Today’s Art ( 7th April 2020)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting turned out better than I’d expected was kind of inspired by a moment of nostalgia about those wonderful years in the early-mid 2000s where Japanese horror movies (and Hollywood remakes of them) were a popular genre πŸ™‚

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“The Ghost At The Window” By C. A. Brown

Three Ways To Make Vampires Scary

A while before writing this article, I was reading a vampire novel (“Vittorio, The Vampire” by Anne Rice) and was delighted to find that it contained much more horror than I’d been expecting πŸ™‚ After all, although vampires are a fairly traditional part of the horror genre, they aren’t always presented in a very frightening way.

Whilst there are some good creative reasons for this – including everything from exploring the themes associated with vampirism, because vampires are one of the coolest types of monster in the horror genre (see the “Blade” and “Underworld” movies, Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels etc… for good examples) and/or because the gothic melodrama traditionally associated with them is a brilliant source of comedy (see the TV show “What We Do In The Shadows” for a hilarious example of this), there’s also something to be said for scary vampires too. If only because they are a great way to surprise jaded readers.

So, how can you make vampires scary?

1) Other types of horror: Most of the scariest vampire fiction out there will often include other types of horror that aren’t traditionally associated with vampires. For example, the opening segments of Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” present the vampire characters in a way reminiscent of the serial killer villains in slasher movies.

Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” takes a hint from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and presents the vampires in a very zombie-like way, allowing for a level of ultra-gory, fast-paced apocalyptic horror that you don’t typically see in the vampire genre. Yes, zombies aren’t very frightening – but including elements of this genre creates a chillingly bleak, nihilistic and grim atmosphere that you really don’t see that often in the vampire genre.

An especially creepy example of including another type of horror in the vampire genre (SPOILERS ahoy!) can be found in Anne Rice’s “Vittorio, The Vampire”.

In this historical vampire story, the main character flees from his ancestral castle after surviving a vampire attack and finds sanctuary in a nearby town called Santa Maddelena. Initially, the town appears quiet, friendly and idyllic… too idyllic. With a series of brilliant hints and subtle moments, Rice gradually reveals the blood-curdling secret behind this town’s joyous faΓ§ade. It is a brilliantly unexpected use of the “flawed utopia” trope (typically found in the sci-fi genre) and it is used to exquisitely chilling effect here πŸ™‚

So, the lesson here is to incorporate other types of horror into the vampire genre, to read widely (eg: not just horror fiction) and surprise your reader with scary stuff that they won’t usually find in a typical vampire novel.

2) Moral horror: One of the things that separates “feel good” vampire fiction from genuinely scary vampire fiction is how the morality of vampirism is presented. In “feel good” stories, the vampires will either just be “100% evil” villian characters or, if they’re the good guys, then they will drink synthetic or donated blood, bite in a non-lethal fashion etc… In short, these “feel good” vampires are presented in a way that doesn’t conflict too much with the reader’s moral sensibilities.

In scarier vampire stories, the vampires will be the protagonists, but will actually have to bite and kill other characters. These vampire characters are complex, ordinary people who have been forced into a cold and grim life of repetitive murder because of either a tragic accident, an unexpected vampire attack and/or a misunderstanding of what it is to be a vampire. How the characters reconcile themselves to this evil life and how it changes them can be a potent source of subtle, creeping horror that can really catch the reader by surprise πŸ™‚

Interestingly, the very best example of this type of morality-based horror can actually be found in a computer game. I am, of course, talking about “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“. In this game, you play as a newly-created vampire and have a lot of freedom to make decisions. Although the game may not feel or look very frightening at first, expect to feel a slow, creeping sense of horrified revulsion shortly after your first session with the game, when you actually think back on all of the evil decisions that you made in order to survive and/or thrive in the game’s harsh and seedy world.

3) Realism: One of the simplest ways to make vampires frightening is just to add a bit of realism to your story by thinking about the life of a vampire in practical terms. This can work in so many ways.

