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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Vintage Vampire Stories, edited by Robert Eighteen-Bisang & Richard Dalby, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011, $12.95.

The President's Vampire, by Christopher Farnsworth, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011, $24.95.

Brand New Cherry Flavor, by Todd Grimson, Schaffner Press, 2011, $14.95.

 

"THERE WILL BE BLOOD"


WHEN I was a kid, back when Barnabas Collins was in short pants, the word "vampire" meant only two things: Bela Lugosi's Dracula, and bats. I couldn't get enough of either of them.

But in those days—pre-internet, pre-VHS, pre-Goth, pre-Twilight—it was difficult to satisfy one's cravings for the bloodsucking undead. I had to rely on gleanings from Chiller Theater, the Sprain Brook Library, Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, WOR TV's Million Dollar Movie, the American Museum of Natural History (they had a small display of stuffed bats) and the occasional Mad Magazine parody.

And it was hard to find a vampire scary enough to live up to the movie stills reproduced in Famous Monsters of Filmland. Tod Browning's iconic 1931 Dracula featured Lugosi as the Count, but the film's stage origins gave it a fusty air, and it was too talky to be truly frightening for those of us who gathered in the basement for movies. We found Lugosi's campy turn in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the original monster mashup, far creepier (god knows why), though nothing was scarier than the opening for the original Chiller Theater, which set a montage of clips from camp classics like Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman to a theramin-heavy soundtrack. The clip of Vampira terrified me: it was years before I saw Plan 9 in its entirety and could shake her image from my nightmares.

Now, that was a vampire.

Today, you can't go to the corner for a latté without tripping over some Hot Topic-outfitted tween in raccoon eyeliner reading Strange Angels, a gaggle of grad students deconstructing post-feminist themes in True Blood, or a Mother-Daughter Bookclub discussing the family values upheld by Breaking Dawn. Vampires are so firmly embedded in the mainstream they've pretty much lost their ability to raise a goosebump.

Each age gets the vampires it deserves. Since 9/11, our real world is perceived as increasingly perilous, and we look to the headlines for our daily fear fix: killer viruses, terrorist attacks, catastrophic weather. Formerly unsettling supernatural creatures have perversely become romantic comfort food: figures such as Buffy and Spike, Edward and Bella, Sookie and Bill Compton, are as familiar to contemporary audiences as Desi and Lucy were, or Monica and Chandler, once upon a time.

But even Charlaine Harris's hugely popular Sookie Stackhouse books can't escape the long shadow cast by the most influential vampire novel of the last fifty years, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and its sequels in The Vampire Chronicles. With their overripe sensuality, homoerotic longings, and unconventional family dynamics, Rice's vampires craved emotional bonding as much as they craved blood. Suzy McKee Charnas's underrated The Vampire Tapestries, while not as well known as Rice's work, also depicted a psychologically complex vampire protagonist making his way through the emotionally messy world of humans.

The 19th century, rife with sexual hypocrisy and repression, also produced fiction with a powerful sexual undercurrent, as noted in Angela Still's excellent "Sexing the Vampire in Gothic Literature: How Repressed Sexuality Shaped a Modern Day Monster." John Polidori's "The Vampyre," published in 1819, was arguably the title that launched a thousand fictional bloodsuckers; it was followed by Sheridan LeFanu's sapphic "Carmilla," and, of course, Dracula. "Varney the Vampire," a popular penny-dreadful serial that ran from 1845-1847, was responsible for the destruction of entire forests, its final page count reaching nearly 700,000. "Varney" also fixed the image of the vampire in Victorian popular culture, with a cover illustration depicting a batwinged, corpselike creature, flanked by batlike demons.

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray depicts a form of psychic vampirism in the relationship between the morally suspect aesthete Lord Henry Wooton and his eponymous acolyte, Dorian, whose hidden portrait reveals the depraved creature that the seemingly ageless Dorian has become under Lord Henry's tutelage. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all," states Lord Henry (a stand-in for Wilde himself). There are examples of some quite badly written yet historically interesting tales in Vintage Vampire Stories, which showcases Victorian and Edwardian fiction, by noted supernatural writers such as Stoker, Sabine Baring-Gould, and Hugh McCrae, as well as many forgotten or (often deservedly) neglected ones.

