The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot

Original US cover (Avon)

Now here’s a classic that was out of print for a criminally long time. Michael Talbot‘s Victorian vampire novel is a majestic achievement, an epic alternate history about a world existing just beneath the surface, yet guiding and influencing everything.

Gone are the ghoulish Nosferatus and seductive Draculas; instead, Talbot’s vampires are detached and alien (emphasized by their particular way of walking, different from men), driven by arts and science, serving as guardian angels to mankind.

It all starts to come to light when the musically talented daughter of one Doctor Gladstone is abducted by his patient, a young and seemingly ageless Italian man called Niccolo. Gladstone tracks their trail from London to Paris and to the shores of Italy along with a new acquintance, Lady Dunaway. In the process, the age of the ageless vampire will come to an end.

Current edition (Valancourt Books)

The Delicate Dependency is more a historical novel in the vein of Tim Powers (think 1983’s The Anubis Gates or 1989’s The Stress of Her Regard) than outright horror. The detailed descriptions of Victorian London and fin-de-siècle Paris (with frequent snippets of French and Italian languages) bring out the atmosphere just right, enveloping but not suffocating the reader in a rich tapestry of history. The realism is palpable, and when the novel begins to stretch its bounds, the style remains constant, making it all that little bit more believable.

Against this elaborate background the characters manage to come to their own as well. Gladstone is a man of learning driven by the search for his daughter, but there are different sides to him, especially in the early part of the novel. The elder daughter, Ursula, is seduced by the idea of ageless vampirism. Lady Dunaway undergoes several twists during the course of the story, first hunting vampires because they took her son and then just hunting them, like a prototypical vampire hunter.

Paris, with Notre Dame in the background. Coincidentally, I finished reading the novel in the surroundings it’s set in.

But the stars of the novel are the vampires, paternally guiding mankind throughout centuries, protecting us from our own follies. Each vampire is unique, possessing some talent worth preserving; decisions to turn men into vampires are cool and calculated, in the service of a higher purpose. For instance, there’s Ilga, a mathematical genius who can predict the future as well as it can be calculated; Hatim, a falconer with an almost supernatural connection with his falcons; and so on. And somewhere above everyone else looms the mysterious, ancient Lodovico, the key to everything that happens in the novel. In the most remarkable deviation from tradition, Talbot’s vampires abhor violence.

Not much criticism can be levelled against the novel; the writing is excellent throughout, and despite the immense amount of exposition and detail it never gets tiresome. However, things do stagnate somewhat during Gladstone’s imprisonment in Paris, and some plot twists are a bit forceful, but in the grand scheme of things such grumbles are barely noteworthy. It’s the big picture that counts, and Talbot’s novel is as epic as they get.

The Delicate Dependency is a gorgeously beautiful book, gone far too soon but luckily now available again. It’s a very, very welcome return. Highly recommended.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1982 by Avon Books. Available now from Valancourt Books!


Sacrifice Island by Kristin Dearborn

sacrifice_islandThere’s trouble in paradise; an island in the Philippines hides something evil – and it seems some of the locals are feeding it an occasional tourist or two.

Enter the brave paranormal investigators, Jemma and Alex; Jemma is the one with the psychic skills and a general aversion to life, while Alex serves as her loyal fixer. They jet off to Southeast Asia and are met by Terry, an expat Englishman, and a dodgy guide known as Mr. Lucky. As the ghost hunters start poking their noses around the islands, they realize they may very well be the creature’s next meal.

The creature of this feature is an aswang, a Filipino variation of a vampire. It’s a nice exotic twist, as are the surroundings, meticulously brought to life; all sunny skies and blue lagoons, hardly a proper place for any self-respecting nasties. Yet there she is, lurking in the cool shade of the palm leaves. Probably enjoying her life, nibbling on some tasty rib.

She’s pretty much absent for much of the story. The ghost hunters, however, are front and center; they’re also slightly problematic, seeing as Jemma with her superpowers is as much a miracle as the aswang. There’s an obvious parallel, of course, but it does eat away some of the realism; you can suspend disbelief only so much. The plot also wanders a bit, with a lot of ferrying to and from the island, changing plans, a double cross, and even hijinks in a disguise. As a whole, Sacrifice Island (2013) is a nice, fun read with a fresh mythology, but it doesn’t quite knock the reader’s socks off.

But there are some wonderful nuggets: the detail that the aswang had decorated her den with an image of Daisy Duck, the drunken tourist who gets served as a meal, and the deliciously creepy finale, which involves swallowing something rather disgusting – although maybe they’ve eaten worse things on Survivor by now?

*** (3/5)

An ebook novella, available now from DarkFuse. Visit the author’s site.

They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon

They thirstThey Thirst (1981) is a vampire novel with a vicious bite; an epic, go-for-broke account of how an ancient vampire king brought down the City of Angels. It’s a big story, with big stakes (pun intended), but it all works: Robert R. McCammon‘s fourth novel is an action-packed story with small moments of humanity against an apocalyptic backdrop.