Whether it is adding elements of science to the vampires (eg: vampirism working like a disease, scientists wanting to study vampires etc…), whether it is just presenting your vampire characters as being ordinary and unremarkable people (giving the reader the impression that anyone could be a vampire, waiting to drink their blood!), whether it is showing a vampire protagonist trying to cover up evidence of their crimes and/or being chased by the police or whether it is just showing all of the gory after-effects of a vampire biting someone, one of the best ways to make vampires scary is to add a bit of realism to your story.

Yes, the idea of a hidden world filled with gothic vampires who read poetry, drink absinthe, visit cool nightclubs, have passionate romances etc… is one of the central appeals of the vampire genre πŸ™‚ It is really cool. But, at the same time, it isn’t very scary for the simple reason that it isn’t very realistic – it is an escapist fantasy, rather than a terrifying nightmare.

Horror is often at it’s very scariest when it is grounded in the real world, when the reader really thinks “this could happen!” and shudders at the thought. So, if your vampires exist in a stylised gothic world, then they are going to be less frightening than if they just live down the road from wherever your reader happens to be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Reasons Why Gruesome Horror Fiction Isn’t Scary

Well, although I’ve written about the topic of gruesomeness in horror fiction before, I ended up thinking about it again after watching a few episodes of a hilarious comedy horror TV show called “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”. Although television and prose fiction are two very different mediums, one of the interesting things about “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” is that it is almost as cartoonishly ultra-gruesome as many classic 1980s British horror novels are. And, seeing this level of gruesomeness in a visual medium rather than a written one made me think of more reasons why gruesomeness isn’t inherently scary in horror fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, horror fiction can and should be gruesome. When used well, gruesome moments can really intensify any other types of horror that your story uses. Likewise, gruesomeness not being inherently scary can actually be a good thing sometimes – especially in the comedy horror genre or for those moments when you want to sneakily dial back the scariness in order to make your readers feel more courageous and/or to lull them into a false sense of security.

Gruesomeness in horror fiction isn’t a bad thing. But it isn’t scary either, and here’s a few reasons why:

1) Spectacle, shock and craft: This is a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction – you can use as much of it as you like, but every time will have slightly less dramatic impact than the previous one. In other words, gruesome horror fiction isn’t scary because the audience gets used to it fairly quickly. It goes from a horrifying unexpected thing to just an ordinary part of the story.

And, when this happens, the audience is more likely to see these moments as spectacle rather than horror. Yes, they can still be dramatic, but it will be in a more theatrical way than the “realistic” way you should be aiming for if you want to write scary horror fiction. In other words, because the audience no longer feels shocked, they are much more likely to pay attention to the craft behind these scenes. And this reminds the audience that they’re just reading a novel or watching a film. In other words, something artificial that cannot scare them.

In the case of a TV show like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”, this will probably mean that you’ll end up thinking “Wow! I wonder how many gallons of stage blood they used in this scene?” or “Was that blood spatter CGI?” rather than “Oh my god! An evil zombie!“. In a horror novel, it will probably mean that you’ll pay more attention to the – surprisingly poetic – descriptions and turns of phrase that are a hallmark of old-school British splatterpunk fiction and/or to any characteristic phrases that the author uses in these scenes (eg: Shaun Hutson’s frequent use of words like “coppery”, “putrescent”, “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “orb” etc…)

So, frequent gruesome moments in horror fiction are less scary than you might think because not only do they lose their shock value quickly, but they also focus the audience’s attention on the craft of the scene – which can break their immersion in the story.

2) Slapstick, exaggeration and realism: By their very nature, the kind of ultra-gruesome descriptions that you’ll see in horror fiction or the special effects you’ll see in a gruesome horror film, are unrealistic. After all, they have to be as gruesome as possible to shock or gross out the audience. And this usually lends these scenes a certain level of exaggeration and melodrama that can often come across as a more macabre form of slapstick comedy. This is, of course, absolutely great for things in the comedy horror genre (like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”), but it makes “serious” horror feel a bit less serious.

After all, truly scary horror – the type that will haunt the reader’s nightmares for days afterwards- relies on verisimilitude. The feeling that the story could actually happen. To you.

However, outside of a Halloween party, no-one is going to see a gruesome zombie or monster lurching towards them. Likewise, although horrific things unfortunately do happen in real life, the chances of actually seeing or experiencing them are thankfully relatively low (despite the frightening impression that reading or watching the news may give you).

In other words, gruesome moments of horror will seem unrealistic (and therefore less scary) because not only will most people be lucky enough never to see anything like it in real life, but also because the only way to write “shocking” gruesome moments is to exaggerate them to the point where they almost seem like a grim type of slapstick comedy.

3) Focus and consequences: Most gruesome horror isn’t scary because of what it focuses on. In other words, it focuses more on the messy physical consequences of horrific events rather than the much more disturbing emotional and psychological consequences of them.

For example, one of the most genuinely shocking and disturbing “gruesome” moments I’ve read in a novel during the past couple of years is actually less “gruesome” than a typical scene in a splatterpunk horror novel. I am, of course, talking about the opening chapter of Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” (read it at your own peril. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

Although this scene is fairly gruesome, it is genuinely disturbing because – instead of just devoting page after page to gory descriptions – the chapter also focuses on things like the horrific concept of what is happening, on the agony a character suffers and on the chillingly cold cruelty of several other characters. It is also narrated by a creepy fourth wall breaking narrator who will callously crack jokes about what is happening in a way that makes it feel like someone very very evil is sitting right next to you. It is a chapter that you won’t forget reading.

And, yet, it is technically less gruesome than a splatterpunk novel. Yet, it is more shocking because of what it chooses to focus on. So, gruesome horror fiction usually isn’t that scary because it often focuses on the least scary elements of horrific moments and events.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Three Tips For Blending The Horror And Thriller Genres

Well, after reading a horror thriller novel that managed to be both grippingly thrilling and suitably scary, I thought that I’d talk about how to blend the horror and thriller genres today.

After all, this is something that is very easy to get wrong – resulting in either a horror-flavoured thriller novel (that is thrilling but not that scary) or a scary novel that is more like an old-fashioned slower-paced thriller than the kind of fast-paced thriller readers might be expecting.

So, how can you blend the two genres well? Here are a few tips.

1) Suspense and mystery: Both the horror and thriller genres rely heavily on suspense and mystery. So, use this to your advantage! Whether it is the suspense of someone facing almost-certain death or a chilling mystery that the main character has to unravel even though they know that the answers will haunt their nightmares (and the reader’s) for many nights afterwards, it is very easy to use these two things to create a story that is both thrilling and scary.

So, why do people get this wrong? Well, the main reason is that they forget that both genres can use these things at the same time. In other words, they might include suspenseful moments that are thrilling but not scary, mysteries that are scary but not thrilling etc… This tends to result in a novel that is more like one genre than the other.

The trick here is to look for mysterious and suspenseful things that contain elements from both genres at the same time.

Let’s start with suspense. Thriller novel suspense revolves around the a character suddenly finding themselves out of their depth (eg: outgunned, outnumbered, outfunded, outwitted etc…) and the clever way that they survive or avoid this danger by thinking on their feet. Traditional horror suspense tends to revolve around slow, creeping dread – with the character gradually becoming more and more threatened by something terrifyingly unstoppable.

So, to blend these two things, you might want to – for example – introduce a thriller-style immediate threat (eg: a horde of hungry zombies) whilst also hinting at a much greater threat (eg: the zombies look like the plucky band of survivors the main character met two chapters ago, hinting that everyone will eventually turn into zombies). Or you could show a character surviving a dangerous situation in the short term, only to slowly realise that they have placed themselves (or someone else) in even more danger.

As for mystery, both genres usually focus on the main character investigating some kind of nefarious and/or evil series of events. In a thriller, the villains are more likely to have “practical” motivations/goals (eg: money, power, revenge etc..) and will use “realistic” methods to get these things. In a horror story, the villains’ motivations are likely to be a bit more twisted, strange and/or disturbing, and they are also more likely to resort to crueller and/or more bizarre methods too.

So, the trick here is to blend both of these things – to come up with a mystery revolving around an evil scheme that has a practical purpose, but has chillingly evil horror-style motivations or methods behind it (or vice versa).

2) Characters: Thrillers and horror stories are at odds with each other when it comes to characters. In a thriller, the main focus is on the plot – with the characters being more of a secondary thing. In a genuinely scary horror story, the characters are usually more important than the plot. Good horror relies on good characters, good thriller fiction relies on a good plot.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. To write a good horror thriller novel, you have to devote more time to characterisation than you would in a thriller novel and more time to the plot than you would in a horror novel. But, unless you want to write a giant tome, how do you do all of this in a sensible number of pages?

There are several ways of doing this. One way is to include a lot of characterisation for one or two characters (usually the main character and the villain), but slightly less for the other characters. Another way to do this is to make the characters’ personalities and backstories the main driving force behind the complicated events of the main plot. Yet another way is to use personality-filled first-person narration that allows you to focus on the plot whilst also frequently showing the narrator’s reactions/thoughts about what is happening.

In short, both the characters and the plot are important in a good horror thriller story.

3) Violence: One of the easiest ways to blend both the horror and thriller genres is to take a horror genre approach to the scenes of violence in a thriller story. In thrillers – especially action thriller novels – violence is often a fast-paced and sanitised thing that is designed to “look” spectacular and/or get the reader’s adrenaline flowing. In horror stories, violence tends to be a much more painful, drawn-out and ugly thing with extremely grisly immediate consequences and much longer-lasting psychological consequences. It is written in a way that is meant to be horrifying to read.

So, is it just a simple matter of blending the two things? Yes, but…

One common mistake that you’ll find in horror-flavoured thriller novels is that they will just focus on the gory elements of horror-genre style violence. Yes, adding lots of blood and guts will make a thriller story feel grittier and more intense – but it won’t be particularly scary. If you want a more balanced blend of the horror and thriller genres, then you also need to give equal emphasis to all of the other horrifying effects of violence too (eg: pain, suffering, fear, psychological after-effects etc…).

So, if you want a good horror thriller story, then you’ll need to do more than just make your thriller novel a bit more gruesome.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Review: “Carrion” by Gary Brandner (Novel)

Well, after enjoying Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers” a few weeks ago, I decided to look online for any other books by him and ended up buying a second-hand copy of his 1986 novel “Carrion” (mostly thanks to the wonderfully melodramatic title and gruesome cover art). And, since I haven’t read a 1980s horror novel in a while, I thought that I’d take a look at it.

So, let’s take a look at “Carrion”. I should warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS.

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I read the 1987 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Carrion”, but eventually decided against including a scan of the cover art, since I worried that – in the unlikely event that any non-horror fans are reading this – it would be considered “too gruesome”. For reference, it’s a dramatic “realistic” close-up painting of a bloodied zombie standing behind a broken window and screaming (which also makes very effective use of a green/red colour scheme too). Seriously, I love the fact that horror novels actually looked like horror novels during the 1980s πŸ™‚ .

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The novel begins in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, with a man called McAllister Fain who makes a living doing phony tarot readings. After a profitable day’s work, his girlfriend Jillian Pappas visits him and points out that she’s seen his recent “master of the occult” advert in one of the local tabloids. They have dinner and talk for a while. It is an ordinary evening like any other.

Meanwhile, a rich old man called Eliot Kruger is mourning his younger wife Leanne. Being interested in cryogenics, Eliot had bought a cryonic chamber for himself, but now Leanne lies preserved inside it after dying from a blood clot. One of the servants brings him a local paper and points out Fain’s advert. Racked with grief and with nothing to lose, Eliot summons Fain and offers him tens of thousands of dollars if he can attempt to bring Leanne back from the dead.

Despite misgivings from both Jillian and Kruger’s son, Fain accepts the offer – reasoning that he can just put on a good show for the old man and still get the money anyway. But, since it has to look convincing, he decides to do a bit of research and eventually finds a Voodoo priest called Le Docteur who, to Fain’s surprise, senses some supernatural power in him. Le Docteur tells Fain that – because of this – he is obliged to teach him how to raise the dead, but warns him against actually doing it.

