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Tom Holland
Allison and Busby, 413 pages

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). 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. Attis was the first novel he wrote, though his second novel to be published. Tom Holland was brought up near Salisbury and now lives in London. He has also written extensively for radio.

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

When the young poet Catullus (84-54 BCE), travelling from his hometown of Verona meets Pompey (106-48 BCE), Clodia, and her brother Clodius [the great political enemy of Cicero (106-43 BCE)] at a huge outdoor party, which he stumbles upon in the outskirts of Rome, you might assume that Tom Holland has set his novel some time around 60 BCE. When a string of particularly brutal murders occurs, apparently linked to a Circassian cult of Sesostris, all within the context of the power struggle and political intrigue between Julius Caesar (102-44 BCE), Clodius, Cicero, Pompey and others, you might feel confirmed in your opinion that Holland had once again weaved his particular brand of horror into a historical context.

In one way you would be absolutely correct, yet in another completely wrong. Holland has taken these characters from Roman history and faithfully recreated a portion of their lives but in a Rome with cars, fax machines, labour unrest, and archaeological digs. This Rome and its people remind one of the sort of lost souls and urban neighbourhoods in recent movies such as Trainspotting and The Crying Game. This Rome is one of crumbling inner cities, the rich and those prostituted to them and their hopeless amoral hedonism on a quickly sinking ship.

While such a setting might be appropriate and perhaps even innovative to the top-heavy tottering Empire on the brink of moral and political collapse that it seeks to depict, it is nonetheless somewhat jarring at times. However, given that this was Holland first-written novel, I'm willing to let him have the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

However, where Attis did not live up to Holland's other works was in the pacing of the story. Attis certainly has as much, if not more, sex and violence than his Byronic vampire novels, but here, in Attis, the first murder occurs off-stage more than a quarter of the way through the book, and between Catullus' various affairs and political intrigue, very little action occurs until well past the middle of the book.

Admittedly, most of Holland's novels have a distinctly slower, Gothic-inspired style and pacing which will never approach the terse and succinct suspense of Cornell Woolrich or Richard Matheson. Coming from a British writer, I don't expect it. But, while the characters were very well developed by the book's mid-point, had I not had to review the book I probably would have dropped it at that point.

One might argue that Holland was attempting a more literary and less commercial sort of novel, appealing not so much to the horror reader, but targeted more to the style and subject matter favoured by the aficionados of the Trainspotting / Crying Game genre.

The mystery of the perpetrator's identity and the motive for the ritual murders is only resolved in the last pages of the book, in a way that, while not inconsistent with the events leading up to it, is sprung on the reader without his having been able to gather sufficient evidence to point conclusively to any one suspect, and certainly not enough to point to the actual perpetrator. This is partly a problem of this facet of the novel having relatively few pages devoted to it, compared to the intrigue and romance facets. Also, evidence of a similar string of ritual murders some years before during a Roman civil war, only tied in very loosely with the present-day murders, and the purpose or intent of the perpetrators of these past crimes are never fully addressed.

So, while Mr Holland has come up with an interesting manner of presenting ancient Rome, this novel will probably have a limited appeal to the fans of his historical vampire Gothics, even if the scholarship is equally impeccable. The author might have done better, given the risk he took in his contemporary portrayal of ancient Rome, to limit himself to Catullus' love life and interactions with the power brokers of the time, rather than also inject the disparate element of ritual murders. Nonetheless, the quality of Mr Holland's prose and given that it was his first-written work, lifts the book above the great majority of works of horror or inner-city fiction out there. It may well be worthwhile for his more rabid readers to rescue the book from its current literary grave.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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