The vampire king is Prince Vulkan, a thousand-years-old Hungarian who sets up court in Castle Kronsteen, a gothic house built by an old movie star. Vulkan uses his powers to assemble the worst of humanity: Kobra, a psychopath becomes his right-hand-man, while Roach, a serial killer, is used as a renfield to deliver “lunch” up to the castle. Vulkan’s mission is simple: conquer Los Angeles. All of it. As the vampire populace grows night after night, coffins are dug up in cemeteries for use as daytime cribs for the vampires.

This attracts the attention of a police detective on the hunt for Roach; Andy Palatazin, also originally from Hungary, who happens to have some personal experience with vampires. He recognizes the signs, and realizes what’s happening, but of course nobody believes him.

And here the novel bares its fangs, and smiles gleefully; the oncoming apocalypse is just another day in LA. McCammon roots the action in believable, realistic scenery, with everyday problems and latino gangs and police on the trail of a killer. All things supernatural therefore have a firm basis on which to stand, and boy, they truly do stand tall.

A wonderful example is the chapter where Father Silvera, a local priest and one of the central figures in the novel, enters an apartment block with mostly poor latino immigrants. Silvera doesn’t know it, but the house has been attacked by vampires. The discovery of newly turned vampires cowering under beds and in the closets is horrific; it’s supernatural horror, brought down to a realistic level. And equally realistically, the society goes through the motions and takes the vampires to hospital, since vampires aren’t real, after all. This denialism against all evidence is emblematic of the novel, and it’s executed very effectively.

The residents of LA do wake up to their new reality soon enough, and here McCammon holds nothing back. The normality shatters almost overnight. A sandstorm of supernatural origins strikes LA, turning daytime into a constant barrage of sand and wind. When the characters, led by Palatazin and Father Silvera, finally round up their resources and start their counterattack, it’s almost too late. The odds are overwhelmingly against them, and their mission to the vampire den is a suicide mission. But even as the world comes down all around them, the human spirit grits its teeth and survives, with some deus ex machina (about 9.5 on the Richter scale) help.

McCammon’s writing and pacing are excellent throughout; the realism is palpable, the apocalyptic consequences fantastically vivid. The characters are likeable and their survival rate is low; but their deaths always count for something. The action is constant and pleasantly over the top, but McCammon always remembers to keep his feet on the ground. And the story never loses its focus, it’s very controlled storytelling that apportions action and plot and just generally kick-ass moments of great eighties horror in equal measure.

They Thirst may be one of those rare novels that can be summed up in one word, and that word is awesome.

***** (5/5)

The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz

15814092The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz (Samhain, 2013) is a novel with a great beginning and a good finish, and a whole lot of nonsense in between.

The story goes as they always do: a couple, Chris and Ellie, inherit an old house, only to realize that they’ve gained more than just a decrepit piece of real estate. Located on a vast, forested tract of land somewhere in Indiana, the house used to be a center for a child-sacrificing coven of cultists.

The beginning of the novel reads like an unpublished script out of T.E.D. Klein‘s desk drawer (as a nod, the couple adopt a stray dog they call Petey). Rich in atmosphere, the house and the encroaching woods ooze with promise. Anything can happen. What primeval horror will come creeping out of the forest?

Nobody expects Richard Laymon. The husband, Chris, gets seduced by an apparition of his aunt Lillith, the previous owner of the house, who, as it happens, was not only a leading cultist, but also a sort of a vampire. Having sex with your aunt would probably make you crazy anyway, it certainly doesn’t help if she’s undead to boot.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here on in. The novel literally loses its plot after Chris goes bonkers and gets his creepy sex drive on. The sudden appearance of Ellie’s more glamorous sister doesn’t help, it only seems to result in more juvenile sexual tension. Small nonsensical things crop up, stealing the novel of its power. The scenes come and go, with a couple of graphic murders and casual grave digging thrown in for good measure, but they barely amount to anything.

The villain, Lillith, is certainly part of the problem. She seems to be there for the plot alone, not as a character in her own right. The novel doesn’t tell much about her, except that she tended to give Ellie the evil eye and partook in some unsavory bloodsucking. Her partner, a dog-loving, child-sacrificing Destragis is even less a character. The novel’s vampire mythology seems original, but it mostly confuses rather than clears things up. There are some hints that the forest itself is evil, but none of this history is adequately explored, leaving the book without a proper backbone.

As a side note, the title and cover of the novel seem slightly more baby-obsessed (in a Rosemary’s Baby kind of way) than the novel actually is. There is a pregnancy, to be sure, but its significance is lost somewhere in the confusion.

After the derailment the novel finds its groove again in the finale. It’s an atmospheric sendoff that works despite its innate ridiculousness. The open ending, with Ellie walking alone through the woods, leaves a nice, lasting image that could’ve crowned a great novel. But, unfortunately, it’s a badly uneven story that she leaves behind her.

*** (3/5)