The next day, Fain wakes up with little memory of what Le Docteur taught him. His apartment is filled with strange candles and powders. So, he decides to use them as props for his “performance” later that day. And he makes a really good show of it, using every magic trick in his repertoire to make it look dramatic. Then, some kind of instinct takes over and he recites an ancient incantation. Leanne returns to life. News of this “miracle” begins to spread and Fain finds that he has become famous…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, it’s also a rather innovative take on the zombie genre πŸ™‚ And, although this novel is slightly more of a slow burn than you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel, it is a fairly compelling tale of the macabre πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. Despite the gruesome cover art, there is relatively little gory horror here. Instead, this novel relies more on a mixture of occult horror, psychological horror, social horror, sexual horror, fame-based horror, death/decay-based horror, character-based horror etc… in order to slowly build up an ominous sense of inevitable doom and dread.

Unlike the traditional horror movie zombies, the undead here are a lot creepier than you’d expect. Instead of mindless shambling monsters, the returned dead are initially just ordinary people who slowly become more evil and more afraid of light as their bodies gradually decay and their desire for revenge against their resurrector grows stronger. This is handled really well here, with the zombies’ gradual decline affecting loved ones who were initially overjoyed to see them return and also mirroring changes in Fain’s personality too.

As I said earlier, this novel is a bit of a slow burn, and this is mostly because it allows this element of the story to be used in the most effective way possible πŸ™‚ Not only are the occasional scenes of horror in the early-mid parts of the novel made even more dramatic in contrast to the scenes of ordinary life, but the slower progression of the story also allows the horror of the story’s slowly-changing undead to sink in a lot more deeply than it would do in a faster-paced novel.

Like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, this novel also has a humourous and satirical edge to it too. Although some of this humour probably seems a bit cheesy or dated these days, one of the most compelling parts of the novel is watching Fain become more and more famous. This not only allows for a lot of satire of both the media and of fame (in a way vaguely reminiscent of something like Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel “Survivor), but it also shows the corrosive effect that it has on Fain as he becomes richer and more egotistical. Likewise, the scenes involving a scandal about Fain’s powers are not only even more chilling in this controversy-obsessed age, but also sometimes mirror traditional zombie movies (where angry mobs of outraged people try to get Fain) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re mostly fairly well-written. Fain gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and is an amusingly rogueish anti-hero who slowly becomes more of a tragic figure as the novel progresses. He comes across as a fairly realistic and complicated character, which really helps to keep the novel compelling. Likewise, several of the background characters also seem like fairly realistic people with motivations and personalities too. However, a few of the background characters will probably seem at least mildly dated and/or stereotypical by modern standards.

In terms of the writing, this novel is reasonably good. For the most part, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a relatively informal and “matter of fact” style which is very readable and keeps things moving at a reasonable pace too (which also helps to counteract the relatively slow plot progression). Brandner also has a fairly distinctive writing style, which also helps to give the story humour and personality too. In short, if you’ve read other 1980s horror novels, then you’ll probably enjoy the writing in this novel πŸ™‚

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 265 pages in length, this novel never feels bloated. Likewise, this novel also gradually builds up suspense and drama in such a way that the later parts of the story feel about ten times more dramatic than they would do in a faster-paced novel (even if at least one plot twist seems to almost come out of nowhere). Not only that, although the story progresses more slowly than you might expect, both the reasonably “matter of fact” writing style and numerous carefully-placed moments of drama, humour or horror help to keep the “slow” early-middle parts of the story compelling, whilst also ensuring that they move at a decent pace too.

In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. On the one hand, the novel’s horror elements are still creepy, the story is still compelling and the novel’s themes/satire are also fairly timeless too. On the other hand, the general “atmosphere” of the novel often feels more like the 1960s/70s than the 1980s and several parts of this novel would probably also be considered “politically incorrect” these days too.

