Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Facing the Sky

Six years ago, we posted a review of a memoir, Facing the Sky by Rainee Grason. In light of recent  events, a repost might be in order, especially for readers seeking hope amid trouble.

* * *

Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?

Last night, I met with an author and her husband (who also happens to be a writer, as well as an artist) to discuss her self-published book, Facing the Sky. She had wondered about trying to find a traditional publisher to reprint the book and gain a wider audience, but after reading her unconventionally-formatted but powerful true story, I realized she needs to retain control.

The book is her life story, centering on a specific time in her teens but drawing in her childhood and adulthood in a sometimes linear, sometimes flashback/flash-forward style that works well for the material. She is a Christian, so her faith is very much part of the story, but traditional Christian publishing houses would probably gut the book, redacting the harshest elements, weakening its power.

In fact, a local bookstore refuses to stock the book because of a particularly raw scene describing the author’s rape by her boyfriend in her early teens.

This disturbs me. Rape isn’t pretty. It happens, even to children. It damages the psyche and the spirit. But Rainee Grason’s story shows that redemption is possible — not only possible, but triumphant. Remove that ugly scene, and the power of the truth is lost.

Unconventional Structure

Rainee Grason’s story is told inside-out.

We meet her as a teenager, facing the sky, feeling God’s love in the warm rays of the sunset. We overhear her thoughts about her boyfriend, their relationship, the rape.

One line of copy from back cover states, “She realizes she does have a choice — she can walk away from the imprisoning walls of the unhealthy relationship, but how?”

As events play out, she says goodbye to Gideon and hello to Cole. About a third of the way through the book, however, after she and Cole are married, Rainee pushes the curtain even further back, all the way to her earliest childhood memories, and reveals what led up to the night she stood, sixteen and pregnant, facing the sky.

Who Should Read Facing the Sky?

Teenagers and adults alike will identify with much in this true story, including the themes of worthlessness, hurt, shame, abuse, teen sexuality, awkwardness, fear, alcoholism, the desire for a better life.

This is an excellent book for mothers and daughters to read together and discuss. It reminds us that even the darkest night doesn’t last forever, we are worth more than we think, and God is waiting to lead us into the light of a new day.

NOTE: Fathers and sons can also benefit from this book, because it addresses — obliquely yet clearly — the importance of strong, kind fathers and husbands. It is in the embrace of Cole’s understanding and strength that Rainee is able to heal at last, after she is suddenly confronted by matters she thought long resolved. By reading her story, young men may also see the painful, tragic results of selfishness and pride: many girls used, even raped, their lives forever marked by Gideon’s sexual desires.

Contact the Author

Rainee Grason is available for speaking engagements.

E-mail:
HOCKRA153@gmail.com (Attn: Rainee)

Post:
PO Box 340953
Beavercreek, OH 45434-0953

Facebook:
Rainee Grason

Audio and paperback versions of Facing the Sky are available, and price breaks are available for larger orders.

Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂

Laughing at the Moon

Introducing the latest offering from the Penworthy Press collective!

FREE-Laughing at the Moon

poetry anthology cover^salt flats and moon

Click on either image to purchase a copy — available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Note to other Penworthy Press members:
C’mon, writers! Let’s aim for a book apiece this year!

A Reading Wonderland

Some of my most calming, curiosity-piquing, wonder-filled memories are of libraries and bookstores. Even the smallest or dimmest or least organized are magical places, perhaps made more so by their imperfections and the sense of exploring a cavern of delights.

Years ago, I used to spend my lunch breaks at The Snooper’s Barn on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, poking through the dusty stackes in the back where history books and old volumes — some antique — were shelved higgledy-piggledy, sometimes in precarious Jenga-like towers.

I recently introduced my eldest niece to an excellent independent bookstore in Oklahoma City. When we entered Full Circle Books — serving readers for more than three decades — we stepped not through the looking glass, nor through a wardrobe, but through a modern glass and metal door, yet the magic still welcomed us.

entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB

She fell in love with the rambling space filled with hidden rooms and cozy nooks, and the old-fashioned ladders that travel back and forth on metal tracks in need of oiling.

The children’s rooms are well-stocked with old friends and new, including a French copy of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — my niece’s first excuse to climb a ladder, but I don’t think she really needed a reason. 😉

children's reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
children’s reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
IMG_2986^cropped
the red ladder (c2015, KB)
IMG_2989^vignette brown
by the light of Winnie the Pooh (c2015, KB)
IMG_2994^cropped
French Seuss (c2015, KB)
IMG_2999^light
I love Sandra Boynton books. (c2015, KB)
IMG_3000^light
another old friend (c2015, KB)
IMG_3006^vignette pale
familiar author names (c2015, KB)
IMG_3003^HDR soft
funky covers (c2015, KB)

Same spaces have the atmosphere of a comfortable corner of someone’s home, and every doorway welcomes.

a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
c2015, KB
c2015, KB
IMG_3008^HDR soft
c2015, KB
IMG_3028^cropped
a cheery welcome at one of the several doorways (c2015, KB)

I came around the corner and encountered mysteries. There’s a metaphor there, I’m sure.

