Book Review: Fangtastic by Lucienne Diver

(Article first published as Book Review: Fangtastic by Lucienne Diver on Blogcritics.)

Gina Covella, the Macy’s-worshipping teen fashionista from Ohio turned vampire after an imprudent neck-nibbling, is back for a third adventure, and it’s a delight. Author Lucienne Diver improves with each new book, and her characters are growing and becoming more real and likeable as the series continues. There isn’t the slightest hint that Diver is starting to run out of ideas for adventures. Fangtastic (Flux: 2012) pops out some very imaginative plot devices, and the little clan of vamped friends whose undead escapades began in Vamped (Flux: 2009) take several right angle turns and head off in a whole new direction by the end of this fast-paced story.

In ReVamped (Flux: 2010), the second in the series, Gina, her boyfriend (and “sire”) Bobby and several of their friends had been tapped to work as supernatural secret agents for a covert Federal agency. By the end of that story, Gina has learned that the vampire council whom she helped foil in Vamped has a “Kill or Capture order” out on her. But this makes her somewhat valuable as a negotiating tool. Even more than Gina herself, Bobby has “special” qualities which the vampire council is dying—er, very anxious to get their hands on.

Fangtastic launches right into the action one week after the conclusion of ReVamped, during which the young vampire team have been recuperating with spa treatments and pedicures (well, Gina and her friend Marcy, at least, Bobby not so much). They’re yanked out of their R&R by news reports of a grisly multiple murder of a family in Tampa, Florida. The Feds who “handle” the young vampires tell them that the chief suspect in the murders is a seventeen-year-old high school student who hangs out with the “vampire community” in the area.

By that, they don’t mean undead vampires like Gina, but, as one Fed explains, “people who behave like vampires—both energy vampires and bloodsuckers with prosthetic fangs” who frequent a Goth club in Tampa. The twist is that the club itself is owned and run by real vampires, the ones who are so interested in Gina and Bobby. The Feds tell the V-team that they have two objectives: catch the perpetrators of the murder, and infiltrate the group of vampires running the club. To do both, their plan is to have Gina get in to see the vampires and promise them that she’ll persuade Bobby to join them if they’ll cooperate with her.

In short order (no offense intended to five-foot-tall Gina), the team and their “handlers” are all down in Tampa, with false names and identities and a rockin’ Goth wardrobe to get into the club. Gina quickly hits it off with some of the “human vampires,” but within minutes she’s been spotted by the real vamps thanks to not showing up on security cameras. She makes her scripted proposal only to wind up locked in a cell in the club basement.

The plot from here is almost as complicated as the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and readers are advised to stay alert. You probably won’t be surprised that the Feds end up not being what they seem, and the V-Team is in one big world of trouble. They get some help from an unexpected source, however, and Gina discovers some vampire talents that she never realized she had.

Diver mixes some factual detail into her fictional story and obviously did some research. She describes the real-world “vampire community” fairly accurately (at least the clubbing segment of it) and treats it with far more respect than most writers who have tried to do the same thing. She even includes a glossary at the front of the book explaining terms like “Black Veil,” “Sanguines,” “pranic vampires,” “Elder,” and “fledgling.” Since this is a subculture with which I am extremely familiar, I appreciated Diver’s deference to her subject. I didn’t have to wince even once (although I got a chuckle when Gina refers to the Black Veil as “the vampire Magna Carta.” …okay, I admit it’s an in-joke).

The murder that launches the V-Team on their mission was obviously based on the real-world Rod Ferrell case, with a little Charles Manson blood-writing-on-walls thrown in. But the alleged “vampire community” member suspected of the crime is not only repudiated by the entire community, he had already been banished for going off the deep end. Even then, as with several other things in the book, he turns out not to be what everyone assumes.

Although this book, like the first two, is YA, Diver dials up the heat level a bit with more directly suggested (although still off-screen) romantic activity between Gina and Bobby, as well as Marcy and one of the Feds who gets attached to her. While it makes sense for the characters as their relationship evolves, Gina does get just a bit obsessive over Bobby and all his wonderful qualities, and the atmosphere sometimes thickens toward the steamy side.

Fangtastic ends with all the characters and the plot very much in motion. I’m intensely interested to see what happens next.

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Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Dark Shadows: I’m in wait-and-see mode on this one

(Article first published as Why I’ll Wait to See Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows on Blogcritics.)

I’ve followed the long and very slow progress of Johnny Depp’s plans to make a movie based on Dark Shadows with increasing trepidation. I was dismayed, to put it mildly, when Tim Burton came on as director, and suspicious about the lack of early promotion. As photos from the set were leaked and then stills from the film were grudgingly released, my doubts hit the red zone.

When the film trailer finally appeared on March 15, a mere two months before the movie’s opening, I was so appalled that at first I said flat-out that I would never see this movie, ever. When I made that statement on Facebook, the ensuing comments served as the last straw to make me close down my personal Facebook page. I guess I have to admit that I really, really care what happens with a Dark Shadows movie.

Since then, three shorter television spots have moderated the initial impression given by the trailer, and I’ve watched those and the trailer several more times. I’ll probably see Dark Shadows eventually, most likely on Amazon Prime—when it’s on sale. I can wait.

You’re probably wondering: what’s the big deal? Why should anyone care whether a remake of Dark Shadows treats the original fairly? Wasn’t Dark Shadows just a silly, badly-done soap opera with a mealy-mouthed “nice guy” vampire?

No, it wasn’t. It was far more than that.

For all its flaws in execution—mostly fallout from a limited budget and the break-neck, brainstorm speed of daily production—the original Dark Shadows (1966-1971) was an extremely creative and innovative show whose influence on the vampire trope in America, and on horror television and fiction, was enormous and is still very much in effect. Dark Shadows did things that had never been done before, and the fabulous success it enjoyed in its day was earned.

Dark Shadows was the brainchild of producer/director Dan Curtis (who later made the critically acclaimed miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). It premiered in June, 1966 as a daytime serial with a heavy film noir atmosphere. Hollywood actress Joan Bennett starred as the matriarch of the wealthy but thoroughly messed up Collins family in Collinsport, Maine. Full of simmering mysteries around missing persons, blackmail, troubled kids and sinister handymen, the show was no more “supernatural” than Gaslight (which it greatly resembled) until the ratings dropped to desperation levels.

