I stayed up ’til 1:30 this morning to finish Gabriel Blanchard’s Victorian vampire novel, Death’s Dream Kingdom. It’s the first book in a trilogy and WHERE IS THE SECOND BOOK GABRIEL???? WRITE FASTER GABRIEL!!!
On its surface this is a very conventional vampire novel done right–all the trimmings, the dead aestheticism and the vampire politicking and the killer sunlight and the claws. But the book also uses its creepy creatures to portray shame and religious despair (and hope) with rare intensity.
The story so far is fairly simple: A young lady from a good old recusant family starts to traffic in spiritualism (DO NOT DO THIS) and gets vamped. She’s thrust into a world full of vampiric political intrigue, where a revolutionary egalitarian movement is brewing and an extraordinarily awful Christian heretical sect is forcing conversion among the undead. As she learns to control her new psychic powers, etc etc, she also discovers that the devout Catholic who, when she lived, was her fiance, has for years been a “courtesan” or willing human food source for vampires–and he’s partly responsible for her undeath. But then it turns out that there might be a cure for her condition…..
It’s a sleek black book, from Clickworks Press, and the font, I have to say, is especially nice, easy to read but just dripping with serifs. There are scores of artworks: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, The Holy Communion of St Teresa of Avila or of Jesus, Don Giovanni. Blanchard never forgets to describe the architecture, the gowns, all the elaborate sensuality of this dead destructive world. (Gosh that stuff is fun.) There are plot-relevant references to the Middle English Alliterative Revival and the Pilgrimage of Grace. There’s an appendix for phrases in foreign languages. All the Latin and the quotations from creepy poets would start to feel pretentious–okay, now and then it does feel pretentious–if the quotations weren’t so well-chosen. He jams Tertullian and Hegel into a two-page span and it actually deepens the book’s characterization and themes! There’s an especially sordid use of Augustine and some very poignant bits of the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. There are sharp little one-liners (“She had been murdered in cold blood to round out a dinner party”). I think most vampire-book authors want to write this way but Blanchard is better at it than any of the others I’ve tried.
The writing style is flamboyantly old-fashioned. This is fun when it means “silvern” and “faeces”; more jarring when it means “Hindoo” and “Mahometan.” There’s a point to the occasional nasty references to Jews and “n—– slaves”: The vampires, every single one of them, including the supposed egalitarians and those attempting to maintain genuine Christian religion, are upper-class predators. I did fear that the book would treat antique racial attitudes as just another piece of decor, but in the end I thought it was a harsh, intrusive (and rarely-used) way to distance us from characters whose wealth and power might otherwise become too seductive.There are some flaws. The prose in the first fifty pages can be rough: Blanchard uses “leonine” four times there. Oh man, there’s a point where the dialogue tag is, “William mentally versified.” For shame! The action scenes usually take place in a kind of fugue state, where the reader has to piece together what’s happened once the fight is over. That’s especially unsatisfying when the characters fighting are humans, not vampires who might be expected to have a different form of consciousness. The explanation of the human mind is weirdly individualistic and modern, with no place for e.g. habit, an especially strange omission in a book about vampires. (That might be the result of an unreliable narrator, though, since we get this explanation of how the mind works from one of the vampires.)
The biggest flaw is related to one of the book’s biggest strengths. Our heroine Marie’s fiance, the courtesan William, spends the first half of the book as its most emotionally-complex character by far, and then becomes basically a flawless prince-charming. He’s very sweet and I was rooting for those two crazy kids. But he’s a sincere Catholic, reporting all his liaisons with the undead in the confessional, and the courtesan of a high-ranking vampire: humiliated, treated as someone else’s property, ashamed before his beloved, yet also experiencing what Blanchard describes as the thrill of being hunted and fed on. I wish we saw that thrill, what drew him to the night life and what he gets out of it. How did it start for him? What will he miss, if he manages to escape? Death’s Dream Kingdom is very much Marie’s story and not his, but he’s such a great character that I really wanted Blanchard to keep him dirtier.
The book’s other strength is the steely sincerity of its religion. Vampires are burned by Bibles and blessed objects; prayers sear their mouths. Two of the main vampires were faithful Catholics in life, and we see their reactions to the realization that obedience has become both physically agonizing and seemingly pointless. I’d never before considered vampires as a fantasy of being subhuman–a metaphorical representation of the feeling that faith and obedience are simply unavailable to you. The scene where we see the prayers of the heretical vampire cult is especially horrifying, as their belief is a kind of weaponized despair. It’s a painful scene and will be particularly hard to get through for anyone who has felt that they are genuinely less than other people, damned and deserving it and unable to escape–for anyone who has tried to understand who God might be if that is true. There’s a deep despair hanging over this novel. But it’s not seduced by that despair–despair is the enemy.
There are plenty of delights in Kingdom, starting with the framing device that the book is Marie’s own diary, edited with the help of researchers like “Jacob Cinnamome (PhD Prohibited Mss, St Isaac Lebowitz Coll)” and “Fr Forrest Saint-Etienne (PhD Paradoxical History, Miskatonic Univ).” But Blanchard never forgets what he’s writing about: the Four Last Things.