IMG_3014^saturated
c2015, KB

My niece later found another reason to climb a ladder — various collections of Edgar Allen Poe, to which she coined a pun: “If one is perusing the works of Edgar Allen, one could be said to be reading Poe-etry.”

We are a silly lot.

Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)
Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)

On the mantel of one of the fireplaces stands this whimsical fellow:

c2015, KB
c2015, KB

If you ever visit Oklahoma City, try to carve out time to visit Full Circle Books, especially if you’re an independent author. The staff are friendly and professional, and the store supports indie and local authors, and the variety of books is vast.

front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)
front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)

 

reposted from Adventures In Fiction

The Rise of Fallen Stars

RiseofFallenStarsThe first book in The Third Heaven series, The Rise of Fallen Stars by Donovan M. Neal is an original piece of fantasy fiction, incorporating the limited Biblical account with a rich creativity to imagine what might have happened when Lucifer defied God and took a third of the angels with him.

In the beginning (wink and a smile), Lucifer saves Michael’s life, and all of the angels are shown as being in harmony and brotherhood, but someone steps outside his assigned task, setting in motion a chain of tragic events. Pride and grief, anger and bitterness, fester and work wedges between brothers until a powerful angel goes on a rampage and kills another, and Lucifer dares plot rebellion against his Maker, unleashing war in Heaven.

Lucifer is present in such vivid fashion one can “see” and “hear” his beauty as the most beautiful angel. Heaven and Hell are described in rich detail, and the clever use of Biblical language and verses lends a depth and an authenticity to the tale.

There are a few instances where Neal makes interesting parallels between his novel and the Bible, such as when El (God) tells Lucifer, “What you have to do, do quickly,” echoing what Jesus tells Judas on the night the disciple betrays the Messiah to His death.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is action-packed, and is densely populated with angels of many ranks and myriad names. They are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

What did take me out of the story were occasional awkward phrases (“gastric acids of the abomination of punishment”), and descriptions that incorporated or described flora or fauna not yet created (such as when one heavenly being grabs another as one would grab a cat by the scruff of the neck). And, in an Indiana Jones-like scene, Michael and Raphael traverse a chamber of perils to enter the Hall of Annals, and Michael is afraid. Such fear in that situation seemed out of character for an angel.

One thing I found interesting was Neal’s incorporation of Greek myth names into the setting (Adonis trees, Elysian Fields), and the use of Greek god and German folklore names for some characters (Charon, Mephisto, and more).

The cover evokes the story, and is well done.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is by no means a perfect book, but it is original and interesting. Recommended reading.

Author Interview: Keanan Brand

Donovan M. Neal, a blogger and the author of the Biblical fantasy series The Third Heaven, recently interviewed one of our authors, Keanan Brand, about his journey toward publication, the challenges in writing and in life, and how his faith informs his writing.

Below are a couple excerpts:

new cover^for SmashwordsWhat advice would you give new novelists?

“Patience, grasshopper.”

I lifted that line from the old Kung Fu television show, but it’s a solid Biblical and literary concept, too. Patience isn’t staying still, necessarily. It’s persevering, it’s trying again, until the goal is achieved.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The adage about having to write a million words before being able to call oneself a writer? I don’t know how many words I’ve written in my lifetime, but I produced at least the equivalent of three copies of Dragon’s Rook before finally settling on a completed version that worked…

I am pleased with the end result, and early readers have said that portions of it stay with them, coming to mind long after they closed the book, and some have said it is far different from what they expected of a swords-and-dragons yarn. One reader (who had never read fantasy) said she couldn’t put it down. I hope that you, too, enjoy this tale.

RiseofFallenStars

This is only a fraction of the interview — read it here in its entirety. (Read more about Keanan here and here.)

We thank Donovan M. Neal for his generosity.

Coming soon: A review of The Rise of Fallen Stars, the first book in Neal’s The Third Heaven series.

Penworthy Press Presents: Dragon’s Rook by Keanan Brand

The Penworthy Press collective—sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? But we’re just writers, honest!—announces the first book published under our logo:

Dragon’s Rook, book one of The Lost Sword duology by Keanan Brand.

This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.

When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.

Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.

When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.

His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.

Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.

Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.

Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.

Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.