Facing cancellation, the writers tried a Gothic twist and added some ghosts to the storyline. Audiences perked up. Then the show had the prodigal mother of one of the kids turn up. But rather than do the usual nasty divorce and custody battle, one of the writers suggested, “what if she’s really dead?” The mom was made a “phoenix” who was trying to claim her son and burn him alive with her so he would be immortal, too.

With ratings and viewer enthusiasm improving—and the Hammer Films Dracula series at the height of its popularity—the writers decided to try a vampire story, and invented Barnabas Collins. Neither they nor the actor hired to play Barnabas, Jonathan Frid, had the slightest inkling of the phenomenon they were about to unleash.

Barnabas was never intended to be “romantic” or “a good guy vampire.” The writers planned a three-month story arc that basically refitted Dracula to a small town in Maine. Frid signed a twelve-week contract to pay the bills between stage engagements. Barnabas was a stone evil sociopath who kidnapped, held hostage and psychologically tortured a young waitress unlucky enough to resemble his long-lost fiancée (who had committed suicide to escape from him). He was supposed to be staked and his captive rescued at the end of the story arc.

But as soon as the vampire was sprung from his chained coffin in April of 1967, viewers had other ideas. Dark Shadows, and Barnabas Collins, instantly became so thunderously popular, killing off the bloodsucker was out of the question. Not only did Barnabas stay on the show for the next four years, the writers were obliged to “reform” him and make him a somewhat more sympathetic figure. This led to a lengthy flashback to the eighteenth century to show Barnabas’ origin story, a plotline that introduced witchcraft and zombies to the mix.

With that, the show was off the charts—in more ways than one. Witchcraft, demons, ghosts, a Frankenstein creature, a disembodied hand with magic powers, werewolves; the show did versions of every major horror fiction trope, including homages to Poe and Lovecraft, along with multiple time travel segments and an alternate universe sidebar. There was even a nod to the classics with a riff on the Orpheus myth. Some of the show’s former cast speak appreciatively about the opportunities to play multiple characters and/or alternate versions of the same character, an acting challenge rarely found in daytime television. The show’s viewers lapped it up. Dark Shadows was the Twilight of its day, with the somewhat bemused actors buried in love letters from fans, riding in parades and mobbed in public. All this, mind you, long before the Internet, or even cable TV.

I always suspected that Dan Curtis himself hated Barnabas The Good Guy. The character was written inconsistently, often “reverting” to a rather cruel and nasty attitude, especially towards Dr. Julia Hoffman, the middle-aged physician who fell in unrequited love with him. In 1970, Curtis had the “second string” carry the show for a few weeks while he and some of the cast filmed the movie House of Dark Shadows on several locations near New York City. House of Dark Shadows repeats the Barnabas storyline from the show almost verbatim, but with the original planned ending: Barnabas is staked in a gruesome and protracted slow-motion sequence. After the film’s release, Curtis gave an interview to the New York Times in which he described a “fantasy” of inviting the entire Dark Shadows cast to a wrap party at which they would all be slaughtered with crossbows.

As “jokes” go, this was pretty weird, but it was also typical of Curtis. In 1972, he produced a movie based on Jeff Rice’s novel The Night Stalker, about a murderous vampire—he never speaks, just snarls—rampaging through modern-day Las Vegas. It garnered the highest ratings of any made-for-television movie ever. In 1973, Curtis produced a made-for-television version of Dracula whose script added several elements from House of Dark Shadows including, to the fury of Dracula purists, the plotline about the vampire wooing the double of his lost love. After that, reworkings of Dracula in which the master vampire was actually in love with one of the female characters became commonplace. (Now you know who to blame.)

It’s safe to say that without Dark Shadows, the entire vampire genre, fiction and film, would be vastly different today—if it even existed. A list of the show’s original contributions to fictional vampire conventions includes:

  • Barnabas Collins was the first American-born vampire. Until he appeared, fictional vampires were European, modelled on Dracula.
  • Dark Shadows invented the vampire as romantic hero—or rather, its fans did, and the show’s producers, once they got over their stunned astonishment, were smart enough to give the viewers what they wanted.
  • The Barnabas-Josette storyline introduced the quickly adopted and widely imitated theme of the vampire searching for the reincarnation of his lost love. The writers borrowed this plotline from the 1931 Universal film The Mummy.
  • Dark Shadows innovated the vampire as protagonist rather than villain. He was the first vampire whose feelings and motivations the audience cared about.
  • Dark Shadows popularized the notion that a vampire might become human again through medical treatment, an idea first floated in the 1945 Universal film House of Dracula.
  • Barnabas did eventually become the first “angsty” vampire who hates his curse and seeks a “cure,” but this idea was actually borrowed from Universal’s series of “Wolfman” movies starring Lon Chaney Jr. as mopey werewolf Larry Talbot. Anne Rice’s Louis is the direct descendant of both Barnabas Collins and Larry Talbot.

Whatever his ambivalence about Barnabas’ softer side, Dan Curtis maintained rigid control over the rights to the Dark Shadows “brand.” Fan interest in the show remained so strong after its 1971 cancellation, that in 1975 it became the first daytime serial in history to be syndicated for reruns. Annual fan conventions, the Dark Shadows Festivals, began running in the mid-1980s, and the episodes started to be released on commercial videocassette in 1989 and then on DVD in 2002.

In 1990, Dan Curtis revived Dark Shadows as a prime-time drama starring Ben Cross as Barnabas and repeating the same basic storyline that had now been filmed twice, on the original show and in House of Dark Shadows. The reboot sputtered along for twelve episodes and was cancelled. In 2004, the pilot for a second revival of the show was filmed but never aired. I was actually hired to help write a role-playing game based on Dark Shadows in 1998, but after we finished the project, it was shelved because the game publisher wasn’t able to get the necessary licenses from Dan Curtis’ production company.

Dan Curtis died in 2006, and one year later, Warner Brothers acquired the Dark Shadows film rights from his estate for Johnny Depp, who said publicly that he’d watched the show as a kid and had always wanted to play Barnabas Collins. After a Writer’s Guild strike, a change of screenwriters, and several postponements by Depp as he took on other projects, the Dark Shadows movie began filming in May, 2011. It was four months before fans saw any “official” photos of the production, and only after leaked snapshots from the set aroused unfavorable comment on the Internet.

