up on him when they can't force him to go back to school, after he reads aloud a composition titled "My Ambition by Jules Dracula," in which he expresses his fervent wish to become a vampire. At first the parents of the other students don't believe their children's reports of Jules's outburst, but upon reflection "they thought what horrible children they'd raised if the children could make up such things." Jules is stigmatized as Other in order to protect the supposed innocence of his classmates.

Depressed, obsessed with a search for "something; he didn't know what"--perhaps his own kind--Jules comes upon a vampire bat at the zoo: "He felt in his heart that it was really a man who had changed." Night after night, Jules sneaks away from home to work at the wire on the bat's cage. Finally he frees it, takes it to a deserted shack in an alley, and feeds it his blood, crying, "Count!...Drink my red blood! Drink me!" As his blood drains away, Jules appears to awaken to the true nature of his obsession: "Mists crept away in his brain. One by one like drawn veils." This dismissal of his lifelong abnormality as a delusion, however, does not constitute the narrative's last word. If he's literally a vampire child after all, how did Jules's family give birth to this inhuman offspring? Was his mother raped by a vampire? Or is Jules the product of recessive genes, a hereditary taint? Or was he, perhaps, a monstrous infant insinuated into a normal family like a cuckoo's egg in another bird's nest? Matheson offers no answer.

Both "Dress of White Silk" and "Blood Son" can be found in the 2017 collection THE BEST OF RICHARD MATHESON, along with many other mind-blowing stories of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. All horror fans should become familiar with this fantastic (in both senses of the word) author.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Image of the Beast

Science-fiction author Philip Jose Farmer's very peculiar horror novel IMAGE OF THE BEAST (1979) combines two novellas, "Image of the Beast" (1968) and "Blown" (1969). This work depicts multiple graphic sex acts, but it certainly isn't "porn" (as at least one person pronounced it, according to the foreword by Theodore Sturgeon) or even erotica; most of the scenes in question have a bizarre, often sadistic quality that very few readers are likely to find erotic. The cover blurb's label of "sexual horror" accurately describes the tone. Moreover, the book has a three-dimensional viewpoint character and a convoluted plot with an intriguing paranormal mystery. It takes place in Los Angeles in the near future (relative to the date of publication) where smog envelops the urban area so densely that people either stay in their homes or flee the city, with traffic congestion far beyond the norm. As the story begins, the protagonist, a private investigator, views a movie that apparently shows his partner's murder. The man in the film, who seems to be drugged, is first seduced and then genitally mutilated by a woman with a snake-like appendage that uncoils from inside her vagina. As he bleeds to death, she and a man costumed as Dracula drink his blood. Later, another film of unknown origin arrives at the police station, showing a similar scenario that includes an ostensible transformation from human to wolf. The protagonist, Herald Childe, a name obviously meant to hold connotations of knight-errantry, projects the stereotypical world-weariness of the loner hardboiled detective, yet he also displays deep knowledge and appreciation of classic literature. He has the fictional private investigator's usual connections with friends on the police force, who unofficially share information with him and, in this nebulous case with no solid leads, rely on him to dig up facts they can't afford to spend official resources hunting for.

After an interview with an eccentric collector of supernatural-related material, Childe visits the castle-like mansion of a baron descended from Romanian nobility. The estate is supposed to be haunted, and Childe glimpses the alleged ghost, whom the baron and his household seem to take for granted. Despite the strangeness of his hosts, he holds firmly to his rejection of the supernatural and flees their hospitality not quite unscathed but substantially unharmed. However, when his ex-wife, Sybil, with whom he maintains mostly friendly relations, disappears, he pays a return visit to the baron's castle. As a prisoner there, he witnesses incredible phenomena that shake his rational beliefs. He realistically wavers between acceptance of the paranormal and a conviction that the whole experience has been an elaborate hoax, augmented by drugs.

According to the baron, the monsters of folklore exist, but they're actually utterly inhuman beings from parallel universes that can't survive in their natural forms in our world. Earth is haunted by creatures that have entered our space-time continuum through "temporary breaks in the walls, accidental cracks" between our realm and those other universes. Among these are the supernatural beings of earthly mythology, including vampires. "But they have forms so alien," the baron explains, "that the human brain has no forms to fit them. And so the human brain gives them forms to explain them." Human beings do not merely perceive these alien invaders as vampires, werewolves, fairies, and so forth; rather, "It is a matter of the aliens actually being molded into these forms." Ghosts are entities that haven't fully taken on corporeal form, so they slip back and forth between worlds. Once he manages to escape from his captors' clutches, Childe relapses into doubt again. When Sybil finally turns up, she shares her own experience as a "guest" of the baron, including a sexual encounter with a man, or manlike creature, who emits electricity. From her, Childe learns that the baron and his fellow monsters take an intense interest in Childe himself. Is the baron's account of these alien entities completely accurate? And what buried secret, unknown to himself, lurks in Childe's background?