The cover art and design are by another member of the Penworthy Press collective: artist and writer, Suzan Troutt. She can be found at Gothic Tones blog, at her online jewelry shop, or at Jade’s Journal.

Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.

Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.

We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.

Annotated Dracula (part 3)

(Below is a revised re-post from February 27, 2010, Adventures in Fiction.)

This is the final entry in my series on an annotated version of Dracula by Bram Stoker. (Read Part 1 or Part 2 for previous comments.)

‘My friends, we are going into a terrible danger, and we need arms of many kinds. Our enemy is not merely spiritual…A stronger man, or a body of men more strong in all than him, can at certain times hold him; but yet they cannot hurt him as we can be hurt by him. We must, therefore, guard ourselves from his touch. Keep this near your heart”—as he spoke he lifted a little silver crucifix… .     (emphasis mine)

“Our enemy is not merely spiritual.” Hmmm. Another strike against the argument that Dracula was just an ethereal emanation called into life by the characters’ fears or desires. But that was a point made in the previous post, so I shall move onward.

In Dracula, the characters learn that the soul of one who has been overtaken by the vampire becomes lost for eternity, therefore lending urgency to the quest to stop Dracula and to save Lucy—who, unfortunately, becomes one of the undead, and must therefore not only be staked but beheaded in order to save her soul. Then Mina becomes the vampire’s next victim, and the race ramps up.

From an e-mail to a friend, written shortly after reacquainting myself with the classic novel:

The whole “damned forever” idea bugs me. So does the notion that a person could become damned without having a choice in the matter, as happens to Lucy in Dracula, or that repeated prayers to God for salvation from such evil / damnation (as are also given in the novel) would not result in Him stepping into the situation and saving anyone who asked Him. After all, He’s not willing that any should perish, and He has provided a way of escape. Our bodies may die, but our souls need not be damned. However, though “the good guys” win in the end, God is not really in the picture as the ultimate good standing in aid of humanity against ultimate evil.

Why, then, does holy water work? Or a crucifix? Or a Communion wafer? In reality, there’s nothing inherently powerful in the objects themselves. They are metal or flour or liquid. Nothing much to fear there. So, the power must come from what or Whom they represent.

However, where’s the power in the objects if the Deity in Whose name they are employed does not answer the prayers of those who call on Him? After all, He lets Lucy be taken, right?

One may argue He doesn’t answer because He doesn’t exist; or, if He does, He’s not intimately involved with the lives of humans. Why, then, the vampires’ reactions to the items employed in the search-and-destroy mission? It’s as if Stoker wanted the story both ways: God was the ultimate good Whom the vampires couldn’t tolerate, and yet humans—frail and prone to failure already in this endeavor—are the ones whose efforts finally succeed.

In the time since writing the message quoted above, I have come to a slightly different conclusion about the story. God is the unacknowledged character throughout, and I am reminded of all the times in real life in which I wanted to be rescued—and there have been many times I have been, some of them miraculously and as a direct result of prayer—but constant rescue would make a person passive, make him think he is entitled, make her think she need not put forth any effort.

We know a new butterfly must struggle to leave its cocoon—the struggle strengthens its wings. Therefore, we can take courage from the realization that, although we may be rescued or helped at various times in our lives, it is the striving that makes us strong. And makes us that much more grateful when help is offered.

Although I still think the novel’s theology is “off” concerning the soul and salvation, I see the real-life parallels to vampires: activities that suck away our time, people that subvert our successes or leech away our energy, attitudes or behaviors that drain us of joy or ambition or strength.

Look around. Where’s the vampire in your life?

Annotated Dracula (part 2)

(Below is a revised re-post from February 14, 2010, Adventures in Fiction.)

‘…Oh, but I am grateful to you, you so clever woman. Madam’—he said this very solemnly—’if ever Abraham Van Helsing can do anything for you or yours, I trust you will let me know. It will be pleasure and delight if I may serve you as a friend…all I have ever learned, all I can ever do, shall be for you and those you love. There are darknesses in life, and there are lights; you are one of the lights. You will have happy life and good life, and your husband will be blessed in you.’

In the last installment concerning this topic (part 1 can be read here), I expressed my doubts that Bram Stoker was making any sort of point about female sexuality in his classic horror novel.

Of all the commentary presented in the edition of Dracula I read, the material I can most readily accept as being part of Stoker’s intentional vision for the material is the inclusion of possible jabs concerning the tensions between Ireland and England*. As a writer, I have included names or versions of events that are jokes or jabs or homages, and it’s kinda fun when a reader recognizes them, too, and tells me so.

But over-analyzing the work of a long-dead author can lead us in directions he or she never intended. And he or she, being dead, cannot correct our errors.

