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The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.
‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’
Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel. Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.
Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.
For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.
Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?
This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.
Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.
Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.
I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.
I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
The next day, we were married.
I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.
Apparently I was wrong.
Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.
Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.
The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.
The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.
Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.
My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.
Deliciously wicked and very funny.
‘Granny Weatherwax is going to hear about this, and you’ll wish you’d never been born…or un-born or reborn or whatever you are!’
‘We look forward to meeting her,’ said the Count calmly. ‘But here we are, and I don’t seem to see this famous lady with us. Perhaps you should go and fetch her? You could take your friends. And when you see her, Miss Nitt, you can tell her that there is no reason why witches and vampires should fight.’
Pratchett and vampires? Oh you do know how to make me happy.
I have always liked the Discworld take on vampires, which is essentially that they are pathetic poseurs (which is how you spell ‘posers’, in this instance). However, the Discworld also happens to be a fantasy world where racial pluralism is a reality (take that Tolkien!) so there are vampires who are members of the Black Ribbon society in Ankh-Morpork. Sure they are undead, but do they have to live as monsters? – is their creed and it is a very amusing take on the traditional fiend.
With Carpe Jugulum Pratchett returns to oldschool vampires, with a slight twist. No more talk of temperance. Just systematic murder, organised under the simple principle of their being superior to humans and all the other ‘low’ races of the Discworld.
The story itself is set in the kingdom of Lancre, the setting for most of Pratchett’s Witches novels. Now some folk like Rincewind, others Vimes, but my personal favourite Discworld protagonist has always been Granny Weatherwax, the witch who will brook no nonsense (needless to say I am also a big Nanny Ogg fan). At the start of the story Granny is feeling her age once again, as well as a sense of isolation. She abandons Lancre in a fit of pique, believing that she was snubbed by her fellow witches and Queen Magrat when she does not receive an invitation to the royal baptism. Of course her departure comes at the worst possible juncture. King Verence, the former court fool who was revealed to have royal blood, is once again trying to be modern and extends an invitation to a very important family from the Überwald region. Except of course they are vampires and by inviting them, Verence has literally just handed them the keys to the kingdom.
Only Agnes Nitt seems to be immune to the glamour of the vampires. The youngest of the Lancre witches, Agnes literally has a thin girl inside her trying to get out – which is to say, she hears this voice in her head making a running commentary on everything that she does wrong. This ‘Perdita’, allows her to resist the influence of the vampires, enough for her to realize what is happening to the rest of the citizens of Lancre. Her only companion is a young priest from the theocratic state of Omnia, last seen in an early Pratchett novel Small Gods (which happens to be one of my favourites). Mightily Oats suffers from profound religious doubt about his vocation, so like Agnes he too is of ‘two minds’, about everything. Together they try to organise the people of Lancre to rise up against the racial supremacist vampires and find Granny Weatherwax before it is too late.
Pratchett is simply too clever by half at times. Yes on initial inspection this book seems like a merging of Small Gods and that *other* book about Lancre falling victim to an invasion Lords and Ladies. It is a brilliant combination of themes though. The crisis of faith suffered by Mightily Oats allows the writer to expound on his humanist beliefs to great effect.
What’s more the book also addresses the limits of tolerance in multicultural society. This is something of a bugbear with me, the notion that ‘multiculturalism has failed‘ continues to gain traction in political circles, which is absurd as the definition of what it means seems to change all the time. Different races living together is nothing new. What has changed is that now there is this expectation that races should be treated with equal respect, under a shared national identity, which is where politicos come grinding to a halt. How can a statesman exploit class and racial divisions in a multicultural society? The very idea.
Pratchett wittily dispenses with all of this in a book about vampires, little blue people with Scots accents and a dwarf highwayman. This is why he is the master.
‘Mark…I finally came, Mark. Please…’
Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.
Back in ’94 our art teacher in school had an unusual idea. He would take his class of teenage boys and fashion them into a mini-movie studio. To inspire us he showed us a series of clips from various horror movies, pointing out how simplistic tricks could be used to shock audiences. This collage of films included John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally the adaptation of Stephen King‘s ‘Salem’s Lot, by Tobe Hooper. Specifically this scene. I am pretty sure that afternoon, spent in a classroom with the blinds down, probably scarred me for life.
Last night I could not sleep, so I picked up my trusty Kindle, wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and finally got round to reading ‘Salem’s Lot.
Ben Mears is a writer with three novels under his belt that failed to impress newspaper critics, but has managed to earn him a living:
Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.
He returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a small village on the road to Portland that has not changed much since the briefs years he spent there as a child living with his aunt. Ever since he left he has been obsessed with the troubled history of the Marsten House. He hopes to acquire a lease to the long-abandoned building and exorcise his fears of what happened to him there as a child with a novel. Instead he discovers two European antique dealers, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, have bought the building. Ben meets Susan Norton and the two of them quickly fall in love. She has dreams of living ‘Salem’s Lot for an artistic career in New York. He also makes a friend in high school English teacher Matt Burke, a quick mutual respect developing between the two men of letters. Ben, despite his troubled feelings over the Marsten House, begins to remember how much he enjoyed living in this quiet community.
