Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Boom: The Literati
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The popularity of the vampire novels by Anne Rice, Whitley Strieber, and others impelled several writers of more substantial literary heft to undertake their own explorations of the undead, with fair to middling results. What their efforts show, perhaps, is that the vampire trope is so limited in its aesthetic range that even talented writers are unable to bring any new or fresh ideas to it. But the demands of the reading public are inexorable, and so, right down to the present day, writers of all stripes continue to trudge their legions of vampires into the light of day.
One writer who did not receive as much credit as he deserved for his vampire writing is the American Les Daniels (1943—2011). In a span of just over a decade, he published five substantial novels—The Black Castle (1978), The Silver Skull (1979), Citizen Vampire (1981), Yellow Fog (1986; expanded 1988), and No Blood Spilled (1991)—featuring the redoubtable vampire Don Sebastian de Villenueva. These novels’ chief virtue is exactly in the area of Anne Rice’s chief aesthetic failing—the vivid evocation of diverse historical periods. They are a fascinating mix of the supernatural novel, the historical novel, the mainstream novel, and the detective story.
Daniels came well prepared for the task of, as it were, infusing fresh blood into the vampire trope. His critical study, Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media (1975), is an exhaustive study of the field from the Gothic novel up to its time, covering films, comic books, and other media. Daniels has made it clear that he has read and absorbed all the leading vampire works of the past, from Varney the Vampire to “Carmilla” to Dracula to films from the 1920s to the 1970s.
The end result is that Daniels’s vampire, Don Sebastian, conforms to the strictest canons of what he himself called “the care and feeding of vampires” (Living in Fear 63); but this is the least interesting thing about him. He is, in fact, a ruthless and pitiless vampire who nevertheless elicits the reader’s sympthy (or, at any rate, respect) by the cynical dignity of his bearing and his quest for knowledge.
Where Daniels diverges from traditional vampirism is in his attitude toward religion. In a sceptical age, he realises that the efficacy of standard Christian symbols to combat the vampire is increasingly implausible; accordingly, in Citizen Vampire a woman is horrified to find that a cross she holds up to ward off Sebastian crumbles in her hand. (The scene is, however, suspiciously similar to one in Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot.) The transition is never complete, as in The Black Castle Sebastian finds himself unable to enter a church—not because he is afraid of it, but because “its presence saddened him” (230). It is not entirely clear what is meant by this, but in other novels Daniels, through Sebastian, makes clear his Nietzschean perspective on religion.
In a sense, Daniels also seeks to play down the supernatural element in his novels—not by minimising Sebastian’s vampiric powers but by emphasising the greater (human) horrors of the historical periods in which he finds himself. Accordingly, in The Black Castle, set in 1496 against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, the “backdrop” ultimately comes to dominate the work, and the real horror becomes the Inquisition and not Sebastian. Similarly, in The Silver Skull, perhaps the most accomplished of Daniels’s novels, the horror and barbarism of the Aztec rites, and the savage fighting between Aztecs and Spaniards, leave a far greater impression than Sebastian’s intermittent feasting. Citizen Vampire is set in the midst of the appalling bloodletting of the French Revolution. No Blood Spilled takes us to India in the mid-nineteenth century, featuring the mysteries of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.
Daniels abruptly gave up fiction writing after No Blood Spilled in order to devote himself to other literary interests. The loss to supernatural literature was not inconsiderable, for Don Sebastian had emerged as a rather more interesting and substantial character than Lestat or other vampires of the period. But the five novels he generated will remain, in their relatively humble way, weightier contributions to horror fiction than many of the more pretentious novels that followed in their wake.
