Review: “Séance For A Vampire” By Fred Saberhagen (Novel)

For my next book review, I thought that I’d look at a rather interesting novel from 1994 called “Séance For A Vampire” By Fred Saberhagen, which was a gift from a relative who saw it in a charity shop and thought that it was my kind of thing. After all, it’s a Sherlock Holmes novel involving vampires. Needless to say, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Séance For A Vampire”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Titan Books (UK/US ?) paperback reprint of Séance For A Vampire” (1994) that I read.

The novel begins in 1765, where Dracula (yes, that Dracula!) relays an interesting little tale about a hanged pirate in London who mysteriously escapes the gibbet in order to enact violent revenge upon a wealthy man called Altamont who betrayed him and stole his treasure.

Then we flash forward to 221b Baker Street in 1903. Sherlock Holmes has recently been hired by a man called Ambrose Altamont in to investigate and debunk a séance. After the tragic drowning of Ambrose’s daughter Louisa, his wife Madeline has sought comfort from two Scottish spiritualists that Ambrose believes to be charlatans. Needless to say, the case seems pretty open-and-shut…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it’s great to read a Sherlock Holmes story again, this one is slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective story. Yes, the story is wonderfully atmospheric. And, yes, there are a few scenes where Holmes makes a deduction or investigates something – but, for the most part, this is a vintage-style thriller novel, with some detective/mystery novel elements.

Even though this novel isn’t particularly scary, it also naturally includes some horror elements too. For the most part, these consist of brilliantly gothic set pieces involving vampires. These are all suitably dramatic, and they really help to add a wonderfully gothic atmosphere to some parts of the story.

The novel’s treatment of vampirism is, as you would expect, in the tradition of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (after all, he’s a character). The vampires can turn into bats and/or mist, they drink blood occasionally, they can’t be seen in mirrors, they require the soil of their homeland to be kept close at all times and they can also walk around during the day…. most of the time. This novel is somewhat inconsistent about this at times.

However, one break from tradition in this novel is that Dracula isn’t the villain. This novel seems to be a sequel to another novel (the title “The Dracula Tape” is name-dropped a couple of times) and there are some brief references to Holmes and Watson’s previous encounters with vampires, and the entwined histories of the Holmes and Dracula families. Bizarrely, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are cousins, and they both work together to deal with the vampiric events at the heart of the story. Which is kind of cool, if somewhat bizarre.

The characters in this novel are all reasonably good, and are on a par with what you would expect from a Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker novel. Although Holmes and Watson are pretty much what you’d expect, Dracula is pretty interesting. In essence, he’s shown to be a younger-looking man who is mostly an honourable and polite fellow, who is also Holmes’ intellectual equal.

The novel’s background characters are also fairly interesting, and they receive a moderate amount of characterisation too. Plus, the fact that Saberhagen uses a name from the canon (“Altamont” is the false name that Holmes uses in “His Last Bow) is kind of cool too. The only slight fault with the characters is Saberhagen’s insistence on representing Scottish accents phonetically, which can be a bit awkward to read at times.

Plus, being a relatively modern novel that is set in the past, expect at least a few interesting historical references and cameos too. No doubt that if you are well-versed in Russian history, then one of the novel’s plot twists will be obvious from a mile away. But, although I studied parts of Russian history during my A-levels (and noticed a few other references, such as to the Okhrana etc..), this plot twist still caught me by surprise.

And, talking of the novel’s plot, it is reasonably good. I’ve already mentioned that it’s more of a thriller novel than a detective novel, the plot still moves at a reasonable pace (by the standards of early 20th century-style thriller stories), although it will seem a little slow-paced if you’re used to more modern thriller novels. The story’s dramatic events are all connected to each other in a logical fashion and there don’t seem to be any major plot holes. Plus, at about 280 pages in length (in the edition I read), this novel doesn’t really outstay it’s welcome either.

In terms of the narration, it is something of a mixed bag though. For the most part, the early 20th century-style narration seems reasonably authentic and, if you’ve read Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories, then you’ll have no problem reading it at a reasonable pace. Although there is the occasional infrequent Americanism (eg: Watson talks about an “automobile” at one point), the style and tone of the narration are really good.

However, this novel uses the dreaded rotating first-person narration – with alternating segments of the novel being narrated by Watson and Dracula. But, thankfully, this annoying narrative technique is mitigated by several factors. For starters, the original “Dracula” novel technically contains multiple narrators and, like in that novel, the presence of multiple narrators is explained by the novel being a collection of several historical documents (which also allows for a few “breaking the fourth wall” moments too).

In more practical terms, the changes between narrators are thankfully clearly announced/signposted most of the time. Likewise, apart from the later parts of the story, each narrator is usually given a reasonable amount of time between changes. Plus, Watson and Dracula have slightly different narrative voices (with Dracula’s narration being a little bit more modern) that help to set them apart from each other. And, finally, they’re Watson and Dracula! With narration by these characters, even I am willing to at least partially overlook the use of rotating first-person narration.

In terms of how this 25 year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. The historical setting and style of the novel mean that it is pretty much timeless. Plus, the few modern-style asides in the narration are still generic enough to seem current (eg: the most modern thing mentioned is a “database”).

All in all, this novel is fairly good. Yes, I’d have preferred it if there had only been one narrator and if it had been more of a detective novel than a thriller novel. But, even so, it was still a reasonably enjoyable read, and is possibly worth taking a look at if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and/or the gothic horror genre.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.