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

Sunday, December 01, 1996

Midshipman's Hope -- David Feintuch

The cover of Midshipman's Hope - the first in ‘The Seafort Saga' - lauds it as reading 'like a collaboration between Heinlein and C. S. Forester'. This is a remarkably accurate assessment.

Nick Seafort is a well-behaved, law-abiding - and regulation-quoting - midshipman on the USS Hibernia, out of Earth on a seventeen-month voyage to the colony of Hope Nation. Naval officers have to start young, to reduce their risk of contracting melanoma; thus, as in days of old, the midshipmen are teenagers, and Nick, the senior midshipman, has his hands full trying to keep them under control. It would, of course, be unthinkable for him to join in with their foolery. His career is too important to throw away.

The Navy of 2195 is remarkably like the British Navy of three centuries before; the same rule-bound life aboard, the same mild contempt for civilians, and the same respect for the traditions of the service. Of course there are differences; the grand, Heinleinian scale of the interstellar 'ocean', Nick's familiarity with Amanda (a young, female colonist travelling alone) - but, if anything, this Navy is more God- and regulation-fearing than Nelson's.

Tragedy strikes just when it's too late to turn back to Earth, and Nick unwillingly finds himself in command of the ship - a position that he's the first to admit he is unsuited for. Nevertheless, the rules cannot be broken. Nick must do his best to hold the crew together, cope with an onboard computer whose increasing paranoia makes Clarke's HAL look positively benevolent, and maintain the trust of the colonists - oh, and win the heart of the fair Amanda, of course.

This is a rite-of-passage novel, from Nick's fisticuffs with the quarrelsome Vax who subsequently respects him, to his acceptance that he can never be as perfect as his father would have wished, and his realisation that sometimes rules have to broken and that he needs the courage of his convictions. Another four novels in 'The Seafort Saga' have already been published in the US; it'll be interesting to see if, by the end of the last, Nick Seafort has grown up. Meanwhile, the scenery is interesting, the alien is suitably incomprehensible, and while Feintuch's characters tend towards the two-dimensional, there are flashes of wit and some thoughtful exchanges.

Exquisite Corpse -- Poppy Z Brite

There is something particularly nauseating about the idea of eating something that's still alive. Isn't there? If the thought doesn't bother you, then you may find this book unexceptionable.

'Imagine meeting Nilsen & Dahmer in a bar, being invited home for coffee ...' No, thanks. Brite's previous novels, Lost Souls (1992) and Drawing Blood (1993) were investigations of human horror redeemed by their exploration of the supernatural: Exquisite Corpse, however, remains firmly rooted in the mundane – if ‘mundane’ is the right word for the Grand Guignol concoction of serial murder, necrophilia, cannibalism & sadistic sex that Brite presents this time round.

Within the first few pages of the novel, we are presented with Andrew, the imprisoned serial killer, musing on the aesthetics of slaughter:
"I killed most of the twenty-three by cutting ... because I appreciated the beautiful objects that their bodies were, the bright ribbons of blood coursing over the velvet of their skin, the feel of their muscles parting like soft butter."

After a dramatic escape – which, featuring a more sympathetic and likable protagonist, might be heroic – Andrew makes his way from the bars of Soho to sultry New Orleans, a favourite setting of Brite’s. There he encounters Jay, who hunts the bars and streets of the city rather like the vampires of Lost Souls. It is a meeting of souls: as Brite, rather slyly, puts it, “Jay had never had a live friend before, and he wasn’t sure what to do with one.” The two talk for hours, exploring the shared horrors of their natures: what is important, however, is that neither of them feel that they are monsters. As Andrew puts it, “I emerged from the womb with no morals, and no one has been able to instil any in me since. ... I had done nothing wrong. I had spent my life feeling like a species of one. Monster, mutation, Nietzschean superman – I could perceive no difference."

The ‘extraordinary love’ of Jay and Andrew is balanced by the relationship between Luke and Tran. Tran is a young Vietnamese boy whose family have just discovered that he’s gay and thrown him out. Luke, his former lover, is HIV-positive and divides his time between vitriolic radio broadcasts on WHIV (a pirate radio station run by and for HIV-positive men) and frantically trying to finish the novel that he realises will be his last. Luke’s tirades are directed at the rampantly homophobic right wing politicians of the Deep South, and the ‘breeders’ who bring more and more children into the world, and regard homosexuals as an aberration and a threat. Tran still loves Luke; "I'd like him to have a good life ... but all I can wish him now is a decent death". Lost in New Orleans, without obvious roots, he is easy prey for Andrew and Jay, whose mutual regard can only be consummated with the sharing of a victim.

It’s not as straightforward as that, of course. Brite weaves together the two parallel love stories (Luke and Tran’s mainly in the form of flashbacks) into a helix, which spirals towards a denouement which is not as pointless as one might expect. Brite continues the theme, found in both her previous novels, of love as redemption; it is clear from early in the novel, however, that there can be no happy endings.

This is a shocking novel, and also a flawed one. Brite could do more to contrast the helpless rage felt by Luke at his disease, with the feelings of Jay and David’s equally helpless victims; both are consequences of a casual approach to pleasure. And, while at least one character grows and changes during the novel, a great deal of blood is spilt before he can prove himself. No one has a decent death. The nastiness is not pointless: but one might ask whether it’s desirable to be able empathise with someone who can lovingly describe the taste and texture of human flesh, “lightly fried in butter”. And the butchery – although far from casual – pervades the novel; the overall effect is deadening, like watching a Tarantino film.

Brite’s style is humourless (for which, in this context, one should be thankful), and her characters tend towards a poetic profundity which is faintly nauseating: Andrew describes AIDS, for example, as “this malady borne on the fluids of love”, and waxes lyrical about the sensations which he experiences on seeing the first drop of blood on a victim’s skin. The French playwright Antonin Artaud defined the notion of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ – theatre that disturbs the spectator, frees unconscious repressions and allows the spectator to see himself as he really is. Artaud stressed that, on the level of performance, ‘it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies ... but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us.’ Brite’s ‘novel of cruelty’ focusses on the cruelty which people exercise upon one another – and upon the ‘monsters’ who derive pleasure from such cruelty.

It is unpleasantly easy to understand the killers’ motivation; Jay and David are shown as human beings, not just ciphers of cruelty. It is when their victim’s point of view is shown that the reader is jolted into revulsion. If Brite is trying to shock, she succeeds; if she is attempting an exploration of the dark side of human nature, she treats it too superficially to be taken seriously.

There’s a passage when Luke is recalling the reviews of his first novel, Faith in Poison, which might describe the way Poppy Brite expects Exquisite Corpse to be received: "The praise was lavish but slightly shell-shocked, as if Lucas Ransom had begun by massaging the reader's brain stem, then delivered a quick sharp blow to the back of the neck. The disparagement was similar, but with an aggrieved tone, as if the novel had deeply and personally offended the revilers. Lucas was pleased by both reactions. He had no use for middle ground." There is no middle ground for this novel. It is, in places, profoundly unpleasant: I am not a particularly squeamish reader, but there were parts of Exquisite Corpse that I regret ever having read. Reading objectively, it might be an intriguing novel – but I am not sure that I would want to be able to be objective about such a book.

Tuesday, September 10, 1996

Reigning Cats and Dogs -- Tanith Lee

A man is flycycling home from a rendezvous with his mistress when a huge black dog's head appears among the clouds. Another projected advertisement, he thinks; then the fiery gaze meets his, and he begins to fall …
The City of Reigning Cats and Dogs is never named, but it has recognisable parallels to Dickensian London; the elite quote Hamlet, Egyptian monuments stand on the Embankment, and a 'great domed cathedral' rises above the slums of Black Church. Most of all, though, this is the City of Dreadful Night: 'And all about a city hummed and sighed, and he did not know it or its name, nor any name for the blackness of the sky and air, which were night'.

Grace is a whore with the gift of healing, who imparts an incomprehensible sense of well-being to her clients. Saul Anger, abused and sold as a child, has risen to head the Brotherhood, a shadowy group of men whose desire is to cleanse the city of sin and corruption. Something sinister has come to the City; it is dog-headed, with glowing eyes, and it kills by perverting time - so that a child may become an impossibly aged crone, and an old man's corpse resembles that of an aborted foetus. Saul fears that the Brotherhood have created this monster, but he does not know how to combat it. It is Balthazar the Jew, to whom two mudlarks have brought a jade statue from the river, who tells Grace of the ritual that must be completed.

Tanith Lee's recent work has tended towards an almost impenetrable Gothic mode, full of blood and stained glass. Reigning Cats and Dogs is lighter and less intense than, for example, Dark Dance. Lee's wit, and her talent for visual description, are at their best here; images of cats and dogs recur throughout the novel, and there are a variety of neatly-turned metaphors for corruption and for the juxtaposition of science and squalor. Grace is a typical Lee heroine - 'helpless and broken, adrift on the sea of night' - and Saul's damaged personality echoes that of other male leads in Lee's novels; their appearances, and the pointed contrast between the two, makes them almost archetypal.

The elements of Egyptian mythology, although fundamental to the plot, are played down in favour of the evocation of a dark and terrible city, surreally Gothic without losing all human perspective. Farce, tragedy, eroticism, and a London that might have been.

Sunday, September 01, 1996

Bloodlines -- Marion Veevers

Bloodlines explores the myth of Lady Macbeth, and the curse of 'the Scottish play'. The lives of three women intertwine: the actress Abigail West (who's playing Lady Macbeth opposite her husband); Jennet, a country girl in Shakespeare's time, who is being tried for witchcraft; and, earliest of all, Gruoch - the original Lady Macbeth.

Gruoch is perhaps the most interesting of the three; married - or sold - to a old man while still a child, she falls irrevocably in love with Macbeth when he kills her husband and carries her off. Despite the romance, though, this isn't a sanitised Hollywood vision of the eleventh century; it's dark, and dirty, and there are enemies at every side. Gruoch may love her rescuer, but she is not blind to his nature - Macbeth is a warrior and a murderer, who will do whatever's necessary to further his ambitions.

Jennet's locked in a cell and tortured until she confesses to witchcraft - her plan to curse the King and his heirs. In vain she protests that the curse is not hers - simply words that her mother told her, which she has never understood. Again and again she protests that her handsome lover is not the Devil, despite his graces and his poetic words. She has dreamt, though, that he will live forever; but recounting her dream to her tormentors will not help her case. Already they are building Jennet’s pyre, and she remembers her own mother being burnt at the stake.

Abby's life seems idyllic at first, but as she plunges herself into the role of Lady Macbeth her behaviour begins to change - enough to make her husband suspect that she is suffering from mental illness again. Abby adores her husband, but she can't make him understand that she's not going mad; that the confusion, and the hallucinations, come from the past and not from her own mind.

There are parallels between the womens' situations: each loves a man who is beginning to mistrust her, but for whom she would do anything; each is threatened by the unwanted attentions of another man; and each has nightmares and 'waking dreams' of a high staircase, which must be climbed - even though what waits at the top is an unknown, but horrific, sight.

The 'curse' is there from the beginning, although none of the three women understand its meaning or its power until the climax of the novel. The usual, half-joking explanation for the 'curse' on Macbeth is that Shakespeare's witches recite a real spell ('eye of newt and toe of frog'). Bloodlines suggests a more plausible reason; a curse - or, more accurately, a prediction - handed down from mother to daughter, and concealed in the words of Lady Macbeth herself, rather than in the 'demented rantings' of the witches. the curse won't be broken until someone understands what really happened, almost a thousand years ago.

Bloodlines can be read at several levels. It's a gripping thriller; the three women's narratives are twined together without chapter breaks, and the nature of the curse - and its resolution - are revealed only gradually. In some ways it's a romance: Bloodlines could be compared to the novels of Barbara Erskine (who is perhaps the best-known author of this sort of historical fiction, which blends past and present), but Veevers focusses on the darker emotions, and the historical context in which the action takes place. And, while it's definitely a work of fiction, the underlying theories regarding the origins of the play are by no means lightweight. A good read, with an element of intellectual enquiry that's reminiscent of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.

The World on Blood -- Jonathan Nasaw

"Hi, my name is Nick, and I'm a recovering vampire." Blood is the drug - it heightens one's sense of reality, and it's 'the most powerful aphrodisiac imaginable'. - and the members of VA ("What's the V stand for?" "Very." "Very Anonymous?" "Very") are following the twelve-point plan to beat their addiction. This, I should add, is California.