Even the most die-hard fans of Dark Shadows enjoyed it for very different reasons. I fell into the category of viewers who forgave and disregarded the shortcomings in order to focus on the stories and characters. Other fans were entertained by the show’s excesses and errors, but I was not. It’s important to remember that Dark Shadows was never deliberately “campy” or a self-conscious spoof. It took itself completely seriously, even when it ramped up the melodrama with what cast member Lara Parker called “the Dark Shadows style” of overwrought line delivery. People who call Dark Shadows “campy” are projecting their own opinion onto the show and missing the point.

When I attended some of the Dark Shadows Fests in the 80s, I met a lot of fans who were doing wildly satirical skits making fun of the show, or assembling homemade “blooper reels” of all the muffs and blunders that were aired as-is because the show couldn’t afford the time or money for retakes. While I laughed along with most of it (indeed, I performed in some of the skits with the “Collinsport Players” troupe), I found it somewhat annoying.

I yearned for a remake of Dark Shadows that would take advantage of a bigger budget, better technology and more leisurely shooting schedule to develop the dramatic core of the characters and their dilemmas. I wanted to see the implausibilities ironed out, the historical and factual mistakes corrected and the characters allowed to evolve into real three-dimensional people. In short, I didn’t want Dark Shadows merely to be replicated, I wanted to see it improved.

But I was always disappointed. House of Dark Shadows and the 1991 revival of the show slavishly repeated the inanities of the original’s lowest points. In many ways they were even more implausible and risible than their source, and mostly seemed interested in drenching the screen with blood and angst.

I was cautiously optimistic about Johnny Depp’s interest in the new film version. Until recent years, I was a great admirer of Depp, and I couldn’t imagine him donning fake fangs and playing all the stupid vampire movie clichés. But my optimism was sucker-punched when Tim Burton assumed the director’s mantle. Of all the directors in Hollywood, Burton would have been the last on my list to helm a Dark Shadows movie. He’s simply too affected, stylized and self-conscious—all the traits that would automatically turn something like Dark Shadows into a post-modern parody. I’ve enjoyed a few of Burton’s films, Sleepy Hollow in particular, but always with qualifications. I absolutely loathed Sweeney Todd.

I know that it’s not fair to judge a film on the basis of five minutes of fast-cut footage in trailers. Trailers can be deceptive. It’s not uncommon for film trailers to contain footage that doesn’t even appear in the movie, and often the final score isn’t ready so the trailer uses other studio-owned music. But the trailer and TV spots for Dark Shadows, along with the publicity photos, would have to be extremely misleading indeed to completely falsify a few general impressions.

The first obvious problem is the way the film laboriously recreates the superficial visual appearance of the original show, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious that the movie aims to poke fun at “the Dark Shadows style” in set design and costumes, as well as the silly, silly 1970s and how ridiculous everyone supposedly looked and acted. Ideally, a recreated Dark Shadows would go back to its original premises and invent its own completely new style fitting the characters and story. This picayune attention to surface appearance suggests satire, not drama.

The action and dialogue we see is heavily slanted toward sight gags, silly vampire jokes, pokes at other vampire movies, and snappy one-liners that sound like they should be punctuated with rim-shots. We see Barnabas brushing his fangs with only the toothbrush (but not his clothes) reflecting in the mirror. We see Barnabas hanging upside down from his canopy bed (shades of The Lost Boys), clinging headdown to the outside of a window (like Frank Langella in the 1979 Dracula) and popping straight upright from his coffin (like Gary Oldman in the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula). It appears that the movie is going to be one long series of vampire-related nudges and winks. I know there’s something in there about sparkles or glitter. I’ll just be waiting for it.

Depp’s makeup is inconsistent; sometimes he looks scruffier, in other shots he looks like he’s wearing a painted fondant mask made by the Cake Boss. Sometimes he’s wearing bright red lipstick and sometimes he’s not. There may be an explanation for this, but Depp seems to favor heavy, cartoonish makeup these days, and it simply makes him look like he’s playing the same character in movie after movie.

On repeated viewings, I can see some evidence of a plot, one that might even have elements of actual drama. But that’s not what the trailer and TV spots are selling. Just what they are selling is somewhat mystifying. To make matters even more confusing, in late February, Horrorhound magazine printed an interview with Tim Burton, asking him about rumors that the movie would be humorous. (Some of these “rumors” came from cast member Helena Bonham Carter’s offhand comment to an interviewer that “hopefully it will be funny.”) Burton said, “It’s news to me… I always start things with the most serious of intentions,” and also said he “wanted to rely on the characters.” Just weeks later, the trailer was released, giving Dark Shadows every appearance of an over-the-top comedy.

My preferences aside, the real issue with making a satire of Dark Shadows is this: No one is going to get the joke. People like me who remember watching the old show may not appreciate its being lampooned. But the vast majority of movie-goers won’t have the slightest idea what’s supposed to be so funny. Maybe that’s why the movie throws in so many digs at other vampire films. But as far as the original Dark Shadows is concerned, a joke that has to be explained is no longer amusing, and hence pointless.

The Dark Shadows movie raises the general question of what derivative works owe to their sources. Is it fair to appropriate a solidly established work and not only change it beyond all recognition, but do so in a way that completely reverses the tone and intent of the original? Parody and satire are only sporting when they aim upwards, poking the inflated importance and egos of the successful, wealthy and powerful. Turn those guns down at something utterly defenseless and mostly forgotten, and it’s no longer satire. It’s just bullying.

It’s possible that the trailers are misleading, that the studio PR department was so baffled as to how to market this movie that they tried hard to make it look sillier than it plays. The fact that there’s been so little “buzz” before now—for a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp vampire movie?—suggests tremendous uncertainty among the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers. I don’t want to speculate further. We’ll find out in May.

(Addendum: Since this article was first published, a fourth TV spot has been released, with a slightly different style and a voice-over narration; and sample clips from the film score album by Danny Elfman have been made available. The CD may be pre-ordered. MTV commented on the downright confusing disparity between the music, which is wonderful, and the impression given by the trailer and TV spots.

