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Supping With Panthers
Tom Holland
Little, Brown UK, 502 pages

Supping With Panthers
Slave of My Thirst
Tom Holland
Tom Holland is the British author of a pair of linked Gothic historical vampire novels: The Vampyre: The Secret Life of Lord Byron (1995, UK; as Lord of the Dead in US) and Supping with Panthers (1997, UK; as Slave of My Thirst in US). He has also written Deliver us from Evil, a Gothic horror novel set in the English Restoration period, and The Sleeper in the Sands a horror tale spanning the history of Egypt. Tom Holland was brought up near Salisbury and now lives in London. He has also written extensively for radio.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Attis
SF Site Review: Sleeper in the Sands
SF Site Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kim Fawcett

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Sleeping too well at night? Plagued by sweet dreams? Well, here's a book to cure you. Tom Holland's Supping With Panthers reads like a nightmare -- dark, twisted, frightening, and surreal. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The story revolves around Dr John Eliot, British philanthropist and medical doctor. While working in a remote area of India, Eliot attaches himself to a military expedition headed for a place called Kalikshutra. The military is concerned with reports of Russian spies in that remote border location, but Dr Eliot is far more concerned with reports of a terrible disease there. This highly contagious sickness results in a terrible degradation of the mind and an equally horrifying compulsion to drink blood.

Hmmm... pale nocturnal blood drinkers... sound familiar?

The expedition portion of Supping With Panthers will raise the hackles of even the most hardened horror addict. As members of the expedition disappear, the jungle and mountains seem to close in around them. The characters develop wonderfully at this point -- very British, very regimental. Their overcivilized "set the natives straight" attitude contrasts well with the ancient, creeping evil surrounding them. The climax draws inescapably closer; Holland demonstrates true skill with pacing. If you're going to read this book, read it for this story within a story.

Unfortunately, the Kalikshutra episode takes up only 90 pages of Supping With Panthers. The rest of the book (another 400-odd pages) is considerably less coherent. Eliot survives, but his experiences scar and disillusion him. He returns to his London clinic to deal with the far more mundane horrors of tending the city's poor. The familiar surroundings should ease his mind, but before he can get settled he receives a visit from the wife of a good friend. Her husband has disappeared, and she prevails on Eliot to use his noted powers of observation and deduction to investigate. Eliot detects a possible connection to the recent murder of another friend, and so he reluctantly agrees.

I can't explain the rest. It gets complicated. Suffice it to say that in fleeing India, Eliot failed to leave all the horrors behind him. Now he and those he loves find themselves the play-things of a force older than civilization. As Eliot attempts to free himself from a seductive trap, events take a heavy toll in lives and innocence. Soon all involved come to realize that death is not the worst fate that could find them.

Holland does a few things very well in this part of the book. For one, he brings the London of the late 1800s to muddy, stinking, vermin-ridden life. He shows the inevitable parlors and dinner parties of the age, but also delves into the slums to show the life of the average downtrodden man and woman. Even without the supernatural elements, Holland paints a dark and evil London.

He also manages to string together a series of events that could have led Bram Stoker to write Dracula. Lucy, Mina, Arthur, Van Helsing, Renfield -- they're all here in one way or another. But the plot nevertheless manages to be original. Holland recognizes that fiction is often based on fact, but only loosely. Some of the settings are there, some of the personalities, some of the names, even some similar events, but no more than that. You can see how Stoker might have built upon similar elements to create his novel, without feeling that Holland has rewritten it.

So given these obvious successes, what's wrong with the book? Let me put it this way: Holland mixes up Kali myths, vampires, ghouls, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker, Lord Byron (yes, the poet), and an ancient all-powerful evil. That's an awful lot to deal with in one book. It doesn't matter how well written the book is -- and it is well written -- belief can only be suspended so far.

I also have a problem with Holland's use of splatter violence instead of horror. The Kalikshutra episode plays on the reader's mind, stirring individual bump-in-the-night fears. The London side of the story mostly discards this subtle approach and relies on ever-growing piles of corpses to instill fear. Holland should have stuck with his initial approach.

Supping With Panthers offers some good story-telling and has moments of true subtlety and style, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed the book. So, perhaps it's not for everyone, but if you're looking for something to keep you awake at night, look no further.

Copyright © 1999 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa, Canada. A day job working as a contract technical writer hinders her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing a novel, (c) travelling the world, and (d) doing all of the above all at once.


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