Vampires Archive

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TV Review: True Blood Season 6

Every summer I find myself sitting down to write a post like this. And true to form, every year I always ask myself why I keep watching True Blood. I have no good answer.

I suppose the academic in me wants to understand how something so dumb can be so popular. The iota of intelligence that underwrote the series’ ongoing vampires versus humans meta-conflict dropped off the grid sometime around the end of season two. Since then it has been nothing but downhill. Granted, we do get treated to the occasional scene stealing one-liner, usually courtesy of Kristin Bauer van Straten’s acerbic vampire Pam. But in between those great moments, wherein at least one writer recognizes the absolute crap that the rest of his/her colleagues are flinging against the wall, the audience has been subjected to were-puma gang rapes, Iraqi fire-starting ghosts, and vampires tripping balls on the blood of their messiah.

After season five dressed up pointless faffing about as a vampire religious schism, it was good to see season six trying to recapture some of the early series’ “us versus them” energy. There is an appropriate, if mildly stupid, conspiracy which sees the enactment of martial law, abuses against constitutional rights, and the creation of a vampire internment camp in Louisiana. All of this is very good. But then the series had to bring in fairies, building from there to a Christianity driven vampire Final Solution.

Come on, writers. You have to assume that there are a few people who aren’t watching the show for eye candy. Do you really think you can go from internment to a Final Solution over the course of two weeks of plot time?

If anti-vampire fascism was executed as the singular focus of the season, I think could have got on board the genocide train bandwagon. In such a scenario, there would have been time to properly show the breakdown of due process and the rise of a police state in and around Bon Temps. But why shade the conflict when the series can take a tedious trip to the dark side and back again via Alcide Herveaux. If that’s not enough for you, we can witness the mental breakdown and suicide of a tertiary character, who prior to this season was lucky to have an average of five lines per episode. And if you’re still hungry for more distractions from the main plot, there’s fairy bullshit which, though eventually becoming relevant to the main plot, does little other than fill time for the first five episodes.

I said this last year, and I’ll say it again this year, half of the show’s characters need to die. If the ensemble continues to see an annual net growth – this year we got a new baby vampire, Jason’s vampire girlfriend, Jessica’s vampire boyfriend, Sam’s girlfriend, and Warlow the vampire-fairy – then the shallow veneer of self-seriousness that the show maintains is going to crack under its own weight.

Despite these problems, I have to recognize this season as an improvement on the previous three. There’s a faint awareness, in both the writing and the acting, that the show is running off the rails. In that light, I quite enjoyed watching Ryan Kwanten, Alexander Skarsgård, Rutina Wesley, and even Stephen Moyer chewing up the scenery from week to week. In some ways, this season of True Blood reminds me of the final season of Blakes’ 7; therein Paul Darrow’s performances always seemed to be charged by the knowledge that the series had turned into a hot mess. Rather than let that knowledge limit him, he played Avon as hard as he could. The same can be said for select members of True Blood’s cast.

I imagine most fans and critics would join me in dismissing the season finale’s “six months later” time jump as utterly lazy writing.  This skip ahead is indicative of the poor pacing and excess filler material found within the season. Suppose that everything that happened in season six, prior to the flash forward, were condensed into the first five episodes, the last five could have taken us from internment to attempted genocide without the hand waiving of “Hepatitis V” and Eric flying off into the sunset to set things right. Maybe, just maybe, the audience would have liked to see some natural plot development. Now the writers have put themselves in a place where the first few episodes of season seven are going to get caught up in navel gazing as plot holes are necessarily plugged.

I won’t deny that the wandering vampire army in the finale’s final frame set up an interesting conflict. At the same time, when you roll a metaphorical grenade into a crowded room, only one of two things can happen.

If it goes boom, then we are witness to a wholesale slaughter of Bon Temps at the restaurant formerly known as Merlotte’s. Cool? Absolutely. And while that’s a great hook, we must ask where a show with a limited capacity for deep writing can go from there? Granted, True Blood isn’t beneath a good wholesale slaughter to advance the plot. But from my point of view, it can only play that card once per season. Suppose then that the grenade is a dud, and the vampires don’t massacre the assembled citizens of Bon Temps; ladies and gentlemen you just spent the winter in anticipation of a fake out.

It doesn’t take Carson in a turban to foresee a lead Hep-V vampire flinging invectives and threats at the good people of Bon Temps. The assembled healthy vampires and humans, with Jason and his girlfriend as mouthpieces, will draw a line in the sand, and before you can “drop fang” we’ll be back to the posturing and wanking of season five. Sherriff Andy certainly can’t show up with a tactical team and kill all the itinerant vampires. If that happened we would need a new conflict for the coming season. So when we come right down to it, the “six months later card” has only served to put next season behind the narrative eight ball.

All in all, I wouldn’t call True Blood’s sixth season a traditionally “good” season of television. Measured against the incredibly low standards that True Blood sets for itself, season six does land well above the curve. It’s an improvement over what we’ve been seeing for the last three years, but those were three genuinely awful seasons of television. I suspect, however, this success will be short lived as the portents for season seven do not bode well.