Danny Elfman is a consummate professional who led the successful fight for studios to release “score” albums of a film’s music as well as ersatz “soundtracks” of pop songs. He’s worked on many films with Tim Burton, and he would never consciously misrepresent a movie’s intended mood, tone and atmosphere. His score for Dark Shadows is reminiscent of the original show’s distinctive music by the also superb composer, Robert Cobert, and doesn’t contain even a tiny hint of whimsy or silliness (compared to, say, his score for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.)

This supports comments such as the tweet from cast member Chloe Moretz’ stepbrother which hint that the trailers really do misrepresent the movie and Dark Shadows will be far more dramatic, dark and serious than it appears. If that’s true, I’ll be happier, but I can’t help wondering what Warner Brothers is thinking. By creating misleading promo, they’re alienating the old-time fans, while those who go to the film expecting a farcical satire will feel cheated. I don’t think Burton actually has a lot of control over the promotional campaign that the studio pursues. But he’s done one thing right, at least: I’ve already pre-ordered the film score CD.)


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Book Review: ReVamped by Lucienne Diver

(Article first published as Book Review: ReVamped by Lucienne Diver on Blogcritics.)

I wasn’t overly impressed by Lucienne Diver’s first YA fantasy novel, Vamped (Flux/Llewellyn, 2009). I felt that it parroted too many hip teen clichés á là Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which it greatly resembled. I also thought it woefully lacking in character development, even for first-person narrator Gina Covella. Nevertheless, I thought Diver had potential as a writer and I was interested to see how her next few books evolved.

I’m very pleased to say that ReVamped (Flux/Llewellyn, 2010), the sequel to Vamped, is a great improvement over its predecessor.

At the conclusion of Vamped, Gina and her surviving compatriots have gone “out of the frying pan into the fire.” They’ve escaped the plots of the scheming vampire queen Mellisande and the stern vampire council, only to run smack into a covert federal agency that somehow is on to (and on top of) the whole underground-supernatural-network thing. As ReVamped opens, Gina and her young vampire friends are now involuntary recruits as supernatural secret agents for Uncle Sam. Among the perks keeping them cooperative are some top secret scientific discoveries to help them function, like drugs enabling them to resist sunlight, not to mention the free supply of bottled blood.

Having been rigorously trained (see “Gina’s Rules for Surviving Secret Spy School Training,” page ix), Gina, her main squeeze Bobby and former-jock-turned-minion Rick are sent on their first undercover mission. To investigate mysterious incidents among the high school students in Wappingers Falls, New York, the vamp-spies are enrolled in high school—but don’t worry. They agree with you on this one. “By sixth period, I was cursing the Feds with every fiber of my being. What good was eternal life if you had to spend it in school?” Gina fulminates on page 18. Even worse, Midwestern fashionista Gina has to cringe behind the fully-formed façade of an emancipated Goth girl named Geneva Belfry.

As it turns out, she doesn’t spend too much time in school, because by then, no one in Wappingers Falls does. As one of the Goth crowd Gina rapidly bonds with says, “New school policy. Attendance is kind of optional.” That’s part of what the spy team is there to investigate, of course. Bouncing around with the Goths in a garishly decorated hearse, going to make-out spots and concerts, getting into fights and very rarely, going to class, Gina slowly sorts out clues toward solving the riddle of why kids in Wappingers Falls are acting weird, disappearing and turning up dead. It all turns out to have more connection to some of her previous adventures than she’d expected.

Gina herself is far more likeable in this book. She’s more vulnerable, more complex, and more sympathetic, while being far less snarky, shallow and hip. Other characters are drawn more clearly as well. The adult figures, especially the pair of Federal agents who supervise the teen spies, are no longer uniformly incompetent, and the teens respect them more, even if Gina still has a few smart-ass nicknames for them. The plot keeps you guessing, and has a few twists that I didn’t see coming.

The one detail that kind of mystified me, though, was on page 10: “Wappingers Falls’ big claim to fame, Bobby’d told me with glee, was that it was mentioned in some Law and Order episodes as a place where suspects or their families lived.” Uh—really? Diver lives in New York and never heard of Tawana Brawley? For a while in 1987, if you asked a random person on the street in any other state to name two cities in New York, they’d probably answer New York City and Wappingers Falls. But maybe Diver just didn’t want to evoke such a large topic in her small novel (especially an event that happened before her target audience was born).

ReVamped is a fun, fluffy read, and despite Gina’s fierce fondness for Bobby, it completely avoids the mawkish teen girl moping and yearning that characterize too many paranormal YA books. I hope Lucienne Diver has more stories to tell about Gina, Bobby, Rick and their adventures in the supernatural secret service. She’s blossoming as a writer in a most enjoyable way.

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vampire community chat

November 2009 Global Vampire Community Discussion

Hosted By Voices of the Vampire Community (VVC)

Global Vampire Community Discussion on Sunday, November 29, 2009 @ 7:00 PM Eastern US/ET (11:00 PM GMT). If you need assistance with time conversions refer to: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/cgi-bin/tzc.tzc The discussion will be held in the IRC channel #vampirevoices on Dalnet.

Topic: The Spiritual Side Of Vampirism

If you have the ability to install or use an IRC client (a program used to connect to an IRC server) to access the discussion, please do so. If you don’t have an irc client already installed on your machine, two popular clients are mIRC (http://www.mirc.com/) and xchat (http://www.xchat.org/ or http://www.silverex.org/news/).

If you do not have the ability to access IRC another way, you can access the discussion by going to http://tiny.cc/vampirevoices and entering your desired Username, then clicking “Connect”. Please be aware that Dalnet limits the number of people who can connect via the browser-based chat, so if you have another option for connecting, we strongly encourage you to not use the browser-based system.

For anyone who has an IRC Client, use irc.dal.net or another dalnet server (http://www.dal.net/servers/) and join #vampirevoices

Please help spread the word to all those you know in the vampire community. The channel (#vampirevoices) is always open so feel free to drop by anytime you wish. We hope to see everyone there!

