Normally, I’d hold off on reviewing a ghost story until October rolls around. But I read this after Lydia Schoch recommended it, and it was so good I couldn’t wait to share it with you all.
The book is about a man named Peter, a World War II veteran who is an expert on retouching photos. He is hired to fix a photo of a group of World War I soldiers which has a peculiarly smudged figure in it. In the process of what proves to be a difficult and frustrating procedure, Peter begins having disturbing dreams. As he already suffers from PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares are nothing new for Peter, but these are different. They depict scenes from the Great War, and gradually begin to turn into something very, very real.
What follows is a marvelously written story of betrayal and revenge. There are two distinct narrative voices: Peter, and the author of certain documents from World War I that he discovers. Both of them fit their respective time periods perfectly. The story is very short, but at no point feels rushed. It has a well-paced narrative arc that culminates in a very satisfying conclusion.
The book’s description says it is “a short ghost story in the M.R. James tradition,” and yes, it absolutely is. This is a perfect story to read around a campfire or on a dark, rainy night. If you enjoy ghost stories at all, this is a must-read.
Before I talk about Carmilla, I must first introduce you to its author, J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is not a household name today. It is my personal belief that this is to the great detriment of the world of horror fiction, and to restore the field to health, we should recognize his contribution to it. Of course, I’m biased. Le Fanu wrote the first short story that truly scared me, “Green Tea.” To this day I can’t hear the words “green tea” without thinking of it.
So allow me to quote from a theoretically neutral source, Wikipedia, describing his works:
“He specialised in tone and effect rather than “shock horror” and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible.”
Ah, one of my own authorial dreams is that someday the same might be said of my works. I admire this style, and I too, in my own horror writing, tried to “leave important details unexplained and mysterious.” But of course, I was only a foolish apprentice and so the effect was to leave readers confused and disappointed. It is not a tool that just anybody can pick up and use effortlessly; but it requires the careful touch of a master. Le Fanu was such a master, and that is why his works deserve to be read.
Now, then… Carmilla.
Carmilla purports to be from the casebook of Dr. Hesselius, Le Fanu’s “occult detective.” It is told from the perspective of a teenaged girl named Laura, who lives in a castle in Styria. She’s been eagerly looking forward to a visit from a friend of her father’s, General Spielsdorf, because he has a niece her own age. But, the general’s niece falls ill and dies. In his grief, he sends Laura’s father a strange letter, cursing some nameless evil which he blames for his niece’s death.
One night, while out for a walk with her father, a carriage crashes in a river on their property. Inside is a young woman about Laura’s age. Her mother hastily explains she is on a journey of great importance, and can’t wait for her daughter, Carmilla, to recover. Laura’s father offers to let the the young woman stay at his home to recuperate.
Laura and Carmilla quickly become friends. After being cooped up alone so long, Laura is delighted to have someone to spend time with, though Carmilla is not without her eccentricities. She rises very late in the day, and is frequently referred to as “languid.”
Meanwhile, a mysterious disease ravages the nearby village, with many townspeople dying with symptoms which include visions of evil visitors in the night. Eventually, Laura herself begins to show signs of the illness.
General Spielsdorf finally arrives for his long-delayed visit, and describes the circumstances of his beloved niece’s death. It seems a beautiful visitor, named Millarca, had come to stay in his home after he met with her mother at a social function. Soon after, strange things began to happen…
I think you can see where this is going. The general sees Carmilla, and instantly recognizes her as the monster who killed his niece. In his research, he has discovered she is the long-dead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. With the help of a local vampire hunter, the general and Laura’s father, find the vampires grave and destroy the creature in the manner prescribed by tradition. But as the final line of the story suggests, Laura remains haunted by the memory of Carmilla for the rest of her life.
It’s a suspenseful, atmospheric and haunting story. All the tropes are there that we recognize from Dracula, but in a much more concentrated and, in my opinion, more powerful form.
