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.

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DarkAngel

Dark Angel
Meredith Ann Pierce
(reviewed by Jose)

Part of being in the book business means that I’m generally kept fairly aware of what is selling and what is not. I have to say, with some dismay, that the majority of fantasy that I see anymore is published by Luna press or TOR. For those of you unaware, Luna is a press that specializes primarily in “alternative romance.” This catch-all term describes romance that involves vampires, werewolves, space ships, and all of the other abominations that the recent Twilight and/or Harry Potter craze have infected the modern fantasy scene with.[1] The relative boom in Luna’s success over the last few years has not gone unnoticed, and major publishers have started picking up startling quantities of both “alternative romance” and young adult fiction that revolves around the same topics, if somewhat censored.

Dark Angel, oh, excuse me, DarkAngel, is very much in the style of this young adult fiction. It is a fantastic account of some young girl who becomes enraptured with a “vampyre” and all of the zany and somewhat cringe-worthy adventures this leads her on. The prose reminds me very much of a failed Patricia McKillup. There is a serious attempt to lend a certain dreamlike and airy quality to the entire story, but rather than coming off as charming and elegant, the author often falls into the trap of overly obfuscating prose and general inability to form a coherent point. And while, as I will elaborate on further, this seems to be a conscious choice of the genre as a whole, it leaves the entire thing feeling rather empty. I struggled to remember characters once they weren’t on the page, and there seems to be no attempt from Pierce to actually make sure you’re keeping track of who’s important and who’s not. (Which is because no one is, except the main character and the vampyre. Doting ahoy.) There’s not really anything of substance to the plot, and it probably can be read in a short afternoon or over a couple lunch breaks.

I’ll be the first to say that two paragraphs is completely insufficient for what attempts to be a formal conversation or commentary on a piece of “literature” [2]. This is systemic to the genre. Reviews panning the stuff struggle to walk the fine line between beating a dead horse or writing a single paragraph that implies the authors need to go take a damn creative writing class. So rather than try and walk that line, I want to try to analyze the reason that the line exists in the first place.

Vacuity tends to make things very difficult to criticize. It’s why until someone sat down and took the ninety minutes necessary to coherently ream the entirety of the Star Wars prequels, most audience goers were left with a vague sense that they had been cheated and that the movie sucked, but were hard-pressed to point at anything in particular when challenged. The key, of course, is that there is nothing to actually point at. I’m going to elaborate on three of many specific decisions [some in more detail than others] that create this effect.

1.) Self-Inserts. The bane of any good reviewer, especially one that is read by large swaths of people, is that s/he is typically under some level of pressure from his editors to avoid anything that can be construed as libel. This practically means that generally anything even resembling an ad hominem attack is flatly off the table. This is a problem.

The main character in this wonderful little pile of crap is named Aeriel. Lets run-down the check list: Aeriel is clumsy. Aeriel is constantly reminded of her much better looking and grateful mistress. Aeriel is shy. Aeriel is also, obviously, exactly what some dark vampire needs to redeem his soul, and, because of all of this, she will become the prettiest flower in the flower patch with her dark and brooding lover. [3] Here is a picture of Meredith Ann Pierce. She is not ugly, nor is she particularly attractive. She plays the harp and lives in the woods in south Florida. She went to normal schools, and enjoys normal activities. She has been a reasonably successful author, and probably isn’t that bad of a musician. In short, there is really nothing special about her. She’s altogether quite ordinary.

I remember, a long time ago, when I was first introduced to this sort of “alternative romance” drivel, I had picked up a Catherine Asaro book because it had a picture of a neat spaceship. I was not totally disappointed (it was one of her earlier books, apparently she’s gotten much much worse,) it indeed had a cool spaceship. It had lots of battles and explosions. It had quantum phasing missles slamming into space stations the size of planets and lots and lots of talk about klein bottles. It was pretty cool. [4] Unfortunately, it also had a main character who was achingly special, despite the fact that she was totally ordinary on Earth. I can distinctly remember at the ripe old age of fourteen that it was perfectly obvious, down to the way the girl was described as looking and acting, that Asaro was definitely inserting herself into the shoes of the main character.