– Voices of the Vampire Community (VVC)

http://www.veritasvosliberabit.com/vvc.html

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Book Review: Destined for an Early Grave by Jeaniene Frost

Numerous authors are benefitting from the huge spike in vampire popularity since 2005 when Twilight broad-jumped onto the New York Times best-seller lists and took over YA fiction in one fell swoop. Carried along in the slipstream of Stephenie Meyer’s juggernaut are a variety of thriving paranormal romance or urban fantasy series featuring female protagonists involved with vampire boyfriends or lovers. Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series is typical of these. Destined for an Early Grave is the fourth book in a story arc that began in October, 2007 with Halfway to the Grave and continued with One Foot in The Grave (April 2008) and At Grave’s End (January 2009). The titles are available only in mass market paperback or Kindle editions and are being released about six months apart. Frost says on her website that she plans to do seven or eight books in this storyline, but she’s already begun a spin-off series starring secondary characters from the Night Huntress novels.

Frost’s universe and novels owe more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Twilight. The first book in the Night Huntress series introduces Catherine, or Cat, Crawford, who hunts and kills vampires out of sympathy for her mother, who hates vampires fervently. To her shock, Cat had finally learned that she is a half-vampire herself, born after her mother was tricked by a bloodsucking seducer, and her ultimate goal is to find and kill her undead father. As a rare “hybrid,” Cat has a number of extraordinary abilities, mostly related to enhanced senses, strength and agility. These don’t help her escape capture by a vampire bounty hunter, Bones, who trains her to assist him. Cat is pulled deep into a supernatural underground that includes vampires, demons, ghosts and ghouls, a government task force keeping the paranormal critters under control, elaborate inter-species politics and a great deal of manipulative conniving. Amid all the adventure, Cat and Bones become lovers, and then “blood bond,” which is the vampire subculture’s equivalent of permanent, monogamous marriage.

Destined for an Early Grave picks up the story when Cat and Bones are recuperating from their last adventure and planning a romantic get-away to Paris. But Cat is having disturbing dreams in which she’s chased by vampire named Gregor who keeps insisting that Cat isn’t really “married” to Bones. Cat starts to realize that a highly significant period of her past has somehow been erased from her memory, and something from that past has now returned to make some major claims on her. Soon Cat, Bones, and other members of the vampire subculture are all collaborating—more or less—to deal with Gregor’s schemes for Cat.

As the fourth book in a series with a tight story arc, Destined for an Early Grave devotes a high percentage of text to explanations of events, characters and relationships established in the previous three volumes. As I mentioned in my review of P.N. Elrod’s Dark Road Rising, authors can be faced with tricky decisions about background information when writing a tightly plotted multi-book series. Frost does a bit too much explaining, slowing her narrative down and making me impatient. But this isn’t the only reason that I feel the current book lacks substance. The entire plot of Destined for an Early Grave revolves around only one real conflict: the crisis in Cat’s and Bones’ relationship precipitated by an aggressive element from her past. Cat bounces around from ally to ally and hiding place to hiding place, but very little actually happens beyond Cat’s unraveling the convoluted truth about Gregor’s claim on her, and repairing her strained relationship with Bones. In order to care enough about Cat’s personal issues to stay involved with the story, a reader has to care a lot about Cat as a character, and I found that difficult. As is often the case with these series, Cat is too much of a “Mary Sue” character. She’s stunningly beautiful, unique, gifted with special powers and abilities, maneuvers skillfully in a world of ancient immortals and god-like supernatural beings, and everyone who sees her loves and desires her (even ghosts). Her falling out with Bones leaves her with a number of alternative friends and would-be lovers with whom to take refuge, and her chief worry is that Bones will be jealous, driving them further apart.

On a more serious note, several aspects of the characters and their relationships disturbed me. While I was reading Destined for an Early Grave, I was also involved in a discussion of the Twilight Saga and whether it models an “unhealthy” or abusive dynamic for young teen couples, as many critics of Meyer’s series claim. But if Twilight’s Edward Cullen is “controlling,” he has nothing on Bones, Vlad, Gregor and the other male antagonists in the Night Huntress world. Cat is locked up, bodily carried around, abducted, refused information, lied to, manipulated, and threatened with death, and for the most part, forgives all of it without a qualm. The only thing that distinguishes her from a ravished heroine in a bodice-ripper romance is that she’s tough, has powers and is capable of killing and beating up nasty critters, but she’s still pushed around and controlled by the men in her life (there are almost no women, besides her embittered mother). In personality, Bones constantly reminded me of Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. He seems to spend a lot of Destined for an Early Grave clenching his teeth as he rigidly suppresses his violent emotions. This is not a relationship dynamic that appeals to me, although I realize that most romance readers—and Twilight fans—have no issues with it.

Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series is easily digestible entertainment that doesn’t demand much from its readers. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Vampire: the Masquerade will find Frost’s universe comfortably familiar, and will probably enjoy her series.

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Graphic Novel Review: Dusk by David Doub

Dusk (2009) is a self-published graphic novel written by David Doub and illustrated by four different artists, three on pencils and two doing inks. Although the story and concepts are interesting, the execution is uneven and falls short of the creators’ ambitions. Drawn in the heavily chiaroscuro style typical of black and white comic art in general, the art does not always serve the story or the reader in the ways that it needs to.

The book consists of four stand-alone stories that are not obviously sequential in either narrative or timeline. In Chapter One, we meet Eve, an “enhanced” human who works for a vampire named Ash. Ash is a benevolent if somewhat avuncular figure whose interest in Eve seems wholly paternal. Eve herself acts in the capacity of a slayer or enforcer, à la Buffy or Anita Blake: petite and feminine (and appearing younger than her years, according to dialogue in Chapter Three) but able to kick plenty of butt. She is addicted to drinking small amounts of vampire blood, which in Doub’s universe apparently doesn’t turn a human into a vampire in and of itself. Ash reluctantly supplies her with blood, but it’s unclear whether this elixir is responsible for her powers or not. In Chapter One, Eve is sent to track down a rogue vampire, with unhappy results.

Chapter Two shows us more of Eve’s history, current living situation with Ash and past relationships. Ten years ago, she fled an abusive husband only to fall into the clutches of an evil vampire who enslaved her. I found the ending of this story rather touching, but it mostly serves as a retrospective on Eve herself. I wish we could have learned more about her experiences with her evil master, Van Kraken, and what happened to him. I really wanted to know more about Ash’s “business trip” somewhere deep “beneath the Swiss Alps” (where he still has cell phone service).