Now if there’s any justice in the universe, I won’t have to write about sexy vampires for another year.


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Movie Review: So Dark

My regular readers know that I’m not usually the biggest fan of vampire stories. This is for the simple reason that I don’t see a lot of genuine creativity emerging out of the post-modern vampire tale. Nine times out of ten the vampire in question is pining for their lost humanity, rather than embracing what they are. And gods help you if you try to sell me on a star crossed romance between a human and a vampire. However, I’ve lately read a handful of very good vampire short stories in addition to witnessing Stakeland go a long way in redeeming the vampire sub-genre. Bearing that in mind, I approached So Dark, a vampire vigilante short film, and the sequel to the “anti-Twilight” film So Pretty, with a cautious optimism.

As I peeled back the layers on So Dark I was immediately struck by its ability to craft a fully formed story within a twenty minute runtime. Therein we see Sean (Jermey Palko), a two-hundred year old vampire, in police custody after murdering a mortal. In the aftermath of his arrest, Sean is interrogated by the ruthless FBI Agent Wilburn (Keri Maletto). The sequence between Wilburn and Sean forms the basis for the film’s core conflict while also shading the back story of this particular bit of vampire mythos. Because of this clever writing the film stands quite well on its own while also serving as a chapter in what is clearly a much larger story.

If we drill down on Sean as a character, it’s clear that So Dark’s writer, James Williams, has done his homework in crafting an original but suitably familiar anti-hero. Though Sean’s actions are informed by personal motivations, his black and white view of the world echoes that of Frank “The Punisher” Castle were he embodied in Forever Knight’s Nicholas Knight. When the film goes on to position Sean’s moral certainty against the ethically dubious and somewhat incompetent Miami PD, it skillfully tempts the audience into making a moral compromise of their own. Do you rationalize what Sean is doing for the greater good? Or do you reject his unilateral actions even in the face of the atrocities the government visits upon vampires in the name of protecting humanity. More importantly, how often do we see this caliber of conflict in a vampire story?

It’s also clear that the actors are engaging with So Dark’s story and setting in a meaningful way. Despite playing a genuinely awful human being, there’s a veneer of ‘ends justifying the means’ righteousness conveyed through Keri Maletto’s performance. This strength, combined with an interesting FBI vs Vampire back story, makes me hope that we haven’t quite seen the last of Agent Wilburn, despite the symbolism of the film’s final scene. For his part, Jermey Palko presents Sean without the requisite ennui that burdens so many other vampire characters. We certainly see him as driven, perhaps even obsessed, but the performance isn’t one that’s singularly informed by self-guilt and recrimination.

In terms of technical merit, So Dark is brilliant in its execution. Transitions from medium to tight shots create an uncomfortable but appropriate intimacy between Sean and Agent Wilburn. When the camera moves, following actors through scenes with all the skill of The West Wing’s walking camera, it does so without invoking the low-budget pox that is shaky cam. The use of physical sets and a minimum amount of visual effects work to reinforce a sense of place where fantasy is layered over top of mundane reality. The only minor flaws that I noticed happen toward the end of the film when the background music seems just a hair too loud in comparison to the dialogue. Fortunately, this imbalance is short lived and quickly resolves as the story moves to the next scene.

Regardless of if So Dark continues as a short film series on Stage Five TV’s youtube channel, The Continuum, or if it gets adapted into something larger – because it’s obvious that So Dark works as a proof of concept piece for a feature length film – I know I would continue to watch it. Director and Co-Producer Al Lougher, as well as the entire cast and crew, prove that they can pull off urban fantasy with all the grit and grime of contemporary drama.

Want to check it out? Here’s the entire movie embedded for your viewing pleasure

 

So Dark

Directed by: Al Lougher

Written by: James Williams

Starring: Jermey Palko, Keri Maletto, Julie Kendall, Todd Bruno, and Wil Jackson


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Movie Review: Stake Land

Stake Land first appeared on my cultural radar in the most inauspicious of ways. I saw banner ads promoting the movie floating about the Battlestar Galactica Online home page for about three days. When the ads disappeared, I forgot about the movie. Recently, it made an equally stealthy appearance on Netflix, so I thought why not check it out. Its description, however, invited some trepidation on my part.

“This genre-bending thriller combines vampires, religious fanatics and post-apocalyptic horrors with a coming-of-age tale that finds drifter Mister training young Martin to survive the nightmare that has become America as they journey to New Eden.”

Say the words “Vampire Apocalypse” out loud and tell me you don’t wince at the sound of your own voice. You should. And if you don’t, I don’t know if we can still be friends.

Make no mistake, I appreciate a good annihilation fantasy as much as the next person. Yet a shuffling of the monsters within the cinematic trope has to be sign that this particular genre niche is running on vapours. Despite this, and some incidental similarities in nomenclature and format to 2009’s Zombieland, Stake Land manages to turn out a reasonably unique take on the post-apocalyptic monster story.

Stake Land’s best selling feature is its realization that post-apocalyptic movies are the figurative bull in a china shop. The narrative must be violent and convulsive but not so much so that it shatters the audience’s tentative acquiesce to the end of the world; I’m looking at you, Rolland Emmerich.