The author apparently envisioned hard-core fans of speculative fiction as this novel's main audience, for it includes, as a minor character, Forrest Ackerman, real-life magazine editor famous for his vast collection of horror/fantasy/SF memorabilia. Farmer has created a unique twist on the "all myths are true" trope. Readers who can stomach the occasional scenes of "sexual horror" might find this book interesting. It's out of print, but several editions are listed on Amazon, so you can acquire one if you don't mind paying a trade paperback price for a used mass-market paperback. (Ignore the copies listed for hundreds of dollars.) Herald Childe comes across as a flawed but basically decent person, sympathetic enough for the reader to hope he survives the weird situation in which he becomes entangled. And I can definitively state that I've never seen quasi-human monsters quite like these in any other work of fiction.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Whisper of Blood

Ellen Datlow's anthology A WHISPER OF BLOOD (1991) follows up her earlier volume BLOOD IS NOT ENOUGH (1989). "Whisper" is entirely accurate, because very few of these stories feature literal bloodsuckers. Most of them involve some kind of energy draining or even vampirism as metaphor. In her introduction, Datlow declares that her selections focus mainly on "the negative relationships themselves." The majority of the stories are original to the anthology, plus a few reprints. Contributors include many distinguished authors of horror and fantasy, such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, Robert Silverberg, Jonathan Carroll, Barry N. Malzberg, and Thomas Ligotti, among others.

Needless to say, my favorites tend toward works that approach closest to traditional vampirism, although with variations unique to each writer. The volume leads off with "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," by Suzy McKee Charnas, author of THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY. This very different tale stars Rose, a recently deceased elderly woman who lingers as a ghost in her old apartment, benignly taking small amounts of blood from her grown granddaughter to "anchor" her to this world, until she builds up the courage to move on to whatever lies beyond. Karl Edward Wagner's "The Slug" portrays a humanoid "leech" who drains a writer's creative energy until destroyed by the usual method of killing slugs—salt. Silverberg's "Warm Man" (one of the reprints) features an empath who relieves the emotional pain of his "victims" by sucking it in, subject to the risk of empathic overload. The predator in Ligotti's "Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel" is a kind of energy-draining demon. The narrator of "A Week in the Unlife," by David J. Schow, hunts vampires, but since we experience only his viewpoint, it's hard to tell whether the "bloodsuckers" he tracks are real or imaginary. Rick Wilbur presents a traditional vampire infatuated with "a good Catholic girl" in the poem "The Impaler in Love." The protagonist of Yarbro's "Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?" (another reprint), an astrophysics professor whose memory has been wiped, struggles to uncover the truth of his possibly horrifying past. This piece didn't strike me as vampiric, although it does deal with predators in a more general sense.

Readers will have to use their imaginations and exercise sympathetic suspension of disbelief to find vampirism in some of the other stories as well. With several of them, I couldn't discern any vampiric content, however tenuous, even by my very broad and elastic definitional standards. (I didn't include those works in my vampire fiction bibliography update for that year.) Nevertheless, they're all excellent tales of one kind or another, as one would expect from such an outstanding lineup of authors assembled by a veteran editor of numerous speculative fiction anthologies. Datlow also compiled BLOOD AND OTHER CRAVINGS (2011) and TEETH (2011, co-edited with Terri Windling, reviewed here in April 2018).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Beyond Sundown

Now that ten years have passed since the release of BEYOND SUNDOWN (2011), the last novel in Elaine Bergstrom's Austra family series, it falls within my self-imposed time limit for these "retro review" blog posts. Even staunch fans of SHATTERED GLASS and its prequels and sequels might have missed this final book, since it was independently published. BEYOND SUNDOWN could be read on its own but would hold much greater meaning for readers familiar with at least SHATTERED GLASS. The action takes place in Romania and Canada, mainly right before and after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, with a flashback to the prehistoric era when the Old One, progenitor of the Austra clan, arrived on Earth. We witness how, marooned on this planet, he bred with human females to engender descendants who share his nature. The story reveals new information about the Austras' culture and customs. The principal narrators are Patrick, Stephen Austra's son, and Michael, formerly human and recently converted. (These vampires, although members of a different species, can transform their human kin into beings like themselves through blood-sharing.) Thanks to their mind-merging power, however, we get viewpoint scenes from other characters as well. Stephen himself, for example, and the fiercely passionate, murderous, half-mad Catherine, along with her half-human minion whom she promises vengeance against the jailers who tormented him for years.

