BOOK REVIEW: Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi

Dracula, Motherf**ker!Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This short story in graphic novelized form imagines a Dracula who has been trapped in his coffin since the post-Bram Stoker story time period coming back into action in 1970’s Los Angeles. (While there is a nod to the Bram Stoker novel in starting the story in late-1890’s Central / Eastern Europe, the book doesn’t present itself as a sequel — and purposefully tries to avoid some of the old [and new] vampire clichés.) The book taps into the feel of 1970’s noir crime drama. The main character, Quincy Harker, is a photographer whose work appeals to a macabre impulse of those who like to see snuff shots of beautiful people. As such, he goes around to scenes reminiscent of the Manson family slaughter of Sharon Tate and friends to snap his pictures. [Note: While in Bram Stoker’s book Quincy Harker was the child of Mina Harker, in this book that’s just an Easter Egg-style reference without any intended continuity to the book’s characters.] Because Harker is always going out at night to capture images of the recently deceased, he his easily drawn into the family feud between Dracula and his brides.

The artwork is interesting. There is not a single color palette used throughout, but rather different scenes are in different palettes. In the back-matter written by the artist, there is a statement about this being meant to influence the reader’s emotional inflection. It’s also pointed out in the back-matter that all scenes are set at night, which might not be otherwise apparent. Some panels are colored brightly and colorfully while others are in black and dark blues.

The story is simple and quick. Between drawing on the vampire mythology and on the noir crime cinema imagery, there’s not much that’s particularly novel about this book. That said, the fact that it puts Dracula’s brides at the fore does give it a bit of niche.

As mentioned, there is a writeup at the back by both the author (de Campi) and the artist (Henderson,) along with some draft drawings and scripts for those intrigued by how the sausage is made.

I enjoyed this enough to get caught up in reading it in a single sitting. (That said, it’s very short — even for the 80-ish pages — given sprawling panels and sparse / terse dialogue.) If you enjoy vampire fiction, it’s worth checking out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaCarmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This gothic vampire novella is about 25 years older than its more famous subgenre peer, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Le Fanu’s work is not only much shorter, but is written in a more approachable style. The story takes inspiration from an event that is recorded in a book entitled “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.” (1751.) This tract on spirits, demons, ghosts, revenants, and vampires was written by a Benedictine monk and scholar, Dom Calmet. The story in question involves a village that was said to be having a problem with nocturnal visits from vampires. Try as they might, the villagers couldn’t get this vampiric pest problem under control. A mysterious visitor from the east (usually referred to as a “Hungarian”) stopped into town and offered his services, and – as the legend went – he succeeded in eliminating the vampires. A version of this story is presented late in the novella (Ch. 13) and it’s only then that one learns how that story influences the one Le Fanu writes in “Carmilla.”

The story in “Carmilla” revolves around a young woman who serves as the first-person narrator, Laura. Laura lives out in the countryside with only her father and the household servants. She is starved for interaction with people her own age, and her only female interaction is with the help. Early in the story Laura is excited because a friend of her father’s (the General) is supposed to be coming to visit, and he will be bringing his own ward – a girl of Laura’s age. But that visit is cancelled, and we learn that the girl fell ill and passed away.

When a carriage overturns on the road in front of Laura’s father’s property, it seems that Laura will get the female companion for whom she’s been yearning. The occupants of the carriage that we know of a are an adult woman and her daughter, Carmilla. The woman is unharmed, and says she must make her way to some distant location urgently on unstated business. However, her daughter, Carmilla, is frail by nature and it’s too risky for her to make the remainder of the journey. Laura’s father, a kind man who recognizes his daughter’s loneliness, offers to host Carmilla for a time until her mother can return for her.

Carmilla’s visit starts out well enough. Everything is normal during the day. Over time, Laura recognizes some dismaying personality traits of her visitor (i.e. Carmilla is a bit elitist and narcissistic,) but Carmilla is not without her charms. The nights, however, start getting progressively stranger and more disconcerting. At first, one can’t be certain to what degree something real is transpiring. I thought Le Fanu did a fine job of capturing the hazy hypnopompic world where one isn’t quite certain what is dream and what is reality. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Laura is experiencing a real loss of vitality. Carmilla seems to be suffering similarly, but they have no basis to think this is new. Among Carmilla’s nocturnal strangeness is the fact that she’s a sleep-walker. One night she disappears and it’s thought that she might have been abducted or run away, but then she turns up none the worse for wear.