We want the bull to break things so long as it doesn’t bring the roof down on our heads. Stake Land executes a few gambits to achieve this task. Even though Mister (Nick Damici) exudes a gruff and cold exterior, his dialogue and actions steer clear of the grumpy hero clichés. His protégée Martin (Connor Paolo), whose name I actually forgot because Mister only ever addresses him as “boy”, is not the dough-eyed neophyte whose misadventures drive the plot. The two are survivors, each dependent upon the other for purpose and protection. Beyond that, Damici and Paolo’s well placed scenes of “Stake Jitsu” training manage to evoke a Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san style of relationship. Routine as the relationship between the two characters may be, it is all but forged in silence, allowing the audience to shade the protagonists as they will.

When Martin and Mister come across additional survivors, the writing is smart enough to avoid any of the big apocalypse clichés: we can’t trust strangers; we can’t take them with us; somebody in the group is infected; and Sexe Diem, which is (fake) Latin for, “It’s the end of the world; we might die tomorrow, so let’s bang.” Though Mister’s reputation as a hunter lands him no shortage of action when the two call upon various free city states, the sex is always off camera. More importantly, there’s no clumsy romantic sub-plot for Martin.

Oh and it should go without saying that there’s no sex with vampires, no sparkling vampires, and no misunderstood vampires who want to atone for past deeds. The blood suckers range from semi-sentient to outright feral and their sole motivation is to feed on warm bodies.

How odd that annotating all the things the movie doesn’t do almost encapsulates a review in and of itself.

In terms of story, Stake Land is at its best when examining humanity as its own worst enemy. Yeah, I know, Battlestar Galactica and The Road pretty much wrote the book on that particular post-apocalypse motif. Still, Stake Land’s use of religion to explore this theme is rightly satisfying.

Amid the ruin of America a religious sect called “The Brotherhood” controls much of the hinterlands between pockets of civilization. The Brotherhood believes the vampires to be god’s means of cleansing the Earth of the impure and unworthy. Though firmly Christian in origin, they are not beyond loading a truck with vampires and ramming it into the gates of a city state, thus unleashing some divine vengeance.

Yet the religious themes do more than vilify the story’s human antagonists. One of the first survivors Mister and Martin come across is a nun known only as Sister (Kelly McGillis). It would be all too easy to turn Sister into a “god has a plan” sort of bible thumper. Instead, she symbolically carries, and perhaps compartmentalizes, her faith in her pocket in the form of a figurine of the Virgin Mary; however Sister also picks up a gun to defend their group. She, like Mister and Martin, embody compassion within a broken world.

This is where Stake Land really delivers as a post-apocalyptic movie. Compassion is regularly the first victim of this genre. What better way for a director to show the end of the world than to end any sense of obligation from one person to another. Keeping a sense of loosely chivalrous heroism, violent and visceral as it may be, about the POV character and his mentor defies the audience’s expectations about this type of story. Martin and Mister become easily identifiable to the audience without sacrificing any of the plot’s high stakes.

On a technical level, Stake Land makes excellent use of its modest budget. External shots in heavily wooded rural areas effectively build a ruined world for free. The camera work is steady enough to convey a grand sense of location and isolation, but never dwells on the setting as a means of filling time. Fight sequences between the hunters and vampires are fast and brutal, as befitting an actual fight. The make-up and gore on the vampires is as good anything one would expect from a big budget production. My only real complaint is that the director’s effort to show Mister and Martin’s professional detachment left the final vampire battle sequence rather understated. In fact, Martin’s “graduation” to full hunter is a blink and miss it moment. A few extra seconds of camera work here and there would have contributed so much more emotion to these important scenes.

Strong as Stake Land may be, it wasn’t the movie to redefine the sub-genre in 2010 nor shall it do so today. What it does prove is a high level of technical and storytelling proficiency from director and co-writer Jim Mickle. While not quite as cerebral as something like The Road, Stake Land proves that there is room to improve the formula within the supernatural post-apocalyptic genre.

Stake Land

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

Stars: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici and Kelly McGillis


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Movie Review: The Dead Undead

First of all, I’d like to thank my good friend Amber Porter for suggesting The Dead Undead as a Netflix’s Basement review candidate. It’s such a rare thing to actually feel the minutes of one’s life slipping away, second by painful second. As bad movies go, this one has to be one of the worst. Then again, The Dead Undead is so bad that it becomes a sort of dubious comedy wherein I’m laughing at somebody else’s “hard” “work”. Normally I would feel bad for doing that, not so with this movie.

Still, after about five minutes of watching The Dead Undead one question was at the forefront of my mind; is this porn?

No really, from the outset to at least fifteen minutes in, The Dead Undead has all the hallmarks of porn.

Terrible dialogue – check

A grainy film quality reminiscent of 1978 despite the fact it was made in 2010 – check

Purple lens filter to cheap out on low-light shots – check

The director’s nephew’s garage band producing the soundtrack – check

Awkward “is she legal” partial teenage nudity – double check

Only close camera shots on knees and stomachs during the obligatory horror movie “girl in a shower” scene proved I was not watching porn. At least, not the kind of porn for which the internet is famous.

