Many years ago, when I was in a church worship group and playing, not as the drummer, but as a bassoonist, I used to obsess about the wrong notes I played. I would hit a duff one and immediately cringe. All those people! All of them hearing my crassest clangers! What must they think of me?
After a while I mentioned this to another, older, member of the group. “Look,” he said, “if those people had any musical ability they’d be up here too. How many of them, do you think, can discern the sound of the bassoon in the first place; and of them, how many would know a wrong note if it landed in their soup?”
I was thinking about this yesterday when I was looking online at amateur reviews of a novel I’ve just finished reading, Dan Simmons‘s ‘Carrion Comfort‘. “Far too long”, complained one. “Didn’t have anything to do with vampires,” whined another. “Too many characters” moaned a third, “and not enough characterisation”.
These are critiques of a novel that Stephen King, a man who knows more than a little about horror fiction, described as “one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th Century”. (I don’t know what the other two are. If I had to guess, based on things King has written elsewhere, one might be ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘, by Shirley Jackson, while the other may well be amongst the works of Peter Straub, with whom King has co-authored two novels.)
I’m with King on this one. ‘Carrion Comfort’ is an extraordinary novel. Long? Certainly. Too long? Not in the slightest, unless you are of that unfortunate majority who demand instant gratification in all things. The book is a 767-page meditation on violence, power, manipulation and predation, and it is not afraid to explore some of the darkest territory the 20th Century has to offer.
Saul Laski is a survivor of Chelmno extermination camp, a Nazi death camp where he first encountered SS Oberst Wilhelm von Borchert, a man with the Ability. The Ability in question is simply the facility to compel another to do your will: to seize control of their mind and hence their body. Such a seizure diminishes the seized while nourishing the hijacker: it is possible for these ‘mind vampires’ to hollow out a person entirely, leaving their bodies as empty vessels to carry the manipulator’s consciousness.
Having survived his encounter with the Oberst, Saul becomes a psychologist, publishing a book on the pathology of violence. But the Oberst has also survived, becoming a Hollywood producer, and he is not the only one with the Ability – two friends from his youth, Melanie Fuller and Nina Drayton, can do the same thing. They meet every year to compare their scores in the Game – a game in which they compel others to kill, and gain points for style. When one reunion turns ugly, and leaves a trail of bodies, Saul and two of those affected by the latest massacre join forces to try and bring down the gamers. Then they discover that the Oberst’s is not the only Game in town, and the new one is more terrifying in its implications than they ever could have dreamed…
Simmons’s is a magnificent novel. Brilliant throughout, brutal when it has to be, as discomforting as it ought to be, as redemptive as only true horror can manage, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s also one of the best vampire novels I’ve ever read.
I have an affection for vampire novels. Of the four classic supernatural monsters – The Vampire, The Werewolf, The Ghost and The Thing – I find vampires far and away the most effective, because they are – at least from a literary point of view – almost infinitely adaptable metaphor machines. My undergraduate dissertation looked partially at ‘Dracula’, and analysed it as a metaphor for sexually-transmitted diseases. This was one of about a hundred different ways I could have analysed the book and the creature. Simmons sees the vampire as a metaphor for everyone who has ever exercised undue authority. In the introduction to the current, 20th Anniversary edition, Simmons writes
As adults, we suffer such mind-vampire attacks in almost all of our jobs – some petty, power-mad manager making our work harder and daily life miserable, some administrator or supervisor who revels in exercising arbitrary power over us and then lapping up the violence of that power as if it were warm blood – and we also encounter mind vampires in our daily lives, on the highways, in public places, in politics, and, sadly, in too many of our personal relationships.
Ignoring for a moment the term ‘mind vampire’ and the inherently pragmatic reaction we have towards its fantasy, is there not something entirely recognisable and real about what Simmons is saying here? And because it is real, because it is recognisable, it lends far greater credibility to Simmons’s central conceit (the One Big Idea, as SciFi puts it) – that some people can do this on a far greater, far more potent scale. Simmons’s great success in this novel is this fusion of the vampire – a metaphor machine we all recognise – with the power-mad manager – a real figure we all recognise – to create a monster that works on multiple levels simultaneously while giving Simmons himself a chance to talk through violence and its implications in a way that forces us to think anew on old ideas.
‘Carrion Comfort’ is a brilliant reinvention of the vampire mythos for precisely this reason – it forces us to re-examine old themes in an entirely new way and in an entirely new light. It is the inability to do this that makes Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ novels such a monumental failure, at least as vampire novels (they fail on different levels depending on how one reads them. They fail as romances because the relationship they describe is so fundamentally unhealthy; they fail as novels for women because Bella is a spectacularly poor role model; they fail as thrillers because every potential for suspense is killed before it can be born; they fail as horror novels because everything even remotely scary is either excised or circumvented; they fail, basically, because Meyer can’t write and doesn’t know what she’s doing when she tries).
I like well written vampire novels. On those grounds, I enjoyed ‘Carrion Comfort’ tremendously. But I also like literature – the books that force us to re-examine ourselves and our beliefs – and on those grounds, I would nominate ‘Carrion Comfort’ for inclusion in the canon.
A great book. I recommend you read it. I particularly recommend this if you are Stephanie Meyer.
And now, your moment of Zen for today: