RIP George Romero. 1978’s Martin is one of his finest—and most overlooked—films.
New Zealand writer Carl Shuker is the author of four novels, including Three Novellas for a Novel, cult novel The Lazy Boys, and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon (Counterpoint Press) is a strange work of surreal horror, set primary in Lebanon in the immediate fallout of the Arab Spring. In my review, I wrote that Anti Lebanon’s “trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.”
Carl was kind enough to talk about his work over a series of emails. He was especially kind in letting Biblioklept publish the short story “Fiction” which he mentions in the first part of this interview.
Biblioklept: How did Anti Lebanon begin? Did you set out to write about a Lebanese Christian? Tell us about the genesis of the novel and your research process.
Carl Shuker: Anti Lebanon started with the words, and the disjunction between my sense memories of the words, the place names and the language, and the atrocity exhibition of the Lebanese civil war of ‘75-’90 (which we are reliving now in the Syrian civil war).
I was brought up moderately conservative Anglican, which early on involved a lot of Bible stories and Sunday school. I had a very deep and powerful connection with the vocabulary. I remember tasting the words in a totally engrossing synesthesia: lying in bed in a small town in the South Island of New Zealand, ten years old and waiting for sleep and saying the words to myself.
Lebanon, for example, was thick milk and Alpine honey (as Nabokov once described his life). You can taste it in those pregnant Bs, those labile Ls and sonorous Os and Ns. And Syria and Damascus—with the latter I had generated some fertile misprision, I think, because into it I had somehow conflated “alabaster.” So the city had the word within it, and these cool and chalky white walls I felt up under my fingernails were as real to me as the blanket at my cheek. Jounieh, Jtaoui, and Bsharre; Ehden, and Zghorta.
Sometime in late 2006 I lost my agent (of only two years), via a one-paragraph email entitled, chillingly, “Cutting back.” He was a bit older and I hadn’t made him any money so it was understandable.
I saw, after eight years of trying to get it published, that although it did well critically and got a very cult following of some very cool and interesting people (a lot of eastern European teenage girls, pleasingly), that The Lazy Boys (2006) was not going to be any kind of breakthrough. There would be no musical. That book does sometimes feel to me like a cursed chalice. Another two years of querying agents for my Three Novellas for a Novel project had not gotten me representation again. I had no publisher for it. A long-gestating film project with a director and producer finally fell through due to funding and all the difficulties surrounding that. (The screenplay for The Lazy Boys is sitting humming in my drawer.) I was running out of money I had from a prize and I felt after nearly ten years of work I was back almost at square one. Currently I have no agent and I think I’m fortunate to have gotten through the current convulsions in publishing under my own steam. I don’t know what I’d advise a young writer right now, about getting represented.
With writing and publishing, which is a tough and demanding ambient, the cliché is very useful: you get bitter or you get better. Working on a new thing is the best and only antidote to publishing an old thing. It’s always and only the writing that saves you. I started looking around for a new project. Though I don’t write short stories I wrote a suicide note for the lit-fict writer of the time and of the writer I’d almost become, a short story called “Fiction” that started to encompass elements of this new obsession with Lebanon, and to extend it to the consequences of that obsession.
I’m intuitive and a weird hybrid of deeply elemental and playful and airy fairy when I look around for a new project. But I’ve learned to identify and focus in on my obsessions, which is an important skill for a novelist. And usually it is what is troubling me; what I can’t figure out.
Etienne Sakr, a Christian militia leader in the civil war, who has been subsequently exiled and tarred as a rightist and racist and has not emerged from the post-war period at all well, wrote, “Politics is not the art of the possible. Politics, like all great art forms, is the art of the impossible. Otherwise there is no problem to resolve.”
Like all great art forms. This was a conception of the novel as well. The writing is a resolving of unresolved and seemingly irresolvable elements—it’s a tension, also, that can sustain you through the long period of composing something as big and demanding as a novel. Solving some problem you couldn’t any other way.
And the solution was the mode I think I am refining, that I work in by default anyhow. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: “Contradictory thoughts do not try to eliminate one another, but continue side by side, and often combine to form condensation products, as though no contradiction existed.”
In Anti Lebanon it was: how to resolve and express this deep but wordless feeling I have for the words of this country, the bloody holy dirt of this country, and the tropes and gestures of the vampire, the monster?
I prepped and read as much as I could on the civil war, and went to Beirut in May 2008 to taste the dirt. This was the same month I published the Three Novellas in serial online for a limited time for free or more, a la Radiohead’s In Rainbows, clearing the decks for something new (These were rereleased with a new introduction, for all ebook formats, in 2011: http://www.threenovellasforanovel.com).
And while I was there Hezbollah invaded Beirut, and I was given my novel to the sound of gunfire in the west, to the sight of an old Christian making fun of the Ashura and of the Shi’a who now owned his city and his country, wearing a comedy fez and mock self-flagellating with a plastic whip.
Biblioklept: Was it always in your head to introduce the vampire element into the plot? How did that come about?
CS: Well, when I started Anti Lebanon I started with the scene in the amusement park with my protagonist Leon, a security guard there who’s fallen asleep and wakes up to “a dead and freakish still.” I had all these materials in my head for the book:
I had the country, my obsession with it. I had the this amazing historical moment when Hezbollah took over, in response to the Sunni-heavy government under Saad Hariri trying to control them, to shut down their illegal communications network. The revenge of the Shia in Lebanon against the Sunni who have always looked down upon them. And the first time the seemingly untouchable Hezbollah turned their guns against fellow Lebanese. It was a complex contemporary political and military moment that I think novels have a particular genius in showing us, if novelists would only look at them.
I had Christians in Lebanon after the civil war. All the tragedy and the bloodthirstiness of Lebanese Christianity. The decline of things, which I’m very attracted to: pride in decline. And I had this character of Leon’s father very powerfully in mind: a big Christian, both physically and in personality; a security guard, a burly, charismatic, working man and leader and a civil war veteran. A man I became friendly with in east Beirut. One of those powerful male figures in our lives we feel are untouchable and always right. (“Three times jujitsu champion of Lebanon during the civil war; when? who remembers; who knows now.”) I had the contradictions creeping into his life, as the Hezbollah he has to support, because the Christian party he supports has aligned with them, do something very ambiguous and worrying.
But there was something missing, some binding element, or catalyst, some next level shit that could help the novel embody the whole messy idea. Somehow represent the addiction to violence, the ancestral handing-down of this kind of obligation to violence, and the sense of the blood in the soil always under your feet in Beirut. Walking a particular corner, looking at the men outside Phalange headquarters, and knowing Black Saturday started here where you stand. I had always wanted to write a vampire, one day. It was right in front of me, begging me to see it.
When I finally realised it, that was when the problems started.
Biblioklept: Okay—you can’t just stop there. Tell us about those problems.
CS: Oh my God. It would seem so silly and all writers’ problems when it comes to actually writing are the same or similar. Not finding a voice. Doubting your own voice. Time. Jobs. Debt. Money. Doubt, principally. The only mentionable and salvageable things, because they are, in retrospect, possibly funny, are the symptoms: I became convinced I was losing my hair. I went to an ER one day and had to abashedly (I was then a 36-year-old heavy smoker) tell the doctor (kind of leaning into him, and making an “I know this sounds stupid” face) that I thought I might be having a heart attack.
You don’t want to go into the emotions you feel when you enter a hospital ER thinking you’re having a heart attack and leave with some over-the-counter Gaviscon and one rogue ECG electrode still stuck to your ribs.
There were pressures. The worst were probably internal. But when my daughter was born she slept a lot of the time and I had a sudden superhuman burst of clarity and focus and went through the entire manuscript again stem to stern, took two weeks off work to rewrite one of the Japan sequences where Beirut and Lebanon had slipped off the page and the book had gotten floaty and lost, and then almost immediately I submitted it to Jack Shoemaker.
Biblioklept: The final third of the book, those Japan sequences and the Israel bit, those are some of my favorites. I think there’s a lot of picaresque energy there. Was Jack Shoemaker your editor as well as publisher?
CS: Jack is my first reader, then there’s a second, but he’s never edited me as a copy editor edits. He’s always been my greatest advocate and is an amazing reader (and his list speaks for itself) but I don’t even know if he edits anyone any more. My editor on the first two books was the incomparable Trish Hoard, who was then one half of Shoemaker and Hoard before Jack got Counterpoint back.
Biblioklept: Were you ever pressured or tempted to play up the vampire aspect of the novel as a means to, I don’t know, bolster its commercial appeal?
CS: Well I started the book in 2008 and very soon after Twilight hunched and slouched and pouted into my awareness and after about six seconds of thinking “oh cool, trickledown” I realised it was an unmitigated disaster for me. Not only was my vampirism in Anti Lebanon supposed to be truly terrifying – and geopolitical, and religious – plus it had to do with sex but was also kind of unsexy in the easier ways (in that the sex in the book is constrained by religion, and is difficult and a bit sad and more about relief and frustration), but it was also the kind of vampirism I actually believed in: a nearly physical manifestation of a metaphor that is so persistent and pervasive and persuasive: a shade.
So I asked myself would the audience of Twilight and True Blood really want to broaden their fun base into a novel about Beirut, Hezbollah, the Lebanese civil war and the Christian exodus, and I decided probably not. So I thought so I’m writing the wrong kind of vampirism to speak to these people, and too much vampirism to speak to everybody else who’s thoroughly sick of it, and I’m screwed when it comes to publication.
But the metaphor was so true and so right and the novel started to click “like a fucking Geiger counter” as dfw would have it, so I really had no choice. I stuck by the kind of vampire the book was into and the kind of questions the book was asking: is he or is he not a vampire? What is a vampire really? If the historical record clearly demonstrates so many acts that are far, far worse and the cause of so much more blood spilled than any act of vampirism, then what kind of creature is a vampire? Is he mourning?
Late in the war a Christian priest was quoted as saying, “For a long time it was fun. Playing in our own blood.” I put alongside this a Patrick Chauvel photograph of a priest in robes standing in a pile of shells firing a 50-cal. machine gun in south Lebanon in 1985. The glee on his face. A soldier beside him with his face in his hand. The material in the “pyr” chapter, about PLO soldiers ransacking the the Christian mausoleums in Damour: it was all true. What more evidence did I need? All good lit, music, film goes against what prevailing fashions, even if they’re dealing in the same ostensible material.
And here we recognize conclusive evidence of pyr: The process of exection extended to the dead. The Damour cemetery was invaded and it was a rout. They rooted out the corpsesnipers from the mausoleums, dragged the skeletonsoldiers from their elaborate Christian coffins, stripped them of their mortuary best, murdered their cadavers, pulling rib from rib, penetrating the vacant insides to locate and despoil and exect the very Christian soul.
—Anti Lebanon – 150
Plus, in terms of “commercial appeal”, Etienne Sakr said another smart thing:
“When you are fighting you either follow the cause and don’t get the money, or you follow the money and lose the cause.”
Biblioklept: There’s a lot in the book that makes the reader go, “Wait, what?” Is this real? Is this really happening to Leon? Is this in his head?” The section in Israel for example . . .
CS: The idea became for me the discipline of this particular novel, which was to attempt to analogise contemporary Christian Lebanon while invoking and revitalising the vampire genre. [Note: some spoilers follow in this response only]
Leon is a young Christian in a very precarious situation. Yet paradoxically he and his father are security guards. (The novel is riddled with them – and Leon kills one later.) With some fellow Christians he commits, through a fin de siècle hedonism, accident and the absence of inhibition bred of desperation and overfamiliarity, a violent crime against, not a rival sect, but a fellow Christian. This is the vulnerable, damaged Armenian jeweller Frederick Zakarian. And, believing him dead, as they try to dispose of his body Zakarian, tied up but seemingly still alive, bites him. With the only weapon Zakarian has any longer. Teeth.
It is here (though for close readers the inevitability is triggered at the threshold to Zakarian’s workshop) that the narrative attempts to successfully double or mirror Leon – as vampire, as criminal, as victim, failed son, inheritor of paternal sin and a psychology overdetermined by violence, and simply as mourning brother. To me, being undead and mourning share a lot of the same qualities.
There was a wonderful 1984 Playboy interview with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (despite the blood and compromise on his hands a very interesting polymath and political genius, who showed William Dalrymple the rooms of priceless religious artifacts he’d saved from the war – see Dalrymple’s excellent From the Holy Mountain). I had it as an epigraph for a time:
Q: How do you deal with those feelings on a personal level? How does it feel not to know if you or your family will live through another day?
A: We become inhuman. We no longer respond to normal human feelings.
—interview with Walid Jumblatt, Playboy 1984
Leon flees Lebanon when it becomes clear the Armenians, missing their man and the jewels he was working on (destined for Iranians), are talking to the Christians of Beirut who have decades-old scores to settle against Leon’s father for his alliances in the civil war. The factions begin to align around money. Leon’s flight from Lebanon also simply mirrors in a particular sense the horrible inevitability of the more general Christian flight after 1400 continuous years of settlement in that one place.
The scenes in Israel you mention, that feature a psychic during immigration questioning at the Allenby Bridge border: these are simply in-context extrapolations of the already wildly implausible real we’re all struggling to absorb.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? I know you’ve been working on something new…
CS: [sotto voce] Right now I’m writer in residence at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and the generosity and good company of students and staff here have allowed me to get 60,000 words into a new novel set in a medical journal in London. It’s a social comedy in the world of work, with a Straw Dogs strand and a healthy skepticism for the whole project of “a social comedy in the world of work” driving the plot—like Saki meeting Julio Cortazar in an argument over grammar and style in a London pub full of eccentric, driven healthcare professionals.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
CS: I once rescued Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night (in English) from a trashcan in Tokyo (and stole a great nickname for one of my dark drinking lazy boys: “Pazuzu, of the rotting genitals’). I was also prohibited from graduating from Victoria due to more than $1000 in overdue fees from the library. One of the books was David Bergamini’s astonishing Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. So I have no regrets.
I’m tempted to say that Carl Shuker’s novel Anti Lebanon is full of twists, but twists isn’t the right word—it’s more like the novel’s trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.
Anti Lebanon begins as a somewhat traditional novel focused on Leon Elias, “thirty years old, East Beiruti Greek Orthodox.” Leon has dropped out of university, leaving his degree in hydrogeology unfinished. Leon has since taken a job as the security guard of an abandoned amusement park, a symbolic stand-in for Lebanon’s tourist economy. The Arab Spring has destabilized Lebanon, leaving its Christian population in a precarious position as Hezbollah dominates the government—and the streets. After dropping out of school, Leon creates an experimental short film, In the anti Lebanon, a film “about his family and his sister and their history” — a history of mixed cultures (Leon’s mother is Japanese) and pain (his sister, a soldier, was assassinated).
The early parts of Anti Lebanon seem to set the stage for a fairly conventional novel with strong political overtones, one that explores Leon’s guilt over his sister’s violent death and his conflicted place as a sensitive and artistic soul who’s the son an infamous warrior, all set against the backdrop of Christian Lebanon in the tumult of the Arab Spring. But then Shuker takes us other places. Lots of other places.
The crucible for this change comes after a night of drinking ends in violence and theft. I don’t want to spoil too much—this is a novel that constantly had me rereading entire passages, asking, Wait, what?—but let’s just say Leon, complicit in a crime, ends up moving a body by motorcycle. Let me share some of Shuker’s prose in a passage that reveals the novel’s major metaphysical gambit:
This time there was no crash and it probably was the alcohol but the pain of the thing’s biting was gristly and sharp and also distant and allied with the shock of the fall so he rode though it for it seemed several dozen feet— the most important thing was not to fall again. He came to a controlled halt, stopped the bike, and then over his shoulder punched the thing’s face several times, his knuckle hitting soft then hitting helmet, and it bit again and this time harder and it stung and went deeper, a popping sound or feeling in his neck that suddenly got desperately deep and he punched again and then he rolled violently and writhed in the grasp of the thing they had created and he fell over deliberately, twisting so as to topple over sideways upon and hurt and stop the thing, and he hit the ground landing on its arm and this dislodged the biting helmeted head and he pulled up its hands and wriggled away over the concrete like his sister palming herself away from her disappeared foot and he scrambled up, and the thing just lay there inert and still, wired to the scooter in a position absurd, all tied up and crooked and ruined and wrong. He stood and held his hot neck looking at the fallen boy and then knew that someone else was there.
Is Leon now a vampire? The novel answers this question clearly even as it refuses to explain or define what, exactly, being a vampire means. Anti Lebanon at times threatens to become an allegory of Mideast politics and history, using vampirism as its major trope, but then Shuker shifts us into new, weird territory. An appropriately Borgesian chapter titled “Labyrinth” moves Leon and the reader into a propulsive engine of dream logic; we’re never quite sure exactly what is happening as Leon gives over to dark, primal violence.
Such violence inheres from history and geography and mythology. It’s worth sharing another passage at length to see how Shuker traces these contours, plunging character and reader into history’s strange tangles. Here, vampire Leon drinks a guard’s lifeblood—the beginning of an oblique spree—and tunnels into mythos, plumbing the history of his land to arrive at his sister’s murder:
Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of. Aries, Andromeda, and Perseus slowly wheeled across the dead guard’s sunglasses. Christian snipers took positions around Mar Mikhael overlooking Electricité du Liban. A secret. Leon, labyrinthine, tunneled from shadow to shadow. The criminal and the victim alike return to the scene of the crime. Would the Israelis come? The taste of blood was hot: There was juniper, vetyver, and chypres too, copper drying down to a powder, wealth and breadth of deathless rivers in endless cycle, over centuries, aeons, untouched and untouchable: Nahr al Kalb, the dog river, collecting on its rock walls the signatures of dead empires: the steles of Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon III and Caracalla, General Gouraud and The XXI British Army Corps with Le Détachement Français de Palestine et Syrie occupied Beirut and Tripoli: October 1918 AD; and Nahr Ibrahim, the blood river, which flows red: iron-rich soil rusting, seeding red anemones of the rebirth along its banks. The land still bearing the imprint of its creator, still running with the blood of Adonis in cascades; cataracts of rust. The march crossed the exact point on the Green Line where the Black Saturday ID checkpoints were erected once upon a time and to cross was to have your ID checked for religion and your throat cut in the passenger seat, watched over by Phalange HQ, past Makhlouf’s sandwich store— his weakness, his frailty. He told her about the last shot, what he alone saw: that the assassin didn’t even look as he ruined her; as he ruined him.
From here—well, let’s just say that Leon goes, and that the book moves into a picaresque rhythm, erupting with Bolañoesque moments of horror and strange shifts into the unreal (there’s a moment at the end of an episode in Israel that confounded everything I’d read so far in the book, the effect approaching alterity). It would spoil too much of Anti Lebanon to delineate all its movements; suffice to say its unsettling shifts are grounded in motifs of dogs, water, film, art, crashes, the peri, the vampire.
Shuker’s book isn’t for everyone. Those looking for a classic Gothic horror or a sexy vampire romp will likely be disappointed (and probably confused). Shuker also throws his reader into the metaphorical deep end of Mideast politics and history, offering little exposition that might help explain some of the complexity. There’s a trust in the reader there that I admire (even as I often headed to Wikipedia to learn about Lebanon’s civil wars, the Druze, its relationship to Syria, Palestine, Israel…). That trust is best returned to the author—a trust to follow him where he goes, because frankly you won’t be able to see ahead. Anti Lebanon is unpredictable, strange, and very rewarding.
Anti Lebanon is new from Counterpoint Press.
Frances Brody’s Dying in the Wool is a mystery from Minotaur/St. Martin’s. Their description:
Take one quiet Yorkshire village
Bridgestead is a peaceful spot: a babbling brook, rolling hills and a working mill at its heart. Pretty and remote, nothing exceptional happens…
Add a measure of mystery
Until the day that Master of the Mill Joshua Braithwaite goes missing in dramatic circumstances, never to be heard of again.
A sprinkling of scandal
Now Joshua’s daughter is getting married and wants one last attempt at finding her father. Has he run off with his mistress, or was he murdered for his mounting coffers?
And Kate Shackleton—amateur sleuth extraordinaire!
Kate Shackleton has always loved solving puzzles. So who better to get to the bottom of Joshua’s mysterious disappearance? But as Kate taps into the lives of the Bridgestead dwellers, she opens cracks that some would kill to keep closed…
Jane Vows Vengeance is the third (and final?) in a series by Michael Thomas Ford where Jane Austen is a vampire. I covered the first book here (and was perhaps way kinder to the book than its conglomeration of trends deserved) and the second here. Let me cannibalize text from both previous write ups (the second write up cannibalized the first!):
In the past few years we’ve seen a spate of books where public domain characters and historical figures feature in supernatural tales, usually written in an ironic, or at least parodic mode. It seems like a heavy percentage of these books are mixed up somehow with Jane Austen, whose legacy has become grist for a literary cottage industry, with a new “re-imagining” of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility coming out every season. Last year, Michael Thomas Ford offered the public the mix of Jane Austen and vampires we had been so desperately clamoring for,Jane Bites Back. By way of a little more context (and pure laziness), I’ll quote Biblioklept’s review of Ford’s novel–
Jane Bites Back reveres its subject, Jane Austen, even as it blatantly cashes in on the very trend that it satirizes. The book’s program shouldn’t be confused with the absurdity behind Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (which we liked) or the wackiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which we didn’t like), but it does adhere to the same sense of fun. Ford seems to delight in corny, over the top passages, and we’ll take it for granted that his literary tongue is in his cheek . . .
In Michael Thomas Ford’s novel Jane Bites Back, Jane Austen (you know, the Jane Austen) is an incognito vampire/bookstore clerk in upstate New York. Poor Jane is trying to get a new novel published (under a pseudonym, of course), but she suffers scores of rejection letters for her new work. Even worse is the horror of the Jane Austen industry, which, under the auspices of public domain laws, clutters Jane’s own bookshop with awful books that, like, don’t “get” the Austen oeuvre (in the climactic scene of the book’s opening chapter, Vampire Jane gets some measure of revenge by consuming the boorish author of an execrable volume entitled Waiting for Mr. Darcy). Of course, there’s got to be a plot, so Jane does get an offer for a book deal, one that’s complicated by accusations of plagiarism and other woes. To make matters worse, her old lover Lord Byron shows up (yeah, Byron, duh. How else would Jane Austen catch the vampirism?) There are other ghosts of literary past who show up, too, but why spoil surprises?
Jane Bites Back reveres its subject, Jane Austen, even as it blatantly cashes in on the very trend that it satirizes. The book’s program shouldn’t be confused with the absurdity behind Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (which we liked) or the wackiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which we didn’t like), but it does adhere to the same sense of fun. Ford seems to delight in corny, over the top passages, and we’ll take it for granted that his literary tongue is in his cheek when he writes a paragraph like:
When his hand cupped her breasts she gasped, and when his mouth touched her skin she felt her knees buckle. He caught her, sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her to the bed. He placed her atop the sheets and stepped back. She watched through half-closed eyes as he removed his clothes. His chest was lean, his skin pale as milk. When stepped from his trousers she glanced briefly at his manhood before looking away.
His “manhood”?! Jeez, we hope this is parody. In any case, we were laughing. (Sidenote: How does this stack up against the sex scenes in the Twilight books? Are there sex scenes in the Twilight books? What Biblioklept reader will even admit to having read Twilight?)
Ford’s style is, on the whole, redolent with the tropes of YA fiction–not that Jane Bites Back is necessarily YA–but there’s not a challenging sentence in the book, which may or may not be a compliment for the writer. Clear, lucid writing is difficult to do. Still, we tend to value ambiguity around here; being perplexed and furious is a good reaction from time to time. Jane Bites Back reads with an anonymous speed that’s not particularly invigorating.
If we were really feeling adventurous today, we might wax heavy on the all the implications, meta- and otherwise, of a book that purports to criticize the Austen fad while at the same time indulging in it…but we’re not feeling up to it. There’s also a neat Venn diagram in all of this: vampires, Jane Austen, feminism (yeah, there are feminist themes here. Did we forget to mention them? Sorry). Suffice to say that any reader whose ears perk up at the notion of “Jane Austen + vampires” will not be disappointed in this book.
Jane Bites Back is new from Ballantine Books.
In his short foreword to Vintage’s massive, new, decidedly unshort The Vampire Archives, Neil Gaiman dryly observes, “And then, one day, they were everywhere. You couldn’t move for vampires. There were paranormal vampire romances and junior paranormal vampire romances . . . Everywhere vampires, stripped down like a simple metaphor for genitalia-free relationships.” We know that vampires are ubiquitous in the late oughties, whether its the turgid teen abstinence vampire theatrics of Twilight, HBO’s addictive interpretation of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, True Blood, the CW’s latest attempt to cash in, The Vampire Diaries or last year’s fantastic film Let The Right One In. Gamian’s theory for the thriving popularity of vampires (he agrees with Stephen King by-way-of Erica Jong that “Vampires . . . were the ultimate zipless fuck”) is as good as any, we suppose, but The Vampire Archives editor Otto Penzler is a bit more historical in his introduction to the volume, pointing beyond the traditionally-accepted notion that Stoker’s Dracula is the first vampire story. Penzler brings up Lilith, the children of Hecate, Lamia, the Chinese monster Kian-si, brain-suckers of American Indian lore, the Scottish Glaistag, and the Brazilian jararaca–just to name a few. He also briefly discusses the lurid histories of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who believed the blood of virgins would sustain her life, die-hard mad prophet Rasputin, and Vlad the Impaler, the historical basis of Count Dracula. Penzler’s eclectic overture here tellingly highlights the diversity of the 85-plus tales collected in the book.
There are “Pre-Dracula” stories here, like Edgar Allan Poe’s gloomy “Ligeia” and M.E. Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne,” as well as classic standards like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” and Jan Neruda’s “The Vampire.” Heavy-hitters like D.H. Lawrence and Guy de Maupassant are represented along with the pop fictions of Stephen King and Clive Barker. Especially welcome are Harlan Ellison’s insightful piece “Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time” and Richard Matheson’s taut tale “Drink My Red Blood.” Writers often identified readily with genres other than horror, like Ray Bradbury, Tanith Lee, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also appear, along with a couple of Romantic poems by Goethe, Byron, and John Keats (while the inclusion of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is great, it’s weird that The Vampire Archives doesn’t have just a little more room for Keats’s excellent “Lamia.” They could’ve also included Coleridge’s “Christabel,” but hey, we can hardly dispute their claim that the book is “The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published”). Anne Rice pops up, naturally, with “The Master of Rampling Gate,” which wasn’t too emo for our icy blood. We also enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy and sinuous story “The Hound.” Grave-robbers, weird amulets, ghoulish killers–great stuff.
If you can’t find enough to feed your need for vampire tales in The Vampire Archives, they’ve been kind enough to include what has to be, at 120 pages, one of the most extensive vampire bibliographies ever–although they note that their list does not include “comics, games, movies, plays, television, or radio programs.” While not every story here is gold, more than most of The Vampire Archives is great gothic fun, whether you dig pulp fiction or psychological realism in your horror. If you’re ready to take the next step past Twilight–you’re not a poseur, are you?–The Vampire Archives is an apt starting place.