KAJA FRANCK reviews The Spooky Isles’ first book, Dracula’s Midnight Snacks, edited by David Saunderson*
Vampires have recently fallen foul of becoming stale and clichéd. It is understandable therefore that there may be some trepidation in reading another anthology of vampire tales. Yet, the introduction to Dracula’s Midnight Snacks by its editor David Saunderson seems designed to put the habitual reader of literary vampire at ease. His acknowledgment of the dangers of tales that retread the ground of the traditional vampire sets the tone for fourteen intriguing short stories.
The opening story ‘Abraham and Oscar’ inhabits the world of two much loved authors, who should be familiar to anyone who loves the Gothic, and gently unsettles this relationship. The knowing quality of this tale and the intimate setting shows that we are in the hands of a skilled writer. For anyone who is familiar with interpretations that suggest Oscar Wilde, his friendship with Bram Stoker, and his trial for homosexuality were a direct influence on Dracula, this short story reads like an in-joke. And even for those who aren’t, ‘Abraham and Oscar’ is an engaged and engaging interpretation of the friendship between Stoker and Wilde.
The other stories offer equally disruptive versions of the vampire. Both ‘LiMA’ and ‘The Man In The Ambulance’ question the identity of the blood sucker within our increasingly bureaucratic and impersonal reality. ‘LiMA’ explores contemporary concerns regarding the benefit system and the pettiness with which it is issued within our society. By the end of the text we are left with an overriding sense of the banality of what should be a compassionate exchange which betrays all parties involved. Similarly, ‘The Man In The Ambulance’ leaves us contemplating the isolation and the increasing daily pain experienced by the elderly where the blood-sucking nature of the NHS is physically embodied in the persona of a vampire. In an anthology which deals with vampires the contrast in these texts between the seemingly immortal versus the aged and their shared sense of isolation is poignant.
This exploration of contemporary culture at odds with the vampires of old continues in ‘Mr D’s Paradox’. The Twilight series and its subsequent cinematic success has highlighted the role of modern vampires as the ultimate celebrities of our time – all sparkly skin, designer clothing, and flashy cars. Rather than revelling in this instant fame and notoriety, the titular Mr D is at odds with a world that fails to be terrified by his vampirism instead choosing to bay for his blood. Mike Staples, the story’s author, suggests that our culture has outgrown the traditional monsters and in doing so has become more horrific than the monsters of old.
Themes of societal order and morality are present in ‘Blood Fever’ which is one of the most affecting reads in the anthology. It called to mind the movie Ultraviolet, the novel and film I Am Legend, and the recent spate of zombie movies. Once again, government involvement in healthcare and maintaining order were called into question as well as who decides who is sick and who is well. In this future, the vampires are taking over the asylum. The author, Katie Dickson, quickly creates an oppressive alternate reality which raises these questions without providing obvious answers.
The weakest tale is perhaps ‘The Porn Star’ where the twist in the tale felt a little obvious. The unpleasantness of the plastic surgeon and his peculiar habit of kissing the nipples of his patients smacked of misogyny. Even the gender reversal of the suspected vampire at the end of the text did little to remove the unpleasant taste that this moment left in the mouth. Perhaps this was the aim of the story but if so it was a little clumsy. It is odd to note that the least successful story and the most intriguing were written by the same author, Howard Jackson.
The final tale, by Jackson, reads as a disturbing homage to Waiting for Godot full of internal rhythms and rhymes that make it read in a manner more akin to verse than prose. ‘Life After Death’ is a challenging and unnerving read that combines vampires, old men on benches and sunbathing blondes finishing like an open-ended question. It draws together the themes that run through this series of tales which are as much about humans waiting for death as vampires clinging to life. These vampires are not young and alluring but speak of the exhaustion of existence.
As with any anthology there are lulls in the quality of the stories, however, this is a satisfying collection which unsettles and entertains in equal parts. It may not be the ideal introduction to the world of vampires but for anyone who is familiar with literary vampires it makes an excellent and original addition to the genre.
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*Please note Kaja Franck offered this review freely and of her own will. It has not been edited to spare The Spooky Isles’ feelings.