One of these was Vampire Junction (1984) by the Thai writer S. P. Somtow (b. 1952). The title refers to an immensely popular album issued by one Timmy Valentine, a teenage rock star who proves to be a vampire who has survived since at least Roman times under a succession of names and disguises. He is pursued by a variety of human beings, for varying motives, including members of a cult, the Order of the Gods of Chaos, who were involved in a ritual involving human sacrifice at Cambridge University when Valentine disrupted the proceedings. There are some splendid set-pieces in the novel—at one point Timmy recalls being eviscerated by Gilles de Rais in 1440, but he manages to recover—and the wild antics during one of Timmy’s concerts in the present day, when he turns into a succession of animals and kills several people in the audience, are impressively depicted; but the overall thrust of Vampire Junction is confused. Some have seen it as reflecting a kind of economic vampirism, whereby Timmy’s ethereal singing voice is exploited by ruthless recording executives and marketers; but relatively little is made of this throughout the novel, which is more focused on Timmy’s various enemies, who prove to be just as vicious and bloodthirsty as he himself is. Somtow hurt his own cause by writing two lacklustre sequels to the book, Valentine (1992) and Vanitas (1995).
Still more pretentious is Carrion Comfort (1989) by American novelist Dan Simmons (b. 1948). This monumental novel—by my count, about 350,000 words—was predictably referred to as an “epic” work, as if anything of vast length is an epic; but in fact it is a windy, laborious, and ultimately contentless action-adventure novel whose basic thrust could, and should, have been expressed in less than a third of its length. The premise of the novel is psychic vampirism—the ability to enter into human beings’ minds and compel them to perform actions they would not generally perform. Inevitably, the various vampires—ranging from a seemingly normal elderly woman, Melanie Fuller (who occasionally interrupts the narrative with first-person maunderings), to a former Nazi, Willi Borden—are engaged in a battle against both a different and even more ruthless set of vampires who apparently wish to rule the world and a valiant band of human beings who ultimately prevail over them, although somehow Melanie manages to survive.
And yet, in spite of all its verbiage, Simmons never once confronts the critical matter of exactly how his vampires gained their superhuman powers. All we get is an inconclusive passage toward the end, when Willi confronts his chief enemy, the elderly Jew Saul Laski: “People born with my ability are rare, perhaps no more than one in sevreal hundred million, a few dozen each human generation. Throughout history my race has been feared and hunted” (838). This passage raises more questions than it answers: by citing his “race,” is Willi suggesting that vampires are merely a subset of the human race or are somehow a different species altogether? These and other questions remain unanswered while Simmons engages in a maddeningly tedious vampire hunt that culminates in Saul somehow managing to throttle Willi to death.
At half the length of Carrion Comfort, The Empire of Fear (1988) by British writer Brian Stableford (b. 1948) has considerably more substance, but it still beset with dragging monotony. What Stableford has written is an alternate history of the Renaissance and early modern periods, where vampires—including Attila the Hun and Charlemagne on the Continent, and Richard I (Lionheart) on the British throne—control many of the nations of Europe and, perhaps, much of the rest of the world. Set largely in the early to mid-seventeenth century, The Empire of Fear depicts a courageous band of humans, led by Edmund Cordery and his son Noell, who seek to penetrate the mysteries of the origin of vampirism and to overthrow the vampires from their positions of power. Noell ultimately finds the secret of vampirism in Africa and thereby devises an elixir of life that allows for the production of “new” vampires who ultimately defeat the older vampiric rulers.
What Stableford is attempting here is nothing less audacious than an intellectual history of the overthrow of aristocracy, superstition, and religion by the forces of science and rationalism—but his account is so mired in historical minutiae, and his novel so bloated with drawn-out debates on the nature of vampirism and with battles between the old and new vampires, that the intellectual thrust of the novel is seriously obscured. Nevertheless, Stableford has written a work that is, perhaps, more an impressive achievement than an enjoyable read. Stableford, an enormously prolific novelist, short story writer, translator, and critic, has spanned the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in his various works, and his treatise Scientific Romance in Britain 1890—1950 (1985) is a model treatment of its subject.
At the opposite pole in many regards from the work of Simmons and Stableford is the slim novel The Last Vampire (1991) by American writer T. M. Wright (b. 1947). Wright, best known for the novel A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984), has written a mercifully slim account of a young man, Elmo Land, who in 1927 was turned into a vampire by a neighbour, Regina Watson. The narrative alternates between desultory reports of his ongoing vampirism from that date forward and hints of some kind of nuclear holocaust around 2007 that has almost entirely depopulated the earth. The bland, affectless tone that Elmo adopts in his first-person account can be occasionally effective, but overall it tends to deaden the reader’s emotions at exactly those points where it needs to be heightened.