Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vampires: Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories

VAMPIRES (1987), edited by Alan Ryan, amply fulfills the promise of its subtitle, "Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories." Beginning with Lord Byron's cryptic "Fragment" and John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (the first known vampire story published in English), it includes almost all the classic nineteenth-century stories and the highlights of vintage fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, up through Richard Matheson's "Drink My Blood." Since only one story per author is included, the editor had to choose one each among the many vampire tales written by Matheson, Robert Bloch, M. R. James, and E. F. Benson. He covers the rest of the twentieth century into the 1980s with an excellent selection of widely varied tales. At this point, of course, choices have to be subjective, since there's room to include only a fraction of the "great." As for the two classic Victorian novels, VARNEY THE VAMPYRE is represented by its first chapter and DRACULA by the outtake known as "Dracula's Guest."

Ryan prefaces each story with background information about the author. Two appendices list major vampire films and twentieth-century novels (all of those post-1970 except Matheson's I AM LEGEND and Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD). The checklist of novels amounts to a representative sample of the best, since presenting all the outstanding book-length vampire fiction from 1970 to the mid-1980s would require an extensive bibliography. What makes this anthology uniquely valuable is that the stories are in chronological order, and the publication dates (or, in the case of "Dracula's Guest," the presumed year of its writing) are given with the titles in the table of contents. For anyone seeking a comprehensive overview of vampire fiction in English, this is THE indispensable book to read.

In case you want to acquire a copy of this volume, it may be easier to find under the title of the second edition, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF VAMPIRE STORIES.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Soft Whisper of the Dead

Late horror author and editor Charles L. Grant set many of his stories and novels in the Connecticut village of Oxrun Station, his counterpart to Arkham or Castle Rock. THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD (1982), set in the nineteenth century sometime after the Civil War, is a vampire novel in the Victorian Gothic style. Grant establishes the setting with atmospheric descriptions of a cold, windy night in November. Out of nowhere, a strange woman arrives at the railroad station, accompanied by a man—or a wolf-like dog—or no one? We learn that the visitor, Saundra Chambers, is a girlhood friend of the heroine, Pamela Squires, daughter of the richest man in town. Pamela and Ned Stockton, an upstanding young police detective, secretly hope to marry, although her father has chosen a man of higher birth and wealth for her. Saundra has returned from her travels abroad oddly changed. Though Pamela has no idea of the reason for her guest's peculiarities, the reader understands why the cool, reticent woman isolates herself in her room by day. To Pamela's shock, her father abruptly announces his engagement to Saundra. Meanwhile, people begin to die or simply disappear. Ned catches glimpses of the wolf and hears rumors of a mysterious man named Count Braslov, never seen except as a fleeting shadow until near the climax of the novel. And some of the murder victims begin to return from the dead.

As a story of a Dracula-like vampire trying to take over an isolated New England town, THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD inevitably brings to mind Stephen King's 'SALEM'S LOT, but without the onstage gore. Grant's work has been described as "quiet horror," a description that fits this novel well. Creeping tension and supernatural dread rather than overt violence set the dominant tone. The genre-savvy audience knows exactly what's going on in Oxrun Station, but the pleasure of waiting for the characters to realize the truth (with the help of a wise old servant in Pamela's household) and wondering whether they'll prevail over the vampire lord rivets the reader's attention.

Grant tells the story in an expertly crafted omniscient narrative style. One recurrent error disappointed me, "lay" for "laid" (transitive past tense); an editor at a distinguished small press such as the publisher of this book should know better. The volume is illustrated with black-and-white drawings reminiscent of Edward Gorey. Lovers of vintage horror will savor this tale.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Virgintooth

If you'd like to read a strange small-press vampire novel with many points of interest despite its oddities and flaws, try VIRGINTOOTH (1991), by Mark Ivanhoe. (It's out of print, but cheap used copies are available.) As the title hints, it narrates the odyssey of a new vampire adjusting to her changed existence. From the fledgling's first awakening into undeath and her struggles with problems both esoteric and realistically down-to-earth, the story builds to an apocalyptic climax in which ancient vampires are revealed to have reality-warping powers on a godlike level.