I find it interesting that no mention was made to the Biblical allusion in the above dialogue from Van Helsing, which also later includes this:

‘Your husband is noble nature, and you are noble too, for you trust, and trust cannot be where there is mean nature.’

The Biblical reference that came to mind when I read this passage is found in Proverbs 31, verses 28 and 29:

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

Funny. Among all the other bits of trivia, historical references, suggestions of repressed sexuality, that didn’t make it into Valente’s notes at the back of the book.

Euripides, a Greek playwright from way back, said this: “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” So, I’m questioning.

Valente also asserts that, since Dracula casts no reflection in a mirror, he doesn’t really exist.

The notion of the immortal count being only a projection of one’s inhibitions or subconscious desires doesn’t stand. After all, Stoker writes that Dracula has been around for centuries before the novel’s characters meet him, and he has been served by the gypsies for generations. Sounds pretty corporeal to me.

Valente states in the notes, “The manner of Dracula’s death tends to confirm his status as a psychic emanation rather than an autonomous being.”

Uh, you sure about that? He crumbles into dust. As in “from dust we were made, to dust we shall return.” Again, sounds pretty corporeal to me.

There is also an argument made that blood in the novel can be seen as a metaphor for racism i.e. “bad blood” that is undesirable for mixing with one of pure blood.* That, and the fact that Dracula is proud of his varied and warrior heritage. I can sorta see that idea (refer to my above remark about the conflict between Irish and English, that is referenced subtly in the book), but it has the look of reaching about it; as if, once again, more is being read into Stoker’s words than he may have intended.**

— to be continued —

* The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization by Stephen D. Arata (1990)

** “I Would Be Master Still”: Dracula as the Aftermath of the Wilde Trials and the Irish Land League Policies (2002) by Tanya Olson at thirdspace, a journal of feminist theory and culture. The article suggests Stoker may have been homosexual, and that the character of Jonathan Harker was also homosexual and functioned as Stoker’s stand-in.

Of Further Interest:
Tales of Woe and Wonder by Jeff Chapman, an excellent anthology of nine sideways stories, including “The Princess and the Vampire”, a tale of princess who decides to take a vampire for a lover.

Annotated Dracula (part 1)

(Below is a revised re-post from Adventures in Fiction blog by Keanan Brand, January 27 and February 7, 2010.)

‘You are early to-night, my friend.’ The man stammered in reply: —
‘The English Herr was in a hurry,’ to which the stranger replied: —
‘That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.’ As he spoke he smiled, the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: —
‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell.’ —
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)

I picked up a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel after I finished NaNoWriMo 2009 (during which I worked more on what’s probably my darkest effort to date), and re-acquainted myself with one of the foundational vampire tales. Dracula is far removed from the modern re-imaginings of the mythology — and, strange as this may seem, it was refreshing.

Anybody else tired of hearing about Bella and Edward and whoever else they hang with? Anybody else look with a canted eye at Buffy and Angel?

But the suckers — ahem — critters have populated frightening tales for centuries, and I don’t expect them to leave anytime soon.

On occasion, I participate in the CSFF Blog Tour, which has featured modern vampire novels: Shade by John Olson, and Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson. (My blog posts about each can be found here: Shade 1, 2, 3 and Jackals 1, 2, 3.) Both books are in series, and are different takes on the mythology. Shade presents more of a “psychic vampire” image without the traditional blood-letting, but Jackals is much more graphic and offers a twist on the ability of vampires to shape-shift.

I read those books, sampled some television series (those mentioned above, also Forever Knight and Moonlight), listened to teenagers — and even adults — rave about the Twilight books and films, and experienced the strange sensation of being lost, of being pressed under the weight of all those versions and the various leaps (or chasms) in logic that made me unable to suspend disbelief for long, if at all.

Dracula coverSo I went back to what many might consider source material: Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. He was not the first to cover this ancient ground (other well-known stories include Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Le Fanu‘s Carmilla), but he is very likely the most well-known and most-referenced author of vampire fiction. The copy I chose is the Simon & Schuster Enriched Classics edition, with notes and commentary by Joseph Valente, a Professor of English.

[Though I enjoy books in which such additional information helps provide historical, social, political, or religious context, or discusses why something may have been important or overlooked by characters in the book, and so on, I sometimes wonder how much of the commentary is really just the commentator’s twisting of the text to fit an opinion, and how much is straight-forward observation of the material.]

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there’s the whole neck-biting schtick—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There’s a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there’s a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there’s not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they’re presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They’re rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn’t about sex or mutual expression or love. It’s about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he’s offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count’s London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued

UPDATE: Last year, I read John Whalen’s excellent Western twist on vampires, Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. You can read my review of his well-received novel here.