A strong whiff of Beardsleyesque Decadence pervades these tales, several of which fail to answer the question posed by Bram Djkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siecle Culture: "Why [do] presumably intelligent and otherwise overly protective males always seem bent on leaving their women alone at night."

This question should be turned on its head if posed to Maude Redcar, of Dick Donovan's wonderfully overwrought "The Woman with the 'Oily Eyes.'" [1899] Maude's husband is seduced by a femme fatale with a "strong, hard-featured, almost masculine face, every line of which indicated a nature that was base, cruel, and treacherous. The thin lips, the retreating chin, could never be associated with anything that soft, gentle, or womanly." The loathsome couple decamp, unsurprisingly, to Paris.

In these stories, women are victims as well as predators, as in Mary Fortune's 1867 "The White Maniac: A Doctor's Tale." Its intriguingly cinematic setting—a ducal estate where everything is a ghostly, ghastly white—is undermined by exchanges such as these:

"Dear Doctor, it is unfortunately far from being as simple a matter as you think," he replied, solemnly, "for my wretched niece is mad."

"Mad!"

"Alas! yes, frightfully—horribly mad!" and he shuddered as if a cold wind had penetrated his bones.

Far more compelling is the very brief material excerpted from Bram Stoker's set of notes for the novel that became Dracula, reproduced here from his original hand-written memos.


Vampire
MEMO 1
no looking glasses in Count's house
never can see him reflected in one—no shadow?
lights arranged to give no shadow—
never eats nor drinks
carried or led over threshold
enormous strength
see in the dark
power of getting large or small...

Vampire
MEMO 2
II Zoological garden—wolves hyenas cowed—rage of eagle & lion
II.III goes through fog by instinct
I.II white teeth
II influence over rats
II painters cannot paint him—their likenesses always like someone else
II insensibility to music
II absolute despisal of death & the dead
II.III attitude with regard to religion—only moved by relics older than own real date
I.II.III power of creating evil thoughts or banishing good ones in others present
Could not codak [i.e., photograph] him—come out black or like skeleton corpse

What's remarkable is how little has been added to this Vampire Codex since Stoker scrawled his notes more than a century ago.

 

If each era gets the vampire it deserves, there's no supernatural action anti-hero better fitted to the post-9/11 world than Nathaniel Cade, the undead Secret Service agent assigned to the White House in Christopher Farnsworth's compulsively readable new pageturner, The President's Vampire. Cade, first introduced in 2010's Blood Oath, lost his humanity during the Civil War, when he first swore a blood oath to protect the American President. Since then he's been on active duty, protecting every resident of the Oval Office regardless of political background. (Ever wondered why every assassination attempt on a U.S. President has taken place in daylight? Well, now you know.)

In his newest outing, Cade finds himself deployed to the Middle East, where a particularly horrible virus is wreaking havoc among American troops. Was it created by Al-Qaeda? The CIA?

Or is it a product of that nefarious behind-the-scenes organization that manipulates every aspect of American political life—the Shadow Company?

"It was like the evil twin of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. Nestled like a tumor inside every government agency, but primarily working out of the CIA, the Shadow Company did the things that could never be brought out into the light of day. Assassinations, coups, plots, drug-running—all the stuff no one in electoral office wanted to know about."

In Cade's world, every questionable aspect of U.S. history is part of some conspiracy. There's no world event—no matter how historically accurate, obviously fictional, stultifyingly mundane, or egregiously ridiculous—that can't be accounted for by the actions of the Shadow Company and its legions of mercenaries and government employees, all hellbent on keeping supernatural forces at bay, and preventing ordinary citizens from ever having a clue as to what's really going on.