The opening scene unfolds an unusual perspective on the transition to undeath: The protagonist, Elizabeth, awakens from death with no memory of her mortal life, not even her name. Her "Master," harsh and sometimes outright cruel, when he isn't being whimsically kind, drags her out of the grave. It transpires that vampires in this author's mythos "eat" the personalities of their victims. The Master chooses to return Elizabeth's memories and selfhood to her. Thus she becomes a conscious, free-willed being (at least within the limits of the Master's rule) instead of a zombie-like, savage "filthy animal." While these vampires can drink from animals, human blood is of course preferred, and in the technique of preying on humans the Master trains Elizabeth with brutal efficiency. Other interesting features: As a young vampire, she suffers pain in moonlight, for the logical reason that it's reflected sunlight. The undead can't control the element of water, so falling rain creates a "veil" that dulls their senses. Wind and snow can "shred" them unless they exert all their energy to maintain their physical forms. Later she finds that food is now tasteless as well as indigestible, and she can't see TV images because of the changes in her visual perception.

On the other end of the scale from Elizabeth and the barely sentient undead beneath even her, ancient vampires have the power to crush the Master, if they combine forces against him. Nevertheless, he bluntly refutes Elizabeth's image of the romantic glamour of vampirism. She is "a leech and the slave of a leech," compelled to hide from human society—until the advent of the eternal night the Master keeps hinting at. When a group of experienced vampires offers her the opportunity to escape the Master's grip, she enters upon a new phase of her existence and learns more about the mind-control, telekinetic, illusion, and transmutation powers of the undead. Realistically, however, when fledgling Elizabeth tries to exercise these powers, she makes a mess of her efforts. There's quiet horror in her growing estrangement from humanity, not only because of her bloodlust but in the realization that she can't even remember how long it's been since she became one of the undead. Still worse, she begins to wonder how much of a free-willed person she has been since then, rather than (as she fears) a puppet of commands planted "in the depth of her soul" by the Master. When she comes upon her mother at her (Elizabeth's) grave, Elizabeth's first impulse is to treat "the old woman" as prey. She reveals herself to her mother, who accepts her daughter's transformation with surprising aplomb. Elizabeth moves back home, and the typical parent-child frictions resume with the additional layer of vampire-mortal interaction. The scenes of Elizabeth's re-connection with her mother (and cats) comprise my favorite parts of the book. She also finds a lover, even though vampires are largely asexual.

Eventually, the Master's rants about extinguishing the sun prove to be more than idle boasts. Then things get really weird. For readers willing to suspend disbelief, the climactic confrontation between the Master and the vampires who oppose him provides a wild ride.

When VIRGINTOOTH was reviewed as a new release in my fanzine, THE VAMPIRE'S CRYPT, the reviewer mentioned the ridiculously over-inflated powers of the vampire elders, a criticism I agreed with. We received a letter from the editor or author to the effect that it should have been obvious the book was meant as a satire on a certain type of vampire novel popular at the time. Well, it wasn't obvious. The story didn't impress either the reviewer or me as the least bit funny; furthermore, parts of the book comprise a believable and emotionally engaging account of a young vampire's ordeal that is too convincing on its own terms to read as satire. If that's what the author truly intended, he erred in the direction of too much subtlety, because he didn't succeed for me.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Celebrity Vampires

CELEBRITY VAMPIRES (1995) is an original-fiction anthology edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman. While the title implies celebrities who ARE vampires, a lot of the stories instead involve celebrities who MEET vampires. Many of the stars are actors or musicians, as may be expected, but we also encounter memorable names in other fields of endeavor, such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Arthur Conan Doyle, Sam Peckinpah, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Howard Hughes, Lenin, and Rasputin. (It feels a bit strange to label those last two as "celebrities"; they would have fitted better in Greenberg's historical anthology TIME OF THE VAMPIRES. Theirs is an effective story anyway, though. Hmm, what DID happen to Princess Anastasia after the Russian Revolution?) Appropriately, Marilyn Monroe, Theda Bara, and Greta Garbo appear. It's not surprising to find Elvis Presley among the undead; in fact, he shows up twice. Carole Nelson Douglas's "Dracula on the Rocks" might be charged with "cheating," since the celebrity protagonist, Irene Adler, is herself fictional, but the story does contain some allusions to historical persons.

