As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.

This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.

This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.

This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.

The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.

And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

The first thing I had to do before reading this book was try to forget everything I previously knew about James Bond. It’s not easy. Even if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you probably have absorbed some things about him from pop culture references. I’ve seen most of the films, so I had to consciously purge all memories of Bond-related media I had seen before reading this

Because this is the first Bond book, the one that started it all, and it seemed best to try to view it through fresh eyes as much as possible. Fleming’s original character is a cold, efficient secret agent, and his mission is to defeat the communist operative Le Chiffre at baccarat in order to disgrace him in the eyes of The Party.

The first half of the book involves long and fairly complicated descriptions of baccarat, as well as some other casino games. Also, many of the terms are French, and Fleming assumes that his readers would be familiar with the language. Probably they were, because his intended audience was well-educated, not savages such as myself.

“He made a high banco at chemin-de-fer whenever he heard one offered. If he lost, he would ‘suivi‘ once and not chase it further if he lost the second time.” 

Uh… ‘kay? To be fair, some of these terms get explained later on in the book. Vesper Lynd, Bond’s assistant on this mission, serves as much as a plot device to have this stuff explained as she does a love interest.

At first, I found it a little dull, but after a while I got absorbed in the high-stakes game. Fleming did a good job building the tension and making the reader sweat right along with Bond.

And so, from the blank slate I’d consciously developed, the character of Bond as Fleming saw him starts to come into focus. It’s funny to think now that the name is so iconic that Fleming’s reason for naming him “James Bond” was because it seemed to him such an uninteresting and ordinary name.

As for his looks, Vesper compares him to Hoagy Carmichael, who I had never heard of before, although Bond himself doesn’t see it. Myself, I started picturing someone on the order of Basil Rathbone: not bad-looking, but not terribly remarkable either.

Maybe it’s because Bond evokes another iconic English hero whom Rathbone did portray: Sherlock Holmes. He surveys everything with a calm detachment, and largely avoids falling prey to emotional entanglement. Or so he tells himself. But, during the first of those signature 007 car chases, his actions betray him. Sure, he may say to himself the woman he’s racing to save means nothing to him, but he is driving 120 miles per hour at night to catch up with her kidnappers.

In the end of course, it’s not just Bond’s actions that betray him. This is a spy thriller after all, and at the end of it, Bond is even more of a heartless, misogynistic, unsentimental S.O.B. than he was at the beginning.

Okay, I lied. I didn’t actually erase all my preconceived notions about Bond before reading this. But I promise, I did my best to forget about Connery, Craig and everyone in between. Who I kept in mind was Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British intelligence officer who served under Fleming’s command during World War II, and whose memoir, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, I recently read.

Dalzel-Job is thought to have been Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond. Although his service seems to have been, if anything, way more exciting than Fleming’s fiction. Dalzel-Job’s memoir records no glamorous casinos, expensive meals, or fancy cars, and quite a lot of hiding out night after night on the coast of Norway, spying on the activities of the Kriegsmarine.

On the other hand, Dalzel-Job does describe reassigning himself after the war without consulting his superior officer, in order to be closer to the woman he would eventually marry. Such roguish defiance of his superiors may have been in Fleming’s mind when he was crafting his fictional spy.

Anyway, I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Casino Royale, but I really do have to recommend From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy to anyone who enjoys reading about history. Dalzel-Job gives a clear, well-written and extremely humble account of his heroic actions during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and some of his real-life adventures are more breathtaking than any Bond story.

But, back to Casino Royale. The last quarter of the book makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but in essence, a bunch of suspicious stuff is going on, and Bond is blithely ignoring it. It’s totally out of character for him based on how he behaved in the first part of the book, where he was meticulously paranoid about security measures, and proud of it. Then at the end he’s reckless about obvious threats, and the only reason for this seems to be that he needed to be to make the plot work.

I didn’t care for the ending at all, which was too bad, because I really liked the rest of it. It’s well-paced, interesting, and Bond was a good character… until he wasn’t.

To me, the book really should have ended with a fascinating conversation between Bond and his colleague, Mathis, where Bond is waxing philosophical about his profession:

“Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Can you imagine any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond saying that? I can’t.

Even better is Mathis’s parting advice to Bond:

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

This was my favorite chapter in the book, and really made the characters feel much more real and interesting. And then Fleming had to go and make a mess of it at the end!

