God’s blessings to you on this the nineteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.
I recently read Brian Niemeier’s free short story, Izcacus. It was an interesting read, both while I was reading it and afterwards. It’s a good use of fifteen minutes. Unfortunately short stories lend themselves to short reviews, because (when well written) they’re so tightly written that talking about them gives away too much information. At least I have that problem. Russell Newquist would probably find a way around it, as he’s very good at writing reviews, I’ve noticed.
But I am going to talk about Izcacus, so this is your warning that there will be spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading here (until you’ve gone and read the story, at which point please come back).
Or here, that would work too.
Even here, really. But that’s it. The next paragraph will have spoilers in it, so stop reading now if you haven’t read it and don’t want to encounter spoilers.
I should begin by saying that I went in knowing that Izcacus was written as an attempt to bridge the gap between religious vampires and scientific vampires. So I didn’t some at it with perfectly fresh eyes, as it were. That will naturally color my thoughts on the story, but probably it has a bigger impact on my reaction to it than my considered thoughts about it.
The first thing I find interesting about Izcacus is that it uses what my friend Michael referred to as epistolary narration. That is, several characters narrate the story in the form of emails, letters, blog posts, journal entries, and most interestingly letters to a dead brother. It’s by no means an unheard of device, but it’s not overly common, and as Michael reminded me, it is also the narrative device in Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I doubt that coincidence is accidental, though I haven’t asked Brian about it. He uses the device well and avoids its weakness—it can easily become very confusing to have multiple narrators—while taking advantage of its strength. In particular, it allows a lot of character development in few words, since the voice of the character tells you a lot about them. Not merely the words they choose or their commentary, but also what they choose to talk about and what they leave out. Editorial decisions tell you as much about a person as creative decisions, if they tell it to you more subtly.
Second is that one of the problems that every horror author is faced with in the modern world is that horror and modern technology don’t blend well. I don’t mean that they can’t, but a person with a cell phone can—in normal circumstances—call for help so that they won’t feel alone. Of course, that doesn’t always do much. (There was a news story a while back about a russian teenager who called her mother on the phone while a bear was eating her. She died before any help could arrive. More locally, there was a hunter who shot himself with a crossbow and called 911 but was dead before they arrived. If a broadhead cuts a major blood vessel, you can bleed to death in as little as about 45 seconds. I’ve seen a deer pass out in about 20 seconds.) But there is still a big difference in mood between knowing that help is on its way and won’t arrive in time versus not even being able to call for help. By setting the story on a remote mountain without cell service, and further where they had to trespass russian law to even be, this problem was solved very neatly. There are plenty of very remote places in the world and if you haven’t told anyone that you’re going there, no one will ever come looking for you there. (One reason why the Pennsylvania hunter safety course emphasizes telling people where you are going hunting and when you will be back, every single time.) Structurally, I really like this.
The mood is done well about isolation and danger and so on, but in general I’m far more interested in structure than mood—possibly because I have a very powerful and active imagination and can imagine the mood for myself even if it is not described, but my philosophical side rebels against plot holes. Pleasantly, there are no plot holes in Izcacus, which I appreciated. And the structure is very interesting indeed when we come to the central point of the story: vampirism. Izcacus, we find out, means “blood-drinker” in the local dialect, and the mountain climbers eventually find a cave with some old but suspiciously fresh corpses. And here is where Brian marries religious with scientific vampires. Vampirism is a form of demonic possession, but possession requires the cooperation of the possessed. And so the demons have created a virus—which walks the line between living and inanimate—as a means of entering healthy hosts. The virus acts in its natural fashion to weaken the host; by putting them in extremes of pain and weakness, the host becomes more willing to accept the possession which will rid them of the pain. And as the story (or rather, one of its characters) noted, after death the body becomes merely material. This is a very interesting take on vampirism, adding some very interesting technical detail to the mechanism of becoming a vampire. It’s not as blood-centric as vampirism traditionally is, and in fact one weakness of the story is that it isn’t made very clear why the vampires are called blood-drinkers at all. No one is exsanguinated that I can recall, and any wound seems to suffice for entrance of the virus. Granted, one of the characters was bitten on the neck, but another seemed to be infected by a cut on her shoulder. And this is somewhat inherent in the nature of blood-born viruses. If saliva will work for transmission, blood-to-blood contact will as well. (As will semen-to-blood transmission, but fortunately Izcacus is not that sort of story.) So while it’s an interesting step forward for the mechanics of vampirism, it seems to come somewhat at the expense of some of the (recent) traditional lore of vampirism. (Update: Brian clarified what I misunderstood.)
(That is not in itself bad, of course; I gather one staple of horror is re-interpreting older horror stories so as to create fresh lore; essentially producing a sense of realism by treating previous fiction as existing but inaccurate. Horror is not one of the genres I normally seek out, so I’m not very familiar with its conventions—or perhaps I should say its unconventions. And if you want to take that as a semi-punning reference to the undead, I’m powerless to stop you. But if you do, please feel a deep and lasting sense of shame because of it. That’s not really a pun.)
But, what it sacrifices in traditional vampire lore, it makes up for in the reason why anyone is going near the wretched things in the first place. My two favorite vampire stories are Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Interview with the Vampire (the movie; I’ve never read the book, which a good friend has told me isn’t as good; the screenplay for the movie was written by Ann Rice who wrote the book, so it is plausible that her second try was better than her first). In both cases the vampires can pass as living men and come into human society on their own, though in Dracula he does at first lure Jonathan Harker to his castle in Transylvania by engaging his legal services. But it is really Harker’s legal services which are required, there, he isn’t interested in Harker as food (at least not for himself). In Izcacus the vampires are not nearly so able to pass in human society, so the humans must come to them. This is in line with other stories (most of which I haven’t seen or read) where the humans venture into the vampire’s territory. I think that there the lure is some sort of treasure, whether real or actual, but while greedy protagonists make for relatively pity-free vampire chow, they don’t make for sympathetic protagonists. In Izcacus there are really two motives which drive the characters; a noble motive which drives all but one of them, and a far more sinister motive which drives her. The official reason for this clandestine meeting is to recover the bodies of people who had died trying to summit Izcacus, while the hidden reason is to recover samples of the disease which was the reason the Russians sealed off access to Izcacus in the first place. Thus it is the backers of terrorism who are funding the expedition in the hope of retrieving such a virulent virus to be used as a bio-terrorism weapon (thinking of it only as deadly, and not as diabolical). I find that very satisfying because instead of a pedestrian tale like greed going wrong (who doesn’t know greed will go wrong?), it’s the much more richly symbolic tale of the problem with making deals with the devil. As Chesterton noted, the devil is a gentleman and doesn’t keep his word. The devil may promise power, but has no interest in delivering on it. I’m told there’s a line in one of the tellings of Faust where after selling his soul for knowledge, mephistopheles tells faust he doesn’t have that knowledge to give, whereupon Faust is indignant that he had been lied to. As I understand it, Mephistopheles basically said, “I’m a devil, what did you expect?” It’s one of the reasons why I’m so fond of the short form of the baptismal vows in the Catholic rite of baptism. “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” It’s a terrible idea to expect the devil to keep his promises; it’s more his style to bite the hand he’s shaking.
Glory to God in the highest.