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It's October. The leaves are changing, and fall is in the air. Soon it will be Halloween, a time for ghosts, goblins, and other creatures of the night. . . including vampires. If you're like me, when you think of vampires, you think of Dracula, with the powerful blend of threat and sexuality that he embodied. Then all other vampires flood into your mind, until you're overwhelmed. Count Chocula. The Count, from Sesame Street. Rice's creations of undying sensuality. Huff's vampire detective series. And so on, and so on, until you're not sure what to think when someone tells you, "Hey, here are a couple of new vampire books." Great, you say, but what does that mean?

In her 1995 study of the vampire, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach suggests that the vampire is hard to define because it serves as a mirror of the times, changing to meet the needs of every generation. If that is the case, then two very different new books indicate that what our generation needs to deal with is time, identity, and power.

Night Blooming cover

It's striking that these two vampire novels line up so well in terms of theme, because in all other ways save one they are markedly distinct. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Night Blooming is a historical novel set in the time of Charlemagne. Meticulously researched and dense with period detail, Yarbro's novel is slow-paced, austere, and beautiful. Fred Saberhagen's A Coldness in the Blood, on the other hand, is set in contemporary America, and, while it is full of references to history and the pop culture lineages that overlap with the vampire, these references are designed to be absorbed immediately, so that everything in the novel contributes to its fast pace and overall fun.

Beyond their themes, the primary characteristic these two novels share is that they are the most recent installments in well-established vampire series. Saberhagen's series contains roughly ten books to date. (I say roughly ten books because Saberhagen co-authored the novelization of the Coppola film.) Series can grow flabby, but this one is robust, in part because Saberhagen makes a point of mining other well known veins of pop culture. For example, the 1978 novel The Holmes-Dracula File brings together Saberhagen's vampire, who was the original Vlad Tepes who birthed the Dracula legend, with the equally legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. (The two are, in fact, cousins!) Saberhagen returns to this connection in later novels, such as the 1994 Séance For a Vampire, which is narrated by both Dracula and Watson. While A Coldness in the Blood doesn't employ such an elaborate narrative structure, it does give us a few short sections from the point of view of the vampire, and others from the perspective of Sobek, the three thousand year old crocodile demi-god who is the primary menace in the novel.

Night Blooming is roughly the twentieth novel in Yarbro's Chronicles of Saint-Germain; this time the approximation in the title count comes from related books, such as the four novels featuring Atta Olivia Clemans, a younger vampire who also appears in Night Blooming. Of course, "younger" is only relative; she is hundreds of years old in Night Blooming -- but Saint-Germain is thousands of years old, and earlier novels in the series extend his life and adventures throughout history and into our time.

While Yarbro's world is rich with European history, Saberhagen's feels very American. Though he has set novels in London and Paris, A Coldness in the Blood, like several earlier novels, starts and ends in Chicago, and the characters visit such exotic locales as Billings, Montana and Albequerque, New Mexico. Saberhagen employs threats from stranger locales -- Sobek comes from ancient Egypt, for example -- but seems concerned with Anglo-American culture. Alien cultures serve primarily as threats to it, so that the feel is, fittingly, not unlike Doyle's treatment of alien cultures in his Sherlock Holmes stories.

Yarbro, on the other hand, sets out to bring these alien lands and times to life. Half the purpose of the series seems to be to have an excuse to write vividly realized historical novels. Yarbro clearly takes her task seriously. Night Blooming begins with an eight page note from the author discussing the difficulties involved in first researching, then in re-presenting the court of Charlemagne. Sometimes, the desire to evoke this world accurately gets in the way of the story. Yarbro includes a number of fictional letters from scribes or agents, writing to or on behalf of one of the major players of the period. These are so well-realized that the information advancing the story is at times buried in the stylized salutations, reports on regional activities, and, this being the early Middle Ages, protestations of Christian faith. That said, all such artifacts contribute to a tightly woven tone, and to a feeling of realism.

Enough background! What about the bloodsuckers? What about the stories, for God's sake?! Well, because these are novels in a series, you already know the protagonists aren't likely to die. For the same reason, neither novel can be about unbelievers slowly coming to suspect that the undead are real. They're here, they're undead, get on with it. Therefore, the charge in the books has to come from other sources.

