Reading a Gothic horror novel of the 18th and even 19th centuries can be jarring. Characterization in these novels tends to be stereotypical because the primary concern of the author is horror and all the gruesome and often exotic trappings that can attach to it. In the end, we are given a classic and often physical struggle between Good! and Evil! without a lot of worry about motivation and the hero’s psychological state. And what isn’t struggle is usually a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing as characters move from one place to another to do or fight evil.
I say all this because Paul Feval’s “Vampire City” is an extraordinarily difficult book to rate. To the 21st century mind — one familiar with the vampire heirs of Bram Stoker, the man who truly was the father of the modern vampire — this novel might seem flat and even silly. But Feval is in on the joke. He writes with a light and often intentionally comic touch, and pokes some gentle fun at the conventions of the genre. Consider this amusing aside towards the end of the novel: ” ______ was no longer to be feared, so the journey across the fertile but little-known fields of Bosnia — where the women dressed very becomingly — was perfectly agreeable.” Certainly that’s in the nature of a wink from an author who had enough cheek to use as his heroine, Ann Radcliffe, who is commonly thought to be the mother of the Gothic novel.
Still, this sort of pastiche is only as good as its ability to engage readers. Unless you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll be tempted to say “He’s just making all this stuff up as he goes along!” Well of course he is, this is fiction. But we’re used to fiction where we are able to suspend our disbelief across several hundred pages, so that we aren’t aware of the author’s hand. In Gothic fiction the questionable motivations, inexplicable rescues and the impossible situations can be difficult for a contemporary reader to accept. There’s a good deal of the deus ex machina to this novel, particularly when the characters are in such dire straits as to be on the verge of almost certain (horrible) death, and then they are miraculously saved by an agent of the divine. A 19th century reader might have accepted the event on face value; a 21st century one will be tempted to roll his eyes and wonder why, if God was going to save them anyway, He didn’t just keep the events from occurring to begin with. But again, Feval has the wit to provide an answer which at first seems hackneyed but in the end is rather clever. He’s a 19th century author who knows how to manipulate the conventions of his genre and that is what makes “Vampire City” so engaging.
If you can put your analytical mind on hold and step back a bit from the silliness of the events, you’ll probably enjoy “Vampire City.” Brian Stableford‘s adaptation is deft and clever, and he makes it easier for the reader to give himself over to the genre and truly enjoy the story.