You might be thinking, “Well, did Le Fanu just do a gender swap of Dracula and call it a story? Not impressed.” Yeah, see… Carmilla was written 25 years before Dracula, and it’s well-known to have influenced Stoker while he was writing the novel. I would not accuse Stoker of ‘copying’ as such, as much of the commonalities between the books are just tropes of Gothic fiction. But if anyone were to be accused of copying, it’s Bram, not Sheridan, who gets called to the principal’s office. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, and if Stoker wanted to write a book like Carmilla, all I can say is he had good taste.
So, then, is there any subtext to Carmilla? Any at all?
She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”
And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.
This is the thing about vampire fiction. You can pretty much take anything from any aspect of vampire mythology, and append “… of course, really it’s all about sex.” and you’re well on your way to having a publishable academic treatise. My contention is that not every single thing in every vampire story needs to be about sex. Sometimes, a vampire is just a vampire. However, in Carmilla it’s significant enough that I suppose a few words are neccesary.
It’s clear that Laura and Carmilla have a certain relationship, and it’s a relationship that prudish Victorian authorities would not approve of. And, in fact, don’t approve of.
However, unlike with Dracula, I don’t think you can say that Carmilla’s vampirism is supposed to be a metaphor for some other urge. I say that because it’s, like, very obvious what these urges are. If Le Fanu felt the need to mask it with a metaphor, he wouldn’t have also made it so apparent.
My own interpretation may strike you as laughably simplistic, but I just don’t see the lesbianism as related to the vampirism. Carmilla is a lesbian who happens to be a vampire. Or maybe more accurately, a vampire who happens to be a lesbian? I dunno. Anyway, the point is, the two traits aren’t really related. At least, I don’t think Le Fanu is saying they are. If anything, it’s just a handy plot device to have them both be female, since to the Victorian mindset, having two women hanging around together would attract less suspicion.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. Judging by the lists on Wikipedia, any work of fiction involving a female vampire seems to claim inheritance from Carmilla, even if it’s only of the “Vampire Sorority Babes” variety.
But there’s so much more to Carmilla than that! It’s just a good story, Freudian analysis aside. Moreover, as an antecedent to Dracula, it has put us one step closer to answering the questions raised in earlier posts: what was the first vampire story? And what was the original impetus for the vampire myth?
Forgive me for dwelling a little on this book when I’m supposed to be reviewing Carmilla, but it’s a fascinating work in its own right. It may sound bizarre to modern readers, but put yourself in Calmet’s shoes. Imagine you wanted to invent Snopes, except it’s the 18th century and your only authoritative reference source is the Bible. It would be tough.
Calmet reports that these “revenans are called by the name of oupires or vampires,” and that:
“Antiquity certainly neither saw nor knew anything like it. Let us read through the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Latins; nothing approaching to it will be met with.”
Calmet has a very confident, “just the facts” manner to him. Lest you think he’s just credulous simpleton, let this passage demonstrate that he is trying to write a serious work separating fact from fiction here, and has no time for nonsense:
“The imagination of those who believe that the dead chew in their graves, with a noise similar to that made by hogs when they eat, is so ridiculous that it does not deserve to be seriously refuted.”
His chapter titles are also very to-the-point, as he deals with each type of case in turn, e.g. Chapter II: “On the Revival of Persons Who Were Not Really Dead.”
Le Fanu seems to have drawn much of the inspiration for his story from this book. In particular, the method of destroying the vampire seems taken almost verbatim from Calmet’s reports.
But given that vampires don’t, you know, exist, what is the meaning of the vampire myth? Why is it so popular? There must be a reason, right?
Prepare yourselves, we are about to go deeper into philosophy than ever before on a Ruined Chapel by Moonlight. I did not know where this series would go when I first began, but I hate to disappoint my readers, and if providing a satisfactory answer to the vampire question means things have to get weird, so be it.
All human existence may be viewed as a constant struggle against death. This is less obvious to us, in our modern, comfortable lives than it would have been in say, the Victorian era or before, but death is always there. The further back you go, the more formidably its presence looms.
In some sense, therefore, every human activity is a way of coping with the inevitability of death. We do not see it as such, and in many cases, the link is not a direct one. But religion, fiction, philosophy and so on are all essentially meditations on what to do about death.
This is probably one reason that the constant emphasis on sex in vampire fiction annoys me. Yeah, there’s a sexual element; sure. But there is a way more significant element that deals with death. Modern Western attitudes about sex are very different than Victorian ones. A modern and a Victorian talking about sexual mores would scarcely even understand one another.
But death? Everyone, from Bram Stoker to me, we all have (or had, in Bram’s case) that hanging over us. Like Warren Zevon sang, “The doctor is in, and he’ll see you now / He don’t care who you are.”
Vampire stories are about death. However, vampires do not represent death. Vampires are rather those who have attempted to cheat death. In a sense, they too are victims. For example, this passage from early in Carmilla:
As we sat thus one afternoon under the trees a funeral passed us by. It was that of a pretty young girl, whom I had often seen, the daughter of one of the rangers of the forest. The poor man was walking behind the coffin of his darling; she was his only child, and he looked quite heartbroken. Peasants walking two-and-two came behind, they were singing a funeral hymn.
I rose to mark my respect as they passed, and joined in the hymn they were very sweetly singing.
My companion shook me a little roughly, and I turned surprised.
She said brusquely, “Don’t you perceive how discordant that is?”
“I think it very sweet, on the contrary,” I answered, vexed at the interruption, and very uncomfortable, lest the people who composed the little procession should observe and resent what was passing.
I resumed, therefore, instantly, and was again interrupted. “You pierce my ears,” said Carmilla, almost angrily, and stopping her ears with her tiny fingers. “Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me, and I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die —everyone must die; and all are happier when they do. Come home.”
“My father has gone on with the clergyman to the churchyard. I thought you knew she was to be buried to-day.”
“She? I don’t trouble my head about peasants. I don’t know who she is,” answered Carmilla, with a flash from her fine eyes.
“She is the poor girl who fancied she saw a ghost a fortnight ago, and has been dying ever since, till yesterday, when she expired.”
“Tell me nothing about ghosts. I shan’t sleep to-night, if you do.”
“I hope there is no plague or fever coming; all this looks very like it,” I continued. “The swineherd’s young wife died only a week ago, and she thought something seized her by the throat as she lay in her bed, and nearly strangled her. Papa says such horrible fancies do accompany some forms of fever. She was quite well the day before. She sank afterwards, and died before a week.”
“Well, her funeral is over, I hope, and her hymn sung; and our ears shan’t be tortured with that discord and jargon. It has made me nervous. Sit down here, beside me; sit close; hold my hand; press it hard—hard—harder.”
Of course, the main reason Carmilla is so nervous about this funeral is presumably because she knows all about the “ghost” the poor girl saw. But I think her obvious discomfort at funeral rites is more than just that. It’s also that Carmilla genuinely fears death, which is why she continues to exist as the abomination she is rather than face it.
I put it to you, then, that the real motif of these stories is the attempt to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of death. And that’s why they resonate with us. The constant struggle against the universal law of entropy is the ultimate uniting force in storytelling. We all relate to it; we all understand it. Even the vampires understand it, for have they not sought to prolong their lives by unnatural means for fear of it?
Vampires do not represent death. They represent our fear of death. They are the seductive desire to give into our fear. To lie to ourselves, to pretend to something we are not. That’s why we all recognize the temptation. Vampire stories are ultimately about coming to terms with our own mortality.
But that, of course, is just my take. You may well see it differently. And of course, not all vampire stories are created equal. By this metric, Twilight isn’t even a vampire story at all, and not just because the blighters sparkle.
I struggle, though, to come up with a more plausible reason for why these same concepts resonate across different times and settings. The art of storytelling is in spinning a tale that speaks to people, and there’s nothing like fear of death to do that.
Of course, to bring all this back around to the very beginning, did Bram Stoker, or Sheridan Le Fanu, or anyone else for that matter, think about any of this stuff when they sat down to write? I’ll bet you they didn’t. Nobody would ever consciously set out to write a complex allegory about death. Rather, they wanted to tell a good story, and in doing so, tapped into ideas that are universal in the human experience.
This is the third book in the Benjamin Oris series. I’ve reviewed the previous installments here and here. If you haven’t read those books yet, be warned that there are certain plot elements of this I can’t discuss without giving away information about the earlier books.
The Bone Elixir begins when Ben Oris learns he has inherited a hotel from his great aunt Clara. Ben, who has his hands full with raising his son and working as an orthopedic surgeon, hardly needs this; but over his holiday break, he decides to go check the place out.
The Abigael Inn is a venerable old building in western Massachusetts. As it’s closed for the season, initially the only people there are Ben, the hotel manager Mandy, and her young son, Jake. But as Ben makes the rounds of his new property, he begins to find things like hidden rooms, containing very old books of unsettling legends and fairy tales. Among these are handwritten notes and demonic drawings. There is also a mysterious room in the basement that adds to the feeling of unease.
Soon, Ben’s grandparents, Frederick and Elizabeth “El” Claxwell arrive. They are a charming couple, and delighted to meet their grandson, from whom they had been long separated due to their estrangement with Ben’s mother, Harmony. Despite Ben’s reluctance, they encourage him to keep the hotel in the family.
And Ben finds part of himself wanting to as well, since it’s certainly a picturesque old place, and once his lover Laurette arrives to spend the week with him, it becomes in many respects very pleasant.
Still, there are odd things. People in the nearby town regard the place with suspicion, particularly a local bookshop owner and the town mystic. The latter is an eccentric woman mockingly dubbed “Ana Bananas,” but nevertheless her warnings about the hotel set Ben on edge.
That’s the setup. From there, let me just say it’s a good old-fashioned Gothic horror story, full of family secrets, ghosts, long-concealed crimes, and nightmarish horrors from realms unknown and unknowable. In the tradition of any good haunted house story, it’s slower paced than the first two books, which moved at breakneck speed. This one is more of a gnawing dread that gradually builds to a crescendo.
It’s probably just because of my love for Gothic horror, but this is definitely my favorite book in the series. It reminded me of some of the best Lovecraft stories, particularly “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It’s creepy and atmospheric and full of good lines. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rubin has a Chandleresque gift for turning a phrase. For example: “His new role as her boss fit about as well as Spanx on a horse.” Now isn’t that a vivid image?
I recommend the entire Ben Oris series, and this book is a perfect capstone to it. That said, you don’t have to read the whole series to enjoy this one, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s just because we’re so close to October 31st, and this, in my opinion, is such a perfect Halloween read, I think everyone should give it a try. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down once I started. So, if you get it at the time this post is published and your schedule allows, you should be able to finish by Halloween, and if you do, I think you’ll be in the right mood for the holiday.
One thing that has flummoxed me in writing this review is that I don’t know how well known this show is. It has cult status in some circles, but is unknown in others. It only ran for two seasons, and the second season is so wildly different from the first it may as well have been a different series. As a result, I’m not sure how much background material readers may require. Briefly: it was a 1970s show based on a 1920s sci-fi adventure novella, about an astronaut, Buck Rogers, (Gil Gerard) who is transported 500 years into the future. There, he joins the Earth Defense Directorate, led by Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor) and under the direct command of Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and they have various space-faring adventures.
The show is incredibly cheesy, and generally, the best episodes are the ones where they camp it up to the max. Recurring villain Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) was the best at this, but alas, she’s not in this episode.
