The Book of Common Dread
[Ed. note: Brad again joins us with a touch of the supernatural. He is due a byline and photo, once one or more of the Two Dudes gets around to it.]
José, bless his pea-pickin’ little heart, has been pretty busy these last few days, poking people’s eyes out. From what I have heard through the rumor mill, the redoubtable Senhor’s index fingers are shagged out after a prolonged jab—placing him on injured reserve for the moment; he can’t type book reviews until said fingers recover their dexterity and drive. Having recently lost my own gig on the pitch and finding myself waiting on fickle suitors, I have a few spare moments to while away with the finest in fiction. And today I bring you a real jewel: Shy but gallant bookworm saves the day and wins the hand of fair damsel, while thwarting the dastardly plot of an urbane and truly wicked vampire. Place this struggle in the intellectually rarefied climes of Princeton University, include the ubiquitous staple of a hidden tome of vast arcane powers (thank you once again, Umberto Eco, for hooking up with the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft and making eldritch lore hidden away in forbidden books a necessary prop in almost all dark fantasy!), and you have all the makings of a memorable, if somewhat bloody, mess. All of that, and more, abounds in The Book of Common Dread. Translation: I liked this book, a lot!
Vincent DeVilbess is more than an unusually charming charlatan who has a way with the fair sex. He’s also a merciless killer, a sort of hit man for a local vampiric cabal. In this case, the undead powers-that-be have tasked Vince with finding and destroying an ancient rare book located in the Special Collections at the Princeton University Library. This book, rightly understood, holds the key to the total and utmost destruction of vampires in general and in particular. It’s in the care of young Simon Penn (no relation to Sean Penn that I’m aware of), one of the curators at the Library, and remains safely ensconced within a hermetically sealed chamber at the Library that even Vincent cannot penetrate.
If that’s not enough, there’s also the obligatory love interest, in this case the beautiful but disturbed Frederika Vanderveen, whom Simon loves from afar. This young lady, as they say, “has issues of her own,” in this case an unresolved relationship with her late father. His premature death left the girl fabulously wealthy but emotionally and psychologically unprepared to meet the challenges of adulthood. Frederika attempts the use of black magic (necromancy) to raise her father’s spirit from the dead. As Simon is drawn more and more into her orbit, he finds himself pitted directly against Vincent; the vampire has decided the best way to get to Simon, and hence to the book he covets, is through Frederika. But Simon, for all his apparent meekness and gentleness, is made of sterner stuff than one would think, and this will be tested in his battle of wits with the amoral, cold-blooded Vincent.
It is here that The Book of Common Dread gets a little more convoluted and contrived than it need be. However, Monahan paints his characters sympathetically; in most cases, the mortals (such as Simon and Frederika) act within the bounds of what one would expect. There is no deus ex machina that rescues the characters when they’ve been cornered. Simon is brave, but not foolhardy. Frederika isn’t the most attractive character—I often wondered what Simon saw in her. And Frederika’s change of heart regarding Simon— she totally ignores him, then suddenly invites him to move into her late father’s mansion with her—is contrived. Simon’s presence in Frederika’s home is necessary for plot development, but this sudden change in the protagonists’ relationship one with another is perhaps the least satisfactory part of the book. But it’s a minor quibble—this isn’t Madame Bovary; it’s a vampire novel! In general, Simon is a believable character—moreso than Frederika. Vincent is a cool vampire; capable of wit, charm, and affection; yet utterly ruthless and sadistic. But he is not invincible, something that makes the book even more interesting, as the protagonists puzzle out the most likely ways to best him at his own game.
Needless to say, the ending is ambivalent—Monahan wrote a sequel, which I haven’t read, entitled Blood of the Covenant. (I will read it, once I get José’s fingers out of my eyes.) But all in all, this is a most worthy addition to the venerable genre of vampire fiction.
For those who wonder, I wrote this review while listening to Blood Libels by Antaeus. Fine blackened death metal, menacing and thoroughly evil.
Rating: A match between AC Milan and Juventus. Some dirty play, a few dives, but thoroughly entertaining—although afterwards, you often feel like you should take a shower just to wash the grime off.
Eco, of course, wrote perhaps the greatest literary thriller of the late 20th century, The Name of the Rose, in which a rather disreputable bunch of Benedictine monks—with the odd Franciscan friar thrown in—kill each other off in imaginative ways, over a lost manuscript of Aristotelian literary criticism. He built on that theme in his next novel—my favorite of all his books—Foucault’s Pendulum, wherein a group of editors at a Milan vanity press construct a harebrained scheme for world domination from the crackpot theories of crackpot authors who self-publish with the vanity press; only to see this most unlikely of conspiracy theories take shape before the editors’ very eyes.
Lovecraft, of course, is the creator/propagator of the Necronomicon, the prototypical book of forbidden knowledge; the history of that blasphemous tome of blackest magic, the product of the fevered mind of “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” hidden away in the bowels of Miskatonic University in Providence, Rhode Island, oozes its way through Lovercraft’s Cthulhu mythos. One is never quite certain if this grimmest of all grimoires actually exists somewhere, or if Lovecraft succeeded merely in creating from whole cloth a cultural artifact that speaks to our darkest desires.
Needless to say, both Eco and Lovecraft are very high on my list of authors! Now it seems as if every author is jumping on the bandwagon—hidden manuscripts here, black books of satanic power there, everywhere a big bad book. Monahan has joined the fray, but handles this part of his novel with aplomb—the manuscript at issue isn’t contrived, it’s important to the plot-line, and it doesn’t overwhelm the other aspects of his story.