I’ll let the reader discover for him- or herself how events play out in the story.

Much has been made of the lesbian element of this story. In true Victorian nature, this isn’t at all explicit or graphic. The reader is given no reason to believe anything sexually romantic transpires. All one knows for a fact is that Carmilla is up-front about being into girls. As for Laura, all we really know is that she is comfortable with a certain degree of intimate physical contact from Carmilla that includes hugs and face touching in conjunction with comments of a vaguely suggestive nature. Laura could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could also just be naïve and / or starved for physical contact. I don’t know enough about Le Fanu’s views to draw conclusions about any ulterior messages he may have intended. While the obvious ulterior intent is erotic, there are some who argue that the story presents an anti-lesbian message (i.e. don’t let your daughter hang out with touchy-feely friends or she’ll get “turned.”) I’m not enough of a literary historian to know whether such intent existed. Perhaps those who suggest this know enough about either Le Fanu or the literature of the time to have a sound basis. However, I don’t think one could reach that conclusion from the story alone.

I enjoyed this story. For writing from 1872, it’s readable, and – as I mentioned – I think Le Fanu does a good job of describing the supernatural elements of the story in a way that captures the surreal feel. Readers of modern vampire stories might be bored from the lack of crimson arterial spray and sundry grotesqueries, but the novella has got some other fine qualities such as how the story unfolds, i.e. how reveals are made. Not to mention, Le Fanu creates a character whose fate one cares about (rather than random redshirts stuck into the story for the express purpose of being slain.) If you liked Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or other vampire fiction, I think you’ll definitely want to give this one a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume picks up at the end of the vampire raid on the Los Angeles FBI offices, a raid whose primary goal is to retrieve the remains of Stella Olemaun. The vampire-savvy agent, Alice Blood, seems to be the sole survivor (more properly, only one not turned into a vampire for Eben Olemaun’s army of the undead.) The balance of the book turns Eben Olemaun’s war in a new direction, toward the European old guard. In the original book, this division is introduced between the old-world vampires who want to remain myth and quietly live out their immortal days, and the hot-headed American vampires who are eager to war and watch the world burn.

I enjoyed this volume more than the previous one, but not nearly so much as the original story. Sadly, I suspect the reason that I preferred it to the last volume is that it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that I had no time to notice that it’s often not clear why characters are doing what they’re doing (or, more damningly, that they sometimes adopt behavior that seems at odds with the character as established through his or her recent behavior.) While I seem to have leap-frogged material and may have missed an answer, I continue to be perplexed by an anomaly from the original book and that’s why Eben is so easily able to defeat any other vampire. He’s vampire superman, and it’s not clear why he should be.

As I wrote in my review of Volume 2, at this point the series doesn’t really distinguish itself among the mass of modern-day vampire stories. The original book, I felt, did build a novel concept that made it more interesting and intense than usual. The book is well-written and gruesomely drawn, but so are tons of other vampire stories. Having read three volumes, I’m over this series, but it is well constructed – if a bit Hollywood.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 2 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Volume 230 Days of Night Volume 2 by Steve Niles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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[Note: this isn’t the Vol. 2 that follows immediately from the original book.]

I enjoyed the original three-issue “30 Days of Night” series. That book imagines a vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska during the winter when the sun does not rise for weeks. That concept of eliminating one of the vampires’ greatest vulnerabilities while putting the survivors in the demoralizing state of being hunted in the darkness and brutal cold makes for a visceral story.

While I thought this volume was written and drawn well (and quite similarly to the original – same writer, different artist) I have two gripes. First of all, I guess owing to the immense success of the franchise which resulted in many series and sub-series, it’s quite confusing to pick up the order of storytelling at this point. After reading the original book, I read Volumes 2 and 3 (sometimes labeled “Ongoing”,) thinking they would follow up on the Vol. 1 [the original] that I’d read. However, while I could follow the story, there was clearly a substantial gap in time and events. It seems like the Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 that I read (labeled “Ongoing”) were fitted together, but at least one series must fit between this Vol. 2 and the Vol. 1 that I read. Even scanning through a Wiki-page on the overall series didn’t really lend me clarity — though I had no desire or inclination to read through 30 summaries to figure out where this Vol. 2 and 3 belongs. [Especially as I don’t intend to read further as the series seems to have devolved from that gripping and unique Barrow, Alaska plot to being just another modern-day vampire story.]

So, the story of the Vol. 2 that I read is essentially Sheriff Eben Olemaun first feeding his way through a rebuilt [security super-maxed] Barrow before going to Los Angeles to do both more recruiting and turning, and then attacking the LA FBI offices in order to retrieve the remains of his wife, Stella. [My first clue of discontinuity was that at the end of the first [first] volume, Eben is dead and Stella was alive, and in this book those tables were inexplicably turned.] The other “half” of the story revolves around an FBI agent, Alice Blood, who is apparently the FBI’s star Vampire-slayer. We find out that she is the one who killed Stella, though she seems a bit broken up about it. Being the virtuous hero, Alice is also fed up with the bureaucratic moral ambiguity of her employer.

Getting around to my second gripe, it’s that this isn’t really a satisfying story arc as a standalone entity, it’s just carrying a story through. To clarify, I’m not saying it doesn’t stand alone because I’d missed who knows how much of the preceding story and didn’t understand. In that sense, I thought they actually did a great job of making clear what was going on without getting bound up in a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. What I’m saying is that this book gives one a chain of action without providing much understanding of motivation. I will grant that my not understanding the motivation in the first chapter is probably the result of not reading the immediately prior issue. However, I didn’t see much convincing motivation for anything in this volume. I saw that Eben wanted his wife’s head and torso back, but as he seems to have zero of the devoted husband and law enforcement professional left at this point and is just monstrous killing machine, it’s hard to know why he would care.

Long story short, I thought this book was alright, but not particularly satisfying and that the ordering is quite confusing. I picked up all three volumes I’ve read on Amazon Prime, so no great loss there. However, I mention that so no one else expects the Volume 1, 2, and 3 presented on Prime to present a contiguous story. Continuity issues aside, I don’t think the story still distinguishes itself from the massive number of modern-day vampire tales available today.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night, Vol. 130 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes the run-of-the-mill vampire tale into more chilling territory by setting it in Barrow (a town on the northern end of Alaska that sits within the Arctic Circle) in the dead of winter when weeks pass without sunlight. The vampires, thus, figure they have a month to feed without having to hide from the light, or risk being staked to death in their sleep.

On the day of Barrow’s final sunset of the year, the Vampires send in a scout to destroy all communications – starting by stealing and burning all of the residents’ cell phones. As I thought about this after reading, it was one of several points that strained credulity, but I have to say the visceral setup these people being trapped in darkness while being hunted kept me from being too skeptical at first reading. (I don’t know what cell service is like in Barrow but it seems like eliminating a tower would be more probable means of success than steeling a huge number of individual phones. To be fair, the scout does knock out the central communication hub as well, and maybe the reader psychology of being without personal communication (a cell phone) in the world we’ve grown accustomed to makes this course more intense – if absurd.)

The vampires, literally, chew through most of the population in short order. We do get some sense of the futile resistance put up by locals – particularly the protagonist and sheriff. [I would assume in a town like Barrow everyone over six-months-old possesses at least one firearm, and that likelihood is not disregarded, which makes the inconsequential resistance more chilling.] While the pacing feels slightly fast, it does get the scenario down to a manageable few to be hiding out together in a single building. (There is another major vein of strained credulity with regards to the people hiding out while maintaining core temperature, but – again – it was engrossing enough that I wasn’t much distracted at the time.)

I give the resolution high marks for being clever and gripping, but I will say that it felt to me like it unfolded too quickly and was too easy. I suspect that that may have to do with this being a serialized story. While I will say that the story is successfully wrapped up as a stand-alone arc (no mean feat as this is often a fail in serialized graphic novels or comic books,) the one eye toward setting up the continuing story arc may have contributed to this ending’s rushed feel. (Or maybe it was too much story for the allotted pages.)