Buck and Wilma have gone to Theta Station to repair their ambuquad. (Which sounds even lamer than going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters.) But they scarcely have arrived when another ship comes in. A derelict vessel called the IS Demeter collides with the station. All the crew aboard appear to be dead of a virus called EL-7, and the authorities on the station declare a quarantine so Buck and Wilma are unable to leave.
But Buck and Wilma aren’t convinced that’s really what’s going on. And the station’s medical officer has his doubts as well. He tells Buck that the crew of the Demeter doesn’t appear to be dead. Not that they’re alive either; but rather that the life force has been drained from them.
It all gives Wilma the creeps. As she tells Buck, while they were searching through the Demeter, “for the first time in my life, I could feel Death as a tangible presence.”
Buck learns from Dr. Huer that the Demeter had been carrying a passenger, a bounty hunter named Helsin, who had been trying to track down the thing that killed his family; a monster known as a “Vorvon.”
Buck finds security footage from Helsin’s room, which clearly shows him being attacked by some sort of invisible force. Soon after, Buck is attacked by the undead crew of the Demeter, during which the Vorvon reveals itself to him. He is able to ward it off, but Theta Station’s commander still refuses to believe him or Wilma. Buck realizes the Vorvon will need to steal his ship to escape the station, and so rigs its autopilot to fly into a nearby star.
Meanwhile, the Vorvon appears again to Wilma, and explains that she is the only one he wants. She surrenders herself to him, on the condition that he not harm Buck or the others. Under the Vorvon’s control, she goes to Buck’s room, with the intention of feeding on him, but Buck fends her off.
Wilma and the Vorvon then leave aboard the ship Buck reprogrammed. Buck gives chase in a fighter from the station. When the ship goes through the Stargate and emerges in front of a blazing sun, the Vorvon disintegrates, freeing Wilma from his spell and enabling her to escape with Buck. All the Vorvon’s victims return to life upon his demise, and in the end the only casualty was a houseplant Buck left in the care of Dr. Huer.
This is generally one of the better episodes of this series. It ought to be, since the plot is cribbed from Stoker. So cribbed, in fact, that it completely messes up the character of Colonel Deering. She’s a space colonel! It makes no sense for her to be shivering and screaming like a frightened Victorian maiden. Sure, the by-the-numbers vampire plot calls for a screaming maiden, but it really feels out of character for Wilma. I know, I know; I really do sound like Comic Book Guy.
The other thing that annoys me about this show is that they had a perfect actor to play a Van Helsing type of character in Tim O’Connor. I’ve only seen O’Connor on this show and in a few episodes of the Wonder Woman TV series, but he’s really good in both parts. He had a melancholy gravitas to him, that made him seem very warm, yet authoritative.
But of course, they waste him on some stupid comic relief subplot where he’s supposed to be taking care of a plant Buck left him, and failing at it.
This episode came out the year after the movie Alien, and I strongly suspect they were trying to cash in on the popularity of that film’s combination of horror and sci-fi. And it might have worked too, if they had remembered who their characters were. Wilma Deering was normally much closer to Ellen Ripley than Mina Harker anyway, so had they simply made her act like it, the episode could have been really good. Actually, if the whole series had just been Wilma Deering in the 25th Century, having adventures under the command of Dr. Huer, it would have been a better show altogether.
But, anyway! You are here to learn about the continuing popularity of the vampire myth, not read my Wilma Deering fanfiction. And what does it say about the vampire myth that it is so adaptable? We’ve already seen it go from foggy Victorian England, to the swamps of New Orleans, to the deserts of New Mexico, and now to outer space in the 25th century. It is nothing if not versatile.
What does this mean? Is it simply that the plot of “a monster arrives and messes things up” is infinitely malleable? What does it say about us?
You might well say I’m overthinking this. And I undoubtedly am. What is a blog for, if not for overthinking? Perhaps it is just a good story, and nothing more needs to be said.
