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News From the Edge: Vampires of Vermont
Mark Sumner
Ace Books, 198 pages

Jeffrey Walker
Vampires of Vermont
Mark Sumner
Mark Sumner is the author of two fantasy novels of the Wild West, Devil's Tower and Devil's Engine, both from Del Rey. He describes himself as a fanatic game player, and he continues to write regular columns for gaming magazines. He lives in the hills south of St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and son.

Mark Sumner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: News From the Edge: The Monster of Minnesota
SF Site Review: Bloom by Wil McCarthy
Mark Sumner: Unfinished Tales
List of Published Work
"A Wing of Wyverns," by Mark Sumner
Del Rey's Devil's Tower page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John O'Neill

Last October, when I was supposed to be working on the big SF Site end-of-the-year round-up, I instead found myself dragged off to Archon 22, a local SF convention, by contributing editor Dave Truesdale. ("It'll be fun!" sez Dave. "We can stay up all night and plot the takeover of the Web! Bring your kids!") I did bring the kids -- and consequently missed out on the much of the midnight plotting -- but certainly didn't regret the excursion.

Archon (this year held October 1-3 in Collinsville, Illinois, in the St. Louis, Missouri area, it's fun, you should go, check out the website), had lots of pleasant surprises, but none that grabbed my attention like their late-night reading program. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, James P. Hogan, Laurell K. Hamilton and many others stayed up long into the night in small rooms with cozy groups of fans, reading selections from their current and upcoming work. It was wonderful, and I could have spent the entire weekend with my feet propped on a comfy chair, watching some of the best storytellers in the business bring their worlds to life with nothing more than their voice and a little mood lighting.

By far the most impressive reading (in a very impressive bunch) began at 11:00 pm Friday night. Instead of reading from a published novel, or flipping through tear sheets of an upcoming one, we were treated to a brilliant collection of unfinished story fragments read off a PalmPilot. And what fragments! Alternate Worlds, the wild west, travelling dead, magic and mystery and much more. As most of the convention-goers milled in and out of the bar next door, the small audience in the Calhoun room received a lesson in how to grab an audience in the first few moments, as we listened to genuinely riveting tales such as the opener for "A Matter of Death":

The first one came in the grey hours of false dawn.

It was a pitiful thing, barely more than bones, with a wooden leg on the left and a face cracked and scaly as long dried leather. I watched through the second floor window as the thing pawed at the door with the fingerless stump of its right hand and moaned for admittance. Flakes of skin rained down from its dry limbs like rust falling from ancient metal...

The reader was Mark Sumner, author of the World Fantasy Award nominee Devil's Tower, one of the most original fantasy novels of 1996. A few months later we enticed Mark into putting some of his story fragments on the Web (seen here at the SF Site as Unfinished Tales by Mark Sumner), and since then I've been keeping an eye out for his next published work.

It has since arrived, in the form of Vampires of Vermont, the third installment in Sumner's ongoing Tales From the Edge series from Ace Books. Like the stories Mark shared that night, the novel is funny, surprising, and guaranteed to take a brand new direction when you least expect it.

The premise for the series is an intriguing one: what if we lived in a world where the horrors and unearthly goings-on reported by tabloids were true? What if the intrepid journalists of those publications -- underpaid, ridiculed, and largely ignored -- were our most trusted sources for the dark secrets of the American Heartland?

Savannah McKinnon, a.k.a ace reporter Savvy Skye of the Global Query, is on the front lines of that world, and this time she's deep in the woods of Vermont, seeking to verify the existence of Count Yorga, an alleged nosferatu. She's spoken with the Count several times on the phone, and gathered enough material to publish a number of articles, but this time Yorga is hinting at something really big -- a sinister secret that will make his other tales... well, pale in comparison. But when Savannah sets up a risky face-to-face meeting in Vermont, only to have her source drop dead in her hotel room and then promptly disappear from the morgue, Savvy soon finds she's up to her neck in trouble.

One of the inherent problems with serial fiction is that it's tough to accept any serious sense of danger, at least where the main character is involved. Leads may get axed with cheerful abandon in the average Stephen King novel, but that rarely happens in Book Three of a successful series. Fortunately, Sumner doesn't take us down that path. In fact, comparison to Stephen King or Dean Koontz is probably misleading. Tales From the Edge isn't nail-biting suspense or R-rated horror -- it's the midnight Chiller Theatre, where fondness for the characters (including the monsters) is as big a component of the enjoyment as any of the orchestrated frights.

A successful Chiller Theatre episode is very different from typical drive-in fare, and it's here that Sumner's real understanding of his material shines through. From the central cast -- including Savvy Skye, her various sidekicks and support staff -- to the crotchety small-town sheriff and his wide-eyed deputy, we're always in familiar hands. I haven't met many authors who can make you comfortable with a new character in under two lines, but Sumner makes it look easy. The prose is almost seamless, carrying you through the action (and the surprising moments of comedy) with polished momentum.

Too much of the material on the shelves today is rigidly by-the-book fantasy, or I'm-more-gruesome-than-you horror, all of which takes itself far too seriously for my liking. The last half a dozen books I read would all have been improved if they'd contained even a fraction of the element of fun I found in Vampires of Vermont. I'll be keeping my eyes out for the next episode of News From the Edge. You should as well.

Copyright © 1999 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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