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Thursday 24 October 2002

A Vampire Hater's Concise Guide to Vampire Fiction

by Claude Lalumière

The Vampire Sextette, edited by Marvin Kaye
(Science Fiction Book Club, 2000; Ace, 2002)

In The Vampire Sextette, anthologist Marvin Kaye assembles six new novellas by six distinctive authors of contemporary horror. As the title indicates, the theme is vampires, but the title contains a pun that announces the secondary theme: "sextette" refers not only to the number of stories but also to "sex". His introduction, "The Erotic Myth of Blood", makes that even more explicit.

Kaye also discusses how, for many years, vampire fiction held no appeal for him. And that it's only in the past twenty years or so that new writers seem to have found new twists to render the subject interesting again.

This parallels my own experience. For a long time, I thought of vampires as nothing more than a ludicrous cliché. But then writers whose work I admired started putting out vampire novels: Brian Stableford, Kim Newman, Lucius Shepard.... At first, I resisted. But I succumbed in 1993, reading in quick succession The Golden, Anno Dracula, and The Empire of Fear. I loved all three.

I didn't become a vampire fan, but my prejudice evaporated. I still had a profound distaste for the softcore-porn, rape-romanticizing, wish-fulfillment-fantasy aspect of most popular vampire fictions (and there is one such example in The Vampire Sextette, although with the genders reversed), but I found that I enjoyed writers who questioned, perverted, and/or satirized those characteristics — or who ignored them as irrelevant.

And Kaye's The Vampire Sextette has more than a whiff of that postmodern flavour.

The best story in the book is the opening piece: Kim Newman's "The Other Side of Midnight". This is a new installment in the Anno Dracula sequence, featuring Newman's sympathetic vampire heroine Geneviève Dieudonné. "The Other Side of Midnight" takes place in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and Geneviève is now a private investigator. She is hired by Orson Welles to investigate John Alucard, a mysterious figure who wants to fund the great director's long-planned Dracula film. In typical Newman fashion, the investigation turns into a voyage through transmogrified pop culture references. And so Geneviève encounters, to name the most amusing, the Anno Dracula counterparts to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lieutenant Columbo, and characters from Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.

In lesser hands such shenanigans would simply be fun and games. But the politically savvy Newman uses these archetypes and, most especially, their juxtaposition to create resonances that provoke reflection on the era, place, and/or cultural context in which his stories are set.

Newman is a well-established film critic and historian, and his expertise shines through in this imaginative satire of Hollywood culture. His admiration for Orson Welles permeates the whole story, but, true to that great artist's own self-deprecating manner, "The Other Side of Midnight" never loses its sense of fun.

In "Some Velvet Morning" Nancy Collins has concocted an absolutely fascinating take on the Countess Bathory legend. Most of this story is mesmerizing and arresting, carefully paced and told in an utterly convincing voice. And then Collins ruins it. She allows her story to collapse upon itself.

This sad event happens when, for no reason intrinsic to the tale, she sics her vampiric vampire hunter Sonja Blue on Bathory. What began as an emotionally and thematically complex tale becomes a rather trite and uninvolving hero vs. villain conflict.

Newman also uses a recurring character in "The Other Side of Midnight", but he layers the story in such a way that part of it is about Geneviève's changes and part of it about the plot she investigates — and both layers interact with each other. He also gives readers enough information about Geneviève so that even if they're unfamiliar with her, they can still understand why and how she has come to her current circumstances. No so here. Sonja Blue is a clumsy deus ex machina, and her situation is not explained satisfactorily within the story for either her presence or her actions to make any sense.

And it's such a shame. This one came so close to being a masterpiece.

Brian Stableford's "Sheena" is the unabashedly romantic tale of the obsessive love between a British "lad" and an eccentric Goth who fancies herself a vampire. Sturgeon himself could not have written this tearjerker with more compassion, and it's all the stronger for never lowering itself to sentimentality. This is a relentlessly inventive tale, filled with intense emotions and evocative ideas.

The funniest story in The Vampire Sextette is S.P. Somtow's luridly prurient "Vanilla Blood". In this delicious send-up of the courtroom drama genre, Somtow piles excess upon excess and vulgarity upon vulgarity to increasingly hilarious effect. I laughed out loud several times.

While Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's "In the Face of Death" is beautifully written, its maudlin sentimentality is rather difficult to swallow. The setting is San Francisco in the 1850s, and the story is related to her popular Saint-Germain series, although Saint-Germain himself does not appear.

