The Vampire of Mons
Mass Market Paperback, Avon Books, 1977
*** As always, spoilers ahead ***
The Vampire of Mons is ill-served by its title and packaging, which appear to have been designed to capitalize on the “gothic suspense” boom of the late sixties and early seventies. The bloody skies and the grim visage of the Barnabas-Collinsesque “villain” on the cover are well done but are certain to frustrate many horror fans who read only to discover a vampire-free tale about the dissolution of a British boy’s school at the outset of World War II. It’s difficult to blame misled readers for being disappointed. The real shame here, though, is that disappointment will cause some readers to overlook the fact that The Vampire of Mons, while most assuredly not a story about a blood-thirsty monster, is an effectively chilling book about the power of fear.
There’s no doubt from the very beginning that Clive Swinburne, the book’s narrator-turned-killer, is afraid. Having been expelled from one school, he now faces the daunting challenge of fitting in, mid-year, at a new one. He is convinced that his failure to cultivate proper friendships at his previous school was largely to blame for his expulsion and is determined not to make the same mistake at his new school, Malthus. It seems quite natural he should be drawn most to the two other boys—Darwin and Struges—who also arrive in Malthus mid-year and are assigned, like him, to live in Mons house. What does not seem as natural is the way Swinburne becomes focused on the figure of music teacher Heinrich Vitaly. It’s true that Vitaly sets in motion events that drive a wedge between Swinburne and his two classmates, but in reality the fateful decisions are made by Swinburne, not Vitaly. This hardly seems to matter, however, as Swinburne becomes fixated on the idea that Vitaly is a dark, malignant force that needs to be stopped.
The fact is that Vitaly is different—a free-thinking stranger from the continent with and even stranger, “exotic” wife. He is the “other” upon whom Swinburne, in his fear and frustration, projects his darkest fears and uncertainties. Indeed, Vitaly is dangerous: he encourages kids like Darwin and Sturges to think for themselves, and self-directed thought always has the potential to disrupt the social order. As the text illustrates, it can seem especially perilous on the eve of war, when the pressures of nationalism and conformity are greatest. As dangerous other, Vitaly must perish. The real horror of the book has, of course, nothing to do with the dangers of marauding vampires or illicit pedophiles. The terror lies in the ease with which a schoolboy’s fears can turn deadly and in the fate of Vitaly, who fled to England to escape fascism only to die at the hands of a callous, dangerously-conformist proto-fascist in Swinburne.