Sunday, April 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

BLOOD HUNT by Lee Killough

Oh, if she’d only known.

In 1987, Lee Killough produced a police procedural mystery novel which Tor marketed as a horror story. The decision is reasonable; after all, the killer is a vampire. And, as of about a quarter of the way through the book, so is the detective trying to bring her to justice. That’s not a spoiler, by the way… or if it is, you can blame the publisher(s). In its original incarnation by Tor, the cover image is that of the vampiric detective waiting, gun raised, behind a brick wall.

The book became a sleeper hit. That’s a term for the type of book which garners a strong fan following by word-of-mouth, but which had a print run too low to allow people to easily find the story and read it. The problem with sleeper hits is that while it may drive up the price of the book on the secondary market, there’s usually not enough clamor or critical acclaim to induce a publisher to drop the cash for another printing. It gets a reader hardcore fans, but only a relatively small group of them.

The book was followed up with Bloodlinks, and both were eventually reprinted by Meisha Merlin in the late 1990s under the omnibus title Blood Walk. It is far, far easier to find an omnibus edition than the original Blood Hunt, and it’s likely to cost less.

That said, I started this review out bemoaning Killough’s lack of foreknowledge. In this case, one thing could have changed the publishing world: gender.

Killough produces an engaging hero, a beguiling villain who vexes the protagonist with problems of romantic attraction and a sense of duty, supernatural powers and troubles, an enjoyable cast of secondary characters, and a strong mystery well developed. If the genders of her two main characters were reversed, Lee Killough would have created the modern supernatural fantasy/romance nearly a decade earlier than the current famous names. And, from the quality of this book, she’d have done as good a job as any in the field, and a better job than most.

Homicide Detective Garreth Mikaelian is hunting a beautiful murderess, and underestimates her. In the process, he becomes a vampire. Lane has killed many times before, but always ensured that the people she’s drained cannot come back. Knowing she had an opportunity to do so with him, Garreth has to end her slayings and simultaneously discover why she singled him out. The resultant blend of action and characterization blends into a fine literary cocktail.

If you don’t like vampires but do like police procedurals, I recommend this book. If you don’t like police procedurals but do like vampires, I recommend this book. If you like both, you should have this book enshrined on a shelf already.

Five stars out of five.

THE MANSE by Lisa W. Cantrell

Blood Hunt is a mystery/fantasy with horror elements done right, but The Manse is a traditional horror novel done right. They could both be shelved together… and likely were, as this also came out in 1987, but the experience of reading them is completely different.

Cantrell stays within the bounds of convention by staying with the same protagonist throughout the book and by having a wonderfully macabre cover by Bob Eggleton. That’s it.

You get a minor character who is introduced shortly into the book, and who gets an inordinate amount of coverage as the menace starts to develop. Nothing unusual in that… it’s a classic sign of the character who is going to die to demonstrate how horrible the creature - in this case a haunted house - can be. This secondary character, however, is a little kid. Eight years old, brave, and innocent. So, we all know, this character will barely survive, although at the expense of another developing character. The kid will then probably warn everyone of the danger, but won’t be believed.

Nope. The kid dies.

Let me repeat that, for those who might not be paying attention: The. Kid. Dies. I won’t go into detail, but it’s not a pleasant death.

That’s just the start. Conventions are dispatched for this novel, in which people who are generally portrayed as cardboard cutouts show surprising yet believable depth, the violence ranges from graphic and direct to off-camera and suggestive, some people who “should” die walk away unscratched, some heroic characters die, and just often enough a traditional plot device is used exactly in its standard format… just often enough to prevent a reader from guessing how things will occur by assuming the opposite of the usual.

This book won the Stoker for first novel. Cantrell went on to do a few more horror novels, and then (as if bringing it around to tie these reviews together) produced a police procedural mystery novel which had an horrific supernatural element to it, Boneman.

I don’t know what Cantrell is doing today, but I wish she were still writing horror like this.

Five stars out of five.

BLACK AMBROSIA by Elizabeth Engstrom

This book came out in 1988, and I have no idea what Engstrom’s influences were. If I had to guess, I’d toss out James Ellroy, maybe Theodore Sturgeon’s “Some of Your Blood”… whatever inspired her to write this book, the inspiration was appreciated.

The old arguments about women in horror continue. There’s a panel about it at just about every horror convention, and at many of the larger fantasy conventions. It’s almost as common as filking (although less fun if you’re drunk, and more fun if you’re sober.)

To which I say: enough. The first novel I started off with is a great example of a woman writing an action/horror piece; the second is a great “pure” horror story, and this one nails moody, emotional horror perfectly.

We get the travels of a young woman whose experiences steadily convince her that she is not human, but rather a vampire. She kills people and drinks their blood, and battles her dark impulses which are, ultimately, nothing more and nothing less than the emotional swings experienced by most teenagers. The reader watches as she goes from unstable to insane, and watches the same thing happen to the young man who is tracking her.

The writing style is intentionally poetic, and it sets the mood wonderfully. If it were a movie, it would barely register on the Joe-Bob Briggs scale… a neck chewing here, an attempted rape there, no interesting Kung-fu deaths… but it’s pretty damned awesome.

Five stars out of five.

(Not mentioned here: All sorts of crappy horror novels of the 1980s, also written by women. Just as it’s a fallacy that women can’t write horror well, it’s also a fallacy that they’re any more immune than men to producing dreck. And, oh, have I read some of those books.)

To end this trip back in time, we’re not going as far back as usual. I wanted to include at least one bona-fide horror classic by a woman. And as tempting as it was, I didn’t want to be too obvious (thus the lack of The Lottery or Frankenstein.) Instead….


Daphne du Maurier gave us one of the best horror stories of the twentieth century, and most people don’t remember that she had anything to do with it. That story rounds out this collection from 1977 which amassed her stories from the 1950s through 1970s.

The stories are all noteworthy, and range in tone from the physically violent to the emotionally disturbing. The collection begins with the novella “Don’t Look Now“, which was adapted into the film of the same name. It follows up with “The Apple Tree“, which plays with being a literary descendant of an M.R. James story by way of technical realism. The cover illustration is inspired by the short story “The Blue Lenses“. “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” is a thriller disguised as a love story. Other stories fill the book with pleasant variety.

And then there’s the final story, “The Birds”.

People hear that title, and they think of the Hitchcock movie. The more film-and-literature oriented might remember the odd trivia of the screenplay being written by Evan Hunter, a.k.a. Ed McBain. But a surprising few know it was Du Maurier who wrote the story.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: the story is much, much better than the movie. And I liked the movie.

Five stars out of five.

Next month, another theme month: Supernatural detectives!

--Bill Lindblad