Oh, well. It was still a good book and I’m glad I read it. All told, I’d say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the Bond movies I’ve seen, including the 2006 adaptation of this very story. Even if you don’t like the Bond franchise generally, it’s still worth giving the book a try if you like thrillers.

All right, that’s the end of the book review. What follows is just me going off on one of my hobbyhorses. Don’t feel like you have to read it unless you are interested in minutiae.

At one point, Bond is described as arming himself with “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip,” which he checks by removing “the clip.”

This is apparently a Beretta M418. There is an interesting behind-the-scenes story about how Bond ultimately swapped it out for his signature Walther PPK, but what I’m interested in is the use of this word “clip.” In this context, it sounds like he’s talking about a magazine, not a clip. Peter Martuneac (who, incidentally, I have to thank for recommending Casino Royale to me) has written a post about distinguishing the two. But Fleming was a navy officer, so I’m reluctant to automatically assume he was ignorant of the difference. Perhaps it’s a difference between British and American lingo? Or am I missing something, and it really is a clip? This picture of the 418 shows a pretty definite  magazine, though.

Anyway… well, if you read all this nit-picking and found it interesting, perhaps you’ll also enjoy this clip (pun intended) that I stumbled across while researching this. While it might be too big for a spy to carry discreetly, I think it’s worth noting that a few years later, a .44 magnum revolver would become an iconic cinematic weapon in its own right.

[Audio version of this review available below. This video is dedicated to the memory of all the French words I slaughtered trying to pronounce them when making it.]

The great comic novelist and book lover Noah Goats once told me, “Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.” This is a good example. After reading T.J. Brown’s excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley, I looked to see what else he had written. And the first thing that grabbed my eye was the image you see at the right.

Well, I mean, how could I resist?

As the cover suggests, this is a raunchy, bawdy comedy. Emily Spankhammer is a young, widowed Southern Belle who runs a beaver farm. And in case you are wondering if that leads to many, many Are You Being Served?-style double-entendres, why, yes, yes it does. It is that kind of book, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me laugh.

In her quest to find love, Emily is aided by her spirit guide, a wisecracking pink unicorn named Sparkle. Despite his appearance, Sparkle is, shall we say, anything but pure or nice. As he explains to Emily, he has been forced by the Ancient Greek Gods into the role of spirit guide after his decadent hedonism indirectly led to the destruction of Atlantis.

I’m not doing it justice. Let me quote Sparkle verbatim:

“This is the realm of gods and monsters, you silly woman. They don’t have moral codes in that place. If you’d spent more time watching sword-and-sandal movies, you’d know that. This is the domain of passion, of jealousy, of revenge, blood feuds, and raging hormones.”

Sparkle and Emily’s relationship is a turbulent one. Actually, all her relationships are turbulent, whether it’s with a mechanic whose home is filled with fake owls, a circus ringmaster, or a Scottish Highlander. Are you getting a sense now of what a wild story this is?

The long and short of it is, it’s a hilarious, madcap adventure. It reminded me a little of Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf and a little of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink From HellIt’s not a coincidence that the best comparisons I can think of are indie books. This is what makes reading indie books so rewarding: these are the kind of unusual stories that publishers are too risk-averse to take a chance on, but are an absolute delight to read.

Now, I’ll admit that some readers might not see the appeal in it. If you don’t like raunchy humor, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in the mood for a zany, somewhat off-color, fast-paced take-off of romance novels, you should give this one a try.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

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.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a long time. First, I read Joy V. Spicer’s review of it, which got me to download it, and then I let it languish on my Kindle. Then I read Peter Martuneac’s review and realized if two of my friends had recommended this, I really should get to it.

I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.

Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?

If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.

Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.

Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.

Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.

More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.

There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.

This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.

Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:

“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”

And then in the next paragraph we have:

“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”

I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:

“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”

Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!

[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!

How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.

I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.

Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.

I haven’t read the next book in this series, but Joy has, and her review was enough to dissuade me from picking it up. She made one observation about that book that I think is already foreshadowed in the first book:

Karen Traviss obviously does not like the Jedi…

There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.

Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.

You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.

Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.

Right?

Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.

I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?

I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”

This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?

My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:

Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.

Rey: That’s not true!

Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.

Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.

I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.

With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.

All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.

This is the sort of book I rarely read: a fantasy-quest type of story. But it came recommended by Peter Martuneac, so I figured I would give it a try.