 

The Dead Undead’s first act is pretty much standard horror fare. Some teens, played by actors in their mid 20s, go away for a (sex romp?) weekend at a hotel. When they arrive, the hotel looks abandoned. Of course, it’s not abandoned. The hotel is some sort of nexus point for an army of zombies.

For a group of teens on a (sex?) romp, the gang brings a surprising amount of firearms with them. Naturally they are unable to repel the undead assault until at the last moment, of the first act, they are saved by the A-Team. Hold on to the Deus ex Machina feeling, kids. It’s the only literary device the writer knows.

Actually, the saviours are not quite the A-Team. There are five of them, and among them is a woman. But they have a van. And holy shit do they fire a lot of guns.

In fact, the entire second act of this movie is the A-Team, and some other guy who seemingly wanders into the plot, shooting guns. If the camera isn’t tight on a gun firing, it’s close on somebody falling down from an implied gun shot. Back and forth, first the slow hammering of an AK-47’s firing mechanism, and then the low budget ludicrous gibs of third rate squib packs exploding on extras. The bodies of the uncredited horde covered in blood as muscle men and a guy who looks like Ron Jeremy fire their big, heavy, powerful guns.

Wait, are we sure this isn’t porn?

Ron Jeremy is too good for this sort of movie, so they got his stand in.

Yeah, it’s not porn. Because it turns out that Ron Jeremy and the rest of the A-Team are all vampires. (It could still be porn) And as for the zombies, well they’re not regular zombies but zombie-vampires. Through fifteen minutes of flashbacks, which serve as miserable attempts to give a little dimension to glorified red shirts, and no less than ten minutes of straight-up narrative info-dumping we learn there was once a town full of vampires. Those vampires were ranchers who fed on cow blood as an alternative to human juice. Everything was great until some mad cow disease broke out and the vamps contracted the zombie virus, which they then spread to normal humans. Once bitten a  ”Zee-Vee” possesses vampire strength and zombie brainlessness.

I can’t believe it cost 1.1 million dollars to make this movie.

It’s pretty obvious that the budget went toward creating low-rent gun porn rather than hiring decent actors, writers, or paying attention to proper lighting. At one point the lighting is so bad that a night scene looks to temporarily shift to day and back to night again. Either that or for the sake of time/budget/insurance/shitty craftsmanship, a day time car crash sequence, which conveniently removed another red shirt character, is inserted into a night scene. Perhaps the creative team hoped nobody would notice.

Either way, I want to know a director looks at their final product, sees something like that, and doesn’t feel so embarrassed as to disown the project with an Alan Smithee credit. Moreover, I want to know how a director looks at the movie’s ultimate scene, a contrived and poorly executed set-up for a sequel, and thinks, “Yeah, a second Dead Undead is almost certain to happen. I should defiantly leave this final scene as it is.” The unashamed ego, the majestic self-delusion, and the abject hubris is enough to choke a cat.

With its “don’t call us vampires” attention to political correctness (the word is night walker), a guy named Aries (Greek myth) who talks about seeing his dead girlfriend in Valhalla (Norse myth), and porntastic gun battles, The Dead Undead is a new low for contemporary movie making. It’s terrible on all counts. Though if you’re looking to satisfy a hunger driven by Schadenfreude then The Dead Undead might be worth a watch. Otherwise stay far away from this picture.

Tune in next week when I review some other movie as part of my stroll through Netflix’s Basement.

The Dead Undead

Directed by: Matthew R. Anderson and Edward Cona

Starring: Luke Goss (Jason Statham’s non-union look alike), Luke LaFontaine (Ron Jeremy’s cousin), and way too many other people who were probably working for college credit.

It is not porn, despite all indications otherwise.


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Television Review: True Blood Season 5

*Spoilers Ahead*

There is no better sign that winter is coming than my annual True Blood post. Of course this also means Episodes, my summer time answer to Community, is probably nearing the end of its season; more on that particular series in another post, though. So what are we to say about the fifth season of a show which began as vampire soft core porn and an excuse to see Anna Paquin naked? Compared to the third and fourth seasons, this one is a step in the right direction. It’s just a shame that we had to suffer through twenty some episodes of crap before getting to a place where vampire Bill could turn himself into Stephen Dorff’s character from Blade.

And for the record, I realize any criticisms I make in this post are by and large going to be as effective as pissing into the wind. True Blood gets all the ratings in the world and will likely be renewed for ten thousand seasons so long as the market research indicates people reacting well to key members of the cast taking off their clothes.

One of the most enduring problems with this series is its creators’ inability to contain the sprawling size of the cast. Season five saw not only the return of Russell Edgington and the Right Reverend Steve Newlin, but the introduction of Sam’s would be mother-in-law, Alcide’s pap and new girlfriend, fairies galore, and a half dozen new vampires in the form of the Authority’s inner circle. Too many characters! Too many plot threads! If Shakespeare taught us anything it’s that the best stories have plots labeled A through C. Generally, this season of True Blood ran A through E, sometimes more.

