What does the new civilisation look like?
Why Do Vampires Suck?
by Harding McFadden
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
I used to be a big fan of zombie books and movies. In the golden age of the 80’s, when they were still hard to find, and the ones that you did manage to get your hands on were still interesting. Sure, they almost exclusively payed homage to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but they at least went about it their own way. John Skipp and Craig Spector’s Book of the Dead comes immediately to mind. An incredible collection, it introduced me to such diverse talents as Joe R. Lansdale, David J. Schow, and Robert McCammon. And while it’s true that their follow-ups to this anthology never came close to reaching the greatness of the first, if they’d done nothing else with their careers than BotD, their place in genre fiction would have been cemented.
After this things get muggy, however. Since the mid- to late-80’s zombies have been everywhere, proliferating books, movies, and television shows with mundane gorefests that are nothing more than a less enjoyable rehashing of all that’s come before. Now, don’t get me wrong, there have been some examples of good zombie stuff over the years—Shaun of the Dead, Re-Animator, J. L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon series—but they are so few and far between that they stand out like mountain peaks amidst the mediocrity of clouds that is the rest of the slop.
I enjoy horror stories, I’ll admit. Some of them, anyway. I like the stuff that gets behind the eyes and moves in. The stuff that takes root and makes you loose sleep for a few days. Now I don’t mean gore. Any fool can produce gore, and most folks seem to think that blood and viscera equals horror, and they’re wrong. Which isn’t to say that good horror doesn’t have any of the red stuff in it, it can. What separates good horror from the everyday is the creators ability to use that gore to hit at something deeper. Something that you can’t just wash off.
The last few years have been real disappointments for me in regards to horror in general. In truth, though, I can say the same thing about nearly every genre out there. For every Dean Koontz, there’s a dozen Stephen Kings; for every F. Paul Wilson, there’s two dozen Dan Brown’s. Add to this the losses over the last couple years of Harlan Ellison, Charles L. Grant, Tom Clancy, and other worthwhile creators and things are just bleak. Genre fiction is dying, amalgamating until everything is the same as everything else, and all that’s left worth reading or watching or listening to are those same peaks. Thank God for folks like Koontz, Wilson, Schow, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, McCullough, and those sainted genre folks who write for TLE.
In general, I lean more toward reprint publishers. True, in many cases they are more expensive than others, but at least they print things worth looking at. If not for the smaller houses like Haffner and Nightshade, I’d have precious little to read. I’d have to troll used book stores (not that I don’t, already) for Hammilton, Laumer, and other greats. I guess that’s why, when I find something new that’s worth reading I grab onto it like a life preserver. Which brings us to Sweeter Than Wine, by L. Neil Smith.
I’m less of a fan of vampire fiction than I was of the zombie variety. I was never a fan of Dracula (though there’ve been quite a few worthy flicks based on the over rated novel), and after my brief obsession with Anne Rice, never bothered to look back at her hyper-effeminate blood suckers (though, in truth, Queen of the Damned is still a solid book). I will give King his due for Salem’s Lot, but the sparkly Twilight vamps were worthless to me from the start, and every one of the teen vampire TV shows was dead on arrival.
Of the many vampire short stories and novels that I’ve read, there were only a handful that stood out to me. There is the classic I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, who, near as I can tell, never wrote a bad word. There’s your high water mark. Close on its heals is The Light at the End, by Book of the Dead’s own Skipp and Spector, a nice little 80’s-era brick that I sat down and read over a weekend, finding myself completely unable to put it down. Looking at the pulps, we have wonders like Hamilton’s The Vampire Master, and anything Seabury Quinn wrote on the subject. Likewise anything that Charles Grant graced us with. On the shorter side of this list would be Schow’s “Last Call For The Sons of Shock,” which set my Universal Monster fanboy mind working on overdrive, and Wilson’s “Midnight Mass,” which counts among one of the finest short stories that I’ve ever read. I’m sure that there have been others that I enjoyed, but these are the ones that stand out in my mind. The ones against which all other vampire fiction is judged.
So then, after a long route, where does this put Mr. Smith’s Sweeter Than Wine? I’m not going to be the sycophant here and lie, saying that it’s on the scale of Matheson, as nothing is. Nor is it over-the-top insane like The Light at the End. What it is is a competent, well written little story that I found myself enjoying, despite the obvious fact that this isn’t Smith’s genre of choice. What it has going for it is what his work always has going for it. Namely characters, political jabs, and a Libertarian worldview that permeates the page. It is closer to mainstream than any of his other work, and as such if it were five times longer and less individualistic would offer him his best chance at headlining fame.
Its length might be its only actual drawback, as I finished it up and wanted more. Full disclosure: when this book was first published, way back in 2011, I skipped it, mostly due to the aforementioned avoidance of most vampire stuff. In a way I’m glad that I skipped it. Not because it wasn’t worth reading, because it most certainly was that, but because with a new book coming at us later this year, I won’t have to wait eight years for a follow-up. I just have to be patient.
Given how he’s handled the vampire genre, I’d offer the challenge to L. Neil to see what other classic monsters he could tackle. A werewolf story might be too similar, especially given that the hairy buggers are explained over the course of this book. Maybe a Frankenstein story, as it’s much more science fiction in nature than horror anyway. Though a mummy adventure would be fun, as well. Oh, well. It’s a moot point any rate, but a fun exercise.
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