Ignatius Press, 2018, 440 pp.
Review by Karen Ullo
Several years ago, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson (nee Donlon) published an essay in Dappled Things called “Cinemanemia, or Revenge of the Bloodsucked,” in which she wrote, “[T] here is a lot more at stake in the vampyric character than is commonly conceived. There is a sacramental intensity which is rarely realized in book or film: vampyrism as the anti-Eucharist.” Near the end of the essay, Nicholson—who is the editor of the Ignatius Critical Edition of Dracula and a formidable vampire scholar—also tantalizingly mentions, “Perhaps someday the true dramatic potential of vampyrism will be fully realized. (There are no silver-bullet solutions, but I have a notion of how it could be done—and perhaps someday I shall have the time to do it.)”
Since the publication of that essay, Nicholson has found the time not only to realize her dramatic vision, but to achieve a feat that leaves many of us, her fellow Catholic novelists, gaping in jaw-dropped awe: she convinced a major Catholic press to publish a horror novel. This fact, in itself, ought to give readers an idea of the depth of the work Nicholson presents in her brand- new release, A Bloody Habit.
Nicholson offers up horror with a deft hand for gore, with a hefty dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and “with eternal apologies to Bram Stoker and to the Order of Preachers for taking such liberties.” The story is loosely based on Dracula; each chapter begins with a paragraph-sized quote from Bram Stoker’s novel, and Stoker himself makes a cameo appearance. Nicholson’s narrator is a young English lawyer named John Kemp who—like Dracula’s Jonathan Harker—begins his story on a business trip eastward, toward Budapest. He travels on behalf of his “cadaverous” client Edgar Kilbronson, whose Hungarian wife Elisabetta has gone missing, and he has brought along the sensational new novel Dracula to read en route. On the train, he meets a Dominican friar who is rather too friendly for the taciturn Kemp’s taste. Kemp can hardly get away from the cheerful little Papist fast enough, but that night in his sleeping compartment, with his dreams already infected by the Stoker novel, Kemp encounters a creature with “shining, sharp, animal-like white teeth.” He then reads the Dominican’s visiting card, which proclaims him to be “Rev. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., Vampire Slayer.”
As a proper skeptic, Kemp attempts to discount the whole affair as absurd. But his return to London is marked by a series of eerie, seemingly preternatural events, including a series of brutal murders, the mysterious illness of his presumed fiancée Adele Lawson, and the entrance of the American heiress Esther Raveland into his life, a woman who becomes the object of both Kemp’s romantic desires and his growing, irrational fears of dread dark powers. And of course—to both his horror and relief—Kemp’s association with the strange Dominican “vampire slayer” has only just begun.
Central to the story is the tension between skeptical respectability and truth, as Kemp clings to the former like a lifeboat in the midst of the appalling events that surround him.
Yet the lifeboat of the ordinary and explicable is what prevents Kemp from acknowledging the threats that endanger him and his loved ones. As he is plagued by “irrational” nightmares, it is only Kemp’s insistence that what is happening around him is, in fact, irrational that keeps his mind in turmoil. Fr. Gilroy and his brother friars, who have fully accepted the strangeness of the truth, are ever calm and serene.
A Bloody Habit covers much of the same physical ground as Dracula, and the same spiritual ground as well, but with an entirely new story and a greater theological clarity than its forebear. In fact, Nicholson makes a point of correcting Stoker’s theological errors, often explicitly, through the voice of Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy:
“I have hope, John Kemp, because my hope is grounded in Good. For weeks, our one topic of conversation has been evil. Its varieties, its cunning. Its plans. Now it has become a topic that is tragically personal to you. But the real strength, and power, and thrilling creativity comes, not from evil, but from goodness. Stoker was wrong about that. Deeply wrong. The captivation of evil is on par with a cheap parlor trick in comparison with the awesome, fascinating wonderment of the Good. For that Goodness is Love.”
Nicholson’s presentation of the language, manners, and places of Victorian London is effortless and entirely convincing, grounded in the great depth of her research and true mastery of writing. Though Nicholson is American, her Victorian dialogue is more convincing than that of most British authors, and her sense of humor is on full display throughout.
If I have a criticism to lodge, it is that I wish the women in this book had played more active roles. The novel’s three major females—Esther Raveland, Adele Lawson, and the mysterious Elisabetta Kilbronson—all play the role of damsel in distress, although Esther exhibits some true American spunk. There is, however, a certain Mrs. Pritchard who wins the day in one of the intermediate battles—a force against whom none of the male heroes would ever wish to grapple.
Ultimately, Nicholson does what good Christian horror novelists do: she dares an honest look at a world that is bloody and reeking with the corruption of sin, then shines the Light of Lights upon it to breathe hope into darkness and life into death. That she does so with an impeccable ear for turn-of-the-century English and a dry wit worthy of George Bernard Shaw makes A Bloody Habit a brilliant combination of edification and fun.