Thursday, April 9, 2020

Nightchills



Despite not being much of a horror guy when growing up, I've been trying to turn that around n recent years. In becoming a pulp writer one should learn the ins and outs of all the sub-genres that float around action and adventure, after all. Horror is always relevant.

However, it didn't quite give most of us a window in when I was growing up. The days of Weird Tales were long gone and forgotten by then.

When I was a kid in the early '90s, Splatterpunk was the horror of choice. There wasn't much else at the time as horror was on the way out. If you wanted to get into it your options were limited.

Sure I enjoyed some things for my age-set such as Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but an early watch of Alien had almost convinced me the genre wasn't for me. I didn't quite get the point. It didn't also help that horror was more or less being written out of the old publishing world by the mid-90s when Goosebumps really hit its peak popularity. Getting into horror wasn't straightforward. Like most things in life, I had to find a way into it myself.

Starting with reading Paperbacks From Hell, I've been trying to get into some of the horror I missed before Splatterpunk, and then Thrillers, completely usurped the genre. There is no shortage of fascinating books in Paperbacks From Hell's pages. One of the books that gained my interest was Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale, a vampire book from 1990. I wrote a bit about this in my previous horror post, but I hadn't yet read the book when writing about it. But now I have.

The reason I read this was because it was described as 'Salem's Lot with more Uzis, and was just recently put back into print thanks to Valancourt Books. They have been re-releasing books mentioned in Paperbacks From Hell under that banner, keeping the old cover-art and leaving everything else untouched. So I decided to go for it. Since we're all about the Pulp Revolution over here at Wasteland & Sky, I'm going to try and see how it fits in with what we know about modern horror, as well as what it was like when this was written.

Things were very different in 1990 than they are 30 years later.

To start with, the description of "'Salem's Lot with Uzis" tells only half the story. For one, the book is about half the length of Stephen King's famous vampire novel, has protagonists that aren't dull as dishwater, it doesn't take forever to get going, and there is a clear divide between good and evil. There is only one blemish that is inherited by a stupid trope King injected into vampire mythos, but I do not believe Martindale put it there for any reason other than everyone else did it at the time. I'll go into that later. For now, let us discuss what it does right. Because there is a quite a bit.

What is important to say is that this is a horror book. It has chills, it's eerie, and disturbing things happen. If you are expecting this book to not have those things then you probably don't want to be reading horror. What is important is execution, and Nightblood sticks the landing with aplomb.

It's split into three parts. The first deals with the introduction of the characters and the build up to the vampires. This part establishes the atmosphere of Isherwood, which is a typical small Midwestern town from the 1980s. Our hero, a Vietnam vet named Chris Stiles shows up in town looking for a clue to his brother's death. He slowly meets the residents and scours the town. At the same time, two boys end up staying overnight in a haunted mansion on a dare and end up meeting a real life vampire! They have no idea what insanity is about to be unleashed on Isherwood.

The second part focuses on the vampires taking over the town, much like in 'Salem's Lot, though in this one the main character fights back and Martindale does linger forever on those saps being turned. He gets straight into it without wasting time. This is when things go from seven to ten. Stakes are laid on the table and everything falls apart.

In the last part, Stiles and the survivors reach the morning and decide what to do to survive the next night. He comes up with a plan, and the night ends up being way more eventful than anything Stephen King thought up in his famous novel. And unlike that book, there is an actual satisfying ending here instead of the literary equivalent of a wet fart.

Where King's books was very 1970s: horribly depressing, no hope, and a lot of meandering ultimately leading to nothing, Martindale's book is very 1980s.

Perhaps I should explain.

For one the kids are typical of Gen Y, pop culture savvy and ignorant of spiritual concerns. The adults are Boomers oblivious to deeper issues yet well-meaning types. The Gen X teens are cynical yet not completely without merit. The elderly Greatest Generation are a bit creaky yet still very knowledgeable. The people are exactly how you would remember life in 1990.

Then there's the setting. The music is hair metal, there are reruns of old sitcoms on the TV, comic books and horror magazines hidden from Mom, and hanging out after dark to sneak around. It's like stepping back in time to a whole other era--one that no longer exists.

And it is clear that Martindale actually likes this world and the people in it. They all have hopes, dreams, likes, and dislikes, and they all have clear reasons for doing what they want to do. The good people are good, and the bad people are bad. The main character, Stiles, is a Vietnam vet who uses his experiences to help others instead of playing the "crazed loner" part that First Blood made so popular. Even the villain, a soulless master vampire, feels like a complete character. Every time they show up on page you want to know what it is they are going to do next.

There are no potshots over politics, religion, or a "certain type" the author clearly dislikes, in Nightblood. Isherwood is portrayed as a normal small Midwest town populated with normal people, and Martindale's views of normal people is refreshingly anti-modern. Some are decent, some are not, but they aren't one-note. These are people you want to see get through this unbridled mayhem.