Well, maybe so, maybe so… but, like a cynical detective in a pulp mystery, I narrow my eyes behind my dark glasses, clench a cigarette between my teeth, and growl, “I don’t like it… it’s too simple. Too easy. There is something bigger going on here, but I can’t put all the pieces together yet. Come on, Jenkins; let’s get back to the lab and see if those eggheads have dug up anything.”
Or something like that. Next week, we will post guards at every door, assemble all the guests in the drawing room, and see what we can make of it all.
It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.
The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.
And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.
And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated? After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.
The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.
Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.
I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.
Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.
Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.
If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.
The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.
As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.
A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.
There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.
The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.
This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.
This is military sci-fi blended with horror. It has a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Doom, a bit of Aliens, and is altogether an intense experience. It’s a short story, only about a 20 minute read, but is it ever action-packed.
The main character is Lyn, a mercenary who is part of a team trying to evacuate colonists from the titular planet. The planet has come under attack by creatures known as “Clickers”. Demonic, sadistic entites that are also very difficult to kill, they leave death and devestation in their wake.
Lyn tries her best to rescue as many colonists as she can, but the fight is hopeless, and soon, becomes a struggle just to survive. Lyn does, but at a heavy price. And eventually, it becomes clear the Clickers are not her only enemy.
The book is fast-paced, dark, and brutal. There are no happy endings here; more of a grim kind of satisfaction. It’s creepy, violent, and dark. Everything a good sci-fi horror story should be, in other words.
This is a sequel to the original Universal Dracula film from 1931. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular vampire, although he is going by the name Alucard to avoid arousing suspicion. (There is a reason for this in vampire lore, but as a disguise it’s barely better than “Mr. Hilter.”) He is invited to New Orleans by a Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Soon after his arrival, her father mysteriously dies, leaving his estate to Katherine and her sister Claire. (Evelyn Ankers)
Katherine’s boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) is alarmed at her strange behavior, and enraged when he learns she has married Alucard in secret. He tries to shoot Alucard, but hits Katherine instead when the bullets go through his target. He flees in terror and grief, but after he confesses to the crime, returns to the estate with the police to find Katherine still apparently alive.
I say “apparently,” and I think you probably know why I said “apparently.” I’ll spare you the description of the part where they consult vampire experts to work it all out, and skip right to the bit where Katherine confesses to Frank that she truly loves him, and only wanted to obtain immortality. She asks Frank to join her as a vampire, and tells him how to destroy “Alucard” by burning his coffin.
However, Frank is not the type to be tempted by the dark powers. He is much more of a Frodo than a Boromir, and so he does the only thing his conscience will allow: burns both Alucard and Katherine’s coffins. The film ends with him staring solemnly at the flames.
How much darker is this than your typical old monster movie? Usually the good guys kill the monster and save the damsel at the end. Not here, though. I remember the first time I saw it (on television, late one Halloween) I was stunned at the bleak ending.
Also, the New Orleans setting works really well. The scene where Katherine meets Alucard one night on a swampy river is a particularly eerie one.
Speaking of Katherine, I really liked her character. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, seduced not so much by Dracula’s charms, which are minimal, but by the prospect of eternal life. It’s a classic trope, but it’s a classic because it works.
And here we get to the implicit “moral” built into the vampire legend. The vampire is a human which has obtained immortality, but at the price of their soul. The implication is that mortality is the burden we must bear, and seeking to subvert it, particularly at the cost of others’ lives, is an unnatural perversion. The vampire is fundamentally parasitic, since it can only live by consuming the blood of mortals.
So, bottom line: don’t trade your soul for immortality! It may sound like a good idea, but trust us; it isn’t. This is the fundamental theme of a huge amount of fiction. And so, this is obviously what makes the vampire myth so effective.
Thanks for your time, fellow horror fans, but I think we’ve pretty much cleared this one up easily. I’ll just show myself out.