Contributors include horror writers such as (to name a few) John Lutz, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, J. N. Williamson, Norman Partridge, and Gary A. Braunbeck. All the settings fall in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, doubtless because the idea of a "celebrity" as we understand the concept didn't extend much further back in history. My personal favorite is "A Night at the (Horse) Opera" by P. N. Elrod, in which her vampire hero Jack Fleming meets Harpo Marx and they tangle with a trio of gangsters. The vampires in these varied, entertaining tales span the whole range from villains to heroes.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wicked Ways

WICKED WAYS (1996), by Kate Hoffmann, is a Harlequin Temptation from back in the day when that was Harlequin's hottest line. (Amazon stocks used paperback copies, and the book has been re-released in Kindle.) As such, the cover illustration and title don't so much as hint at vampirism; you have to consult the blurb for that detail. It's not strictly a vampire romance, since the hero isn't the vampire, although several other characters suspect he is. Hoffmann crafts a lighthearted tale that plays with the burgeoning popularity of vampire fiction at that time. We don't learn whether there's actually one of the undead lurking around until near the end of the novel.

Heroine Hallie Tyler lives in the village of Egg Harbor, Maine, with her twin eighty-year-old great-aunts. They've converted the huge nineteenth-century family home into an inn. Perfectly content with a steady but not luxurious income, Hallie reacts with more dismay than delight when a horde of tourists descends on the town in response to a NEW YORK TIMES article about a Tyler ancestor's alleged vampirism. In response to the vampire-hunters, the curiosity seekers, and her aunts' enthusiastic promotion of the rumor, she insists it's all nonsense and wishes it would go away. A dark, ravishingly attractive man who calls himself Edward Tristan arrives one evening and rents the half-renovated coach house, since no regular rooms are vacant. At his initial appearance, numerous hints imply to the alert reader that he's a vampire. In the first chapter, though, we discover from scenes in his viewpoint that he is, in fact, Tristan Montgomery, a bestselling horror author of solitary, nocturnal habits, but completely human. He has come to Egg Harbor in search of an isolated spot in which to break the writer's block impeding his latest work in progress.

Since he comes out only after dark and doesn't eat the meals provided by the inn, Hallie's aunts quickly decide he must be a vampire, as does one of the visiting vampire-hunters. Hallie herself, struggling against an immediate, powerful attraction to Tristan, entertains the idea that they may be right, although her better judgment repeatedly dismisses the notion. Meanwhile, clues showing up near her ancestor's grave hint that a vampire may be stalking the neighborhood, even if it isn't Tristan. For Hallie, the last straw comes when the local authorities put on a vampire festival at Halloween, a severe blow to her desire for the village to remain unspoiled by tourist kitsch.

This novel requires the reader to accept two common tropes—instant, irresistible sexual magnetism between two characters who scarcely know each other and belief in vampirism by otherwise sensible, modern adults. For vampire fans who can embrace these assumptions, WICKED WAYS is a fun riff on the tropes of the genre.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt

Monday, May 15, 2017

Blood Price

If you like urban fantasy with romantic vampires and have never read Tanya Huff's "Blood" series, start with BLOOD PRICE (1991). This novel introduces Vicki Nelson, former Toronto police homicide detective turned PI. A degenerative eye condition forced her to resign from the police department. Her peripheral vision is deteriorating, and she's almost night-blind. In an appropriately ironic development, she ends up working on paranormal-related crimes with a vampire (of the "can't function in daylight type"), Henry Fitzroy. The bastard son of King Henry VIII, Henry is based on an actual person who died as a very young man in real-life history. He has learned to feed without killing, taking and giving pleasure with donors who don't know his true nature, and he earns good money as an author of historical romances under the name "Elizabeth Fitzroy." He and Vicki team up to investigate a "slasher" serial killer that turns out to be a blood-drinking demon summoned by a hapless wannabe magician. Vicki also works with police detective Mike Celluci, her former partner and lover, with whom she has an ambivalent friendship marked by annoyance and professional rivalry as well as lingering fondness.

In subsequent novels, Vicki, Henry, and Mike encounter other supernatural creatures, including a werewolf pack and a reanimated mummy. Throughout the five-book "Blood" series, Vicki's triangular relationship with Henry and Mike adds tension on top of the paranormal suspense plots. Vicki is a strong, likable character whose medical problem (with the frustration she suffers over her resulting limitations) and other personal issues that arise in the course of the series engage the reader's sympathy. Any lover of dashing, sensual "good guy vampire" heroes will enjoy Henry Fitzroy. The original five novels are followed by a couple of story collections, plus a spin-off series that begins with SMOKE AND SHADOWS (2004), which includes an affectionate satire of vampire TV shows no fan of FOREVER KNIGHT should miss.

The "Blood" books also spawned a pretty good two-season cable TV series, BLOOD TIES, available on Netflix.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Vic the Vampire

Children's chapter book VIC THE VAMPIRE: SCHOOL GHOUL (1990), by Hanya Bloom, is the first novel in a series that also includes (as far as I can find on Amazon) three other books, subtitled SCIENCE SPOOK, FRIENDLY FANGS, and VAMPIRE COUSINS.

As first-person narrator Mike begins the fourth grade, a strange but friendly new boy, Vic Alucard, joins the class. His family has recently moved from Transylvania (which the kids, including Mike, mishear as Pennsylvania). He's pale with red lips and wears a black cape over his black jeans and purple shirt. His family lives in a large, spooky house and keeps bats, a fierce-looking but affectionate dog, and a giant spider as pets. Vic and his sister Viveca eat raw hamburger, while their parents don't seem to eat at all, and Vic brings a thermos of thick, red liquid to school. He's allergic to garlic and flees in panic from getting his picture taken or being sprayed with a hose.

In keeping with the typical children's novel tropes, Mike has to cope with a class bully, in this case a girl named Missy. Although her sidekick, Clint, occasionally resorts to physical violence, Missy's bullying takes the form of insults and pranks. Naturally, she's the first to accuse Vic of being a vampire and spends the whole book trying to expose him. Mike, meanwhile, struggles with the problem of whether his new best friend could really be a vampire and whether that's a reason to fear him. The class organizes a fall carnival, in which Vic and his family play a vital role, where Mike finally has to come to terms with Vic's nature.

VIC THE VAMPIRE, aimed at a sightly younger readership than Mel Gilden's delightful Fifth Grade Monsters series, doesn't feature the witty pop culture allusions that make Gilden's stories fun for adults as well as kids. Still, if you're looking for fiction to entertain vampire-loving children, with a diversity-friendly message of openness toward people who seem "different," Bloom's series fits that niche.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Goldcamp Vampire

Elizabeth Scarborough's humorous historical novel THE GOLDCAMP VAMPIRE OR THE SANGUINARY SOURDOUGH (1987) is narrated by Valentine Lovelace (nee Pelagia Harper), a newspaper editor and writer of dime novels. After the death of her dissolute but well-liked father, her father's mistress, Sasha Devine, invites Valentine to accompany her as companion and general gofer on a trip to the Yukon gold fields, all expenses covered (but salary to be paid at some later date). To Valentine's surprise, the journey includes the coffin of a certain Mr. Lawson, whose grieving partner wants him transported to the Yukon. On the voyage north and in Dawson City, Valentine gets arrested for murder, fakes her own death, and poses as a Spanish dancer, among other predicaments. Along with other eccentric characters, she meets Sasha's "admirer" (owner of the saloon whose dance company Valentine joins), Vasily Vladovitch Bledinoff, a Romanian Count who emigrated to Russia and thence to the Yukon.

The humor springs from Valentine's cluelessness in contrast to the reader's full awareness of the significance of mosquito bites on the neck, aggressive bats, sensitivity to crucifixes, multiple disappearances on board the boat, and a mist flowing out of the nonexistent "Mr. Lawson's" casket. For most of the book, she attributes the fatigue, illnesses, and inexplicable deaths to a Deadly Miasma. Even when she realizes the "mosquito bites" on the dancing girls' necks are inflicted by Vasily, she thinks he's just a womanizer with perverted notions of seduction. She awakens to the truth only when someone brings a copy of a recent novel by that Irish writer, Bram Stoker, to the saloon and reads the first three chapters aloud. She also encounters werewolves, a were-moose, an old enemy from her past encounter with a dragon god in Texas (in a prior novel I haven't read), a young aspiring writer named Jack London, and her father's ghost. Vasily turns out to be not so much evil as cheerfully amoral, but even after discovering that his bite induces sensual pleasure, euphoria, and addiction, Valentine has no desire to become a vampire.