All in all, this was a fairly enjoyable retro horror novel πŸ™‚ Yes, the story is more of a slow burn than you might expect, but I really enjoyed the characters, the setting, the chillingly inventive version of the zombie genre and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself 100% seriously. And, although I slightly preferred Brandner’s “Death Walkers” to this novel, it’s still really cool to see another interestingly different zombie novel by this author πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get a four.

Similarities And Differences Between British And American 1980s Horror Novels

Well, since I’m currently reading a 1980s horror novel (“Carrion” by Gary Brandner), I thought that I’d talk about this cool era in the history of the horror genre today. But, one thing I noticed when reading “Carrion” was that, like other US horror novels from the 1980s, it was both similar and different to the British 1980s horror novels (by authors like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..) that first made me interested in horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few random thoughts about this topic- although I’ll probably be focusing slightly more on British horror fiction, since I’ve read more of it. Likewise, I’ll be talking about general trends that I’ve noticed. So – of course- there are exceptions (eg: Guy N. Smith’s “Accursed“, Jo Gannon’s “Plasmid” etc..) to some of these trends.

Anyway, the main difference between 1980s horror novels in Britain and America is probably the types of horror that they focus on. In short, due to things like stricter film censorship at the time (but little, if no, literary censorship πŸ™‚ ), British horror novels from the 1980s often tend to focus a bit more on cynicism and shock value. They are often set in gloomy, seedy cities or bleak rural areas and the most prominent type of horror usually tends to be gory horror.

Yes, there are usually other types of horror too, but horror novels from 1980s Britain will usually take a certain amount of glee in grossing the reader out with beautifully-written gory descriptions. After all, horror movies were getting banned or trimmed to shreds for stuff like this, so there was much more of an incentive for writers to both rebel against this censorship and to give horror fans a more intense version of what they were missing out on in the video shops. This also links into the cynicism that you’ll usually find in British horror fiction from the 1980s.

The most famous way (probably pioneered in James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats) that this cynicism is used is in how these novels handle background characters. In short, these novels will often start a chapter by introducing a new character and then spend several pages showing their backstory, everyday troubles etc.. only for them to suddenly die horribly at the end of the chapter. Not only does this create a bleak and nihilistic atmosphere, but it also allows for things like social commentary/satire and helps to give the stories a greater sense of scale too.

Likewise, thanks to the influence of James Herbert’s “The Rats”, monster horror also became a popular sub-genre in 1980s Britain. Often, this would take the form of a “scary” type of animal (eg: rats, slugs, crabs, scorpions etc…) becoming mutated and extremely bloodthirsty, and terrorising a town or city. In addition to being a hangover from the “Invasion Literature” of the early 20th century, this could also be a reflection of the apocalyptic cold war fears of the time too.

In contrast, the 1980s horror novels from the US that I’ve read often tend to focus slightly less on gory horror than their British counterparts. Instead, these horror novels often tend to be a little bit more traditional in their horror – with more of a focus on things like atmosphere, dread, psychological horror, the paranormal etc… After all, not only was film censorship less of an issue in the US (so there wasn’t an incentive to rebel against it), but the literary and cultural influences that went into these novels were probably slightly different too.

At a guess, this is probably because – during their formative years, these horror authors probably had greater or easier access to the works of early-mid 20th century US authors like H.P.Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, who really helped to define this style of slow, creeping tension and dread for the modern age. Likewise, the influence of the classic horror comics of the 1940s-50s probably also played a role too, with these comics often focusing on morally-ambiguous characters (who suffer cruelly ironic fates) and having a distinctively twisted sense of humour that differs slightly from the cynical humour found in horror novels from 1980s Britain.

But, these differences aside, both types of horror novel have a lot in common with each other. Both usually contain a lot of subtle or overt social commentary about the issues of the day, both usually focus on ordinary people confronted with extraordinary things, both usually include lots of characterisation and both aren’t averse to including unhappy endings.

Another thing that both types of horror novel have in common is creativity and fun. One of the cool things about the 1980s was that horror fiction was both a popular genre and one that wasn’t seen as very “respectable”. What this meant was that there was a real incentive for horror authors to either come up with interesting ideas that would stand out from the crowd or to create their own distinctive “brand” of horror that you couldn’t find elsewhere. Plus, because they didn’t have to worry about impressing literary critics, 1980s horror novels could also be a lot weirder and wilder than other genres could be.

And, since the people who would judge these novels were ordinary readers rather than newspaper critics, there was also more of an incentive to make these stories fun to read. In other words, they often tend to have slightly more of a thriller-like structure, with well-placed dramatic or shocking moments and some of the coolest cover art that you’ll ever see. These were books written for the enjoyment of ordinary people (in the way that popular crime thriller novels are today) and this usually means that they will often still be a lot of fun to read even three or four decades later.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Review: “Pandora” by Anne Rice (Novel)

Well, ever since I enjoyed Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Armand” several months ago, I’ve been meaning to read another novel in Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series. But, after finding a second-hand copy of a spin-off novel from 1998 called “Pandora” online, I decided to read this instead.

Interestingly, although this novel is a spin-off from a fairly large series, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a lot of recaps in the earlier and later parts and a reasonably self-contained main story). But, if you’ve read any of the main “Vampire Chronicles” novels before this one, then you’ll probably get a little more out of it.

So, let’s take a look at “Pandora”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Pandora” that I read.

The novel begins in Paris in 1997. An ancient vampire called Pandora is sitting in a cafe and writing her life story in a notebook given to her by a younger vampire called David Talbot, who is trying to collect a library of these accounts from his fellow vampires. She begins by recounting how he met her whilst she was drinking from the heart of a lonely wanderer on a bridge, and how he persuaded her to set her story down on paper.

The story then flashes back to Pandora’s youth in Rome in 15 B.C. As the daughter of a wealthy senator during the more liberal and benevolent rule of Augustus, she is highly educated and her early life is an idyllic mixture of rituals, poetry reading, interesting discussions, social events etc.. Over the years that follow, she briefly meets a fascinating man called Marius, has a couple of marriages and also joins a hedonistic Egyptian cult for a while. Life is good, until Augustus dies and is replaced by a more despotic and tyrannical emperor called Tiberius.

When Pandora, now in her thirties, returns home one day, she finds that almost everyone is gone. Her father tells her that he has just recieved news that Tiberius’ elite guards are planning to massacre the entire family on account of some perceived disloyalty. He has arranged for his friends to spirit her out of the city and orders that she leaves at once. And, as she hides in a nearby merchant’s cart, she witnesses both his death and that of the two soldiers sent to kill him.

After this, she travels out of Rome by sea – but, on the voyage to Antioch, she starts to be troubled by strange dreams about ancient Egypt. Dreams that involve drinking blood…

One of the first things that I will say is that this is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, intelligent, gothic and compelling vampire novel πŸ™‚ Yes, Rice’s more formal writing style may take a little while to get used to and the novel takes a little while for the main story to really become dramatic, but it is well worth sticking with it πŸ™‚ Seriously, if you enjoy either historical fiction and/or vampire fiction, then this one is well worth reading. Not to mention that the fact that this is a novel that opens with someone writing in a notebook in a cafe (something I used to do a lot about a decade or so ago) instantly piqued my interest too πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although it is slightly more of a historical drama story than a horror story, it still contains some horror elements πŸ™‚ These mostly consist of psychological horror, tragic horror, vampire horror, a subtle hint of cosmic/existential horror, some suspense and a few moments of gory horror. This adds some much-needed gothic darkness to the novel, which contrasts really well with the beautifully-rendered historical settings and the joyful parts of Pandora’s life, in addition to making some parts of the story even more compelling and dramatic too πŸ™‚

Although I haven’t studied the history in enough depth to talk about how accurate it is, the novel’s historical settings are really atmospheric πŸ™‚ Plus, it is always cool to see either ancient Rome and/or ancient Egypt appear in the horror genre (see Rebecca Levene’s awesome “Anno Mortis” or Guy N. Smith’s brilliantly creepy “Accursed” for non-vampire examples of this).

