On a Darkling Plain

On a Darkling Plain
Richard Lee Byers

[Ed.: From time to time, we are happy to present the views of guest writers here on Two Dudes in an Attic. We welcome submissions from anyone out there with strong opinions and too much spare time, so get writing! Today, Brad examines the world of White Wolf’s The Masquerade.]

 I admit it. Much to my wife’s dismay and disgust, I love vampire novels. No, I’m not talking about Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga or its ilk, the endless crop of paranormal romances where sexy, horny vampires have their way with equally lascivious “victims.” (As any married guy will tell you, all this paranormal hanky panky really is fantasy! And written very badly too.) That said, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula remains one of the most erotic novels I’ve ever read. The evil Count’s transformation of the virginal Lucy Westenra from the epitome of Victorian female propriety into a deadly and wanton succubus smolders just beneath the surface of main storyline: heroic but seemingly overmatched mortals struggling against overpowering and invincible evil.

And it is the latter feature of vampire novels that has always attracted me. Brian Lumley’s Necroscope novels are excellent examples. His vampires are thoroughly evil and inhuman, his plotlines ratchet almost to the breaking point the fundamental tension between good but weak humans and despicable, apparently immortal subhumans bent on humanity’s destruction.

On a Darkling Plain, one of many novels set in White Wolf Publishing’s “World of Darkness,” approaches the vampire story from a different point of view altogether. Instead of having horny vampires on the prowl for willing females, what we basically have are novels about office politics among the undead. White Wolf’s vampire mythos forms the subtext against which each of these novels is set. Briefly, it runs something like this: Cain, he of biblical infamy who slew his brother Abel and bore Yahweh’s mark as a result, was the first vampire. He in turn created vampires from among antediluvian humanity; these are referred to as Methuselahs because of their great antiquity. The Methuselahs survived the Flood, but are now in a state of torpor. Each subsequent generation saw its own vampires, as this cycle repeated itself over thousands of years. Over time, the vampires metamorphosed into various clans, each with its own powers and weaknesses. The Ventrue, for example, are skilled in business, diplomacy, and public affairs. The Toreador are artists and aesthetes; the Brujah are punks, spiked, tattooed, resistant to authority; the Nosferatu are unspeakably ugly and deformed, but have intellects far beyond the other clans; and so on. There are also the Caitiffs, those without a clan; and a shadowy group known as the Sabbat.

Yet for all these powers, vampires can be killed. Explosions, burnings, and decapitations will destroy a vampire who otherwise might live for millenia as long as he or she can feed on human blood. The Inquisition nearly destroyed the vampires as a race. For their own protection, they adopted The Masquerade. Vampires, who need humans and human blood for sustenance (they call humans “kine”, a reference to the fact that humans are vampiric food), are vastly outnumbered by these same humans and can be destroyed by human weapons. The Masquerade is designed to allow vampires to hide their true identity, keep the vampiric “Beast” at bay, and function in human society as much as possible. The aforesaid Sabbat reject the Masquerade and urge all-out war on humans; because the other clans disagree, there is constant friction between them and the Sabbat.

Notwithstanding, the ancient vampires are not entirely absent from the scene. From behind the scenes, they use the clans one against the other to facilitate their own plans and schemes. Here we have the nub of most World of Darkness novels: the political chess matches, the thrust and counter-thrust that one Methuselah employs against another in an effort to obtain some advantage in the eternal struggle for power, however slight. In these novels, there is little or no romantic interest between vampires, much less between humans and vampires. There is a great deal of time and attention focused on the minutiae of vampire life, the political struggles among members of a clan as they jockey for position within the clan’s hierarchy, and between clans as they jockey for supremacy over a particular territory. Very often, these struggles become extremely violent, and this violence involves both vampires and their human allies and hangers-on.

All of this means that particular plotlines are pretty fungible and formulaic. There really is no surprise in any World of Darkness vampire novel, though most of them are well-crafted. The writing is good; the plots are interesting; the characters, while rather two-dimensional, are still compelling—one cares what happens to the protagonist, even though he or she is a vampire and would likely feed on the reader given the chance. Nobody is going to receive a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for writing one of these novels, but the authors shouldn’t hang their heads in shame, either. After awhile though, one tends to forget the individual novels; what remains is the more interesting but unexplored back story.

Coming to the novel under consideration, we have the following rather standard plot devices “submitted for your consideration” as the master once said. The Vampire Prince of New Orleans is afflicted with a mysterious ailment that renders him incompetent and violent against his bevy of courtiers and hangers-on. Meantime, Elliott, the Prince’s go-to guy (a member of clan Toreador who’s a passionate art aficionado now devoid of passion now that his beloved wife is dead—yes vampires in this world do marry for love!), finds himself the victim of a violent set-up as he responds to reports of an art theft within the Prince’s domains. Finally, Dan, a violent Caitiff (a clanless and therefore unprotected vampire), who’s newly initiated into the vampires’ world, tries to find his way against the hostile environment into which he’s been thrown. He finds himself drawn into battle against his will by a beautiful and seductive vampire many millenia his senior, someone whom he’s powerless to resist. (There really isn’t a sexual angle here, unlike Anne Rice’s novels which tend to revel in that sort of thing.)

There you have the rather interesting plot threads which the author weaves together into a fairly satisfying story, and into which he throws a few surprises, some of them unanticipated but most of them pretty standard. All in all, a fun way to spend a couple of evenings or a leisurely afternoon at the condo or beach. Or, to put it another way, pretty standard vampire fare without the humiliation of a guy being found with some “paranormal romance,” that’s probably more soft core pornography than vampire story anyway.

Rating: Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey whilst exulting on the pitch, in celebration of a U.S. Women’s Team victory. It was certainly pleasant, and one wishes the impromptu striptease might have continued awhile longer. But the really interesting things remained hidden from view; it didn’t appear that in the overall scheme, those things in question were all that significant anyway. A perfect metaphor for World of Darkness vampire novels, so as you read one, think of Brandi. [Ed.: I wonder how Ms. Chastain would feel about this comparison.]

P.S. I should probably mention that I wrote this review while listening to the late, lamented Ronnie James Dio and his group Heaven and Hell. Somehow, it all fit together nicely.