The witty first-person narrative and fast-paced adventure keep the reader from getting emotionally involved with the characters who fall into deadly peril at the claws and fangs of monsters. There are moments of horror and suspense, but we can't seriously fear for Valentine when she has obviously survived to tell the tale. This fun, lightly scary romp concludes with a "Biographer's Note" summarizing the heroine's later life as a writer, world traveler, and adventurer. If you like humorous takes on traditional horror tropes, pick up THE GOLDCAMP VAMPIRE.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You

Reading material for lovers of the undead during the month of Valentine's Day: THE VAMPIRE IS JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU (2009), by "Vlad Mezrich," self-proclaimed vampire, one of several silly/satirical "guidebooks" for women who want to date vampires (men attracted to undead seductresses are on their own, I guess), is the best I've seen. For one thing, the author actually seems to know a fair amount about the subject, even if his examples and advice come mostly from paranormal romance, especially of the TWILIGHT type. The text is profusely illustrated in red and black with numerous drawings and a variety of fonts. Vlad supplements his comments with bar graphs, pie charts, flow charts, multiple-choice questionnaires, and sidebar boxes quoting personal testimony from vampires and their girlfriends as well as a therapist and a vampire-slayer (with advice about "protection"). This layout and print style could get annoying at great length but works fine for this short (176 pages with lots of white space), fast-reading book.

Some topics covered: How to tell an authentic vampire from a wannabe. Best places to meet vampires. What a vampire looks for in a woman. How to decode his dialogue and interpret his kisses. Dating etiquette. Appropriate gifts for vampires. Meeting his friends and family. Fill-in-the-blanks vampire poetry. Celebrating major holidays. Dealing with the centuries of age difference. Surviving the eventual break-up or, conversely, preparing for transformation into his eternal mate. That's just a sample of the many subdivisions. There's even a brief recipe section (real recipes, e.g. Bloody Mary and blood sausage, with the "vampire version" as alternatives).

One thing I'd like to see, and would include if I wrote such a guide, would be a comparison of different breeds of vampires. In both folklore and literature, vampires come in many different types with a wide variety of traits, powers, and weaknesses. They're not all supernatural undead who shun daylight. A romantic fling with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain or P. N. Elrod's Jack Fleming would be quite a different (and probably safer) experience from dating Anne Rice's Lestat or Dr. Weyland of Suzy McKee Charnas's THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY. THE VAMPIRE IS JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU is an entertaining book for hard-core fans. Although it's out of print, Amazon has many used copies for sale.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Love in Vein

Poppy Z. Brite, best known in the vampire realm as author of the novel LOST SOULS (1992), edited LOVE IN VEIN (1994), an anthology subtitled "Twenty Original Tales of Vampire Erotica." Her introduction promises "stories exploring the visceral connection between vampirism and eroticism." Contrary what the reader might expect from the subtitle, many of the tales don't feature highly explicit, graphic sex, but all exude dark sensuality. Contributors include such well-known SF, fantasy, and horror authors as Charles de Lint, Nancy Holder, Gene Wolfe, Barry N. Malzberg,Thomas F. Monteleone, Brian Hodge, and many others. (Nothing by Brite herself, oddly. Some editors disapprove of including one's own work in an anthology, an attitude that puzzles me. As a reader, I pick up an anthology edited by a famous author in anticipation of getting a story by that author as part of the bargain.)

The story I find most creepily fascinating, "Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu," by Norman Partridge, imagines an alternative ending to DRACULA, in which Quincey Morris takes Lucy's mutilated corpse back to Texas with him, planning to undo the vampire-slayers' work and make her his bride. Other memorable pieces include: Jessica Amanda Salmonson's "Arabian Nights"-inflected tale, "The Final Fete of Abba Adi"; "White Chapel," by Douglas Clegg, set in Southeast Asia, featuring a legendary serial killer and exotic gods; "The Marriage," by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, about a vampire who drains energy by feeding on bodily fluids, especially sexual secretions; "Queen of the Night," by Gene Wolfe, through the eyes of a boy brought up by ghouls; "The Alchemy of the Throat," narrated by a castrato boy soprano enslaved to a more-or-less benevolent vampire born in ancient Rome.

Brite also edited a follow-up volume, LOVE IN VEIN II (1997), also consisting of original stories—with one exception. The book begins with a reprint of Neil Gaiman's unforgettable "Snow, Glass, Apples," a very dark fairy tale of Snow White as a vampire and the Queen as a good witch striving to overcome the girl's evil. (Tanith Lee's older story "Red as Blood" has the same premise but a happy ending.)

Margaret L. Carter

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