Plot A – Bill and Eric in the Authority

Plot B – Something with Faeries

Plot C – Jason, Jessica, and Hoyt’s ongoing relationship

Plot D – Sam and Luna as shape shifting vigilantes (which was reasonably interesting, too bad it was the D plot)

Plot E – Terry Bellefleur and the evil Iraqi ghost/fire monster

Plot F – Andy Bellefleur sexy time featuring waitresses and fairies

Plot G – The baby vampire hour feat. Tara and Pam

Although these stories do somewhat intersect with each other, it’s only in the final few episodes of the season where that interaction becomes meaningful. I suppose we should be grateful for getting through a year without any were-puma gang bangs. However, it’s hard to call something compelling when the good stories get equal or less time than the weak ones.

Also true to form, this season of True Blood killed off the wrong characters for utterly pointless reasons. As Roman Zimojic, Guardian of the One True Vampire Authority, Christopher Meloni was one of the best things to happen to the show. Finally there was some vampire business worth paying attention to. Then Roman was unceremoniously killed through some “divine intervention”, which spared Russell Edgington’s life. Said intervention proved to be ultimately pointless when Eric staked Russell in the season finale. So what was the point of killing these characters? What was gained? Is Roman’s death anything but a cheap way of advancing the plot? As for Russell, is it wrong to view his death as a lazy way of removing a character who was written as too powerful and too evil to be managed from word one? Meanwhile characters who could/should die (Tara, Jason, and Terry to name three) continue on about their mostly pointless lives, taking up screen time better devoted to more interesting folk.

Let’s talk Pam for a minute. Kristin Bauer van Straten, as the utterly pragmatic vampire Pam, is often the voice who says what the audience is thinking. Her character coined the phrase, “Magic Vagina” at the end of season four. So what can the writers do to make her character better for season five? How about they make her a mommy? Wait, what? But wait, there’s more. Why not break up her and Eric for a while so in every episode Pam has a chance to say, sometimes whimpering, “Where’s Eric?” Why? Why take one of the most acerbic characters on the show and foist her into a role that says Adventures in Babysitting with mild blood play and occasional fetish wear? Of course if I’m going to ask those sort of questions, then I might as well ask why the series, as a thinly veiled metaphor for gay rights, redirected itself to exploring religious literalism. Such a question would merit a post in and of itself.

So what worked in this season? Sam and Luna as vigilantes, to start. First and foremost, it got Sam out of the bar in a way that didn’t involve doggie fight clubs. Moreover, this story is just connected enough to the vampire civil war to allow Sam and Luna to have some meaningful interactions with almost every other character of note in the show.

Season five also proved to be a giant blood bath. I can’t speak to the exact numbers off the top of my head, but I don’t recall a season where so many vampires got put to the stake and so many humans got drained like meat bags. For a series that romanticises vampires to the point where they almost become neutered, very literally so in Eric’s case last season, it was pretty damn cool to see some real nasty vampires feasting on humans.

While we’re on the subject of blood baths, season five probably offered the best finale that True Blood has ever put to air. As much as I want Jason Stackhouse to die, watching him make like an over the top action movie star was amusing if nothing else. Though the inability of fast-running super-powered vampires to defend themselves against a cop with a couple of pistols did not go unnoticed. The vampire on vampire violence within the finale felt in line with religiously charged politics befitting a race of immortals. The question now becomes, in the wake of the Authority’s melt down and Bill’s transformation into the Blood God, is season 6 going to keep the momentum? True Blood is notorious for resolving cliff hangers within five minutes. If Russell died to make way for Blood God Bill as a serious threat to the world, then the series may be on to something great. Should he get hand waved away in an episode or three, freeing up air time to focus on more fairy bullshit with Sookie and Warlo, then I think the show will have jumped the shark again (not that such things matter; see previous statement on True Blood having all the ratings ever).

There we have it. Season five is better than season three and four but still a ways off from season two. The stage is now set for season six to be either fantastic (fantastic for True Blood at least) or a huge let down (which is to say more of the same crap).


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Book Review: The Dark Side of the Glass

Summary Judgement: If David Crane and Jeffery Klarik of Showtime/BBC’s Episodes wrote a book with Ann-Marie MacDonald, it would probably look a lot like J.M. Frey’s The Dark Side of the Glass.

I won’t deny that I initially approached J.M. Frey’s The Dark Side of the Glass with some measure of hesitation. My regular readers know how little I regard our society’s current taste in brooding self-loathing vampires who just want to be loved. Yet J.M., who has appeared on the Page of Reviews podcast on more than one occasion, sent me an advanced copy of her novel – a novel that cites the likes of Forever Knight as an indirect inspiration. Sufficed to say, I was sceptical. However, my reticence melted within the first few pages of the book when an anonymous character yelled that they were “…so sick of this vampire crap.” That’s when I knew there was a very interesting game afoot. As I read on, I became convinced that I was looking at a clever piece of satire.

Mary, the novel’s protagonist, lives in Toronto where she is a parking production assistant for the fictional television series City by Night. Mary is the consummate fan, and she loves City by Night. Working on the series, even in her most menial of roles, is a dream come true. When she’s not at work, she’s at conventions, or she’s writing fanfic in the guise of screenplays submitted to her executive producer, or she’s fawning over series’ lead character Leondre DuNoir, a mystery solving vampire. Mary is also guilty of committing that most common sin within fandom; she assumes that the creators of a television series are as emotionally invested in product as their fans. Mary gets a cold dose of reality when she overhears the showrunnner and star mocking the series, the fans, and by extension the purpose of her life. Then she gets hit by a craft services truck.

When Mary wakes up, she finds herself not in Toronto, but Night City, the imagined location of City by Night. That’s where things start to get interesting as Mary lives out the “Mary Sue’s” greatest fantasy: being cast as herself within the very thing that she loves. It’s too bad for her that television doesn’t always have the best writing.

Even though most of DSOTG is set within Night City, a place inhabited by vampires who bear a striking similarity to…well every TV vampire, it’s not really fair to pigeon hole this novel as “vampire fiction”. It’s far too meta for such an easy framework. Much like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s protagonist in Good Night Desdemona-Good Morning Juliet, Mary attempts to fix the problems within the narrative. In doing so she comes to confront all of the things that she never noticed as a fan: the contrived plots, the product placement, the adherence established tropes, and the shallow characters who can’t pass the Bechdel Test if their lives depend on it. It’s a delicious irony that sees a fantasy world as the only place where Mary can begin to connect with the reality of her obsession. Mary learns that it is not that orgasmic of a thing to have a Vampire suck blood out of her neck.

On that level, this novel revels in confronting fans with the reality of their fandom. Yet it manages to do so through appeals to humour rather than snark at the expense of fans who know not what they do. That humour also serves to make the author’s insights into the Canadian television industry seem incredibly honest. One particular scene comes to mind when Mary says that Night City is Toronto that is supposed to look like New York but ends up seeming like Detroit because the show can’t afford the permits to shoot in the expensive parts of town. I read that section and all I could do was laugh as I thought back on the short lived Robocop series, filmed in Mississauga and Toronto, and the Robocop: Prime Directives miniseries, also shot in Toronto. Fun fact: Robocop: PD starred Geraint Wyn Davies, who played Nick Knight, the titular vampire in Forever Knight, who looks to be the obvious inspiration for DSOTG’s Leondre DuNoir.

While this novel has a lot working in its favour, its length stood out as something of a puzzle. DSOTG is a very short book. Though it is broken up into chapters, it reads much more like a short story on premium grade anabolic steroids. As quickly as the plot moves, so too does the story come to an end. Considering Mary’s growth as a character, I would have enjoyed a greater exploration of her life once she returns to Toronto from the world of Night City. On a more practical note, I really hope that when Double Dragon Publishing puts this book to market, they price it a level that is appropriate for a 62 page story.

In the end, Frey’s novel shows how a one-dimensional trope of fan fiction can become a meta-critic of their own environment. Personally, I think that is fantastic. However, there’s no escaping Mary’s realization that City by Night, and perhaps the entire brooding vampire sub-genre, is a shallow thing. Thus there is a danger that this novel flies a little too close to the sun for some would-be readers. Vampire fans might do well to avoid this book if they are incapable of having a little laugh at their own expense. For everybody else, if you like sharp wit and satire, then The Dark Side of the Glass is a safe bet.


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Short Story Review: Feed

Summary Judgement: Feed is much more a clever and disquieting horror story than it is a typical piece of vamp-fic.

Story by: Jerry McKinney

Feed came to me along side an interesting promise. Jerry McKinney told me that, “it’s not a regular vamp story.” That piqued my attention. I know a great many people are moved by the tragedy and romance of the contemporary vampire, but I am not. Characters like Nicholas Knight, Angel, and Bill Compton seem tedious and tiresome as they lament their lost humanity. Too many writers get caught up in the idea that because vampires look human, they should act human. Klingons look human, but imagine an episode of Star Trek where a group of them did nothing but whine about wanting to live in peace on Earth. It’s disingenuous to who they are, and so too are the humanity seeking vampires. The honest-to-nature vampire, however, creates a set of narrative problems. Most evident is the question of how a writer keeps the audience engaged with a character whose default behaviour is monstrous. Feed attempts to bridge that gap.

At the outset, the story seems quite familiar. A man meets a woman at a bar. She brings him home with the promise of a tryst, and, surprise, she’s a vampire. Of course, Penny had no intention of turning Ian into a creature of the night, she just wanted to eat him. Only good luck and bad timing spared Ian a permanent death. Penny then offers Ian a pittance of vampire education before abandoning him to the world. As he grows into his new life, Ian explores many of the conventions essential to the “tragic” vampire of contemporary film and literature. This might be a move to bring in the main stream vamp fic readers, but the depth of the story does not end there.

There is a healthy divergence from the beaten path within this story. In part it is a throwback to classic vampire lore; a single bite from a vampire turns a person undead. While most vampire stories associate a vampire’s age with its power, Feed offers a unique approach therein. Once bitten, a fledgling vampire is bereft of powers save for heightened senses and a desire to feed. Only after five years does Ian become a mature vampire with fangs, strength and speed.

