Just in Time for Christmas…a Vampire Remix.

Varney the Vampire Literary Remix, Cover via GalleyCat

This one’s just for fun…

Back around Halloween, GalleyCat, one of my favorite websites-about-all-things-literary, hosted its second annual Literary Remix Contest, which I am pleased to have participated in. The contest was sort of a large-scale Exquisite Corpse for writer-types. More specifically, from the contest description:

With the help from writers around the country, we will rewrite Varney the Vampire–a bestselling vampire novel from the 19th Century filled with enough star-crossed romance, vampire action and purple prose to inspire another Twilight trilogy.

You will rewrite a small section from the book your own unique style (from poetry to Twitter updates to cartoons to imitations of your favorite writer). We will publish and distribute the final product as a free digital book through Smashwords (complete with Victorian-era illustrations) so it will be available at the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBook Store, Blio.com and others.

I believe there may have been some sort of prizes involved for selected contributors in the U.S. (not me), which is why it was a “contest” but I think that everyone who actually submitted a page was included. That’s really not the point, though–it was just a lot of fun to take part.

The page I was assigned was a great selection in that it was actually a story within the main plot that one of the characters is reading, which means it was entirely self-contained. It was an exceptionally, delightfully dramatic story, a Hungarian Hamlet sort of tale in which a nefarious duchess and her lover, a nefarious count, kill off her husband so as to take over his fortune and position, and relegate her son to a dank mine. (The son–spoiler alert–survives with assistance from a fellow miner, and eventually gets his revenge.) I re-wrote this tale in a sort of epistolary fashion: mostly telegrams (“Varnegrams” for the purpose of this exercise), but also “Page VI” gossip columns, and even a bureaucratic memo written from an overseer in a dank mine to his employers. (Being a former office administrator, I excel at bureaucratic memos, so this bit was particularly fun.)

The e-book is now ready and available for download in a variety of formats, so if you have a yen for out-of-season Victorian Vampire fiction and/or collectively wrought pulp fiction, I’d encourage you to head over to the Smashwords page where you can download the remixed book for free.

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Night Watch (Happy Halloween!)

Happy Halloween, everyone! Appropriately enough, my latest review is of Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, the first installment in a tetralogy of novels about a parallel reality in which the agents of Light and Dark (read: vampires, magicians, shape-shifters, witches, etc.) must maintain a delicate balance or risk the destruction of the world. It’s a rather lot of fun.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence, here, and the full text is below.

***

First published in Russia in 1998 and later adapted in a popular film in 2004, Sergei Lukyanenko’s vastly entertaining novel Night Watch introduces readers to a parallel reality (centered in Moscow) in which good and evil constantly struggle to maintain a fragile truce, the disruption of which would literally mean the end of the world. This parallel realm, the Twilight, is visible only to Others–vampires, witches, magicians, shape shifters, and even particularly adept computer programmers–who have all pledged their allegiance to either the Light or the Dark. Light and Darkness monitor each other’s activities by way of their espionage-style agencies or “watches” (The Night Watch monitors the Dark Ones, and vice versa). While average people go about their days, the Others in both watches have their own responsibilities, namely complex operations and missions which might incrementally shift the balance, once and for all, to one triumphant morality.

Without any preamble or exposition, Lukyanenko drops the reader into a remarkably complex world with remarkably complex rules, histories, and problems. The three interconnected novella-length stories which comprise the novel–all narrated by the disillusioned but still idealistic systems analyst and low-level magician Anton Gorodetsky–are chronological, but there are significant time lapses between each tale. Rather than disrupting the narrative, these gaps actually reinforce the reality of this world: the characters all have lives and pasts that exist outside of the bounds of the novel.

The first story, “Destiny,” is by far the best, following Anton as he faces off with rogue vampires, identifies a young Other who isn’t yet aware of his own remarkable powers, and attempts to dispel a curse which, if left unchecked, has the potential to ignite another world war. The tale’s twisty storyline and fast pace have the feel of a particularly entertaining episode of an action-drama on TV: there’s romance, there’s danger, there’s an epic roof-top battle between dark magicians and hostage-taking vampires–when suddenly everything resolves itself quickly and cleanly, if a bit ironically.

“Destiny” is followed by “Among His Own Kind,” in which Anton is wrongly accused of murdering several dark magicians and, in order to clear his name, has one night to track down a ‘Maverick’ Light One on a homicidal rampage in Moscow. Among His Own Kind picks up threads of the the previous story, while upping the ante for action and creatively employed magical sleights of hand.

Unfortunately, Lukyanenko loses steam in the last story, “All For My Own Kind,” in which Anton spends far too much time lamenting the concessions that the Light must make in order to maintain the cosmic balance (apparently Communism failed due to a “little compromise with the Darkness”), and moaning about the futility of trying to save humanity from itself. (There’s also an excess of insipid Goth song lyrics throughout this installment.)

Nevertheless, with its labyrinthine storylines and abundance of fantastical creatures, this layered morality tale certainly delivers for the Halloween season. And avid fans will be able to further immerse themselves in the Twilight if they so wish: Night Watch is the first in a tetralogy of novels which follow Anton and other characters through their continued misadventures.

Sad Vampires: A List

Apropos of all the vampire reading lately…

A librarian ‘book-buddy’ from Hawaii sent me a link to a recent article on vampire fiction from NPR. It talks about the recent trend in ‘moral’ vampires and how books in the genre have generally reflected the common fears of the time in which they are published. It’s an interesting article and a well-curated list, which is only to be expected from the well-read folks at NPR.

Check it out here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123115545

Eternal

So while Eternal was part of my YA vampire research spree, I also picked it up because I have it from a very well-informed source that while vampires on are on the outs with teen readers, fallen angels are the new big thing (can anyone confirm or deny this?). So this book seemed like the perfect transition and also promised oodles of melodramatic campy-ness. In brief: a teenage girl goes to a cemetery with her best friend one night and almost dies by falling and breaking her neck in an open grave. Unable to bear the death of his ward, her guardian angel (oh yeah–she has one of those) blinds her with his radiance (or “full glory,” technically) and so instead of dying, she is actually kidnapped by the current Dracula and turned into a vampire princess who lives in Chicago. The guardian angel is then booted from heaven by a more important angel for breaking the rules and has to become his former protectee’s servant in Castle Dracula while trying to also redeem her soul. Awesome, right? Well, Kinda.

On one hand, the book is extremely campy. Leitich Smith has a real sense of humor and peppers her book with the sort of ironic, self-aware disparities that are really amusing and enjoyable in a book like this. For instance, the vampires–known here as “eternals” have a press network and love gossip and go on publicity tours. They have special credit cards and speak in extremely formal Legosi-esque language. This is good because a book like this would be god-awful if it took itself too seriously.

However–and this is especially emphasized because of the whole guardian angel thing–this book gets a little heavy handed with its Christian motif and also plays directly into my least favorite character trend in vampire novels–the Paternal Protector trend(as I am hereby dubbing it). I’ll qualify:

It’s not that the book feels like secret Christian propaganda because it has an angel in it. It’s actually infused in the whole underlying moral structure. You could have a book with an angel in it that didn’t trumpet Christian theology, after all. But consider:

1. The main character, Miranda, is basically born into sin, even though she technically hasn’t done anything wrong. She is turned into a vampire against her will and so becomes evil, but it’s not really a choice she’s made from the outset. So the whole original sin thing.

2. After she becomes a vampire, she behaves in traditionally evil vampire ways. She mistreats her human servants. She drinks people’s blood and kills them. But once her guardian angel arrives, she begins to try and control her most powerful urges and desires–her sinful nature. She begins to drink animal blood instead of human blood, for instance. So the whole denying one’s sinful nature thing.

3. It becomes clear that even though Miranda is a vampire, her soul is not completely lost. She can, in fact, be redeemed, but it has to be something that she herself wants to happen. She has to turn her back on her vampire life and choose goodness. So we’ve got a two-fer here: the whole free will thing and the whole unconditional love thing. No sinner is so far gone that he cannot be redeemed, as long as he makes the choice to repent, etc.

I could keep going, but that covers the main points. I did a little research to find out if Leitich Smith is a proclaimed Christian author. Like another Stephanie Meyers, working in paranormal/fantasy genres but maintaining Christian ethics and morals. It wouldn’t really matter, but I would be interested in knowing if this underlying morality was truly intentional, or just works out this way. I wasn’t able to turn anything up, though. The back of the book includes a list of books which she took inspiration from or referenced within Eternal, but most are, I believe, secular books. And her website doesn’t indicate that she is a specifically Christian author, so who’s to say. But the themes are there, irregardless.

As for the Paternal Protector thing:

Okay, I’m tired of books where teenage girls are courted and loved deeply by much older male characters who vascillate between sexualizing them and protecting/advising/admonishing them like a father. There is, of course, Meyer’s Edward, who has probably damaged teen perceptions of romantic relationships forever. In the Twilight series, Edward fills out Bella’s college applications, he tells her not to drink so much caffeine, he protects her from scary bad guys, and monitors who she sees and where she goes (it’s verrry dangerous out there in Forks, Washington, after all.) But then at the same time, he watches her when she sleeps and literally talks of wanting to devour her because she is so crazy-attractive to him.

Here, the guardian angel, Zachary, tells us on the first page that he watches “his girl” shower and change–that the hot summer day when she lay naked on her bed reading all day was basically a highlight of his existence. Later, he tells us that he saves her from breaking her neck because he has fallen in love with her. But he also is completely disapproving of her lifestyle and tries to correct her behavior constantly. Okay–this part is obvious because he’s an angel and she’s a vampire, sure. But read this passage and tell me that this isn’t crossing the dad line a teensy tiny bit:

“I was there when Miranda took her first breath. Her baptism. Her first step. On her first day of school and when she had the chicken pox. In the middle school girl’s locker room when Denise Durant made fun of her bra size…That night…I realized that she wasn’t a little girl anymore and I didn’t just love her. I was in love with her, too.

This happens throughout the book. And it’s a bit disturbing. What kinds of standards are we setting, really? Why are so many of these books in this particular genre so forceful in the way that they encourage young girls to seek out adult men (father figures) to not only love and protect them, but to make decisions for them? To turn them into better people? These aren’t partnerships in any sense of the word, nor are they–in my opinion–terribly functional examples of romantic relationships. I’d happily go back to the aggravating pandering of ‘Girl Power’ to get rid of this current spree of infantalizing romance dynamics.

The Silver Kiss

When I started Annette Curtis Klause’s The Silver Kiss, I was definitely skeptical. The story starts awkwardly, with neither Zoe (the teen love interest), nor Simon (the terribly named vampire stalker cum pining boyfriend) seems entirely fleshed out in the first chapters, which jump back and forth between their respective narrations. Zoe over-articulates her struggles with her mother’s terminal illness in effort to get the backstory out, and Simon describes her from afar as “Pale as the milk of death, thin and sharp like pain,” which, well, is almost cutely dramatic, but mostly just sounds like the way vampires talk in really horrible movies. (Oh, and at one point he “mark[s] his territory like a wolf, and urinate[s] on the back steps” of Zoe’s house, later leaving a trinket for her which she picks up not so long after that we’ve forgotten the whole peeing there thing.) So no points at the beginning.

However, I have to admit, once the character/plot establishing is out of the way, the book vastly improves and I really started enjoying it. Klause actually utilizes vampire mythology, which I get a huge kick out of: her vampires are sensitive to light (yeah, we thought this was standard until they started sparkling), they are burned/blinded by crucifixes, can transfigure into mist and bats (and do this often), have to wait to be invited into someone’s home, and so on. Nicely enough, while Klause’s vampires can subsist on animal blood (as Simon does), they are all too admitting of the fact that they take pleasure from drinking human blood. Simon may be a “good” vampire (he doesn’t kill his human prey, and makes the experience pleasant for them–more on that anon), but there is still a darkness to him. He overpowers and attacks a group of teen hoodlums who jump him in a park, for instance. He gives Zoe the titular “Silver Kiss” and bites her the first time she lets him in her house.

Moreover, Simon has an ultra dramatic back story, fraught with sibling rivalry and matricide and haunts playgrounds and hangs around suburban neighborhoods stalking a vampire child (a la Interview with the Vampire) who is viciously murdering neighborhood women.

So suddenly we have a complicated, rather engaging plot to invest in. And, even better, an adorable little goth romance blooms between Zoe and Simon, as they bond over the pain of death and losing one’s mother. Consider a conversation they have on a bus on the way to see Zoe’s mother in the hospital:

“I didn’t mean to trivialize your mother’s death. I know it matters. Every death matters.”

They were silent for a while, as the bus lurched through the night.

“At first,” he finally said, “you think–no, hope–it might be a dream. That you’ll wake up, and it will have been just a nightmare.”

Zoe turned sharply to look at him. Was he mocking her? But his gaze was far away, not even on her.

“You think she’ll be there,” he continued, “pulling the curtains to let in the sun, wishing you good morning.”

“Yes, how did you know?”

His eyes snapped into focus, catching the light like broken glass. “What kind of son would I be, not to know?”

She blushed stupidly and couldn’t seem to find a natural position for her hands to settle in. He’d lost his mother, too. “Yes, of course.”

“You forgot,” he said in a gentler voice.

She nodded, embarrassed. “But I felt that way, too, or like maybe it was a cruel joke, and everyone would confess to it real soon.”

“And then the anger,” he said, as if it were inevitable. “Anger at her for going away.”

“For ruining our lives,” she joined in.

“At God,” he said.

“At everyone around, for not understanding, for not having it happen to them.”

It goes on from there, but you get the gist. The book’s main energy is derived in great part from the parallel between Zoe and Simon’s circumstances, their existential musings on death, and their eventual acceptance of it as a painful, but inevitable, part of life.

The other source of momentum here is obviously–and I know I always get back to this, but still–the book’s sexual tension. Zoe is a pretty innocent girl when the book starts–Klause makes a point of emphasizing her lack of interest in boys–but after meeting Simon, things start picking up, albeit still rather chastely. During a conversation about his past, Simon bites Zoe:

“…it was no good; she was too near, too inviting. The fangs slid from their sheaths…Then he kissed her with the sharp sleek kiss, the silver kiss, so swift and true, and razor sharp, and her warmth was flowing into him. He could feel it seeping through his body–warmth, sweet warmth.

She uttered a small, surprised cry and fought him for a second, but he stroked her hair and caressed her. I won’t hurt you, he thought…And he moaned and slipped her arms around him. It was the tender ecstasy of the kissed that he could send her with his touch. It throbbed through his fingers, through his chest, like the blood through her veins. It thrummed a rhythm in him that he shared with her. She sighed, her breath came harder, and he felt himself falling.”

If that doesn’t sound like teenage hormones, I don’t know what does. It’s actually the only seen of it’s kind, though. For most of the book, Simon and Zoe shyly exchange little pecks on the lips, “real kisses.”

Complaints: The plot resolves with an overly-complicated and almost cartoonish scheme, several of the references seem a little anachronistic for the 90s, when the book was written (record player, ashtray on the coffee table) and though it’s possible that it’s meant to take place in the 70s (they listen to the Ramones on the radio), this is never really made clear. Also, the vampire child’s cover story–that he’s an orphan albino living with a foster family–has some definite holes, in that he seems to go out in the afternoon a few times. This is explained a little midway through the book, but not to very good effect.

But the book ends well–bittersweetly, and without Zoe deciding to become Simon’s vamp companion for the rest of eternity. All in all, a somewhat flawed, but still very enjoyable entry in the YA vampire genre.