Review: A Selection of 2011’s Vampires

Posted by Hannah Priest on August 15, 2011 in Dr Hannah Priest, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , ,

By now, most readers will be familiar with the assertions by publishers, writers, bloggers and reviewers that the trend for vampire fiction is coming to an end. However, 2011 has seen a number of new vampire titles so far. Today’s post is a selection of recent offerings. It is not intended to be a definitive comment on the current state of the genre, but rather a review of some vampire titles that are currently gracing the (physical and virtual) bookshop shelves.

First up is Scott G. Mariani’s Uprising. First published in 2010 (with Mariani writing under the name Sean McCabe), by HarperCollins’s Avon imprint, Uprising is the first in the Vampire Federation series. Set in a world in which vampires live alongside human beings, Mariani’s work introduces readers to the ‘Vampire Federation’, a powerful group of vampires formed to regulate the behaviour of vamps by limiting hunting, allowing them to move around in sunlight and erasing mortal memories of attacks. The central vampire character of the novel is Alex Bishop, a special ‘VIA’ agent employed to police vampires who break the federation’s rules. In attempting to track down a ‘rogue’ vampire sect (led by Gabriel Stone), Bishop comes into contact with Joel Solomon, a human police officer who has survived a past encounter with a vampire.

Mariani’s book is very much urban fantasy, and owes a great debt to the Blade films. Not only is modern technology used by both federation and ‘rogue’ vampires, but chemical weaponry is also key to the world of the novels. The Vampire Federation manufactures drugs in order to facilitate the smoother integration of humans and vampires. Thus, we have “Nosferol” (a drug that can destroy vampires on contact), “VamBloc” (which erases human memory after a vampire attack) and “Solazal” (to allow exposure to sunlight). As in the Blade films, references to viruses and DNA abound. However, these contemporary flourishes sit uneasily with the novel’s subplot, dealing with the search for an ancient (and Christian) relic – the cross of Ardaich – which can be used to obliterate vampires.

This is one of the main problems with Mariani’s novel; varying influences and traditions of vampire literature (and genre fiction in general) battle for prominence within the work, resulting in a book that is rather muddled and unoriginal. The book’s debt to Dracula is obvious, and the writer himself highlights this in the Q and A that ends the UK paperback edition. References to Bram Stoker’s work include an ancient vampire who arrives in the UK in a sinister craft with a dead crew, and a final Transylvanian showdown with accompanying ‘gypsies’. As noted, the book also owes much of its conception of modern vampirism to the Blade series, as many post-Blade fictions do.

More frustrating, however, are the other pop culture ‘influences’ that are evident, some of which are bordering on plagiarism. A clear example of this can be seen in an early interaction between Alex Bishop and her VIA boss. Bishop refers several times to the ‘code’ her boss has instilled in his department. She comments on a plaque in his office, outlining his ‘code’:

“1. A vampire must never harm a human

2. A vampire must never turn a human

3. A vampire must never love a human” (p. 31)

If this sounds uncomfortably close to the ‘code’ presented in Dexter, the similarity is compounded by the fact that Bishop’s boss’s name is Harry – just like Dexter’s adopted father. Elsewhere in the book, a search inspired by cryptic notes is carried out through historical and religious sites – recalling The Da Vinci Code (though with little of the latter’s ingenuity, as the messages in Uprising are decoded via a Google search on a BlackBerry). Bishop, who is used to working alone, is given a “rookie” (i.e. recently turned) partner, and her boss specifically refers to her as a “maverick” on numerous occasions. Such genre clichés litter the book, and are combined with broad characterization and clunky dialogue, to create a work that feels almost completely lacking originality.

HarperCollins, Mariani’s publisher, also published Dracula the Undead, Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s ‘official’ sequel to Stoker’s Dracula. I have written elsewhere about Dracula the Undead – and have an article on this critically-panned work coming out later this year – but suffice to say, Dacre Stoker and Holt’s book shares many of the shortcomings of Mariani’s work. Specifically, the lack of originality and near-plagiarizing of other pop culture products is common to both vampire fictions. Neither work offers anything new to the vampire mythos, and both regurgitate tired clichés at the expense of compelling plot or character.