A Coldness in the Blood cover

In A Coldness in the Blood, Dracula is living in Chicago under the name Matthew Maule. A strange pair visit him with a stranger proposition. Dickon, an older vampire, and Tamarack, his human partner, approach Maule to get his help in their quest for the Philosopher's Stone. Tamarack is an alchemist. He not only believes the Stone is real, he believes it is within their grasp. However, before Maule can decide about this wild proposal, everyone in the apartment falls under psychic attack. Once they recover, they learn that their assailant is Sobek, the 3000-year-old Egyptian crocodile god mentioned above.

Maule has all the pride and prowess that one might expect from the vampire who was Dracula, and sets out to avenge this insult and find the Stone. Sobek has powers aplenty, and is also after it, as are Dickon, the wily older vampire, and another group of impulsive young vampires. The plot of the story revolves around the quest for the Stone, and the resulting clashes, which are both numerous and fun. We've got psychic battles of will! We've got teleportation! We've got shapeshifting, magic spears, wooden bullets, scalpings, explosions, camouflage, lying, plotting, prescient dreams, hints of sexuality (predatory and otherwise), and who knows what I left out?

The novel works, and it is fun, for two reasons: the skill with which old pro Saberhagen eases these complications into play, and the accessibility of the characters. They seem like normal, everyday folks, caught up in an adventure. They aren't deep or surprising in any way, but they aren't intended to be; this novel is a fun, somewhat pulpy, ride.

Night Blooming has a much more complex plot, and infinitely more complex characters. Conqueror Karl-lo-Magne is attempting to recreate the glory that was Rome, and one of the ways he does this is by gathering learned men to his court. The scholarship of Saint-Germain, known in this time as Hiernam Rakoczy de Santus Germainus of Torun, draws the eye of Karl-the-Great, and is summoned to his presence. Saint-Germain goes, and gains the trust of the King. However, intrigue abounds at the royal court, and the Franks are ever suspicious of Saint-Germain because of his origins, and because of his habits. (Yarbro's vampire is much like Stoker's Dracula, with a few refinements. Saint-Germain can move about in daylight, though he does not like it, and can cross running water only with difficulty. Both situations are made easier by the proximity of the soil of his birth, and so Saint-Germain wears shoes with soles containing such dirt.)

Yarbro evokes the role of the Church in the time masterfully, and it is the source of the other major, and many minor, plot threads. Faith is strong in almost everyone, but at least as strong is a desire to follow the rules of Christianity, and to have representatives of the Church adjudicate in all difficult situations. The book's key problem is Gynethe Mehaut, or, more precisely, what she is and what to do with her. She was born albino, and so, like a vampire, is uncomfortable in direct sunlight. However, while her albinism would be easily explained by modern medical science, the stigmata on her palms, which reopen even if cauterized, are not. What does her bleeding mean? Is it a blessing or a curse? No one knows, and Gynethe is passed along from priest to bishop and eventually to Rome. Along the way, Saint-Germain's learning and loyalty are called upon, and the two outsiders meet.

To say more about their relationship might spoil the book for future readers, but I will just say this: it is appropriately complex for the age, and it didn't end as I expected. What I can say is that their attempts to negotiate their relationship are fascinating, as are all such negotiations in the novel. While Saint-Germain has been around for a long time, he does not feel distinct from humanity because he is a predator, as so many vampires do. Instead, his story is always one of adaptation and negotiation. Such a long life has required many changes, and as a result, everything Saint-Germain does is touched with melancholy wisdom.

It is as if his long life, rather than his vampirism, is what makes him different. It provides perspective, and, instead of giving him arrogance, or making him sneer at the customs of provincial times and places, this long life makes him infinitely respectful of what each person needs to be. He is powerful, but not all-powerful, and always aware that everyone is vulnerable. He bends to Karl's will not because he must in an immediate sense, but because in the long run, it is easier to find a way to accommodate himself to local power structures. The most moving moments in the novel come when Saint-Germain bends to the time, allowing others to make destructive choices, or tries to persuade them not to do so. But he persuades only; it is as if his identity is rooted in not misusing his powers.

While A Coldness in the Blood depends more on action than reflection, here too we find that self-knowledge is crucial. In both cases, character identity is shaped by time and change, and is exposed through the stresses brought about by power.

However, those are realizations after the fact. What matters for prospective readers now, with Halloween coming on, is this. 1) Neither of these books is scary. If you're looking for a horror story, read something else. 2) These books are very different, but. . . 3) If you're looking for a good book, either of these will do. Both are well-done, both deserve to be read, and both will give great pleasure. Enjoy!


Reader Comments

Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.

Any rumors you've heard about Greg Beatty's time at Clarion West 2000 are probably true. Greg (email Greg) publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg Beatty lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Greg recently got married. You can read more by Greg in our Archives.
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