<Columbo voice> Oh, uh, there is one more thing. How do you know if you’re trading your soul? Come to that, how did this Count, uh, Alucard did you say? How did he get the idea to trade his soul in the first place? Was he the first vampire? If so, how did he do it? If not, who was the first vampire? </End>
I’m asking these questions as a study of the literature, of course. But also as a student of history–what inspired this myth to begin with? Do we know? The story of Dracula is obviously iconic. But where did it come from? And why?
More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Our work is not done, but take heart; I feel sure that we are hot on the trail.
If you described this book to me, I’d have said it sounded too clichéd. A mysterious monster killing people all over Whitechapel, and a private detective hired to track it down? It all sounds too much like a mashup of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula for me.
But Lydia Schoch recommended it, and I trust Lydia. And my trust was vindicated, because this turned out to be a very fun Halloween season short story. It is very short, taking only about 20 minutes to read, but in that short space the author created a whole satisfying plot arc that largely makes sense. Well, almost. There was one thing that didn’t make sense to me. But I can’t get too much into it without spoiling the book. However, it was a minor plot element that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.
The Victorian atmosphere is well done and the characters are engaging. It’s true, it doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid monster story competently told, and that’s what this is.
Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.
That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.
One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.
Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.
Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.
Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?
I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.
Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?
Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?
My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.
But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.
As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.
This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.
Dark Magic is a novella about two groups of magicians: the “Maestros of Magic” and “The Carnival of Conjurors.” The latter begins making a sensation with some truly spectacular performances that seem unbelievable to the Maestros, who investigate and eventually discover that the secret of the Conjurors is in fact real black magic.
What follows is a series of daring episodes of theatrical sabotage, as the Maestros try to thwart their rivals. It’s fast paced and exciting, although still with a few moments to catch your breath and learn something about the characters, all of whom are quite well-drawn, considering how short the book is.
If I have a quibble with the book, it’s that it seemed like the Maestros were a little too willing, too quickly, to jump to some rather dramatic conclusions about the Conjurors. Yes, they turn out to be correct, but even so, it seemed a tad rushed.
That’s a minor point, though. Overall, this is a very fun story with an absolutely perfect ending. I half-guessed it before it was revealed, but even so, it worked quite well. I know I say this about a lot of things, but if you like Twilight Zone type stories, you’ll love this.
I like magic shows and supernatural mysteries, so in that regard, this book was perfect for me. There are a few ways in which it was not perfect for me, however:
I’ll try to say it without spoiling anything, but there are a few references to women meeting violent ends. Nothing particularly graphic, but most readers know that I’m always uncomfortable with female victims as the hook for mystery stories. Give me Stephen Leacock’s “body of an elderly gentleman, upside down, but otherwise entirely dressed” as the victim and I’m much more comfortable. But again, I want to be clear this is not a criticism of the book, by any stretch.
One of the characters suffers from extreme arachnophobia, and this is a major plot point. I’m not quite at the “extreme” stage–I can look at a spider without screaming and running away–but I don’t like them. If the Thought Police ever took me to Room 101, there would certainly be spiders in place of rats. So, reading about them can be a little creepy, although I could really empathize with the character who feared them.
I also am mildly claustrophobic. Mostly, this relates to elevators and an irrational fear I have of being stuck in one. And once again, this book includes a scene with a claustrophobic character who is trapped for some time in a confined space.
Finally, I know I have at least one reader who is not a fan of chainsaws, and there’s one critical scene involving a mishap with one of those.
To be clear, I’m in no way objecting to these things being in the book. Rather, I’m complimenting the book, because it’s such a good story I kept reading despite these things, and found it to be quite a satisfying story overall.
The book description says the author is familiar with the world of stage magic, and that certainly seems to be the case–the descriptions of the life of a touring magic show feel very authentic.
This is a perfect read for the Halloween season–creepy, weird, and tinged with dark humor.