The novel makes these settings feel both realistic and stylised at the same time, is filled with historical references and also includes a few interesting touches too (eg: in the segments set in ancient Rome, Antioch etc.. the word “vampire” – a later term- is never used. Instead, the characters refer to vampires as “blood drinkers”).

In true Anne Rice fashion, these settings are lavishly and vividly described in a way that could easily rival or surpass even the most large-budget TV series (like HBO’s “Rome” etc…) and, in keeping with the “aristocratic vampire” thing, the novel also focuses more on the upper classes of the time too. This both gives the main characters a lot more rights, freedoms, education etc.. whilst also adding some subtle unease and/or moral ambiguity to the story (eg: Pandora’s unthinking/uncritical attitudes towards slavery, the whims and cruelty of emperors etc…) that contrasts brilliantly with the sumptuous escapist fantasy of being rich in Roman times. Seriously, I really loved the historical elements of this novel πŸ™‚

Thematically, this novel is about both the staying power of cultures and the transience of religions, whilst also exploring both the meaning of life and the limits of “reason” too. Like with Rice’s “The Vampire Armand”, this novel has a fairly spiritual quality to it (even including some vision/dream-based scenes that are both beautiful and horrifying) – but, unlike that novel, the ultimate message of “Pandora” is either an existentialist or a nihilist one, where even science and logic are presented as silly constructions in the face of the nothingness of death/eternity – with the only way to stay sane being to find one’s own meaning in life.

Likewise, the novel talks about how some elements of ancient Rome still survive in modern culture whilst also focusing on how personal revelation/experience/thought is a path to spiritual understanding (with all organised religions in the novel shown to either be short-lived cults, empty traditions, confidence tricks and/or authoritarian structures more interested in power than spirituality).

In terms of the characters, they are really well-written πŸ™‚ Pandora gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and she comes across as a very realistic, interesting, morally-ambiguous, complex and intelligent character who also develops and changes over the course of the novel too. Likewise, a lot of the novel’s drama also comes from the characters too (eg: the way that Marius and Pandora’s contrasting views about the meaning of life gradually drive them apart, how Pandora uses rhetoric to defeat an enemy etc…) – which really helps to keep everything really compelling πŸ™‚

As for the writing, it is superb πŸ™‚ Although this novel’s first-person narration is written in a rather formal and/or old-fashioned style that might take a while to get used to, this not only allows Rice to add a lot of extra atmosphere, depth, vividness and personality to the novel – but it is also an absolutely perfect fit for the narrator (eg: a 2000+ year old aristocratic vampire), which really helps to cement the impression that you are actually reading a notebook that a vampire is casually writing in a cafe. Something further enhanced by the occasional well-placed fourth-wall break and/or Pandora’s asides about various things.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good πŸ™‚ At 406 pages, with relatively large type, this novel is refreshingly concise compared to other novels I’ve seen by the author. Likewise, whilst this novel isn’t exactly fast-paced (and the recaps at the beginning can slow things down a bit), it remains compelling throughout – with the use of atmosphere, personality and/or suspense keeping even the more “uneventful” parts of the story interesting to read. Although some later parts of the story feel a bit rushed in comparison to the rest of the story, this kind of mirrors how memory works and also fits in well with the idea that Pandora is only spending two nights or so writing her life story.

As for how well this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well πŸ™‚ Not only do the historical segments give the story a more “timeless” feel, but the early scenes set in 1990s Paris have a wonderfully “90s” atmosphere too. Yes, the writing style is deliberately old-fashioned and some elements of the story (eg: the class politics of Roman society, the slavery of the time etc…) would probably be written about in a more explicitly critical way in a modern novel (plus, a brief segment about a transgender character late in the novel would probably be written slightly differently today too), but the story, atmosphere, characters etc… are still timelessly compelling.

All in all, this is a really brilliant vampire novel πŸ™‚ It is atmospheric, intelligent and compelling, with some fascinating characters and brilliant writing. I probably haven’t done this book justice in this review, but it is one of those books that really shows off the power of the written word at its very best πŸ™‚ If you love gothic fiction, vampires, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome/Antioch, writing in notebooks in cafes etc.. then this novel is well worth reading πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.