Book review: War on horror: Three new novels on vampires and demons

By Elizabeth Hand
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A guide to new novels about the centuries-old fight between world leaders and monsters.

World leaders: Forget the tedium of politics. If you want to boost your approval ratings, grab an ax and attack some hellish demons.

Seth Grahame-Smith helped create the current vogue for supernatural alternate histories with his surprise bestseller, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Everything you need to know about his sophomore effort is summed up in its title, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (Grand Central, $21.99). That really is all you need to know. The novel itself is so torpid that one imagines the undead snoring in their coffins rather than rousing themselves to do battle with the man from Springfield. Eleven-year-old Abe, devastated by his mother's death at the fangs of a vampire in the backwoods, vows to avenge her: "I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America." That message is repeated two pages later: "My life shall have but one purpose. That purpose is to kill as many vampires as I can. This journal shall be where I write about killing vampires." And yes, indeed, many, many vampires are killed in the telling of this tale, usually with an ax and a well-gnawed cliche. Not even national politics can keep Abe from thwacking at his enemies, just as no amount of hugger-mugger about vampires and evil plantation owners can energize Grahame-Smith's sluggish account of the "central struggle of [Abe's] life. A struggle that eventually spilled onto the battlefields of the Civil War." Fittingly, Grahame-Smith is taking time off from these serious literary endeavors to devote himself to another project, an MTV series featuring a teenage geek whose anatomical anomaly is also summed up by its title: "The Hard Times of RJ Berger."

A.E. Moorat's "Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter" (Eos/HarperCollins; $14.99) is equally silly but vastly more fun. It's a freewheeling account of Great Britain under siege by succubi, zombies and various other of Lucifer's minions, all nicely turned out in frock coats and crinolines. Moorat (pseudonym for acclaimed U.K. suspense novelist Andrew Holmes) crowds so many characters -- historical, fictional, supernatural -- onto his Victorian stage that the effect is that of a lost Gilbert and Sullivan operetta written under the influence of opium, absinthe and black pudding. Teenage Queen Victoria, enamored of her new husband, Albert, finds that governing the empire is the least of her responsibilities. Fortunately, she has a lot of help from the indefatigable Royal Protektor, Maggie Brown, distaff relative of the real-life John Brown (later to be the queen's manservant and close friend), along with a supporting cast of urchins, archfiends, scheming members of Parliament and ravening flesh-eaters. Then there's the servant problem, which can grow complicated when one's valet becomes a shambling ghoul.

Such incursions by the Dark Side are not confined to the distant past, of course. Christopher Farnsworth's taut thriller Blood Oath (Putnam, $24.95, forthcoming next month) is an irresistible page-turner that makes one realize that, no matter how tough the War on Terror may be, at least it's not the War on Horror. Farnsworth summons his talents as a scriptwriter and journalist to spin a complex and unnervingly realistic tale in which vampire Nathaniel Cade, a Secret Service agent sworn to protect the president, is far less of a monster than his human colleagues at the CIA and FBI. The supernatural elements here are dazzlingly clever. With its labyrinthine plot and byzantine layers of government deceit, "Blood Oath" is a 21st-century riff on themes explored in such classics from America's first Paranoid Age as "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Cade is a wonderfully idiosyncratic character: a Christian renegade from the Vampire Nation who attends AA meetings to help him resist the lure of human blood. And as an added bonus, readers finally learn the truth behind the failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and that mysterious 18 1/2 -minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

Hand's 10th novel, "Illyria," will be published in May.

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