I’m not trying to argue that Pierce is creating a fantasy for herself where she is swept off her feet by a dark and brooding lover. Rather, I’m saying that this yearning (which, to be fair, all of us kind of have) to be special or better is the creative impulse which drives the main connection within the plot. It leads to an unacceptable connection between the author and her characters. She becomes invested–unwilling to let bad things ultimately happen and tell a story–and rather gives the reader a sort of twisted bastardization of a morality play. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, the good guys get everything they want, and Aeriel is undoubtedly the primary force for redemption and butterflies and sparkles.

This makes it incredibly hard to attack the plot and conflict as anything other than absent. You can’t point at particular struggles that the characters have because they really aren’t there. The vampyre screams about how awful he is and how much he wants Aeriel to go away, and Aeriel dotes after him like a good princess.

2.) Bad Prose. At one point, Pierce describes a persons’ eyes as “mocking-merry.” What in the world is mocking-merry? Is it gleeful sadism? Is it a friendly jab? Is it hidden resentment? WHAT IN THE HELL DOES MOCKING-MERRY MEAN, AND WHY DOES IT MAKE ME SO ANGRY? [5]

3.) Superficial Othering. This is slightly more complex, so bear with me. One of the tropes, especially of “alternative romance,” is the overwhelming attempt to beat you over the head with the supernatural, or “otherliness,” of whatever it is that the author is trying to do it to. Typically this is done through small tropes that you may not even think of. Misspelling words as “vampyre” instead of “vampire,” or “magick” instead of “magic” all serve to try and disassociate the author’s creation from the other tropes that you’ve read about. Done properly, this effect can be very powerful. It allows the other to create a powerful sense of humanization and redemption–as the thing we establish as the “other” slowly comes more and more to resemble a complex individual. Done poorly, it allows the author to hide her static character behind it’s otherness, because goddamn it, it’s not human, so why does it have to act like one?

All of these combine to create a veritable moving target of literature. On one hand, there’s something disturbingly wrong with the story, but instead of being able to point to any one particular thing, all we’re left with is a vague sense of vacuity. The words seem to mean nothing, the relationships between the characters are meaningless, because the author has already made it quite clear that she is uninterested in them acting like humans. And, perhaps most damningly, the plot is already quite clear from the very second that our glorious author becomes too connected with the redemption of her characters.

Stepping back, one might think it silly to even take the time to write this review. It’s been done to death, and people have been doing it far better than I for a long time. Twilight is here to stay until something else gets big, and even then, the damage will have probably been done. I only mention this book because it was written in 1984– a veritable pioneer of the genre before it was cool.

I need a drink.

Rating: Blackburn v. Stoke, both coached by clones of Sam Allardyce.

[1] I’m not saying that these things weren’t there before. Vampire fantasy has been around for some time with authors like Brian Lumley. The difference is that vampires were definitely not all sparkles and happiness. Conversely, the books had vague tones of satanism, sadism, and a fairly heavy element either of redemption or despair. They were also often quite gory.

[2] Seriously, I’m at a loss to try and say much more about it. The story is simple and handled poorly, there are large elements of deus ex machina at work through-out the entire interaction of the primary characters, and said characters are wood cut-outs with a little bit of glitter strewn on them for good measure. Aeriel pines after her black clad DarkAngel, and he radiates ANGSSTTT like any good teenager It, ultimately, is trying to be a story of redemption, but when all you want to do is club the person that’s supposedly getting redeemed into a fine mist, it sort of loses any effect it might have.

[3] Admittedly, this is only book one of a trilogy. This does not happen in this book, but if you want me to read the other two, I’m going to have to be bribed.

[4] There were a few moments that my thirteen year old mind had just started to grasp, but I generally plowed through them with my mind off. Gratuitous space sex is the easiest type of sex to ignore.

[5] Rant aside: prose that means nothing means there’s nothing to criticize.