It also doesn't hurt that the book basicallt becomes a 1980s action movie in its back half. And I mean that in all the best ways. Explosions, traps, gunplay . . . even some martial arts. And it doesn't weaken the horror. It actually makes the horrors worse when you need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando to even stand half a chance. And just barely, at that.

The action is brisk, hard-hitting, and very pulp. It gets straight to the point. There s very clear morality here: vampires are bad, evil. They only live to devour and nothing else. Some people break under pressure, other step up, some die, some live, but the book never feels nasty or spiteful about it. That's just what would happen in such a situation. Then there s romance in the book between our main character and a widowed mom. It works well in unexpected ways. In Nightblood, neighbors, love, and home, are all worth fighting for.

This is very anti-Stephen King, in all the best ways. Morality is necessary, and is treated as if it matters.




Now, when I speak about morality, I bring it up because morality is the most important part of a good horror story. The dichotomy between what is good and what is evil drives it. This contrast is what makes the evil all the more jarring when it shows up. In his book, the two are so opposed that they are exact polar opposites which makes their interaction all the better for readers. The back and forth between hero and villain is one of the best parts of the book.

The villain also fulfills the horror mandate of someone breaking the rules and unleashing chaos on the innocent. It is his decisions the spur on the ensuing madness our protagonist must deal with in the events of Nightblood. The only way to put everything right again is to stop him. The stakes are clear, as is the general morality of the story. Humans worth saving, vampires worth shooting. It's very straightforward.

However, despite all this there is one thing about the book I didn't like, though it is more of a general issue of the era it was written in. It was a silly trope everyone who wrote a vampire story at the time used. If you've seen Fright Night (also mentioned in the book) or read 'Salem's Lot then you might know what this is getting at.

The usual things work against vampires in Nightblood. There is no Anne Rice subversion that just won't seem to go away after decades of tired use. Stakes, silver (you'll see), fire, and sunlight. They all harm and can even kill them. They can also not enter houses unless invited in. hey are very traditional, for the most part.

However, this book lets one rule slip in that King introduced in his book which is just as nonsensical here as it is in any other work. I live for the day this hoary idea is put to pasture.

The "Crucifix only works if you have faith" trope is in this book. It barely features, and I'm sure it was only put in because it was all the rage at the time, but it doesn't change the fact that it makes no sense. It is a misunderstanding of the monster itself. "Faith" has nothing to do with why a Crucifix repels vampires.

The reason the Crucifix.frightens vampires is because Jesus Christ is the Living God who has conquered Death. He is the Blood of Life. He represents the complete opposite of what vampires are, just as Bram Stoker intended, and that is why they cannot stand the sight of what they are not. It is a reminder that they are a mockery of what they wish to be.

It is the same reason they cannot enter any Church: the Church is God's house, it is not the clergy's. They cannot invite vampires in, even if they have weak faith. It isn't up to them. God will never let demons into His House, and can't be tricked like we can. Ironically, this second one is something King got right while everyone up to Joss Whedon keep messing up on even years later.

Nothing in that explanation has anything to do with "Faith", it's about reality. The vampires cannot face the reality of what they are.

This trope is just something tacked to modern stories on because writers wanted to be multicultural and "inclusive", and King wanted to make a statement on the waning faith of the modern world. Those are cute ideas, but that's not as meaningful as the original strength of the Crucifix. If belief is enough to repel vampires then the bullets Stiles believes in should kill every vampire he shoots with it because he believes in his bullets. But they don't. Because this notion doesn't make any sense on a metaphysical level.

However, I don't think it was done this way in Nightblood as any sort of slight. There is no hatred of Christianity or Christians in this book. There is quite a bit of talk about the importance of faith and a purpose in life. One character even quotes scripture before using a Crucifix to burn a vampire's hands off in an important moment. It's just a relic of the sign of the times when one rule was completely misunderstood by the wider culture.

All this aside, I should say that I loved reading this book. It was fast-paced, exciting, and the horrors were harsh. It's everything you hope for from a modern vampire story. This was the sort of book that would have gotten me into horror had I read it back in 1990.

And, I'll just say it: this is better than 'Salem's Lot. On a pacing level alone it is more enjoyable, and that is without going into the characters, the action, or the ending. It trumps King's book in every way and is a far more enjoyable read overall.

If you want a good horror read from a time when that meant more than mindless carnage then you'll enjoy Nightblood. There is plenty of action and violence, but no glorification of evil in its pages. It's a thrill ride and a time capsule of a whole other era.

Now if only Valancourt could get the rest of Mr. Martindale's books back in print. I definitely want to read more of what he wrote. It is only a shame he stopped so soon, but that is just how it goes when dealing with Oldpub and their fascination with ending support of writers at the drop of a hat. Their loss is our gain, I suppose.

