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.

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Three Reasons Why Your Short Story Collections Should Include Some Variety

Since I prepare these articles quite far in advance, I’ll be talking about last year’s Halloween stories again. In particular, I’ll be talking about why short story collections should include a somewhat varied style, emotional tone etc… – in a similar way to how the episodes of a TV series might include a mixture of comedy, horror, serious drama etc…

This was mostly because the third story in last year’s collection of “retro sci-fi” Halloween horror stories (which I’d written the day before I prepared this article) ended up being more of a vaguely Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi comedy story than the two horror stories that preceded it. At the time I wrote it, I began to worry that the series was drifting off course somewhat. But, then I realised that there were some good reasons for including this story.

So, why should your short story collections include a certain amount of variety in tone, style etc..?

1) For your own sake: Simply put, varying the tone and style of the stories in your collection can help you to write more stories. Writing exactly the same type of story over and over again can get a little bit monotonous (for both you and your readers). Not only that, including several different types of stories can also help to keep you inspired by allowing you to draw on a wider range of inspirations too.

In addition to this, it can be good emotionally too. For example, one of the problems I sometimes have with writing “serious” horror fiction is that I tend to imagine the events of the story quite vividly. This means that, even with relatively mild horror stories, I can end up in a somewhat bleak, nervous and jittery mood for at least a few hours afterwards. So, writing a more comedic story was a way to give myself a bit of a break emotionally.

Another reason why varying the style, tone etc… of your stories can be personally useful to you is that it means that a wider range of stories can be “accessible” to you. For example, although I prefer writing from a first-person perspective, the first story in last year’s Halloween collection was written from a third-person perspective. This was mostly because I realised that, in order to tell this story, I’d have to use narrative techniques that only really “worked” when I used a third-person perspective.

2) Worldbuilding and themes: If your short story collection revolves around a common location, theme and/or set of characters, then variety is an essential tool for helping your readers understand more about the central part of your collection.

By showing your collection’s common element from a variety of different “perspectives”, you can help your audience to gain a deeper understanding of it. After all, the real world includes a lot of variety. The life of, say, a detective doesn’t solely consist of solving a series of grim cases. A pub can be a place where people celebrate, as well as commiserate. The same thing can evoke different emotions in different people etc…

In addition to this, including some variety in your short story collection can help your audience to understand more about the “world” of your stories or the personality of your characters. Seeing other locations, seeing how your characters react to different things and seeing different types of stories happening in the same location can really help to satisfy (or provoke) your audience’s curiosity, which will help to immerse them more in your stories.

3) It’ll happen anyway: Simply put, when you start writing a collection of short stories, this is going to happen anyway. It seems to be an integral part of writing this type of fiction. So, you can save yourself a lot of stress by not worrying about it too much.

Seriously, even when you go back to the heyday of the short story, you can find quite a few examples of this from famous authors.

To give just one example, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes solving murders, his Holmes stories also included things like a light-hearted “non-violent” Christmas story, a third-person perspective spy story, a story where Holmes tries his hand at being a criminal, a monster story (of sorts) narrated by Holmes, America-based historical fiction in this short novel and this one too etc…

So, don’t feel bad about including variety in your story collections. Not only will it happen regardless of whether you want it to or not, but you’re also in good company too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (23rd April 2018)

I am very proud to present the fourth comic in “Damania Regression” – a new webcomic mini series of mine (featuring the characters from many of these comics, after their absence from last month’s comics).
This mini series will consist of self-contained comics and I’ll be returning to the old 4/5-panel format for this one (mostly for time, enthusiasm and/or inspiration reasons). Previous comics in this mini series can be found here: Comic One, Comic Two, Comic Three

And, yes, there is technically a massive continuity error in today’s comic (originally, when Harvey first appeared in 2012, I imagined him as an avid fan fiction writer, but I never actually mentioned it in any of the comics [it’s briefly mentioned somewhere on DeviantART, but that’s it]), but this comic idea seemed too funny not to use. Not to mention that it’s been ages since Harvey last got to investigate anything too.

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

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Regression – Fan Fiction” By C. A. Brown

A Perfect Example Of How To Take Inspiration Properly – A Ramble

Well, although I’ve already talked about how breaking things down into general elements is an essential part of taking inspiration properly, I thought that I’d look at a really great example of how this sort of thing can lead to radically different creative works, which are still reminiscent of each other whilst also being their own thing too.

The day before writing this article, I read a couple of E.W.Hornung’s “Raffles” stories. This was mostly due to a combination of watching this youtube video about the series a few weeks earlier and finding an old “Raffles” book whilst clearing out part of my room a week earlier.

E.W. Hornung’s “Raffles” is one part of a group of great late 19th century/ early 20th century crime stories. The most famous of these are, of course, the “Sherlock Holmes” stories written by Hornung’s brother-in-law, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But, there are also G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories too- which can often get overlooked slightly.

(For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I won’t include either Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” or Allain and Souvestre’s “Fantômas” in my comparisons. But, these two characters are worth looking at if this article interests you.)

Although I’ve read a lot more “Sherlock Holmes” stories than “Father Brown” or “Raffles” stories (yet, at least), it’s pretty clear that neither of them would have existed if it wasn’t for Sherlock Holmes. Yet, neither character or collection of stories is a carbon copy of Conan Doyle’s stories.

Yes, there are a lot of similarities. They’re all stories that revolve around crime, they each feature a highly intelligent man and/or his companions, they’re all set in late 19th century/early 20th century Britain etc… But the differences between these stories are what makes them so interesting.

For example, all three stories set themselves apart in terms of how they approach the subject of morality. Here’s a chart to show you what I mean:

And, yes, I just wanted an excuse to draw all three of them standing next to each other.

On one end, you’ve got Father Brown – a Catholic priest who follows his conscience intently and will sometimes even deliver moral lessons. In the middle, there’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s mostly good, but is made more interesting by a small amount of moral ambiguity. At the far end of the scale, there’s Raffles – a gentleman thief who pulls off elaborate heists just for the sport of it.

So, by changing just one element of the stories, both G.K.Chesterton and E.W. Hornung made the entire tone and atmosphere of their stories completely different from the “Sherlock Holmes” stories that inspired them.

Likewise, these stories take a slightly different approach to narration. In both “Sherlock Holmes” and “Raffles”, the narration is (for the time) fairly modern and fast-paced. Both stories focus on grabbing the reader’s attention with alarming or intriguing events. After all, these were the thriller novels of their day (well, technically, “Bulldog Drummond” and/or “The Thirty-Nine Steps” were, but let’s not split hairs…).

On the other hand, G.K.Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories are designed to be read at a much slower pace, and the narrative style reflects this. These stories will often contain much longer descriptions of characters and environments. Often, the crime won’t be solved or committed through a series of detailed fast-paced events, but will sometimes be nothing more than a background detail that helps to add flavour to the stories. Since these are stories about humanity, morality, theology and occasionally humour, this slower narrative style works in a way it wouldn’t do with “Sherlock Holmes” or “Raffles”.

But, most interesting of all, there’s the way that each collection of stories critiques the others. It seems like E.W. Hornung wrote his “Raffles” stories, because he was curious about what Sherlock Holmes would be like if he was a criminal.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reacting to “Raffles”, wrote a story called “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton” in 1904. This is a story where Holmes and Watson break into a blackmailer’s house in order to retrieve compromising documents for a client. Although this story derives a lot of it’s thrills from “Sherlock Holmes breaking the law“, it’s also a subtle criticism of “Raffles” because there’s a lot of discussion about the moral elements of what they are doing. Likewise, it’s also made very clear that – unlike “Raffles”- they aren’t breaking the law for personal gain, but for a more moral purpose.

G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, on the other hand, are a criticism of the more “scientific” approach to crime taken in both “Sherlock Holmes” and “Raffles”. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown is more likely to try to convince a criminal to see the error of their ways than he is to hand them over to the police. He sees crime as a human issue, rather than as an abstract puzzle to be solved.

Likewise, these stories also contain a “Raffles”-like gentleman thief called Flambeau. In one memorable moment, Father Brown gives an impassioned speech to Flambeau about how “good” criminals often gradually become more evil and unprincipled over the course of their lives. This is pretty clearly a criticism of “Raffles”.

So, yes, this group of stories is the perfect example of inspiration taken properly. These stories share common elements, but they are interpreted in radically different ways by their respective authors. These stories may have a lot in common, but they each express their own unique and distinctive worldview. They each contain original characters who differ greatly from each other. They also take an intelligent look at both their inspirations and their contemporaries too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Mr. Holmes” (Film)

2017-artwork-mr-holmes-review

Although I’d heard of “Mr. Holmes” before, I didn’t get round to seeing it until shortly before writing this review. Since I was fairly tired at the time of writing this review, it may be shorter or more abrupt than my usual reviews are.

Likewise, this review may contain some minor SPOILERS

As you may have guessed from the title, “Mr. Holmes” is a film (from 2015) about Sherlock Holmes. Set in 1947, this film focuses on Holmes as an old man who lives near the Sussex coast with a housekeeper and her son. Like in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Holmes has dedicated himself to beekeeping in his old age.

However, thanks to both his failing memory and the curiosity of the housekeeper’s son, Holmes realises that he cannot recall the exact reason why he retired from detective work. He has vague memories of a case, but he suspects that Watson’s account of it was inaccurate. So, he must try to find out what actually happened during his final case….

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it both was and wasn’t what I expected it to be. Although Holmes’ final case is an important part of the story, it isn’t really the main focus of the film in the way I had expected it to be. This is more of a poignant, tragic drama featuring Sherlock Holmes than a Sherlock Holmes film. It is also a film that will probably make you cry at least once.

Yet, despite the morose and sombre tone of the film, there are still hints of classic Sherlock Holmes within it. For example, he points out that 221b Baker Street was a false address created by Watson in order to prevent tourists bothering them. Likewise, there’s even a short Basil Rathbone-style segment too.

However, although Holmes does make a few clever deductions, they often tend to be fairly understated instead of celebrated. In other words, Holmes is presented as an intelligent, but ordinary, person – rather than the subtly superhuman character found in the stories.

Likewise, Holmes’ final case isn’t exactly the kind of story that Conan Doyle would have written. Then again, this is the whole point of the film’s story. It’s a story about Holmes’ weaknesses rather than his strengths. But, if you are expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes mystery, then you’re probably going to be slightly disappointed.

In terms of the set design and filming, I cannot fault “Mr. Holmes”. Although most of the film is set within Holmes’ house by the coast, this is broken up by numerous flashbacks to both Holmes’ final case in London and a trip to Japan that he took in 1945/6, in search of a medicinal plant. All of the locations look suitably realistic, whilst also looking stunningly dramatic at the same time.

The acting in this film is, quite simply, superb. Although I disliked the tragic tone of the film, it was only able to carry as much emotional weight as it did because of strong performances from all of the central cast. Ian McKellen in particular gives an absolutely stellar performance as the elderly Holmes, although the decision that he should also play the “younger” version of Holmes was slightly ill-judged in my opinion. Whilst there is some contrast between the two versions of Holmes, it doesn’t really seem as great as the 25-30 year time difference that the film suggests.

Surprisingly though, Watson is never directly shown in this film. He is talked about, he appears in the distant background once, and we see a few close-ups of his hands but, we never really see him. Although I can understand the dramatic reasons for this – since it is very much a film about Holmes rather than Watson – it would have been nice to see more of Watson in this film.

All in all, as a drama film, this film is excellent and it carries a lot of emotional weight. However, it doesn’t really fit into my personal idea of what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. But, it’s a creative experiment that tries to explore and present the character in a complex, nuanced and unconventional way, and I have to respect it for that. But, if you’re expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes adaptation, then you’re better off watching the sublimely brilliant ITV adaptation from the 1980s/90s.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, I’d probably give it about a four due to it’s creativity and the high quality of the acting, filming, writing etc… even if it wasn’t really my kind of Sherlock Holmes film.

Today’s Art (13th October 2016)

It is elementary! My long-running “Damania” webcomic series has reappeared for another mini series 🙂 You can catch up on the previous mini series here, here, here, here and here.

Yay! Finally, Sherlock Holmes has appeared in this mini series! He was (sort of) supposed to appear a few comics ago, but I had a different idea at the time.

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

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Reappears - The Science Of Detection" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Reappears – The Science Of Detection” By C. A. Brown