In Chapter Three, Eve joins forces with another mortal hunter to stop a rogue vampire. We get more hints here about the vampire subculture which Eve and Ash apparently serve, but very few details.

In a story quite different from the previous three, Chapter Four deals with a bullied high school student who dabbles in black magic. Here, Eve displays a gift for the magical arts as she tries to stop the student from pulling a Carrie on his high school tormentors.

Artist Maki Naro (inks by Chris Scott) makes the most creative use of layout and composition in Chapters One and Two. However, sometimes creativity interferes with comprehension, and it’s a little hard to follow what’s going on. This is especially true in a couple of the action/fight sequences. The panels tend to have too much solid black, so that the black overwhelms the imagery rather than highlighting it by contrast.

Chapter Three, with pencils and ink by Jerry Gonzales, almost lost me completely. The art is a muddled mess, with characters who are indistinguishable from each other and long action sequences in which I couldn’t figure out what the heck is going on. Blasting guns don’t translate well to static graphics for panel after panel. Whole panels of dialogue are in unelucidated Italian or German, as well, and I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty in those languages. I’d have appreciated subtitles.

I’m glad I kept reading, however, because Chapter Four is the best of the book. Artist Franc Czuba (inks by Chris Scott) does a fine job here, albeit with a slightly jarring inconsistency with the interpretations of the characters in the previous three chapters. By the time I got to the very end of Dusk, which is not paginated, and saw Czuba’s “Eve/Ash cover” full page graphic, I thought, “Wow. If only the whole book was that good!” I have no idea why Doub used multiple artists for this short work, or how he selected them, but he definitely did not get uniform results.

To the extent that I could tell from the stories, Doub’s fictional universe is intriguing, and I’d like to learn more about it. Ash is an interesting character, and Eve herself is complex and multi-layered. The vampire protocols avoid cliché and establish some refreshing new conventions, and I’d love to have seen more explanations and details (and less gunfire for panel after panel). Doub is planning a second volume, and I hope that the artwork improves in consistency and clarity. I see a lot of potential in Dusk and its characters, and they deserve further development. Readers can keep updated on Doub’s work at his page on Comicspace.com.

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Book Review: Dark Road Rising by P.N. Elrod

The field of 21st century vampire fiction is crammed with prolific and enthusiastic authors, most of them female and nearly all of them having published their first vampire story after the year 2000. Every one of them owes a large debt to the handful of authors who have been publishing vampire novels for decades, and who now have to fight for attention in the genre they helped to define.

Texas author P.N. Elrod is among the bona fide “ancestors” of such up-to-the-moment pop culture superstars as Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris. Elrod has been publishing vampire fiction since 1990 and has created several memorable and varied vampire protagonists, including the 18th century American Tory Jonathan Barrett, the ruthless despot Strahd, and Elrod’s revisionist take on Bram Stoker’s Quincey Morris.

But Elrod’s most complex and affecting character is Jack Fleming, a 1930s Chicago journalist who falls afoul of the Chicago Mob and is murdered—and subsequently embarks on the misadventures detailed in the Vampire Files series. Launched by Ace in 1990 with Bloodlist, the next five books of the series (Lifeblood, Bloodcircle, Art in the Blood, Fire in the Blood and Blood on the Water) shot off the presses within two years as mass market paperbacks. They shrank behind the laughable cover art typical of pulp vampire novels at the time (depicting a long-nailed, white faced ghoul with fangs hanging down to his chin like walrus tusks), but the quality of the books themselves attracted the attention of reviewers and serious vampire fans.

At that time, Anne Rice was the reigning queen of vampire fiction and her mass-murderous, utterly inhuman vampires defined the trope. Jack Fleming fit into a different and far more authentic model. Like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain, Fleming retained a conscience and a connection to humanity, and he didn’t need to kill humans to survive. In fact, he tried to avoid preying on humans at all, and became a nocturnal habitué of the Chicago stockyards for his fresh meals. In the first book, Fleming is befriended by an English actor-turned-private-detective named Charles Escott, who offers the newborn vampire a badly needed job. But Fleming’s unlife is complicated by the fact that he can’t untangle himself from his connections to the organized crime network in Chicago—the harder he tries, the deeper he seems to get. It doesn’t help that he falls in love with a singer and former mobster’s moll, Bobbi Smythe, or that several of his best friends are gangsters, including African-American Shoe Coldfield.

In 1998, the series resumed with A Chill in the Blood, but now Ace was releasing the titles in hardcover editions first, and they appeared at much longer intervals. From Book 7 on, the novels form a very tight story arc, each successive volume continuing the narrative from the previous books with scarcely a beat pause. Dark Road Rising (Ace: September 1, 2009) is the twelfth in the series, and readers have been waiting four years since the initial release of Number 11, Song in the Dark.

Dark Road Rising opens a few minutes after the ending of Song in the Dark, with Fleming driving Gabriel “Whitey” Kroun, one of the few other vampires he’s met since his own turning, to a safe place where Kroun can recover from the violent events that concluded the previous book. Fleming has been recovering himself from the aftereffects of severe trauma following his brutal torture by a gangland thug in Cold Streets, book 10 of the series. Some of his vampire powers, such as the ability to hypnotize others, have been lost or sharply curtailed, and Fleming has no idea how to heal himself or whether he even can. He is therefore very interested in the fact that Kroun lacks some of Fleming’s gifts, such as the capacity for dematerializing, which Kroun attributes to the fact that his death left him with a bullet permanently lodged in his skull.

There are other differences between the two, but most intriguing to Fleming is the fact that Kroun has no memory at all of how he was “infected” by vampirism or what kind of life he had before he awakened in his grave. While Dark Road Rising does advance some of the characters’ stories slightly, it focuses principally on Kroun’s efforts to unravel the mysteries of his own identity and how he came to be dead and a vampire. Kroun appears to know things about vampires that Fleming does not, but he doesn’t share Fleming’s driving need to learn more about what he knows and how he learned it. As Kroun persists in tracking down ever more disturbing clues about his past, Fleming’s own recent history sneaks up behind him and catches him while he’s preoccupied with Kroun.