Am I ever glad I did! This is a fantastic tale of adventure set in an ancient Eastern kingdom known as Hosa. The book begins with the death of the protagonist, a warrior named Itami Cho. But Cho is returned to life by an extremely creepy child called Ein.

Ein explains that he has been granted the power to restore the dead to life by a shinigami, a type of malevolent spirit. He is on a quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings, and to do so, he is recruiting various “heroes” by returning them to life and binding them to his will, forcing them to aid him. In exchange, he promises to restore them to true life when their mission is complete.

It’s a sort of “Dirty Dozen” scenario, as Ein and Cho assemble a team of strong, though not always honorable, fighters. Together they journey across the land of Hosa, fighting all sorts of enemies, from common thieves to demonic entities known as “yokai”; monstrous perversions of living forms into hideous abominations.

What really makes the book great are the characters. Besides the humble and valorous Itami Cho, you’ve got the skilled-but-untrustworthy bandit Emerald Wind, the powerful, hard-drinking “Iron Gut” Chen, and the wise Master, Bingwei Ma.  In addition to these “heroes” (which is what Ein calls them, though some are less heroic than others), there are a host of other supporting characters, including a leprous sharpshooter who joins the party despite still being mortal.

Late in the book, we also meet a military leader called the Steel Prince, and his strategist, Art of War, a mysterious woman whose features are hidden behind a robe and a mask. They’re not in the story much, but I really liked the dynamic between them. The Prince is a brave and charismatic leader who unites his army, and Art of War is the brains behind the scenes, planning strategic maneuvers. Both are essential to the functioning of the entire force.

Ultimately, the book is a story about heroism. Not just about the heroes per se, but also about what it takes to be heroic. In different ways, all the main characters perform great feats of courage and sacrifice, while still coming across as very relatable and human.

It’s a dark and violent tale right from the get-go, with plenty of extremely well-written and bloody battle scenes. The story moves at a brisk pace, and the dialogue and character development are balanced perfectly with the action scenes.

Simply put, this is a marvelous book. I generally don’t bother writing reviews for books that already have hundreds of reviews on Amazon, but this one was so good, I just had to. Even if you’re not big on Epic Fantasy, you should still give this one a try. It’s one of those books that grabs you at the start and never lets go. I’m very grateful to Peter for bringing it to my attention, and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

Earlier this year, I reviewed Zachary Shatzer’s The Goose Finder, and said it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. So when I saw he released a new short story, I eagerly pounced on it.

And yes, if you liked The Goose Finder, you’ll like this too. As with the earlier book, I laughed out loud multiple times reading it. It has the same zany, absurd, laugh-a-minute style as it recounts the history of John Warbly, Chad Crackleman, Portman Humberson, and, of course, Old Man Cornwell, as they combine their musical talents and embark on a wild and tumultuous journey.

Once again, it’s really impossible for me to describe the book, so let me offer a few quotes. Here’s the description of Old Man Cornwell:

“He seldom spoke, and when he did it was usually in a confusing and cryptic way, often utilizing spiritual symbolism and references to ancient mythology. Sometimes he would imply that he was older than time itself, but when asked to further explain his meaning, he would simply chuckle and change the subject to the price of gasoline.”

Or this, when the band has its first hit:

“Despite insisting he wouldn’t let success change him, John instantly let success change him in numerous ways.”

Later, when the band breaks up, Portman takes up a new profession:

…writing political thriller novels, including but not limited to The President’s Secret Code, Senator/Spy, and The Shadow Government That Covertly Rules the Country and is Run By the Ghost of Warren G. Harding.”

I don’t mind telling you, I really, really want that last book to be real. Maybe Shatzer will consider writing it next.

Maybe none of this makes you chuckle, but if it does, I highly recommend checking this book out. It’s a short read, but given that there’s a laugh on every page, it’s well worth it.

[Audio version of this post will be available as soon as possible.]

Another excellent entry in the Brad Parker and Karen Richmond series of medical thrillers. (See my other reviews here, here, and here.) This one begins with a post-doctoral researcher receiving a note at her late uncle’s funeral, which contains shocking information from the deceased. But before she can act on it, she is murdered, and the note taken from her.

From there, it’s up to Brad and Karen to once again unravel a tangled web, and they gradually find a scandal that goes back decades, and that someone will stop at nothing to keep buried.

