Baltimore: Clickworks Press, 2015; 330 pp.
Review by Eve Tushnet
On its surface, Gabriel Blanchard’s Death’s Dream Kingdom (Clickworks Press 2013) is a conventional vampire novel done right—with all the trimmings, the dead aestheticism and the vampire politicking and the killer sunlight and the claws. But the book uses its creepy creatures to portray shame and religious despair (and hope) with rare intensity.
In this first book of a projected trilogy, a young Catholic lady in Victorian England starts to traffic in spiritualism—and, at a séance where she had hoped to communicate with her late mother, she is instead attacked by a vampire and turned into one of the undead. Marie is thrust into a vampire underworld full of intrigue, where a revolutionary egalitarian movement is brewing and an extraordinarily awful Christian heretical sect is forcing conversion among the undead. As she explores her new unlife and gets to know her fellow bloodsuckers, she also discovers that William, the devout Catholic who was her fiancé when she lived, has for years been a “courtesan” or willing human food source for vampires—and he’s partly responsible for her undeath. But then it turns out that there might be a cure for her condition. . . .
The book is full of allusive art and music: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, The Holy Communion of St Teresa of Avila or of Jesus, Don Giovanni. Blanchard never forgets to describe the architecture, the gowns, all the elaborate sensuality of this dead destructive world. There are plot-relevant references to the Middle English Alliterative Revival and the Pilgrimage of Grace. All the Latin and the quotations from decadent poets would start to feel pretentious–okay, now and then it does feel pretentious–if the quotations weren’t so well chosen. He jams Tertullian and Hegel into a two-page span, and it actually deepens the book’s characterization and themes! There’s an especially sordid use of Augustine and some very poignant bits of the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. There are sharp little one-liners (“She had been murdered in cold blood to round out a dinner party”). Many vampire-book authors want to write this way, but Blanchard is better at it.
The writing style is flamboyantly old-fashioned. This is fun when it means “silvern” and “faeces”; more jarring when it means “Hindoo” and “Mahometan.” There’s a point to the occasional nasty references to Jews and “n—– slaves”: The vampires, every single one of them, including the supposed egalitarians and those attempting to maintain genuine Christian religion, are upper- class predators. I did fear that the book would treat antique racial attitudes as just another piece of decor, but in the end I thought the diction was a harsh, intrusive way to distance us from characters whose wealth and power might otherwise become too seductive.
There are some flaws. The prose in the first fifty pages can be rough: overcomplicated dialogue tags, repetition of adjectives (“leonine”) and actions (characters “tangling their fingers together”). The action scenes usually take place in a kind of fugue state, where the reader has to piece together what’s happened once the fight is over.
The biggest flaw is related to one of the book’s biggest strengths. Marie’s fiancé, the courtesan William, spends the first half of the book as its most emotionally complex character by far, and then becomes basically a flawless prince-charming. He’s very sweet, and the romance is fun. But he’s a sincere Catholic, reporting all his liaisons with the undead in the confessional, and yet the courtesan of a high-ranking vampire: humiliated, treated as someone else’s property, ashamed before his beloved, yet also experiencing what Blanchard describes as the thrill of being hunted and fed on. I wish we saw that thrill, what drew him to the night life and what he gets out of it. How did it start for him? What will he miss, if he manages to escape? Death’s Dream Kingdom is very much Marie’s story and not his, but he’s such a great character that I wish Blanchard had kept him dirtier.
The novel’s other great strength is the steely sincerity of its religion. Vampires are burned by Bibles and blessed objects; prayers sear their mouths. Two of the main vampires were faithful Catholics in life, and we see their reactions to the realization that obedience has become both physically agonizing and seemingly pointless. This is vampires as a fantasy of being subhuman—a metaphorical representation of the feeling that faith and obedience are simply unavailable to you. There’s a deep despair hanging over this novel. But it’s not seduced by that despair—despair is the enemy.
There are plenty of delights in Kingdom, starting with the framing device that the book is Marie’s own diary, edited with the help of researchers like “Jacob Cinnamome (PhD Prohibited Mss, St Isaac Lebowitz Coll)” and “Fr Forrest Saint-Etienne (PhD Paradoxical History, Miskatonic Univ).” But Blanchard never forgets what he’s writing about: the Four Last Things.