Shortly after his arrival, a boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing. His brother Danny reports that just before he vanished, Ralphie described what he thought was a ghost staring at him. Shortly afterwards his parents are sent into even greater distress when he drops dead in hospital. After the funeral Matt encounters gravedigger Mike Ryerson in the local bar, delirious and weak, with a strange story about having passed out while burying the Glick boy’s body. The night Ralphie disappeared, the two brothers had been travelling to Mark Petrie’s house, to see his collection of models and horror film memorabilia. Even as Matt, Ben and a several other co-conspirators come to the conclusion that the strange events in town have been caused by an infestation of vampires – after hours of debate and argument – Mark has already identified the cause and set off alone to face the mysterious new residents of the Marsten House.
If you have seen the tv miniseries, or read the book, maybe you have noticed what I have done above – place the emphasis on Mark instead of Ben, who is yet another self-insert character in King’s fiction. That is because firstly I am quite tired of this tendency of the author’s; secondly I cannot help imagining what this book would have been like if it focused exclusively on Mark. It could have been To Kill A Mockingbird, but with vampires! As it is there is a huge cast in this book, with many voices overlapping during passages, as well as our old friend ‘the omniscient narrator’, weighing in to let us know how the vampire infiltration of the town is proceeding.
Of course this is all part and parcel of King’s project, which is to describe the damning of an entire community. The arrival of the vampires is in fact a judgement on the town of ‘Salem for their sins. There is barely a single sympathetic resident in the town.
In fact for me the most horrific scene in the book does not feature monsters, but a mother punching her own baby.
I find King to be heavy-handed, with a tin-ear for dialogue and yet – I sat and read this book throughout the entire day. That counts for something.
“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”
When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.
This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.
Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.
Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist?“ He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.
Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.
Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.
There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.
The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.
Well executed and very amusing.
She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.
All he had was a skull for a head.
Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.
It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.
This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.
The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.
Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.
On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents.
This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above.
On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80’s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).
On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again – an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.
“And you did get into the coffin?”
“I had no choice. I begged Lestat to let me stay in the closet, but he laughed, astonished.”
Confession time folks. It’s my birthday in ….ooh, six hours. So my wife and I treated ourselves to a nice bottle of Verdelho mid-way through my reading of this book. I am slightly tipsy.
That being said, I think I’m in the perfect position to review this book. It is, after all, a bit dull.
Sorry this review seems to have started early. Let me take a moment to explain the plot.
Louis is the son of a wealthy French family, with a Louisiana plantation near New Orleans to his name. He feels bowed down by guilt after spurning his younger brother’s religious visions, compelling the family to sell their property in America and return to France to fight the revolutionary scourge of anti-monarchist atheists. When his brother dies mysteriously, Louis refuses to reveal to his mother and sister that madness was the cause of his death. He confesses this to a priest, who blithely dismisses his brother’s religious ecstacy as the result of possession by the devil.
This leaves Louis primed for seduction by the vampire Lestat. Callous, profligate and in need of property, the vampire chooses him in order to gain access to his wealth and status. While Lestat has the appearance of a man of style, he has no head for money. Louis, in effect, once transformed into a vampire becomes manager of his sire’s financial affairs, investing the monies stolen from his victims astutely to provide for them. Immortality has its own challenges, such as a ready access to capital.
Eventually he begins to tire of Lestat’s vain and selfish behaviour, and seeks to go his own way. The two vampires become rivals, with the latter deciding to transform a five-year old girl into a proxy daughter for their undead family.
“I want a child tonight. I am like a mother…I want a child!”
Claudia becomes a companion to Louis, encouraging him to investigate the origins of vampires. They travel to Europe, discovering only haggard revenants, with the secret of a vampire retaining any semblance of a conscious self seemingly an accident of Lestat’s invention. Until, that is, they come to Paris and find the famous Théâtre des Vampires.
I am sorry to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading this book at all. It is incredibly frustrating. At times Rice‘s plot fascinates – Louis’ ruminations on damnation inform an interesting perspective on religious faith; his relationship with Lestat is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s tortured association with Henry Irving – only for these passages to give way to interminable ramblings on the pain and suffering of life as a vampire. It is not even internally consistent. Rice establishes that the undead are perfect beings, preserved in time having expelled any human functions upon the moment of conversion. Then there is a passage when Louis is described “defying the sweat which had broken from every pore”.
Of course I have not mentioned the ‘interview’, of the title. Louis, it turns out, has approached a young man, referred to throughout as a ‘boy’, to record his testimony as to his existence as a vampire. With the religious subtext of the book, this interview comes to resemble a secular confession. One of the highpoints of the novel is Louis’ confrontation with a priest. Disillusioned after years of living in fear of damnation, he finds himself standing in a church, gazing at the marbled statues of saints and heavenly powers. Suddenly he realizes the pomp and decadence of the Catholic Church and takes out his frustration on the priest present. It’s a rare moment of passion in amongst the mumbled misery and depression of this novel, a sign of how powerful Rice’s themes could be if applied properly.
As for Lestat, the hero of a number of Rice novels, he appears to be nothing more than a vain, vulgar and impudent child. I have no desire to read another book describing his adventures.
A sad disappointment overall, frustrating and for the most part, quite boring.