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

Saturday, July 01, 1995

Blood Ritual -- Frances Gordon

Frances Gordon is best-known for her work under another name. Fantasy fans will recognise the cheery gruesomeness that distinguishes Bridget Wood’s Celtic novels, beginning with Wolfking. Blood Ritual demonstrates that she can write contemporary horror at least as well as dark fantasy.

Michael Devlin is a journalist returning to Eastern Europe, where he lost his sight while investigating the fate of Bosnian refugees. With him travel Sister Hilary and Sister Catherine from St. Luke’s, the convent where he has been nursed as far back to health as is feasible; Hilary is accompanying him to the Viennese clinic where he hopes his sight will be restores, while Catherine is returning to her family home to visit her beloved brother, who is dying. Or so she believes.

Michael and Hilary travel to the Romanian borders in search of the organisation Tranz, which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed. Michael interviews a local innkeeper, and learns of Nazi atrocities committed within CrnPrag, the Tranz stronghold. He begins to formulate his own theories about the missing refugees - until Hilary visits CrnPrag and escapes with tales of something much older, much darker and with a great thirst for blood.

And Catherine? She’s been lured back to the familial bosom in order to accept the heritage she has been attempting to exorcise - that of her famous ancestress, Elizabeth Bathory, who had a taste for the blood of young girls. It’s a taste that lingers in her descendants, although without the sexual element which Elizabeth enjoyed so much. Back in London, the nuns of St. Luke’s are beginning to discover some unpalatable truths about Tranz, and about Sister Catherine - truths the family cannot allow to be rediscovered.

Gordon concentrates on the perverse sensuality of blood, rather than simply exploring the sexuality of vampires - or humans. Elizabeth’s descendants aren’t strictly vampires; they have a complex relationship with blood, rather than the simple physical addiction of the more traditional vampire. A complex and mature novel; it’s closer to the timbre of Anne Rice’s work than are many of the new crop of vampire novels, but with a style and tone which are refreshingly original.

Covenant with the Vampire -- Jeanne Kalogridis

It is 1845, and Arkady Tepesh has been called home to bucolic Eastern Europe after the death of his father. He is the last of his line, and management of the family estate must pass to him. His sweet, heavily pregnant English wife Mary travels with him to meet the in-laws for the first time. Like any new wife, she is healthily suspicious of them, and soon begins to realise that something is very rotten in Uncle Vlad’s sprawling castle, set in acres of gloomy forest in the heart of beautiful unspoilt Transylvania ...

Covenant with the Vampire is composed of extracts from the journals of pragmatic Arkady, sensible Mary and Arkady’s sister Zsuzsanna, who is mad. It’s the first in a prjected trilogy by Jeanne Kalogridis, a ‘bestselling American author whose work, published under a pseudonym, has been translated into seventeen languages’. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: I don’t think it’s Anne Rice. Despite a blurb which promises an ‘erotic, stylish and page-turningly terrifying’ novel, Covenant is less bloody and sensual by far than Rice’s novels. (Granted there’s a certain amount of biting and sucking, as has come to be de rigeur in vampire novels, but it takes more than that to make an erotic novel). Kalogridis’ style is (deliberately) more reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s as she charts the gradual descent of Arkady Tepesh from man of reason to supernatural creature.

At first Arkady’s journal entries are a triumph of Victorian rationalism over ignorant peasant beliefs. After a long journey through a dark and stormy night (of course) to his uncle‘s castle, the first person he sees is his brother - who died horribly as a child - pointing ominously into the forest. A lesser man would run screaming: Arkady sensibly attributes the hallucinations to ‘the stress of travel’, adding, ‘I am a modern man who puts his hope in science rather than in God or the Devil’.

As the novel progresses, however, his naivety begins to seem like blind stupidity - especially when contrasted to Mary’s growing fears, confided only to her diary. Arkady’s fears are still those of a rationalist: that the police won’t believe him when he reports a servant’s disappareance, that the peasants are abusing Vlad’s good nature, that a guest has accidentally fallen from a high window. Only when he begins to recall some of his repressed childhood memories does he realise the horror of his situation.

Never one to place his faith in the supernatural, Arkady devises a cunning stratagem which may save his immortal soul, but will estrange him from everything he knows and loves. Once aware of his doom, he becomes an altogether more interesting character - as does Mary, never a weak woman but hitherto constrained by the mores of her time.

As this is the first in a trilogy (which will end where Dracula started) a cliffhanger ending is to be expected, and Kalogridis doesn’t disappoint.

The Detached Retina -- Brian Aldiss

"Science fiction seems to offer an elusive something ... a sense of looking at things and finding the familiar strange ... for this it needs the SF writer's gift, a detached viewpoint, a detached retina. Perhaps ordinary readers are not comfortable with detached retinas. As Delany pointed out, you have to train yourself or be trained to appreciate the tropes of SF."

The Detached Retina is a collection of essays drawn from Aldiss' critical work over the last fifteen years. Their provenance ranges from book introduction to obituary; their degree of detachment is similarly varied. There's an open letter to Salvador Dali, and essays on futurology and psychology. There is a great deal of incisive criticism, and a recurring defence of his own works - both fiction and non-fiction - which, whether intrusive or not, is seldom bland.

"The past is rich in life ... it's the future that's dead, stuffed with our own mortality" writes Aldiss. His view of current trends in science fiction is not particularly optimistic. He bemoans the trend towards the impersonal and the massive - "towards humans as machines" - and ties this into the social context of much science fiction - "our SF culture springs from nations with most power, so power is naturally a prevailing theme". Cyberpunk offers a renaissance of human individuality, which 'seems to extend to infinity - but within the limits of the machine". In his introduction to Decade: The Sixties (written in 1977), he posits that the Sixties was the decade when science fiction "began to stand outside itself and look at itself". The relentless forward march of technological progress was shoved out of the way to make space for experimentation and hedonism. There's a distinct sense that this was a Good Thing, and that things have been in decline ever since. Considering that this essay was written from a vantage point of only eight years, one can't help wondering what changes Aldiss would have made, had he not considered that it should "stand as it was when first published".

There are several indications that, on occasion, he despairs of much modern SF. "The nutritive content has been fixed to suit mass taste," he writes. "Nowadays, the world ... has to be saved by a group of four or five people which include a Peter Pan figure, a girl of noble birth, and a moron ... the prescription thus incorporates an effigy for everyone to identify with. In the old days, we used to destroy the world, and it only took one mad scientist. SF was an act of defiance, a literature of subversion, not whimsy." (Old days? Does he mean Good Old Days?) On occasion, one can't help feeling that Aldiss is comparing the worst of the new with the best of the old - a comparison which does no favours to either side of the balance.

At one point he writes, "(SF) should be about the future. And of course about human beings. When it gets involved with telepathic dragons, I'm lost." This is an example of Aldiss at his most irritatingly dismissive. Quite aside from the slur on McCaffrey (who, at least in her earlier works, was playing the good old SF game of 'what if?', and examining human-alien relationships) it's a horribly anthropocentric viewpoint. Human beings? What about 'people'? Where does this leave the work of writers like Stephen Baxter and Gwyneth Jones, who write intelligent SF with alien protagonists? Aldiss is often scathing about 'formula fantasy' (and, indeed, formulaic SF) and its practitioners. The Detached Retina deals mainly with science fiction, and with non-genre fiction that shares some SFnal tropes. However, In 'One Hump or Two' (the text of a lecture given at the IAFA Conference of the Fantastic) he makes some salient points about the differences between US and UK fantasy: "(the) spiritual aspect is largely absent in American fantasy and at least flickeringly present in the English stuff ... Did the 1980s yield in the US anything so ... full of ancient power as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood?" In part, according to Aldiss, this may be attributable to our 'buried past': "we have Stonehenge, you have Scientology". But, in the end, the two have largely merged. Aldiss manages to dismiss fantasy, post-Tolkien, as "a giant step forward for womankind to the Age of Le Guin and Earthsea and Anne McCaffrey and her dragons". With this aggravating summation, Aldiss dismisses recent fantasy and female writers in one fell swoop. Female writers? I'm sorry; there's half a page on feminist utopias. And an essay on Anna Kavan; not a familiar name, but at least a female name.

And, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - 'Science Fiction's Mother Figure'. This essay is perhaps the weakest in the book. It starts out as a defence of Aldiss' view - first aired in Billion Year Spree (BYS), his 1973 critical overview of science fiction - that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. And, on the subject of Shelley and her monstrous 'child', Aldiss is informative and entertaining. "She captured the Irrational," he writes, "dressing it in rational garb and letting it stalk the land." He explains the social and political context of Shelley's writing lucidly, drawing comparisons between Shelley and earlier utopian writers, and discussing her little-known novel The Last Man. But where the essay falls over is in its second half - "a more personal view". This concerns itself less with Aldiss' personal view of Shelley, and more with his reaction to the critical slamming of BYS. We already know (from several iterations of the same phrase) that he regards the work as "an asset to scholars ... carte blanche not to have to study texts a million miles from the real thing". (The 'real thing', of course, as defined by Aldiss.) While his defence of the book's tenets is scholarly - if occasionally repetitive - Aldiss tends to react personally to mention (and non-mention) of his work. Describing del Rey's omission of his fictional works in The World of Science Fiction, Aldiss magnanimously remarks that "this particular instance can perhaps be ascribed to jealousy". And he is "grateful" to be mentioned in the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF. He defends BYS on both the critical and the personal fronts; the first is certainly justifiable, the second perhaps less so. One of the few flaws in this collection is Aldiss' tendency to self-reference: discussing Amis' Something Strange, he writes (apropos of nothing) that "it bears a family resemblance to my story 'Outside'". P.D. James' The Children of Men "bears an astonishing accidental resemblance to my 'Greybeard'". While few would deny that Aldiss is one of the seminal figures of SF, it hardly becomes him to remind us of the fact.

There are proper places for self-reference, and in that respect Aldiss doesn't let us down. His obituaries of James Blish and Theodore Sturgeon are affectionate and revealing. In his discussion of SFnal style, it's only fitting that he writes of what he knows; his own. The autobiographical pieces - 'A Personal Parabola' and 'The Adjectives of Erich Zann' (a painful, and extremely funny, piece on Lovecraft) - have a fascinating intimacy, reminiscent of his fiction.

And there is creativity along with the criticism - the 'Rough Guide to Utopia', for example. The Detached Retina is often amusing and, just as often, contentious. Aldiss covers an immense ground, only occasionally stopping to mark out a piece of his own territory. Scholarly, witty and perverse at times; a book which deserves the adjective 'thought-provoking'.