"In the Face of Death" is the story of the love between a vampire woman and mortal man. The tale is a banal and romanticized fetishization of vampirism that, unlike the four previous stories, fails to address any of the political, social, or psychological issues surrounding its premise, save perhaps some rather common observations on the limited roles offered to women in the time and place of her story. The characters' emotions are forced and cliché. The characters themselves are neither sympathetic nor repulsive, but simply dull. The "tragic" ending is announced so often that, when it arrives, it's hard to care at all, especially since the characters are so (forgive the pun) bloodless. Nice prose, though.

The book ends with its weakest story, Tanith Lee's "The Isle Is Full of Noises". Lee's trademark affected prose style is one that, when effective, creates a mood of fantastically surreal strangeness and, when not, is responsible for an alienating, and almost impenetrable, distancing effect. Sadly, the latter is the case in this story of a lonely and haunted writer.

The dialogue and narration are choppy, cold, and disjointed, recalling the pretentious posturings of Marguerite Duras. In fact, this story is not unlike a film of the French Nouvelle Vague, daring the audience to withstand being utterly bored. I was indeed bored.

I'm not blind to the fact that, of the six stories in The Vampire Sextette, I loved the three stories written by men and was disappointed by the three by women. Am I a sexist reader? Or is it just a coincidence? I set out hoping to enjoy all six stories...

Nevertheless, I'm about to make matters worse for myself.

Below is a list of my six favourite classic vampire fictions. And... huh... they're all by men.


Some of Your Blood (1961), by Theodore Sturgeon
This empathic and subtle novel is a psychological investigation into a young man's peculiar habits. Written with tender compassion and unfolding at a low and riveting pace, Some of Your Blood is, as is much of Sturgeon's best work, a moving tale of idiosyncratic love in a world too rigid and judgmental to accept diversity — a world so overeager to control and suppress expressions of love that those expressions themselves become twisted and harmful to those for whom love is the most urgent of needs.

The Empire of Fear (1988), by Brian Stableford
In the late 1980s the Anne Rice furor was raging and her imitators were starting to spring up everywhere. Then came Brian Stableford's The Empire of Fear, a rigorously unromanticized alternate history of a world ruled by vampires bereft of all the cheesy fetishized paraphernalia. It is also a grand epic, vast in scope, ambitious, and thoroughly successful.

The Anno Dracula series (1992- ), by Kim Newman
This series is an alternate history diverging from the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula. In Newman's universe, Dracula was triumphant and went on to become consort to Queen Victoria. London and British society in general are now overrun with vampires. Anno Dracula, an investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders of vampire prostitutes, introduces one of Kim Newman's greatest heroes, Charles Beauregard, "a man who tried always to do the right thing even when there were no right things to do", and sets up the style of the series: a mix of pulpy violence, wry wit, politically engaged historical reconstructions, and playful appropriations of characters from all walks of fiction. The Bloody Red Baron is a First World War novel of combat between vampire aviators. Judgment of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959 (aka Dracula Cha Cha Cha) is a dashing adventure novel is in Cold War era Rome. Newman has also written some Anno Dracula short fiction, most of which takes place after the third novel; these stories are supposed to be collected in the forthcoming (but as yet unscheduled) Johnny Alucard. The whole series is fun, thrilling, and intelligent. Although reading the entire Anno Dracula canon gives a greater sense of history, each installment is written to stand on its own, each telling a complete story and having discrete concerns that are explored and resolved within each respective text.

The Golden (1993), by Lucius Shepard
In 1860s, a secret aristocracy of vampires gathers at the Gormenghastian Castle Banat to engage in long-planned ritual. A murder sabotages the ritual, and a young vampire is given the task to investigate. The Golden is a lushly decadent novel, filled with sudden violence, disturbing sensuality, complex relationships, and altered states of perception. The prose is gorgeously sumptuous, and the tale is a multiflavoured feast of rich emotions.

Bloodsucking Fiends (1995), by Christopher Moore
On the one hand, Bloodsucking Fiends is a merciless parody of the 1990s vampire craze, leaving no insulting cliché unscathed. On the other, it's a loving portrait of San Francisco, filled with details and anecdotes that make the city glisten with irresistible charm.

Stainless (1996), by Todd Grimson
Stainless is a totally deadpan satire of the self-conscious hipness of the 1990s Goth/vampire scene. It's also an obsessive love story, making serious and insightful observations about addiction, desire, despair, and apathy. Stainless is what many 1990s vampire novels thought they were, but it's too much in control of its material, too unforgiving of its characters' weaknesses, and too aware of the political and psychological pitfalls of its own premise to fall prey to the wish-fulfillment and sentimentality that made many such books laughable.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière has written fiction for Interzone, Other Dimension, The Book of More Flesh, and Redsine. He is coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in April 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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