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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