As in previous books, Brad and Karen are likable protagonists, and this book gives us a chance to see new aspects of them. There’s one scene where Brad is forced to use a gun to defend himself and Karen. It’s something that does not come easily to a lifelong academic, and I really liked how this haunts him afterwards.

And as always in this series, there are a lot of glimpses into the struggles for power at the uppermost levels of academia. The allure of prestige and power that comes with academic achievement are always in play, and some people are driven to desperate acts by them. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there is a bit where, to help finally crack the case, Brad’s knowledge of how a scientist would think proves to be key. I really liked that.

I highly recommend this book, and the series as a whole. Besides being extremely entertaining thrillers, they also have a theme running through them about corrupting influences that even some of the best and brightest people can succumb to if they’re not careful.

Oh, and one other thing… the food in this book! Cooper’s descriptions of the delicious New England fare that Brad and Karen dine on while they’re working never fail to get my mouth watering. 🙂

[Audio version of this review available below.]

This is the third book in the “His Name Was Zach” series. Be warned, I can’t really talk about what happens in it without spoiling aspects of the first two books.

After helping to inspire a revolution against a tyrannical government, Abby, our protagonist, has retreated into the desert, living alone with only her guilt and trauma. But when the new President summons her back on a mission to scout out the zombie-ravaged American midwest, she takes it, as a chance to finally confront many of her demons.

So Abby, along with her boyfriend Hiamovi and a squad of marines, head out into The Wild, and Abby retraces the steps she took in the previous books in the series, confronting old adversaries and painful memories.

The story is structured explicitly as a quest, and that’s really what it feels like; a band of modern-day knights on an epic journey. Eventually, Abby and the others reach their objective: Chicago, which is doing surprisingly well considering it was the epicenter of the zombie outbreak, and even more when it turns out to be managed by none other than Edmund, a murderous gangster from the first book.

Edmund really is a fascinating character. Read what I said about him in my review of the first book, now imagine such a personality in charge of a whole city. He’s basically a Caesar; and not a good one. He’s much more of a Commodus than a Marcus Aurelius, right down to the gladiatorial matches.

There’s a lot more I could say about Edmund, but it would fall into spoiler territory. Maybe someday, after this series has become a best-seller and everyone has read it, I’ll come back and write a whole essay about this character and what I think he represents. (This is another strange feeling for me; I never think characters represent things. And yet, while I was reading the story, the thought came to me, unbidden, that… well, never mind!)

As noted above, the real core of the book is Abby confronting her demons, including both things that were done to her and things that she did. In that regard, the book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction: Knights of the Old Republic II. C’mon, it’s been a while since I brought that up; did you think I could hold off forever? As you’ve probably heard me say a thousand times, it’s a story about a veteran soldier confronting all the horrors of their past. (Or maybe you haven’t heard me say it, in which case you can do so here if you’re so inclined.) It’s a powerful theme for any epic story, and Their Names Were Many is a marvelous take on it.

Abby faces a number of terrifying enemies during her journey. Besides Edmund, you’ve got the mad preacher Isaiah, who has only gotten crazier since we last saw him. Not to mention the zombie hordes that still roam The Wild.

But none of them are the primary antagonist; not even Edmund. No, that role is played by someone else; a truly terrifying being, and Abby’s final confrontation with this… entity… is the most intense scene in the whole series. Not least because of where it takes place.

Taken as a whole, the series went in a very different direction than I expected when I first picked up His Name Was Zach, and I was really impressed by how it evolved. I thought it would be a fairly ho-hum zombie apocalypse tale, but what it became was something much bigger, much more unique, and altogether more memorable. When I first discovered the author’s blog, I remember seeing he was influenced by Tolkien. Which surprised me at first. Why would a fan of a High Fantasy epic be writing a Military Zombie-Apocalypse Dystopia? But in the end, I saw a lot of Tolkien-esque ideas throughout the series, from the smallest things to some of the major themes. Another essay, perhaps, for after these books get famous.

Although the series goes to some dark, dark places, its theme is ultimately an uplifting one, and I’m really glad I read it. I’m sure I’ll remember it for a long, long time.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

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.”

Illustration by David Henry Friston for “Carmilla”

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?

As far as finding the first vampire story, the trail starts to run colder before Carmilla. There’s The Vampyre, by John William Polidori, and the interminable 1840s penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, but Le Fanu’s main source seems to have been the works of an 18th century Benedictine monk named Augustin Calmet, specifically his Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al. 

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.

[Audio version of this post available below.]