As Ian deals with the logistics of feeding, burying the remains of his meals, and contemplates the boredom of a life spent living inside the meat locker of an abandoned grocery store, an idea dawned upon me. This is the first time I’ve ever engaged with a vampire story that put a premium on the vampire as a colonized body. In fact, Ian is a twice colonized individual. First he’s colonized by Penny in her botched attempt to feed upon him. Then he’s colonized again by a mysterious benefactor that presents him with meals of bound and gagged humans. The course of this colonization sees the character walk the line between hubristic arrogance and maudlin self pity. However, the manner in which Mr. McKinney frames this introspection is decidedly more sophisticated than the typical self-loathing vampire.

The problem with colonization is that it takes some time to see the true effects. Such a macro study does not lend itself particularly well to the conventions of a short story. There are moments within Feed where the narration skips ahead by months and years without much warning. These jarring time skips produce a structural problem in the friendship between Ian and a mortal. The sudden death of that man, an event that Ian reflects upon at the end of the story, lacks any real impact upon the reader as the character is there and gone within the span of a hundred words.

It is the final movement of this story that particularly captivated me as a reader. I’ll limit my comments except to say that Feed’s conclusion gives me exactly what I want in a vampire story: a vampire who revels in their nature. It’s that nature that takes this story out of a familiar supernatural realm, and into one that is well and truly unsettling. The kernel of harmless flirtation with danger that comes with the vampire story is dismantled piece by piece.

In the final evaluation, Feed lives up to its author’s promise. The story is anything but a typical suck and whine vampire story. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a vampire story. This is a horror story featuring vampires. If you’re looking for a story with an edge, then Feed is defiantly worth reading.

You can pick up an e-book copy of Feed at Smashwords.


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Short Story Review: Gem – No Loose Ends

Summary Judgement: Whereas fans of vampires and/or urban fantasy will quite likely enjoy this story, as a self-confessed sci-fi junkie it isn’t quite my cup of tea.

Story by: Craig Jones

Vampires.  I just don’t know what to do with vampires.  In fact, I’m probably the wrong person to be reviewing this story.  I watch True Blood so I can take notes in how not to craft a narrative.  I got about half way through the first Twilight novel before it made me want to hang myself.  When I was in high school I refused to recognize Dracula as a tragic figure in Stoker’s novel.  There’s something in the fundamental romance of Vampire stories that is lost on me.  Or to put it another way, I’m a cynical bastard and I know that were I to be gifted with immortality and super human powers, I would not spend my days pining after one “magic woman” who connects me to some lost element of my humanity.  However, Mr. Jones sent me his story so I feel that I at least owe him something in the way of a review.

Gem – No Loose Ends is the first in a series of longer short stories/novellas about a New York based vampire hit-woman named Gem.  Within the first few pages of the story readers learn some important details about their undead protagonist.  Although she is a freelance killer for a criminal syndicate, she’s also a principled assassin who refuses to take any job that involves drugs, women or children.  Gem is also a sexual creature, as is to be expected within vampire fiction.   What was unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome, was Gem’s flexible sexuality.  Though driven by human impulses, impulses that often prove a distraction to her work, she’s not limited by human sociological mores.  Moreover, Gem’s not perfect as a protagonist.  One of my biggest complaints about vampires in fiction is that they never make mistakes.  Vampires are only drawn into conflicts because of the ineptitudes of the humans who surround them; this is not the case in No Loose Ends. I’ll endure some of the clichés of vampire fiction present within the narrative, aversions to garlic and crucifixes among them, since the plot steers clear of the aforementioned gimmick.

The plot itself is a bit of a toss-up for me.  In its favour is the fact that it is very well paced.  There’s not a lot of heavy exposition or world building.  The only exception therein is the amount of the detail that goes into describing various articles of women’s clothing.  However, such attention is likely a necessary contribution to the sexuality that oozes off Gem and Katrina, the two main female characters.  Otherwise, events unfold quickly and smoothly.  Gem’s affiliated syndicate hires her to do a job, but the nature of that task ends up turning the mob, or at least one cell of the organization, against their prized assassin.

It is in the transition from fixer to liability that I found myself a bit put off.  Maloney, the mobster who hires Gem, tells her that, “The problems you make go away don’t come back.”  Charging a mere $10,000 per hit, I can’t imagine why a mob boss would allow such a useful asset to be removed from his arsenal.  Perhaps the plot against Gem wasn’t ordered from the top, but came directly from Maloney.  But if The Sopranos has taught me anything about organized crime, it’s that the farther down you go in the organization the lower the IQs get.  So when Gem, an experienced professional assassin, finds herself caught off guard by a troop of goons my suspension of disbelief is strained.  The trade off is that Gem’s mistakes make her that much more human as a protagonist.  Sure, she feeds on the blood of mortals and has a libido that works in overdrive, but who hasn’t let one appetite or another blind them to what they should have seen coming?