Rachel Caine’s Bite Club (Allison and Busby Limited, 2011), on the other hand, is a more individual take on vampire fiction. Bite Club is the tenth book in Caine’s young adult Morganville Vampires series. Unlike the majority of YA vampire novels, the Morganville novels do not take vampires on the whole as central characters or, indeed, as potential love interests. The series focuses on Claire Danvers, a young university student who attends Texas Prairie University in Morganville. As Claire discovers early in the first book of the series, Morganville is owned and run by vampires – and ruthless, amoral vampires that are quite unlike the usual YA vamps – and she must negotiate territorial battles, undead enemies and allies, and relationships with her fellow humans as the series goes on.

As noted, Bite Club is the tenth in Caine’s series, and, as such, many of the relationships in the novel are well-established by now. Claire is in a relationship with an older human boy; her best friend Eve has started a relationship with Michael Glass (who started the series as a ghost, but is now a full vampire). In addition to this, Claire’s allegiance to the powerful town founder, Amelie, and her employment by crazy ancient vampire Myrnin, have both been explored in some detail in the earlier books. One of the real strengths of Caine’s writing is her characterization and the depth to which she explores the ambiguity and complexity of relationships in the novel. Caine’s vampires and humans inhabit a ‘grey area’, between the usual ‘black and white’ morality of YA vampire fiction.

Though the pop culture reference in the title should be apparent, Bite Club owes no real debt to Fight Club. Though it does feature an illegal fighting club, this has been organized and run by powerful vampires seeking to earn millions of dollars and take control of Morganville. Caine’s vampire novels are very much a coherent series, and as a result, Bite Club is a revisiting of ‘loose ends’ left by earlier Morganville books. The evil vampire Bishop (father of the town’s founder) – the war against whom was the material for several of the earlier novels – has escaped from prison and plans to raise an army to take over the town. Claire’s boyfriend, Shane, is drawn into this plan as a result of his deep hatred of vampires, and Claire must fight to save him and their vampire friend Michael. As in the other Morganville books, it is the female characters who save the day; Caine’s heroines have always been more Buffy than Bella, and the swords, crossbows and personalized stakes in Bite Club add to this characterization.

If Caine’s novel tends to foreground the human characters over the vampires, the final book for review today, B.E. Scully’s Verland: The Transformation, takes this even further. This novel, which is self-published and available as an Amazon eBook, might be best described as being about obsession with vampires, rather than vampires per se. Unlike the other two novels reviewed here, this is a standalone novel, rather than part of an intended series. The novel’s central character is Elle Bramasol, a true crime writer who is asked by her publisher to write a book about a notorious film director who has been accused of murder. The director, Eliot Kingman, has recently made a film about vampires, and when Elle first interviews him, he speaks of immortality and the undead.

Elle is invited to meet Kingman’s wife and research assistant, and they present her with translated pages of a diary written in the nineteenth century. The diary belongs to a man named Verland, and documents his transformation and life as a vampire. Elle is only permitted to read the diary at intervals, and so the connection between Verland and Kingman’s involvement in the murder of David Klee is explored slowly, resulting in Verland: The Transformation being as much a mystery novel as a vampire story.

As in the other two novels reviewed here, Verland: The Transformation makes use of recognized generic tropes. Elle is, in many ways, a standard fictional writer, and her arguments with her agent and publisher, and her first visit to the prison to see Kingman, echo many other thriller depictions of writers. She even has an on-off relationship with an LAPD detective to add to her fictional-crime-writer credentials. However, Scully’s compelling characterization is a real strength of the novel, and though the characters belong to traditional ‘types’, they are more than simply stereotypes.

What interested me most about Verland: The Transformation, however, is the notable absence of a vampire. Though sections of the novel are told from Verland’s point of view (as the diary is offered ‘first-hand’), all the vampiric action takes place ‘off-stage’. Elle has no proof of Verland’s existence save the notebook, and does not meet the man until page 335 (of 356). One of my favourite moments in the book was two thirds of the way in, when Elle first sees the mysterious Verland. She watches a DVD recording of Kingman, in which another man is present. The audio has been destroyed, so she watches in silence, without really knowing what she is seeing. Thus the vampire is both there and not there; Elle can believe and not believe at the same time.

It is this question of belief in the vampire that becomes a main concern of the novel. Characters speak of the extent to which they believe in Verland and the material recorded in the diary: “You can believe in something without actually believing it, you know what I mean?” (p. 259). The novel’s final comment on this seems to sum up the popularity of vampire fiction in general, as well as offering some explanation for the described events: “[…] if men have not returned to actual belief, they seem to have developed a strange and perhaps even more powerful need – the desire to believe” (p. 301).

I have read a number of self-published novels recently, and Verland: The Transformation is certainly one of the most competently written and engaging. While many self-published works seem to cry out for a copy editor, this novel was well-paced and efficient, with strong characterization and a compelling plot. Moreover, when compared with recent genre fiction such as Mariani’s Uprising, the novel felt more original and individual – perhaps reflecting the self-publishing culture that is developing at the moment.

Nevertheless, what strikes me from reading these three vampire novels, as well as other recently published vampire works, is that there are certain ‘rules’ about vampires that permeate genre fiction (whether in traditional publishing or self-publishing). Undoubtedly, there have been recent works that break these rules, but these are notable exceptions and seem to have had little effect on the overall conception of the literary vampire.

These rules will probably come as little surprise to those readers familiar with popular vampire fiction. In all three works, vampires are sensitive to sunlight – though this can be overcome. In Uprising, vampires take drugs to combat photosensitivity; in Bite Club and Verland: The Transformation, older vampires gradually become more able to walk in the sunlight. Additionally, all the vampires under consideration here benefit from accelerated healing powers and highly attuned physical strength and senses:

“I have ten times the strength of an ordinary man, and my senses are as acute as any beast of the wild, especially my sense of smell.” (Verland, p. 63)

Vampires are made by drinking the blood of another (older) vampire, and when they are killed (by decapitation or fire) they crumble into ash. In 2011, the efficacy of killing a vampire with a stake has been undermined to the degree that, in Bite Club and Verland: The Transformation, a stake simply immobilizes a vampire (unless, in Caine’s novel, it is tipped with silver). The use of religious weaponry to fight vampires is discounted in all three works, as even Mariani’s Cross of Ardaich gains its power as much from the stone from which it is made as from the Christian significance it is given. Notably (worryingly?), two of the three works (Mariani’s and Scully’s) feature sinister bands of ‘gypsies’ – Bram Stoker’s racial stereotype has cast a long shadow over vampire fiction, and I wonder if it is not time for writers to jettison it.

All three books, like most contemporary vampire fiction, are urban fantasy. They are set in the modern world, and deal with the practical problems of vampires living among humans. The question of how these modern vampires will feed, without becoming bestial hunters or endangered predators, is central to the depiction of vampires in all these novels, as in most other contemporary vampire fictions. And this, of course, makes sense. Surely one of the most unbreakable rules of vampire fiction is that the vamp must feed on human blood. If we no longer live in a world where aristocratic counts and countesses can feast in castles, and peasants can go missing without too much concern, how can vampires secure their food supply?

The three novels reviewed today offer different suggestions. Uprising presents a world in which vampiric behaviour is moderated and regulated, with the victims of non-fatal attacks having their memories wiped afterwards. In Bite Club, humans must ‘donate’ pints of blood as ‘taxes’ to be distributed to their vampire neighbours. In Verland: The Transformation, no solution is actually reached, but it is suggested by one character that any number of humans might be found who would be more than happy to give their lives to feed vampires – again, pointing to long-standing obsession and fascination with the vampire.

To conclude, then, these three books each offer their own take on the vampire myth (with different degrees of success and originality). The key question in contemporary vampire fiction continues to be how humans and vampires can co-exist. Writers continually return to the problem of social organization – is it possible to imagine a world that can comfortably sustain both human and vampire existence?

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