I found this to be an intense and riveting read. If you like vampire horror, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King

American Vampire, Vol. 1American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel includes two distinct, but interconnected, stories presented in an interspersed fashion (i.e. each chapter presents a piece of each story.) The first story, written by Scott Snyder, is set in flapper era Hollywood, and revolves around a hardworking aspiring actress, Pearl, who is lured into a den of vampires by a big-name actor who she has a celebrity crush on.

The second story, by Stephen King, is set in the wild west and tells the story of a violent bandit named Skinner Sweet. Sweet is also turned vampire when he is “killed” by a vampire whose business activities are disrupted by Skinner’s rogue ways. The connective tissue between the two stories is the character of Sweet, who is a background character in Snyder’s story – playing a sort of mentor / guide who Pearl is only reluctantly and skeptically willing to accept.

Like Blade, character from Marvel Comics and the movies of the same name, Pearl and Sweet have enhanced capabilities in comparison to the old “European” vampires. These enhancements are similar to Blade’s, as well. The American Vampires don’t instantaneously fry in sunlight, and they are stronger and faster than their old-world counterparts. I suspect that in both cases, these enhancements are meant to make things interesting, given that – in both cases — these characters are at a disadvantage in every other way (i.e. they are outnumbered, they have many fewer resources, and they are far less experienced.) Unlike Blade, the “American Vampires” morph into nastier and more monster-like versions of themselves when they go on the attack.

The stories are straightforward, though skillfully crafted. In the first, Pearl is turned and then goes out for some payback, her best friend getting caught up in the action as well. In the second, Sweet plays out his vendetta against a lawman who was his nemesis. We get additional insight from a man who wrote up Skinner’s story as a work of fiction, but then came out as having really been writing the truth – much to the amusement of a skeptical audience. Flashbacks throughout this author’s talk layout the Skinner Sweet story. One does get the sense that immortality has had a tempering effect on Sweet, who doesn’t seem so prone to be mean for meanness sake. Although, this might be deceptive as we don’t see much action by him in the Snyder story.

I found the artwork to be well-done. While I don’t have expertise on the subject, I could follow the panels with no problem, and that’s about all I need out of them.

I was engrossed by this book. It can’t be claimed to being original, but it is an adept execution. If you are interested in vampire stories, this is an interesting take on them.

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POEM: The Vampire Rule

Edvard Munch; “Vampire”

They say a Vampire can’t enter your house unless you invite them inside.

I don’t know whether it’s true, on account of I don’t know if Vampires are a thing.

But I recognize a rule that is good and true when I hear one.

I always hear this or that person complaining about how such-and-such is,

“…living in my head, rent free.”

Well, who invited them?

BOOK REVIEW: The Strain, Vol. 1 by David Lapham et. al.

The Strain Volume 1The Strain Volume 1 by David Lapham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I sometimes wonder what Bram Stoker would think about the fact that his work spurred an entire industry of copy-cats. Everybody thinks that they can make an interesting and novel contribution to this vampiric genre. In very few cases, see: Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, they are correct. However, even though most of these works don’t take us into uncharted territory, they can still be entertaining. In fact, some of the versions that stay true to the concept seem more entertaining than others that moved into new territory but are patently stupid. I’m speaking, of course, of Twilight and other vampire-as-romance books that feed a widespread malady of the age afflicting teenage girls and, sadly, middle-aged women. I think The Strain, Volume 1 makes for an interesting and entertaining modern-day vampire story, without being particularly brilliant or groundbreaking.

The Strain, Volume 1 is the first installment of a graphic novel adaptation of the novel written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The Introduction states that the graphic novel isn’t meant to precisely mirror del Toro and Hogan’s prose novel. I haven’t read the del Toro / Hogan book, but the synopsis indicates that at least the beginning and the characters are largely the same. I can’t comment as to how much the two works differ in detail, and whether the authors of the first book emphasized the difference so as to encourage readers to pick up both books (instead of cannibalizing each other), versus because the works are truly substantively different.

The inciting incident, apparently for the novel as well as the comic, occurs when a commercial jet liner lands in New York, coming to a stop and going out of contact with the tower. It turns out that all but three of the individuals on the plane are dead.