We've encountered this sort of thing before, in works like the Illuminatus! Trilogy or The X-Files. Farnsworth's amusing original conceit is that nearly all his supernatural characters are government functionaries of some sort, whether they're in the CIA, civil service, or military; and thus subject to the same maddening bureaucracies, red tape, backstabbing, office romance, and political corruption as their real-world counterparts.

Cade has a human handler, an ambitious young flack named Zach Barrows, whose career prospects dimmed after he was caught in bed with the First Teenage Daughter. The President's Vampire finds Zach assigned to work with the employees of Archer/Andrews, a shady, sinister military contractor that makes Blackwater look like the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, Cade investigates the carnage that erupts on a military base and a hospital ship where troops have been exposed to the mysterious virus, which may have originated in the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, or perhaps Providence, Rhode Island, in the 1920s. And Zach gets a crash course in why it's a bad idea to get involved with a professional colleague who knows her way around a firearm.

Throughout, Farnsworth expertly balances horror with sly humor; the headnotes that accompany each chapter deserve a book of their own. And his novel's cynicism about politics and the military feels well-earned—Farnsworth worked as an investigative journalist before turning to fiction and screenwriting. His new novel's breakneck pace doesn't let up until its satisfying ending, which may leave readers wishing that a real-life Cade might show up in time for the next election. Good news: a third Nathanial Cade novel is due out in 2012.

 

I picked up Todd Grimson's Brand New Cherry Flavor under the impression that it was a vampire novel (the non sequitur title didn't help). It's not—but it is perhaps the best horror novel I've read in the last few decades. Originally published in 1996 and just brought back into print, this is a book I inexplicably missed on its first release.

More fool me. Brand New Cherry Flavor has built up an impressive cult following over the years, with fans like James Ellroy and Katherine Dunn, and it totally blew me away. Todd Grimson is a protégé of Paul Bowles, and while Grimson's writing is more sensual, with a distinctively millennial noir take on storytelling, they share a rare gift for creating beautifully scarred urban landscapes—Bowles with Tangier; Grimson with Los Angeles and Brazil—and the psychologically damaged individuals who inhabit them.

Lisa Nova, BNCF's protagonist, is a former art student and struggling filmmaker; beautiful, intelligent, not above sleeping with a producer to get a job. She's also emotionally detached and amoral enough that she'd probably score sky-high on Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, the standard test for sociopaths. When a producer she's had sex with fails to follow through with the directing job Lisa covets, she turns to a shady friend with connections to a fixer. This turns out to be Boro, a charismatic psychopath who may be a Manson-like cult leader, a serial killer, or a South American shaman.

Or all three. Boro is a terrifying creation, and Lisa Nova's descent into the maelstrom of murder, designer hallucinogens, ritual sex, and ancient myth that Boro unleashes is both horrific and far too believable—every few chapters, I had to put the book down and pace around the house to shake off its deeply disturbing spell. Terrible things happen in this novel, but its language is so gorgeous and sensually descriptive that one is compelled to keep turning pages. Grimson's dreamlike prose could be described as stream of unconsciousness, and yet it's oddly reminiscent of James Salter's. It's highly impressionistic, with a remarkable acuity when it comes to capturing the intoxicating cocktail of duplicity and ambition that Hollywood thrives on (Salter memorably wrote about his Hollywood years in Burning the Days).

Brand New Cherry Flavor is scary, but it's also funny and extremely witty, as Grimson riffs on myriad pop culture and movie references—the films of David Lynch and Kenneth Anger; Theodore Roszak's secret history of cinema novel Flicker; the Black Dahlia and Manson murders; and especially Paul Schrader's erotic 1982 remake of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People. And even though Mullholland Drive came out five years after BNCF, and while David Lynch obviously needs no help in the Wild Creativity Department, it's easy to imagine that movie being influenced by Grimson's novel.

Lisa Nova's profound, even pathological detachment means she can act and react impulsively, over and over again, with no real sense of remorse. Yet her own compulsions and rationales are so meticulously evoked that the reader is hopelessly seduced into following her. If it were possible to genetically engineer the ideal femme fatale, you'd end up with Lisa Nova—and god help anyone, male or female, who gets into a car with her.

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