Spooktober, Day 27: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn

KittyandtheMindightHour_cover.jpg“I’m a werewolf trapped in a human body.”

“Well, yeah, that’s kind of the definition.”

“No, really. I’m trapped.”

“Oh? When was the last time you shape-shifted?”

“That’s just it – I’ve never shape-shifted.”

“So you’re not really a werewolf.”

“Not yet. But I was meant to be one, I just know it. How do I get a werewolf to attack me?”

“Stand in the middle of a forest under a full moon with a raw steak tied to your face, holding a sign that says, ‘Eat me; I’m stupid’?”

Kitty Norville is a radio DJ in Denver who runs the graveyard shift at midnight, where she gives phone-in advice for the lonely and the isolated, and anyone who happens to wind up needing help with strange and supernatural goings-on. She offers advice to vampires who want to attend church, gossips about which celebrities may or may not be monsters, and dispenses relationship notes for anyone whose schedule gets interrupted by the full moon. The show is an instant hit, but it puts Kitty in the firing line from all kinds of supernatural politics since most of the creepier things in town don’t want her blabbing to the rest of the world. It doesn’t help that Kitty has to keep the fact that she’s a werewolf herself under wraps…

Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy series distinguishes itself through its examination of how the supernatural would work in practice. It raises questions about how mythical creatures would work in reality, examining in detail all the little inconveniences that monsters might face. The whole thing is done with a nudge and a wink, and it’s worth looking into if you want a light-hearted romp through modern-day fantasy.

Spooktober, Day 23: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

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“The world’s gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it.
The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it.”

A deadly pandemic has laid civilisation low. Robert Neville is the last man left alive on earth, but he is not alone. By day, he does what he can to survive in Los Angeles and hunts the monsters roaming the world. By night, he barricades himself inside and prepares to fend off the creatures that were once his neighbours, holding them at bay by garlic and holy symbols while he works on a cure the disease that took his family from him.

I Am Legend is a vampire novel that isn’t really about vampires. Instead, it’s about survival in a world gone mad. The monsters themselves are almost laughably pathetic and easily vanquished in daylight, and their vulnerabilities limit what harm they can bring to Robert beyond mild taunting. It’s implied that Robert could hold the creatures off indefinitely, but the real danger is what is going on in his mind. Robert is unravelling, slowly, clinging desperately to any fragment of hope. He researches a possible cure for vampirism because it gives him something to do. He obsesses over befriending a dog, the first living creature he has seen in years. He is so ecstatic to meet another living human being that he doesn’t stop to think that it’s just a little bit strange. By the novel’s climax, it becomes clear that it’s Robert who is the tormented monster that can’t function in this brave new world, not the vampires who have begun to rebuild society.

Six decades after it’s initial publication, I Am Legend still reads like a fresh take on vampires. It deconstructs a lot of vampiric folklore, tries to explain it rationally instead of giving it a supernatural impetus. By rooting the cause of the vampirism biological warfare and mutation, Matheson presents vampirism as a disease rooted in science instead of a mystical curse. Most of the folklore concerning vampires— in particular, their vulnerability to garlic or mirrors— is explained as a psychosomatic product of cultural osmosis.

I Am Legend turns post-apocalyptic horror by asking who’s the real monster: the people who’ve adapted to change or the crazy survivalist trying to recreate the old world? It did a lot to reclaim vampires from the crypts of gothic churches and directly inspired the zombie apocalypse genre by presenting the undead as a mass wave of infected corpses in the wake of society’s collapse. It’s an impeccably written and vital book for anyone who wants to understand the psychology of horror, and how to subvert genre conventions.

Spooktober, Day 21: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

 

61YDlzTiFQL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg“ ‘Were you aware,’ began Lord Ruthven, ‘that there are people in these isles whose sole objection to the marriage of our dear Queen – Victoria Regina, Empress of India, et cetera – to Vlad Dracula – known as Tepes, quondam Prince of Wallachia – is that the happy bridegroom happened once to be, in a fashion I shan’t pretend to understand, a Roman Catholic?’ “

When I was younger and still had the time and the money to dedicate to Warhammer, I sometimes dipped into the supplementary fiction. A lot of it was functional, if unremarkable tie-in fiction, with all the good and bad that the term implies. But one of the books that stood out to me was The Vampire Genevieve, an anthology by Jack Yeovil’s about the misadventures of a Bretonnian (think French with Arthurian touches) vampire named Genevieve Dieudonne. They struck me because they weren’t particularly “Warhammer-y”: that is, they didn’t rely in particular on Games Workshop’s intellectual property as a crutch, so much as used it as set-dressing for the tales of a badass lady vampire adventuress.

Years later, I bought Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula on Kindle during a sale, thinking I’d get around to it at some point because the premise sounded cool. It only became an absolute must read when I discovered that “Jack Yeovil” was Newman’s pen name, and that Genevieve was in Anno Dracula. Somehow, someone had snuck a tabletop wargaming character into their vampire novel.

That’s the kind of offbeat craziness you can expect in Anno Dracula, a novel where Queen Victoria has remarried a charming Wallachian count named Vlad who institutes a new authoritarian regime under the blood-drinking aristocracy of the night. It’s 1988, and our heroine Genevieve (still a vampire, still French, still awesome) teams up with an agent of the Diogenes Club to hunt down Jack The Ripper.

The cast of Anno Dracula is drawn from across literature and history, including characters from Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Oscar Wilde and just about any and every literary vampire you can think of. It’s littered with in-jokes and barely-there references to vampire lore and obscure pop culture. It’s like a blood-themed League of Extraordinary Gentleman that works as satire, mystery, alternate history and horror. It’s the vampirest vampire story that ever vampired. It’s the perfect antidote for anyone who worries that vampires have lost their way lately, a celebration and a reminder of how awesome and how terrifying the lords of the night can still be.

Spooktober, Day 11: Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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“Are you OLD?”

“No. I’m only twelve. But I’ve been that for a long time.” 

It’s 1981. Young Oskar is living with his mother, bullied at school and faces visits from his alcoholic father. Then he meets, Eli, the girl who’s just moved in next door, and he’s finally found someone who understands him. There’s only one problem: Eli is a vampire, and the man claiming to be Eli’s “dad” may or may not be a child molester who provides Eli with the blood they need to survive.

Let the Right One In works because like the best vampire stories, it’s not really about vampires. There are monsters-a-plenty in Lindqvist’s world, all of them terrifyingly real: bullies, alcoholics, neglectful adults and child molesters, to name just a few. Honestly, the horrors in Oskar’s life are so unsettling that a centuries-old haemophage looks positively quaint in comparison.

Maybe that’s why Oskar’s relationship with Eli works so well, since Eli is, strangely enough, the warmest and most sympathetic character in Oskar’s life. It subverts our expectations on the innocence of childhood, yet somehow reinforces them at the same time. Their relationship may be unconventional, but its also genuinely sweet and tender, and you can’t help but hope that their friendship will somehow endure the carnage going on around it.

Let The Right One In is a masterpiece of Scandi noir, an extended meditation on the dark side of the human soul. It’s unrelentingly brutal, which only serves to make its moments of joy gleam all the brighter. It’s essential reading for anyone who thinks vampire fiction has gotten “soft,” or for a crossover thriller with light supernatural elements. After all, not all monsters have fangs…

Spooktober, Day 7: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

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“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”

Is there anything more that needs to be said about Dracula? Probably not: the Count’s presence in pop culture is so significant that even the parodies are old and cliched. Still, there’s good reason the old Count’s done as well as he has (besides looking fabulous in an opera cape), and if your only exposure to Dracula has been through his movies, you really owe it to yourself to read the original. And if you have read it, you should read it again.

Shorn of the crust that has accrued around him, the Count is far from his postmodern persona of the urbane gentleman; he may appear civilised, but at his core, he is little more than a sentient disease. Part of his ubiquity lies in the number of fears that he embodies: fear of contamination, of sex, of the other, of nature. Dracula is a boggart; he’s Pennywise; he represents all our worst fears. He is the wolf pack hiding in the forest, stalking us as we stray away from civilisation. He is the taint of madness and disease lurking in our blood He is syphilis, a walking STD, an idea that has lingered in horror ever since, linking sex and mortality in the most literal way I’ve seen until It Follows.

And yes, he’s xenophobia made flesh. At its heart, Dracula is still problematic: its chauvinistic, sexist and firmly in defence of the status quo. At its core, it’s a rallying cry against the Other, a warning about “bloody foreigners, coming over here, sucking the blood from our women!” It’s part of a broader genre of invasion fiction where the backwards and uncivilised foreigner is driven from the metropole back by the WASPy heroes. Its treatment of mental illness is regressive. The women in the book are idealised and victimised and never allowed to tell their own story.

It’s essential to place Dracula in the context of its time because it’s still a great read, still a masterpiece of pacing and perhaps the example par excellence of what can be done with an epistolary novel. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest…