No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, March 01, 1994

Guilty Pleasures -- Laurell K Hamilton

Guilty Pleasures takes us to an alternate St. Louis, where zombies and were-rats hang out in fast-food joints after dark. These are heady days. It's just two years since the Addison v. Clark lawsuit defined "what life was, and what death wasn't". Suddenly the American Dream has been extended to the undead - and a whole, uniquely American subculture has congealed around them, from action groups like Humans Against Vampires to Guilty Pleasures itself, the world's first vampire strip club. Humans come to scream and stay to be seduced. Maybe they get hooked on the vampire's kiss, but it's a safe terror.

Enter the Executioner. Anita Blake, vampire slayer and animator (we're talking zombies, not cartoons) has been hired by the master vampires of the city to find out who, or what, is killing vampires and tearing out their hearts. The trail leads from a hen night that goes horribly wrong, via a suburban freak party (rather like an orgy, but with vampires), to the Church of Eternal Life - the only religion to practise what it preaches, though you have to be over 18 to be converted. Anita, a cynical, Dr. Seuss-quoting Episcopalian, isn't seduced by the promise of immortality, and has the scars to prove it. With her friend Edward - "if I was the Executioner, he was Death" - she is drawn towards a very real, and terrifying, heart of darkness.

Like all the best speculative fiction, Guilty Pleasures doesn't labour its point. First and foremost it's a crime novel with a startling denouement. Beneath the fast pacing and exotica, however, there's a complex society in which the supernatural is something to be confronted in everyday life, something that won't crawl back under the bed when the lights go on. Someone's who's scared of being bitten by a werewolf, for instance, can be inoculated against lycanthropy; or a man who wants to apologise to his dead daughter can have her raised as a zombie. Life's never that simple, though; the supernatural merely presents a new set of problems.

Hamilton isn't offering us a trite, good-versus-bad whodunnit. The outstanding characteristic of the book is the variety of evil which it describes; it's refreshing, post-Anne Rice, to find vampires who, despite their supernatural glamour, aren't the much-maligned good guys, but are genuinely and inhumanly evil. Neither are they the nastiest characters in the book; there's very little type-casting here. Guilty Pleasures invites us to look beneath the surface - in more ways than one, since the cover artwork might lead one to assume that this is nothing more scary than bad porn.

Midnight is a Lonely Place -- Barbara Erskine

Somewhere on the desolate Essex coast a grave has lain, forgotten, for centuries. Now the rising sea, together with the unprofessional ministrations of troubled teenager Alison, is uncovering the grave's secrets - and awakening those who wish those secrets to remain hidden.

Meanwhile, best-selling biographer Kate Kennedy (a woman so uncertain of her own identity that she frequently addresses herself in the third person) has fled from a doomed love affair to the imagined solitude of north-east Essex. But there is something nasty on the beach, and in the woods, and in the cottage where she is vainly attempting to complete her biography of Lord Byron. Together with assorted natives and yokels, she is drawn into a tangled web of romance and deceit.

Barbara Erskine has found a lucrative theme - the eternal triangle echoing through time - and she's more than willing to come up with another variation. Midnight is a Lonely Place has the ingredients of a true Gothic romance - the windswept setting, the ancient feud, the power of evil and the love which is stronger than death. Erskine's evocation of the past may well be historically accurate - it's really too intimate and personal for one to be able to argue with it - and the plot builds subtly to a mildly chilling denouement. There are some interesting, if undeveloped, thoughts on existence and motivation after death. But the characters, present and past, are two-dimensional, and it's difficult to care whether the forces of evil win or not - although one cannot help but admire the ingenuity of a ghost who can cut off Kate's phone line immediately after her paranoid conversations with her estranged lover or her sister, who is (conveniently) a Jungian psychologist.

If the novel has a specific fault, it is that there are simply too many words. In lieu of characterisation, we are shown the minutiae of each person's existence; from the process of making a maggot-free cup of chocolate, to Alison's taste in Music to Excavate By. Perhaps because the characters have little inner life, their actions often appear illogical. This edition also bears the signs of desultory proof-reading; I object to having to work the grammar out for myself, even if that's more challenging than the plot. Despite the faults, though, it's a gripping read; Erskine's suspenseful style keeps the reader hooked right to the end, a talent which should be applauded. Just don't go looking for hidden depths.