Well, after I finished reading Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for another 1980s vampire novel. After a bit of searching online, I ended up learning about a vampire novel from 1989 called “Sunglasses After Dark” by Nancy A. Collins.
Although I’d originally planned to get the hardback version (due to the cool cover art), I happened to find a second-hand omnibus of the first three novels in the series. Although I’m terrible when it comes to actually finishing omnibuses, the cover art had a wonderfully ’90s look to it that reminded me of the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics.
However, I should probably point out that I had something of a cold when I read this novel, which slowed me down a bit and put me in a bit of a miserable/cynical mood. So, it is probably worth bearing this in mind when reading this review.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Sunglasses After Dark”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in a mental hospital called Elysian Fields. An orderly called Claude is guarding the “danger ward”, which has been more chaotic than usual ever since a mysterious new patient arrived. A strange woman who gives the other patients nightmares and has even bitten the neck of another staff member.
From inside a padded cell, Sonja Blue waits for her body to process the sedatives that the doctors have given her. When her body regains its strength, she breaks out of the cell and goes off in search of revenge.
During Sonja’s escape, Claude has a mysterious vision of a woman called Denise Thorne. And, after Claude is fired from the hospital for letting Sonja escape, he decides to search for her…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, despite some structural/pacing problems and a much darker emotional tone than I’d expected, this novel does have some rather cool moments. In essence, this is a short novel that would have been so much better as a novella or even an extended short story. Even so, it’s cool to see a “badass anti-hero” vampire novel from as early as the late 1980s.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they were a lot more extreme than I’d expected. Whilst this novel contains the usual gory horror, suspense and paranormal horror that you would expect from a vampire thriller, there’s also a disturbingly large amount of emphasis on psychological horror, taboo-based horror, sexual horror/violence and sadistic cruelty.
In essence, this novel is perhaps too disturbing for something that looks like a fun gothic vampire thriller at first glance. Seriously, there is a lot of very dark subject matter in this novel and it will catch you by surprise if you were expecting a vampire thriller in the style of Jocelynn Drake, Laurell K. Hamilton etc… Plus, even when compared to the classic splatterpunk authors of the 1980s, this book is still very much on the “edgy” side of things.
In terms of the novel’s paranormal elements and depiction of vampirism, it is fairly innovative. In addition to being partially or wholly possessed by demonic entities, the novel’s vampires can also feed off of negative emotions, they can walk in sunlight/eat garlic/touch crosses, everyone they bite can turn into a vampire, they can use psychic powers and – like zombies- can only be killed by destroying their brains. In fact, there’s an interesting cross-over with the zombie genre here, since if a vampire turns several days after it’s host dies, then it becomes a zombie-like creature.
Likewise, there are a few other paranormal characters in this novel too – including a surprisingly creepy ogre, various types of angels & demons and psychic humans. In addition to this, there is the usual “secret paranormal world” thing in this novel too. But, although this novel is probably slightly more of a horror novel than an urban fantasy novel, these fantastical elements help to add a bit more mystery and drama to the story.
In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, this novel can be a really good thriller when it wants to be. The story starts out with a really mysterious and gripping plot but, just when it is really starting to get gripping, the novel then suddenly devotes about sixty pages or so to flashbacks showing Sonja’s grim, harsh and depressing backstory.
Although this giant backstory segment contains some fast-paced moments and an interesting range of locations (eg: London, Paris, Japan, Hong Kong etc..), it distracts from the more compelling main plot. Not only that, there is next to no suspense in this segment, since you’ll already know who survives and who doesn’t thanks to the earlier parts of the novel. Still, the later parts of the novel become a lot more thrilling and fast-paced when the story picks up the main plot again.
In terms of the characters, there is a fairly interesting cast of main characters. However, as mentioned earlier, there is perhaps too much characterisation in this story (to the point where it distracts from the main plot). Although Sonja is a pretty dramatic “badass anti-hero” character who also struggles with the demonic creature attached to her soul, this novel’s approach to characterisation/backstory mostly consists of filling the protagonist and antagonist’s backstories with pretty much every depressing real world horror you can think of.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s narration is slightly more fast-paced and “matter of fact” than most other 1980s horror novels I’ve read. Even so, the novel uses a slightly annoying mixture of third and first-person narration (in addition to things like interview transcripts etc..). Although you’ll probably get used to this after a while and it does help to add a feeling of unreliable narration to the story, this novel would have been more readable with a fixed first or third-person perspective.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t as good as it initially seems. Although this novel is a reassuringly slender 185 pages long in the large omnibus that I read, it seems like the kind of story that would be better as a novella or a short story. As I’ve mentioned before, the giant backstory segment really distracts from what is otherwise a rather gripping and fast-paced thriller novel.
In terms of how this thirty-year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well. Although there are a few uses of dated language, the novel almost reads like something that could have been written today. The only real clue that this is an older novel is the 1990s-style focus on being as “dark and edgy” as possible. Still, for a novel from the late 1980s, it is at least slightly ahead of it’s time.
All in all, whilst this novel has some cool moments, the story’s pacing would be so much better if it was a novella or a short story. Likewise, don’t go into this story expecting a fun vampire thriller. This is an extremely “dark and edgy” novel that will probably cause even experienced readers of horror fiction to recoil in revulsion at least a few times. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.