The climactic crisis unfolds when Catherine gets possession of a radioactive bomb—the one substance even more lethal to vampires than to ordinary human beings—and climbs the mountain to the Old One's stronghold. The resulting catastrophe becomes the catalyst for a world-shaking event. An alien spaceship lands on Earth, piloted by starving refugees from the Old One's homeworld, in desperate flight from planet to planet. The Austras must decide how to deal with their long-lost kin while concealing their own connection with the aliens from the human population.

BEYOND SUNDOWN provides an entirely fitting epic finale for Bergstrom's vampire series. Although the trade paperback is essentially unobtainable, you can buy the Kindle edition.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Monday, December 14, 2020

Doctors Wear Scarlet

I consider DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET (1960), by Simon Raven, one of the four best pre-1970 vampire novels of the twentieth century. The other three, by the way, are Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (1954), Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD (1961), and PROGENY OF THE ADDER (1965), by Leslie H. Whitten. A tale of slowly mounting suspense and creeping horror, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET combines psychic and physical vampirism with, perhaps, ambiguous hints of the supernatural. To the very end, I remain not quite sure whether the vampire seductress is meant to be understood as more than human or not. The ominous-sounding title refers to a line on an invitation to the Michaelmas Feast at a college in Cambridge University where the climactic catastrophe occurs. "Doctors wear scarlet" simply means holders of doctoral degrees are expected to attend in their academic regalia. It's eerily evocative, though, isn't it?

The story begins as the narrator, Anthony Seymour, receives a surprise visit from a London police officer, Inspector Tyrrel, asking for information about Richard Fountain, a slightly younger former school friend of Anthony's. Richard, now a junior faculty member at Cambridge, has been traveling in Greece on an ostensible research trip. The London police have been contacted by the Greek authorities with sinister but vague complaints about Richard; they want him out of the country. Tyrrel persuades Anthony to recount his past association with Richard. A portrait emerges of a bright, well-behaved, but self-contained boy and young man who seems too good to be true. The first fifty pages or so of the novel comprise the conversation between Anthony and Tyrell about Richard's youth, his Army service, and his academic career so far. Yet this backstory exposition in the form of dialogue never becomes dull, for we receive constant hints of something "off" about Richard, an underlying strain of ruthlessness or even cruelty. At Cambridge, a distinguished professor, Dr. Goodrich, appoints himself Richard's mentor and patron, intent on shaping not only his career but his entire life. This plan includes marrying Richard to Goodrich's daughter, Penelope, and Richard has fled to Greece mainly as a temporary escape from the older man's dominance. His research focuses on archaic cults of a bizarre, licentious, perhaps bloodthirsty nature. His possible involvement with modern remnants of such practices has attracted the authorities' attention.

With several friends, Anthony travels to Greece in search of Richard. Their quest proves to be an adventure in itself, for he clearly doesn't want to be found. The searchers hear rumors of his liaison with a dangerous woman, perhaps a priestess of one such illicit cult, and many locals speak of Richard himself with repugnance and fear. When his rescuers find him in an abandoned medieval fortress, he's weak and ill. The woman, Chriseis, attacks him by night, mesmerizing Anthony and the other man keeping watch. She seems to have some degree of supernatural power, so they deal with her as they would a traditional vampire. Saving Richard and taking him back to England doesn't end the danger, though. He behaves oddly, sometimes speaking of Chriseis as if she's still alive. Anthony consults an expert, a Van Helsing figure who refuses to get involved aside from providing information. He explains vampirism as a kind of contagious psychological disease. Richard's experience of figurative psychic vampirism under the influence of Dr. Goodrich predisposed him to falling under the spell of Chriseis. It becomes obvious Richard hasn't actually recovered from his ordeal. The disastrous Michaelmas Feast reveals the full extent of his corruption.

Except for the confrontation with Chriseis and the shattering climax, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET is a deeply unsettling story rather than one of outright terror. The novel's cryptic title suits its tone very well.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt