A couple of ghoulish tales to stretch those short summer nights
by Paul Lewis
This past winter, I felt it incumbent to re-visit a favorite genre which has somewhat collapsed over the past few publishing seasons, unless you count the work of Stephen King and Dean Koontz (who is more of a thriller writer now). Yep, among the literary scrap heap, horror is probably the most frowned-upon genre in the stacks these days. But a good book is a good book is a good book, and I found a couple worth a reader’s time in the process.
For the most part, I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s lush Dracula novel, The Historian , my only critique being that a vampire novel should never be so restrained. So if you miss large doses of lust—both blood and otherwise—as well as monsters and swordplay in Kostova’s epic, I would also highly recommend seeking The Priest of Blood (Ace, $19.95), the first entry in Douglas Clegg’s Vampyricon trilogy and a wicked yet sensitive blending of traditional sword and sorcery with the roots of the vampire myth.
In The Priest , Aleric is a peasant boy living in squalor in medieval Brittany whose family has ties to the ancient religion of the nearby forest. Taught to train birds by his grandfather, he manages an appointment at the nearby barony and gains a certain measure of respect as a falconer. When circumstances force Aleric into military service in a far-away land, it is not long before his destiny is revealed in an encounter with the female vampire Pythia. With a band of fellow vampires, Aleric seeks the fabled city of Alkemara and the titular Priest of Blood, where he learns that his path runs not far from his old home.
Clegg does such an exceptional job of detailing his historical settings and, most of all, making his readers care about Aleric as a child, that when his change happens, it has resonance and impact. He builds a vivid cast of supporting characters and genuinely makes the prospect of a second book tempting. Conversely, if the prospect of the trilogy, the unfortunate hook of most fantasy novels, is unappealing, you should probably skip the book (likewise the continued use of ornate prophecy and bizarre proper names that make a lot of fantasy titles unrelentingly silly). Clegg manages to juggle prose that is both compassionate and muscular, however, and never loses sight of his characters’ humanity even as they become more (or less) than mortal.
Probably of more interest from a local/regional standpoint is first-time novelist Cherie Priest’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds (Tor, $13.95). Priest is a Chattanooga native who sets her novel mostly within her home boundaries, and it’s always intriguing to see smaller, familiar locales represented in fiction. Though it’s a first novel and has a few corresponding weaknesses, Priest has a special talent for evoking the senses that recalls such luminary genre practitioners as Poppy Z. Brite. Actually, were I to describe Blackbirds in Hollywood pitch-speak, I’d declare it a steamy, humid merging of William Faulkner and M. Night Shyamalan.
I’d suspect Blackbirds began life as a series of short stories or connected vignettes that eventually formed a novel (and that’s not a criticism, it’s just a feeling from the architecture of the book). It is the story of Eden, an African-American child with a family tree so twisted I’d exhaust my word allotment attempting to untangle it for you. Her young aunt raises her after her mother’s untimely death, and both the community’s whispering behind Eden’s back and the ghosts of three of her dead female relatives that only she can see convince her that she is far from normal. She’s not the only one so induced, either, as her murderous cousin continually stalks her, and a distant matriarch who meets every nefarious stereotype of elderly Southern gentry is obviously out to manipulate her. She comes to find that her family roots, both the seen and the numerous unseen, are attempting to choke her.
Cherie Priest is a breath of fresh air because she doesn’t attempt to frighten you on every page or even in every chapter. This makes her conservative allotment of creeps all the more effective. Probably the best scary scene involves Eden snooping around an abandoned sanitarium that once housed her mother. Sure, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t require a lot of effort to induce the chills, but Priest spins it like a master.
Horror, despite its tropes, conventions, monsters and psychopaths, seeks to answer the same questions as any literature. Who are we? Why are we here? What happens after death? It may take those questions a little more literally and embody them far more grotesquely than last year’s Booker Prize winner, but that makes it no less valid. From Clegg’s unflinching glimpse into the blood which fuels the human body to Priest’s evocative and unsettling landscapes that are not quite those we see upon waking, horror fiction is still fiction.