Nonetheless, this is a modern horror classic and is highly recommended. Seek it out.

You will most definitely not regret it.





9 comments:

  1. I'll check this book out if I can find it. I've never read Salem's Lot or anything by Anne Rice and I think I'll keep it that way.

    Speaking of subversion, have you ever watched the TV Show "Forever Knight"? It's about a 800 year old Vampire who is looking to repent for his sins and become mortal again by using his talents to help people as a police detective solving crimes. I remember I used to watch it as a kid and really enjoy it, but it also took some massive liberties with their interpretations of the Vampire mythos, how the Crucifix works etc. It definitely tries to "humanize" the main Vampire character, but other Vampires are definitely evil, including the main antagonist Lucien Lacroix(played expertly by Nigel Bennett)

    Thanks for explaining why the Crucifix was deadly for a vampire. Much more profound than any modern interpretation. I'll have to re-read Dracula.

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    1. I saw episodes of Forever Knight a long time ago. I'd have to re watch it to remember anything, but I wouldn't doubt they changed parts of the mythos. Network TV is usually not the place for any sort of blatant Christianity. Even something as saccharine as Touched By An Angel wasn't allowed to say Christianity is right and that show was created and run by Christians.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Is there a particular reason your scholarly dissection of horror and Catholicism hasn't addressed William Peter Blatty yet? The man is conspicuous by his absence. He's probably the most notable figure in religious horror of the last 50 years, and his work has certainly made the biggest impact. Even if you don't want to talk about The Exorcist (although you easily could, man, I know about a half dozen men under 50 who signed up for the seminary after watching it) you could still mine a rich vein of work going through Legion and The Ninth Configuration. If you don't have the time to read them you could even watch the films; the man wrote all the screenplays. (Just be careful which edition you watch, especially with regard to Legion.)
    The only issue is that Blatty's horror isn't terribly pulpy, and at its most fantastic it's closer to surrealism than action. I'd still recommend checking it out though!

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    1. I have both the Exorcist movie and book, I just have yet to get around to either of them!

      I did read his short book, Crazy, a few years ago. It was an odd story about purgatory and getting into Heaven. Didn't seem as if it was too liked, though.

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  3. Thank you for this . I may read it - and I'm someone who got burnt out early on the pointlessness of any effort in the horror I grew up with. I stuck with King wayyyyy too long because "significant author" - that was a mistake.

    Incidentally, this brings to mind Miowara Tomokato's answer in the samurai cat series, of why he's holding up a crucifix as the vampire gloats that it can't hurt him. It boils down to that yeah, he's a buddhist, and all he knows is that the vampire is trying to get him to drop the crucifix.

    Turns out that the thing worked.... heh.

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  4. Interesting text as was your previous one considering horror. It's nice to find somebody to be on a same wavelenght about this as me: horror - like fantasy - is an inherently religious genre since it needs a moral center to work. Nihilism just doesn't cut it. The shadows grow all the longer the brighter the light gets. If there is no light, there is only darkness. And pure darkness isn't terrifying, merely depressing since there would be nothing to lose. What makes The Exorcist so scary isn't the spooky make-up but the fact that it is a young girl's soul that is at stake.

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  5. Also, I have always considered horror to be a sister-genre to fantasy, they form a ying-yang pairing. Not in a moral sense but how they present the unknown. Fantasy is the paladin knight in white armor whose heavy memories remind him of darkness that needs to be fought. Horror is the goth girl who wears her scars on her sleeve but who has a good heart in right place. In fantasy, there is a sense of wonder. That is, an experience of beauty in the face of the unknown. However, there should be an equivalent concept in horror that is missing. Consider this:

    A sense of dread, an experience of fear in the face of the unknown.

    Fantasy presents the beauty of the unknown, or the fairyland that is. Horror presents the peril of the same place. These feelings can and do overlap, but they still form distinct categories. A good example of the sense of dread is this scene from the movie Poltergeist. There is no blood, no loud bangs and it's all in plain daylight. Still, I can't forget the first time I saw it: every hair in my body rose up. This cold feeling of an unknown peril that is present.

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  6. If there is modern horror cinema I could recommend, it is the Conjuring-movies. The sequel wasn't as strong as the first one and the spin-offs have been increasingly gimmicky. But the first Conjuring is an excellent film made in the spirit of Exorcist. There are a lot of effective chills and the characters are ones you care about. There is great evil but even greater good.

    An anti-recommendation of sorts would be Hereditary. I mean, the movie was definitely effective: it fucked me up for a few weeks. It might be the most oppressive film I've ever seen. It was so malevolent story that it felt evil in itself. Why would anyone make such a thing? Nevertheless, I am not going to rewatch it ever.

    But Conjuring, yes. They still make good horror out there.

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