Because of the strong focus on Kroun and his story, Dark Road Rising is structured differently than any of the preceding books in the series. Elrod favors the first person point of view, but all her previous books have been narrated by their protagonist. Dark Road Rising features a dual first person narrative, with chapters alternating between Fleming and Kroun. This device was used by Adrienne Barbeau and Michael Scott in Vampyres of Hollywood, but I think Elrod pulls it off much more successfully. The two narrative voices are more distinctive in Dark Road Rising, although I tend to feel that first person narrative is very limiting for an author.

Dark Road Rising is the best book yet in the Vampire Files series, further developing the numerous complex characters and taking us, once again, into some very rough territory. My sole criticism is that I found the story a little difficult to follow. I used to grumble that the early Vampire Files novels spent too much time reiterating basic facts and past events in each book, for the benefit of those readers “just tuning in.” Elrod has definitely overcome that tendency. Unfortunately, she has now swung a bit too far in the other direction, especially given the fact that the last few books have been released several years apart. Dark Road Rising assumes that the readers will have read Lady Crymsyn, Cold Streets and Song in the Dark and remember them all in great detail. It continues all the story threads without explaining them even briefly, and there isn’t a way to quickly look up the Cliff Notes version and refresh one’s memory. Given that Song in the Dark was published four years ago, and that the series has evolved a large cast of characters and a complicated tapestry of plot, just a little backing-and-filling in Dark Road Rising would have been very helpful.

Despite this caveat, I highly and enthusiastically recommend Dark Road Rising. Jack Fleming is a “good guy vampire” but these are not romantic stories. Elrod doesn’t flinch from gritty details, or the kind of brutal violence that you’d expect from the series milieu, 1930s Chicago. The supernatural elements—vampires and at least one ghost—are treated with matter-of-fact respect, as Elrod emphasizes character and plot rather than gimmickry and camp.

It’s hard to say whether the Vampire Files series will continue. The first six books have been reissued in a two-volume omnibus edition. A new signed and numbered Jack Fleming novella, The Devil You Know, is currently available for order exclusively on Elrod’s website. Fleming also appears in an occasional short story.

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Book Review: Vamped by Lucienne Diver

From the very first page, Vamped suffused me with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I have all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD. Vamped is like watching an eighth season of Buffy. I could almost hear the soundtrack music in the background. The fashion-obsessed Cosmo Girl ‘tude of the heroine, the perfectly coifed and gowned Evil Villainess in designer spike heels, the creepy cannibal guy with the weird speech patterns, the geek who turns out to be amazingly cool…it’s all so strangely familiar.

Gina Covella wakes up in her coffin six feet underground and immediately deduces that she’s a vampire. (“Okay, there was only one way I knew to wake up dead—well, two, but I didn’t feel like a flesh-eating zombie.”) It’s never clear why this is a natural conclusion for Gina to form—most people would spend just a bit longer in denial. She claws her way to the surface (right through her coffin lid), where her trauma is instantly alleviated by the sight of bright red Macy’s shopping bags. Bobby, the geek who nibbled her neck at the senior prom and “infected” her so she awakens undead after a fatal car accident, has shown up to meet her in the cemetery. He’s brought new clothes, which was prescient of him, because Gina’s top concerns are her bedraggled appearance, the white eyelet lace dress she was buried in and the fact that she can’t see her reflection. When Bobby says that they need to stop at the mall “for a quick bite,” Gina insists on heading for the salon so she can turn her stylist.

The stylist gets away, and so do Gina and Bobby when a gang of thugs raiding the sporting goods store recognize them. The next day, the thugs capture Bobby and Gina and take them to the well-appointed luxury lair of vampire arch-villainess Mellisande. There we learn that Bobby’s unexplained death and turning has caught everyone by surprise, and he’s something special. A mysterious blue gem emits dazzling light when he’s near it. Gina is spared only because Bobby objects to her being harmed, and she ends up locked in a cell in the basement while Bobby stays with the big shots, and remains mostly off-screen.

One of the sporting goods store gang turns out to be Rick Lopez, the jock buddy of Gina’s cloddish ex-boyfriend. Rick’s status has devolved from sidekick to minion, and he sneaks into Gina’s cell to offer her an exchange: he’ll help her get away if she’ll turn him. Instead, Gina tricks Rick and locks him in the cell. To her great surprise, she discovers that a large number of her high school classmates have all been turned into vampires and are bunking down together in a concrete-walled dormitory in Mellisande’s basement. None of them seem unhappy about their changed state, and one girl tells Gina that becoming undead has freed her from a lifetime of crippling asthma. When Gina encounters one of her best friends among the vamped teens, it’s only a few minutes before they’re both squealing, “Makeover!”

Gina is allowed to stay with the other teen vampires, largely due to the influence of Bobby, who apparently has impressive powers and some connection to a “prophecy.” (Echoes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once more—every season revolved around some “ancient prophecy.”). She gradually figures out that she and the other teens have all become part of a larger vampire subculture and a tangled scheme of Mellisande’s. Being the heroine of a YA novel, Gina takes charge and interferes with the plans of all the tiresome old fogies (i.e. the centuries-old vampire Elders)—but she’s got a few big surprises waiting for her.

Vamped is written in the first person from Gina’s point of view, and the narration has all the usual disadvantages of that limited voice. Gina is so hip, flippant, and self-involved, we never get a detailed sense of who she is as a character (except that there’s not much to her). Most of the supporting cast are little more than cardboard cutouts, not even blessed with names. Gina refers to various assistants in Mellisande’s camp by labels like “Hawkman,” “Thing One,” “Sparky,” and “Chickzilla,” while she gives Mellisande a variety of rude nicknames, such as “Melli-noma.” A vampire second-in-command is actually named Connor, but he’s such a cipher, I couldn’t remember who he was when he put in a second appearance, and had to page back through the book to check. All of this makes the action hard to follow, and that’s a problem because the book has a lot of action. The story is fast-paced and zips along like telephone poles past a commuter train window.

I grant that it’s only my personal taste that leaves me unimpressed by vain, shallow, shopping-obsessed Gina. But I can’t help wondering if the target audience for this story will really find it that amusing. The young women I know who are high school age have far more serious concerns than what their hair and clothes look like, and their eyes don’t glaze over at the sight of a Macy’s bag. Vamped is completely devoid of the crushing adolescent angst that gave Buffy the Vampire Slayer such melodramatic authenticity. On June 6, 2009, a Wall Street Journal article discussed the popularity of grim, gritty themes in YA fiction—a trend that goes back at least a decade, according to this July, 2000 article in the New York Times. I have difficulty imagining that many young adult readers will relate to the characters in Vamped. Isn’t this Valley Girl thing like, just so 1990s? Well…given the explosion of “vampire chick-lit” for adult readers, maybe not.

Lucienne Diver is a literary agent, and Vamped isn’t a bad book. It lacks originality, but it’s nicely written. I look forward to seeing Diver do something a little less trendy. If you enjoy light satirical fantasy like Mary Janice Davidson’s “Queen Betsy” series, you’ll probably appreciate Vamped. It isn’t my cuppa, but that’s not a crime.

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I’ll be giving a talk on June 4th

I’ll be appearing at The Rabbit Hole bookstore in Fitchburg, Massachusetts on June 4th, giving a talk and slide show about vampire fiction. Click the link below for more details.

“Before Twilight: How Vampires Got to Be So Hot”

Everyone is welcome!

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Book Review: The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

There are many fans of vampire fiction who have never heard of Tim PowersThe Stress of Her Regard. Powers, like Stephen King (Salem’s Lot) and Suzy McKee Charnas (The Vampire Tapestry) is not a “vampire author.” His oeuvre is a style of fantasy known as “secret history.” Powers begins with real life people and events and weaves alternate versions of their “official” stories, suggesting unknown, and usually magical or occult, influences at work behind the recorded facts. Powers is one of the original authors whose style inspired the “steampunk” genre which has become so popular, and which naturally overlaps with a great deal of vampire fiction set in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

But Tim Powers’ work defies easy categorization, and in many ways fits the newly recognized realm of Instititial Arts: creative work that combines, transcends or falls between standardized genre definitions. The Stress of Her Regard (reissue edition 2008, Tachyon Publications) is fantasy, horror, literary fiction, historical fiction and vampire novel all at the same time. Originally published in 1989, at the beginning of a massive revival in vampire fiction, it’s unquestionably one of the most unusual vampire tales written in the last six decades.

This is a literary novel in the classic sense: long, leisurely, meticulously crafted, and full of allusions to literature and cultural motifs. The plot spans six years and multiple countries, although the story, altogether, forms a sweeping epic beginning at the dawn of time. Powers never drops big expository boulders on his readers’ heads, though–the complicated mystery of the lamia, or Nephelim, whose “regard” for their beloved victims is so destructive, unwinds bit by bit as the tale progresses. Readers will need to pay attention and keep a good memory for small details, because even the tiniest may be an important clue.

The story opens in 1816, introducing Powers’ alternate universe versions of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont. They’re in Switzerland on the lakeside summer get-away that so famously resulted in the penning of Frankenstein and “The Vampyre” by Mary Godwin and Polidori, respectively. However, it becomes apparent that Shelley’s greatest concerns aren’t literary. Twice he’s thrown into a panic by the appearance of a powerful, and evidently malign, phantom figure that resembles a woman. Shelley is being pursued by something very persistent, and he seems prepared to die rather than be overwhelmed by it.

We meet the book’s central protagonist, Dr. Michael Crawford, as he travels with several inebriated friends to his second wedding. Crawford, in his 30s, has a past marred by several deaths. Before long we have hints that the loss of his first wife in a fire occurred under suspicious circumstances, and that bitter memories are the least of the evils haunting her widower. When the wedding party stops at an inn, Crawford makes an unthinking mistake. He places his fiancée’s wedding ring on the finger of what he believes is a statue while he assists one of his friends. He loses the ring when the statue first changes position, then disappears. Like Victor in Tim Burton’s film The Corpse Bride, Crawford has unwittingly given Something Else reason to think he’s married to it.

The wedding takes place as planned, but the following morning, Crawford awakens next to the lifeless body of his bride Julia, who has been crushed to a pulp while Crawford slept. To avoid certain conviction for murder, Crawford flees. Disguising himself as a medical student in London, he meets John Keats. It’s Keats who explains the Nephelim, or lamia, to Crawford: an ancient race of vampires who attach themselves to selected individuals and jealously destroy their families and anyone else who might compete with the vampire for its loved one’s affections. The lamia’s feeding, through either blood-drinking or sex, conveys unearthly erotic euphoria. Keats introduces Crawford to the global underground network of lamia-addicts, or “Neffers” who will do anything to attract an encounter with a vampire. Like the slaves of Shambleau in C.L. Moore’s short story, the Neffers are recognizable and despised, but they’re also a tight community, like an organized secret society.

The Nephelim are able to bestow artistic inspiration on their chosen partners, and it turns out that all of the Romantic poets in The Stress of Her Regard are their reluctant bridegrooms. Crawford leaves England for the Continent, tracked relentlessly by Julia’s vengeful twin sister, Josephine. He encounters Shelley and Byron in Switzerland and all three embark on a long journey, together and independently, to escape the Nephelim. Over time, Crawford gradually learns the history of the Nephelim, why they have a physical nature of stone and metal, how they came to walk the modern world as part humans, and how they cause human dead to return as “undead” vampires. Crawford’s medical specialty, obstetrics, will turn out to be uniquely suited to resolving his situation. Byron, meanwhile, joins the Carbonari, a group that history claims was devoted to Italian nationalism, but which, in this story, has a hidden role as resisters of the Nephelim and their predation.

The Stress of Her Regard brilliantly twists fantasy together with historical fact, and many details that sound like horror fiction are actually true. The original characters of Crawford and Josephine, whose rejection of her own identity leaves her vulnerable to the wiles of the lamia, are strongly drawn, complex and memorable. Powers’ framing of a vast, mysterious conspiracy, with ancient supernatural powers, hidden riddles and secret societies, rivals anything written by Umberto Eco, let alone Dan Brown. I only wish that I had read this book much sooner! Now that it’s back in print after fourteen years–with breathtaking cover art by Ann Monn–I urge all serious vampire fiction fans not to wait as long as I did. The Stress of Her Regard is an intelligent and original variation on the vampire theme.

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