The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz

dustdevilsIt’s on from page one, and it doesn’t stop until it’s done. On a desert in 1880s New Mexico, a man called Cody and a boy named Willet spy a group of vampires feasting on some nice human barbecue. The vampires, travelling from town to town as a theatre troupe, have taken Cody’s wife; from Willet, they’ve taken his whole family.

We get the backstory bit by bit, but otherwise it’s nonstop action, told on the go; after a fight with the vampires, Cody and Willet try to head off the creatures at a nearby town. Soon enough the troupe shows up again, this time for a show at the local saloon. It’s not exactly Shakespeare these vampires perform, but the crowd does go wild. The final standoff at a ranch caps things off in a gory whirlwind of headshots, decapitations and torn arteries.

It’s not subtle, but hell if it isn’t effective. The action is very well paced – the 250-page novel goes past in a breeze – and there’s a sparkle to the language already familiar from writer Jonathan Janz‘s previous novels; in horror, perhaps only Robert R. McCammon manages to keep a story going with such constant energy. Only at the very end does the action begin to lag, as the aftermath goes on perhaps a few pages too long. But then again the reader might need a breather before returning to the real world, a gentle easing back from the adrenaline-fuelled heights.

Surprisingly, for such an action-packed story, the characters are drawn in some detail as well. Cody is a likeable man, whose already complex relationships with his wife, his father and young Willet get severely tested in the course of the novel, giving it all a strong emotional backbone. Marguerite, a saloonkeeper he meets in the town, comes with some baggage in her relationships as well, and their first meeting is a well executed sequence that happily defies the laymonian school of man-woman relationships, making it resound just that crucial little bit more.

The vampires – needless to say, not the Twilight kind – are bestial, but also eerily human; the western horror genre brings to mind Lance Henriksen‘s group in the movie Near Dark (1987; incidentally scripted by Eric Red, another Samhain author). The vampires aren’t calculating and cool, but temperamental, and when they lose their heads, well, they lose their heads. The familiar mythology does get a rewrite, but it’s nicely explained – the thespian vampires are, after all, professional liars.

The fifth novel by Janz, Dust Devils is plotwise concise and psychologically streamlined; it’s all muscle and heart. The small cast and the straightforward, nearly real-time storyline also help, giving the novel a wonderful immediacy and a fierce, kinetic energy that drives the narrative compulsively forward; for sheer speed, Dust Devils, pardon the pun, truly leaves many others in its dust.

****½ (4.5/5)

Published in February 2014 by Samhain Publishing. Visit the author’s site!

The Narrows by Ronald Malfi

thenarrowsA town already on the ropes just can’t catch a break in The Narrows, a 2012 novel by Ronald Malfi. Instead, the few remaining townsfolk in the Rust Belt town are faced with floods, an infestation of bats, and as a nice, juicy cherry on top  vampiric creatures with a taste for brain-bacon.

The events take off with a corpse that arrives with the floodwaters. Soon there’s a spate of cattle mutilations, as local cows get their brains scooped out. Kids start disappearing as well, only to return as nightmarish nosferatus that vomit acid to subdue their victims (and to soften their skulls, so they can get to the juicy part inside).

There’s a wonderful sense of inevitability to these mindless, bottom-feeding carrions; they are like the Langoliers, a force of nature if you will, swooping down on a dying town to finish it off. A crucial element in the order of things, same as bacteria.

But they’re also a bit of a one trick pony; they vomit acid, but that’s basically it for most of the novel, despite the decidedly Lovecraftian finale. Most townsfolk are helpless in the face of such creatures, but some struggle on as the story unravels in a cinematic fashion, with multiple viewpoint characters. Most important of them is Ben, the local police officer.

But the main character is the town. The novel becomes almost a social treatise in urban decay, as the narrative maps the resigned mood of the town and its few remaining residents. It all amounts to a mighty gritty reality, giving a nice leg up to the imagined horrors that follow.

As usual, Malfi’s writing is exceptionally good throughout; the man is a truly gifted storyteller, who can spin sentences and pace action like none other. But it’s at the end, as pieces get picked up and the survivors look to the future, that the novel goes into emotional high gear; the endings of the storylines are left open, with possible destinies the reader can only begin to imagine. The town might be dead, but the characters go on.

**** (4/5)

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)

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2_coverChristmas comes early to horror fans courtesy of Joe Hill‘s third novel, NOS4A2 (2013). A truly original horror novel brought to life by first rate storytelling, NOS4A2 (or Nosferatu) is the tale of biker chick Vic McQueen, who as a young girl discovers that she can create a portal that looks like a dilapidated covered bridge. Riding her Raleigh bike through the Shorter Way bridge takes her anywhere in an instant, enabling her to find items that have been lost.

But there are others with similar talents. Enter Charlie Manx, a vampiric centenarian with a sweet 1938 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith (bearing the titular vanity license plate) and a mission to save children everywhere. With his renfields Manx takes the children to a place beyond reality called Christmasland, where every day is Christmas and the children never age. Instead, they grow new teeth and lose their humanity.

Vic comes across Manx but escapes, bringing about his downfall and imprisonment in the process. Years later, after Manx’s death and autopsy, he wakes up and comes after Vic and her son, Wayne. And then it’s on, the Wraith versus Vic’s new ride, a Triumph motorbike, in a race for Wayne’s soul.

The tale’s definitely in the telling in NOS4A2. There’s the horror, for sure, but there are also elements of fantasy and pitch black humour. Hill’s prose is impeccable, with a lively rhythm and pace that make the nearly 700-page story fly by. The characterisations are impressive, full of personality and elaborate, minute details; Vic’s boyfriend Lou Carmody, an overweight, comics-loving grease monkey being a particularly joyous creation. Even tertiary characters receive wicked back stories, such as the morgue attendant who takes pictures of himself with famous corpses. There’s a richness to the novel, a grand tapestry of characters, events and details that can’t be adequately expressed in a short review.

And what a villain the novel has in Charlie Manx, a man with 19th century speech patterns and an aversion to dirty language. The self-anointed saviour of children is doing what he thinks is best for the little ones, never mind evidence to the contrary. He’s a hero in his own right, but his heroism is of a twisted, rotten kind.

Much like clowns in horror fiction, all things Christmas become creepy, unnerving experiences in NOS4A2. Manx’s idea of happiness is Christmas, so his sanctuary of eternal bliss is a theme park dedicated to Christmas. The Wraith, his transport to Christmasland, only plays Christmas songs on its radio. Manx’s rhyming manchild helper Bing Partridge gases the children’s mothers with an anesthetic that has a whiff of gingerbread in it. Oddly, the overbearing, force-fed sweetness of Manx’s Christmas isn’t that far off from reality, with commercial Christmas taking over every store and shopping center from November onwards, every year a little earlier, every year a little more, a little piece of Christmasland for you and for me.

An unmissable masterpiece.

***** (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)