I suppose it is the fundamental contradiction of the central character that simultaneously helps and hinders the overall story.  Vampires are supposed to be creatures of passion, impulse and desire.  Assassins are cold, calculating professionals who divorce a certain part of their humanity from themselves in order to their jobs.  As a character, Gem reads like an interesting attempt at reconciling those polar opposites all the while establishing New York as an urban fantasy environment.  The Dracula/Vampire Bill part of her nature is there, I’ll cast no doubts on that point.  It’s the Agent 47 or Jules Winnfield side to Gem’s character that felt a bit in need of tightening up. Though the writing hints at reasons why she isn’t like those iconic contract killers, I still wanted a bit more ice in her veins.

On that note, I can’t really say that Gem – No Loose Ends has inspired me to convert to the world of Vampire fiction.  As a sci-fi reader who’s only starting to dabble with horror, too much of me wanted this story to be something that it’s not.  At the same time, I expect that my friend Norton, who loves both The Sopranos and The Southern Vampire Mysteries, would thoroughly enjoy this series.  As well, I would probably recommend Gem to my mom who loves all things Vampire but loathes all things powered by warp drive.  There’s defiantly an audience for this story, I just don’t think that I’m really part of it.

Hits:

+1 for keeping a vampire protagonist accessible

+1 for detail writing of women’s clothing as a means of ratcheting up the sexuality and offering some back story on the characters

+1 for writing a vampire hit-woman story.  Vampire cop, vampire PI, and vampire gadabout are all over done

+1 for being something that I could get my mom to read

Misses:

-1.5 for potentially problematic plot catalyst

-0.5 for occasional whiffs of vampire angst

-0.5 for adhering to the notion that Christianity and crucifixes are somehow anathema to vampires

Overall Score: +1.5

Fang fans can check out all of Jones’ work at TWB Press


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Short Story Review: Remains

Summary Judgement:  A well-written story that is effective in bucking the conventions that orbit contemporary vampire fiction.

Story by: Siobhan Carroll

Originally Published on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review

(Minor but unavoidable spoilers ahead)

Notwithstanding Dracula by Bram Stoker, I’ve never gone cover to cover on a vampire novel.  This is partly an issue of taste in genre literature but also due to the fact that most vampire stories seem the same to me.  If the protagonist of a vampire story isn’t on the hero’s quest to avenge somebody or something, they are most likely going to end up in bed with the undead.  Therefore, I’ll admit to writing this review with some fairly substantial prejudices in play.  Those prejudices, however, are what make Siobhan Carroll’s Remains stand out as a rather unique story in a subgenre that is flooded with people falling all over each other for vampire lovin’.

Carroll’s story eschews a focus on either the vampire or its prey/lover/wannabe.  Instead, the narrative deals with families and friends who have witnessed their loved ones submit to the temptation of the undead.  As a reader might expect, the predominant motifs within the story are of loss, sadness and regret. Despite my limited familiarity with literary vampire fiction, the author’s focus on the shattered lives of people left to languish in their own mortality, while loved ones embrace the darkness, seems to be a unique concept.  It also has the benefit of grounding the story in emotions that are more universal than the narcissism that comes with vampire fiction.

While grief and loss open the story to a broad audience, it is in Remains’ depiction of victimization that the soul of the narrative begins to emerge.  Within the first few paragraphs, where it is not immediately obvious that this is a piece of vampire fiction, Carroll’s words strike a tone that put this reader in the mindset of witnessing the aftermath of an assault, perhaps even a sexual assault.  The mood is both striking and powerful, serving to add a degree of seriousness to a brand of stories that seem as fixated on selfish gratification as Peter Pan dragging Wendy off to Neverland – granted a Neverland with more humping and feasting on mortal flesh.  Remains presents a relationship with a vampire as a crime against mortality.  The idea that being fed upon is an act of sexual liberation or at the very least the realization of a pain fetish is so far removed from the story that the very idea seems laughable.

Carroll’s words show not only the pain of death, but the impossible emotions that would inevitably come with seeing a loved one rise from the dead.  With those emotions in play, the narrative focus seems to shift from grief to guilt.  Dare I say, when that transition occurs, the true nature of this story emerges.  Remains is a story about suicide, specifically the people that are left behind after an act of suicide.

True to form, the story offers a view on vampire fiction that never seems to make it into popular consciousness; to surrender one’s life to the vampire is a conscious act of self-destruction.  Rather than celebrate the vanity of immortality, Remains asks the hard questions that come with the loss of a loved one to suicide: Could I have done something to stop them?  Why didn’t I notice?  Why didn’t I take the warning signs more seriously?  The feelings of guilt and recrimination practically leap off the page.  Given the culture of controversy that surrounds suicide, I’d offer that this is a brave subtext to work into a short story.  Arguably, courageous story telling is necessary if vampire fiction is to be redeemed from the likes of True Blood and Twilight.

The only potential problem with this story is that it inserts a rather serious social concern into a piece of genre fiction.  From my perspective, the writing is wholly respectful of the psychological traumas that suicide can evoke.  A reader need only look at the last three paragraphs of the story to see the author’s thoughts on how suicide affects those who are not directly involved in the act.  On those grounds, Remains is no more objectionable than any other story that explores pain, guilt and loss.

Remains goes a long way in proving that contemporary vampire fiction need not obsess with full frontal grinding or contrived teenage angst.  Any fan of genre lit would do well to give this story a read.

Overall Score: +4

Click here to read Remains.