Nick made his money writing vampire novels; he hasn't written any fiction for twenty years, since one of his boyfriends introduced him to the Real Thing. The aristocratic, cosmopolitan and immensely rich Whistler would be quite enough for Nick to deal with. He is even more mistrustful of Selene, Whistler's closest friend, who is High Priestess of a Wiccan coven which enjoys an almost symbiotic relationship with the Californian vampire community. None of Rice's sexless eroticism for Nasaw; his vampires are more than happy to trade bodily fluids with the witches. (And yes, of course there are female vampires; The World on Blood is neither conservative nor coy when it comes to sex, as so often it does).

Back in the Seventies everything seemed so much simpler. But contemporary California is a festering pit of therapy groups, and vampirism is just another problem to recognise, confront and overcome. The members of VA are a motley crew: the abused punk girl January, Deadhead lawyer Augie, and members of enough minority groups to satisfy even the most politically-correct reader. Every week VA meet and share their experiences of living without blood. It is all most worthy.

Then two things happen; they move their meeting place to a non-denominational church (thus encountering Betty, the lonely female minister); and Bev, who works in a blood bank, brings in the latest 'suspect' - beautiful Filipina Lourdes, who's been caught stealing a bag of blood in her first week on the night shift. Lourdes pouts prettily and tells them she doesn't want to give up blood; the rest of VA inform her cheerfully that of course she does ... Fortunately, one member of the group is similarly minded, and offers Lourdes the perfect excuse for not working day shifts.

So far, so good. The second half of the novel, however, moves away from the bright, brash, subversive romp, and towards a more conventional interpretation of the Californian ideal. Vampires playing at happy families?
Assessing their relationships and motivations? It could never happen in New Orleans ...

Nasaw has some interesting variations on the vampire myth. In The World On Blood, vampirism is inherited rather than transmitted, and vampires can reproduce Blood is a drug rather than a sole means of sustenance. (On the other hand, there are very few references to food.) The blood-drinking itself is oddly sanitised; the traditional rending and tearing has been replaced, at least in everyday life, by steel syringes and brandy glasses. It's clear that Nasaw knows his subject; there's a neat little précis of the vampire myth, and the novel is scattered with genre references - Lourdes, for example, discovered the joys of blood after reading Interview with the Vampire.

Despite the bloodletting and the orgiastic sex, there's something uncomfortably cosy about The World on Blood. It'd make a great soap: the characters are constantly coming to terms with themselves, and confronting one another in a variety of social tableaux.

Wednesday, May 01, 1996

Fenella Fang -- Ritchie Perry

It’s sad and lonely being a vampire. Fenella Fang enjoys an outwardly satisfactory undeath in a comfortable coffin somewhere in the Midlands. She makes frequent visits to her uncle, Samuel Suck, and has fun flirting with uncle’s henchman Igor (he of the beautifully luminescent warts and oddly-proportioned limbs). She has been voted Miss Vampire of the Year, and is still a stunning creature of the night. But something is missing. Now what can it be?

It is not until she wakes up one night to find Sara, a young girl who has run away from home after her puppy was taken away to be destroyed, that Fenella begins to realise that humans aren’t as bad as they’ve been painted. With Sara’s help Fenella can even get her toothache treated (and you can imagine how badly toothache affects a vampire, even one who relies on Human Blood Substitute rather than sinking her fangs into unwashed human necks). Fenella has fun discovering that dentists’ injections make vampires ‘completely squiffy’ (and somewhat amorous, if the illustrations are anything to go by), and Sara has earned herself a favour from her redoubtable new friend. Which just goes to show that if you help others, they’ll help you. Ain’t it sweet?

I am sorry to say that this book does not have an entirely happy ending; but it’s a jolly little tale with generous helpings of justice and revenge, moral dilemmas and love conquering all - the ingredients of any great work.

Thursday, February 01, 1996

Memnoch, the Devil -- Anne Rice

Anne Rice has said that Memnoch the Devil will be her last book about Lestat, the charismatic vampire / rock star / Agent of Destiny who has been the protagonist of her vampire novels to date. She has discussed the reasons for this in terms that are emotional, to say the least; and she has told the world that she’s in love with Lestat. This amour is very evident in her latest novel, where Lestat’s actions have, quite literally, religious overtones.

The book opens with Lestat pursuing his most fascinating prey to date. Roger is a criminal who’s almost as charismatic as Lestat. He uses the proceeds of his drug deals to purchase treasures of religious art. Lestat is equally fascinated by Roger’s daughter, the televangelist Dora. He will kill Roger and drain him dry; but when? It’s only a matter of time ...

Meanwhile Lestat is, in turn, being stalked - by an entity he does not recognise or understand, and which terrifies him. It will not surprise anyone who has noted the title of the book to learn that this pursuer is Memnoch, the Devil Himself. But what does he want with Lestat? Is it simply to drag him down to a blazing Christian Hell, or is there something more?

Memnoch the Devil is written in the same expansive style as the previous three books (the first, Interview with the Vampire, which was narrated by the pleasantly-reserved Louis, has a more formal manner), and occasionally this begins to grate. So much emotion! So many exclamation marks! Can one withstand Rice’s passion for her creation?

Actually, it’s remarkably easy. Rice’s lush prose style lends itself well to evocative and emotive description; but there are turns of phrase which catapult one abruptly into the realisation that her writing is not, perhaps, what it was: ‘he said politely in British,’ for example. Or, ‘awesome statistics such as 1704, or even 1692.’ Or ... But it’s easy to quote out of context. And there are more profound aspects of Memnoch, the Devil to criticise than mere turns of phrase.

There’s a verbosity to Rice’s prose which is more evident than before. Considering that one of the major motifs of the novel is Lestat’s confusion and self-doubt - is he going mad or not? - it’s possible to accept that his stream of consciousness might be more haphazard than in previous novels. In some ways it’s the most claustrophobic of her books to date; none of the other vampire pantheon appear until the very end of the book, and the action focusses more on Lestat’s inner turmoil than on the awful glamour of his existence as a vampire. Oh yes, he still gets to kill people; he still gets to drink blood. (Incidentally, this may be one of the first mainstream vampire novels to deal with menstruation. Tastefully, moreover. Pun intended).

But Lestat, who has always shown a tendency to whinge on like an angst-ridden adolescent about his place in God’s Creation, is reaching a crisis point in his existence. His love for Dora, the daughter of the man he refers to as ‘my Victim’ (the capitalisation sanctifies the noun: think of ‘my Saviour’ ...) forces him to confront his own faith, which up to now he has made a point of rejecting in as loud and dramatic a fashion as possible. The process of soul-searching - in one who’s said before that he has no soul - is exarcebated by the appearance on the stage of Memnoch, the Devil. One can’t help but feel that the theological debate which ensues is, at least in part, founded on the author’s own religious doubts.

Rice, through Memnoch, debates the standard theological puzzles: how can a good God allow suffering? What is the role of evolution in religious thought? What is the nature of angels? The discussion is, on the whole, rigorously argued, and there are occasional flashes of wit and of profundity. Lestat’s role in this discussion is often no more than that of the ignorant apostle, who asks all the obvious questions in order to establish the tenets of his faith; the difference between this and the standard catechism is that his questions are answered by one who is in a position to know the truth.

The main flaw of this novel is its structural imbalance. Memnoch’s story, and the theological arguments proceeding from it, constitute well over a third of the book, and Lestat’s present-day secular adventures sometime seem no more than a framing device for what is, in effect, a massive and melodramatic info-dump. Memnoch is perhaps the hero of this part of the novel, and he bears more than a passing resemblance to the self-assured Lestat of previous Chronicles. Memnoch is as ‘enthralled’ and ‘in love’ with humanity as Lestat has been with Roger and Dora. The parallels between the two are difficult to mistake.

Rice, like Milton, is of the Devil’s party; unlike Milton, she knows it. Lestat’s experiences echo those of Christ tempted by Satan, but Memnoch is not the archetypal villain that one would traditionally expect. Does Rice’s theology equate to hereticism? And should a novel be judged by its philosophical arguments when other criteria of quality, such as structure and characterisation, aren’t met?

The climax of the novel makes the ending of Queen of the Damned - which was reminiscent of a de Mille epic in sheer scale - seem an exercise in moderation and mild-mannered restraint. If Rice had intended to write another novel about Lestat, this would be a hard act to follow. Flawed and decadent, but still capable of fascinating; let that stand as a monument to Lestat, as well as to Memnoch, the Devil.