The graphic novel weaves together the story from two perspectives. First, the lead in the story is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) employee who heads a rapid response team. As circumstances somehow indicate that this event involves a biological or toxic substance—though they have no ability to see into the plane, Goodweather’s team is called to investigate. (How they concluded with such high certainty that it was a substance in CDC’s bailiwick and not smoke inhalation or a terrorist hijacking is beyond me. But the CDC team enters on the heels of SWAT, and with operational control.) However, it’s a graphic novel with limited page constraints, so I didn’t grade too harshly on this particular type of credulity stretcher.

Second, the graphic novel begins with a vignette from the point of view of Abraham Setrakian who is a holocaust survivor and former Vampire hunter. Setrakian knows what is going on from his experience in the old world. It’s this odd couple pairing of an old man who knows an unbelievable truth and a scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural that makes this work interesting. The latter anchors the work in the world as we know it, but the former adds an element of mystery and charm. These mixed atmospherics are where this work really excels. The two men end up teaming up to fight a threat that will spread with unchecked fury unless they do something about it.

Unlike the hunky Vampires of Twilight fame, the vampires in Lapham’s work are meant to be as repulsive as possible. They have six-foot tongues with stingers by which they take their blood meals, and the giant slobbery maws necessary to accommodate such an appendage. Instead of having a new twist on the Vampire story, this work attempts to create value added in part by putting the horror back into Vampires in a big way (also, through skillful atmospherics.)

It should also be noted that this isn’t a work for young kids. That should go without saying, I know. Freak-show parents who reason that it’s only violence, and who have no problem with their child seeing someone take a shotgun blast to the chest, but who’ll write a death threat to networks, publishers, or congressmen if said shotgun blast exposes a nipple should be forewarned that the work has a short but sexually graphic section in it—in addition to all the stakings and proboscis stabbings.

This was an entertaining enough horror-genre take on the Vampire. Scientists may find it a bit ridiculous that their comic book counterparts go about their jobs sticking their hands in unknown substances found at the site of the mysterious deaths of almost 200 people. However, despite some credulity challenges, the book creates an interesting atmosphere for a vampire story.

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Interview with the Vampire: The Real Deal

InterviewwithaVampireMoviePosteI saw a review of Anne Rice’s book recently, and it got me thinking about how an actual interview with a vampire would go.

Interviewer (I): So, about this whole turning into a bat thing. It seems to me that a man is much bigger than a bat. Therefore, my first question is do you conserve mass? In other words, do you get really dense as a bat, and, if so, how do you even get off the ground? If not, you must shed mass, but then how do you get it back?

Vampire (V): I am the prince of darkness. I rule the night. I take whatever form suits my needs.

I: Well, that’s not really a proper answer, now is it? That’s sort of a politician on the Sunday morning talk shows answer.

V: [Bares fangs and growls]

I: Well then, moving on. Are you at all concerned about the many blood-borne illness out there: HIV, Hepatitis, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever, etc.?

V: I’m immortal. I can’t be killed by your puny germs.

I: So, that’s a… no?

V: Hrrumph!

I: Moving on. Have you ever had anyone put Vaseline on their neck or something else really gross–you know to prank you?

V: You suck!

I: One could say the same of you, my friend. Ha!… You know… because you suck on people’s necks… Well, then, moving on. Which would you rather have: a wooden stake to the heart or a silver bullet in the chest?

V: Silver bullets are for werewolves, you imbecile.

I: Yeah, but it’s still got to be quite unpleasant, wouldn’t you say?

V: [Sighs loudly] OK, I’d have to take the silver bullet, but the longer this interview goes on, the more fond I grow of the stake.

I: I love steak, too, but that’s besides the point. Any way, who would you rather have as an enemy: Bram Stoker’s  Van Helsing, who’s very smart but has no kung fu; or the  Hugh Jackman Van Helsing who’s all buff and studly but not the sharpest tool in the shed?

V: It matters not. They are both humans and, as such, no match for me.

I: Really, because in both the book and the movie…

V: [hisses like a rabid cat,  fangs out] Human propaganda. Are we done yet?

I: Not quite. What’s the hurry? Got a hot rendezvous with a Victorian wench on the docket?… Anywho. What would you say are the pros and cons of working the night-shift? I’d think it would be rather easy to get a parking space, but, then again, you don’t really need one if you turn into a bat. But, then again, all that flapping must get tiring…

V: I’m out of here!