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.
Catching Hell (2010)
Greg F. Gifune
*** As always: here there be spoilers. ***
Toward the end of Greg F. Gifune’s excellent novella Catching Hell (2010), Alex and Stefan think, momentarily, that they have escaped the damned who have been hunting them through the night. They look to the sky, knowing that if they make it to sunrise then they are free. What happens next is worth quoting at length:
The treetops were just visible against the sparse beginnings of daylight.
“They’re above us,” [Alex] heard herself say.
They’re human, but the deeper into the ritual they go . . .
The forest exploded into deafening cracks as tree branches split and snapped in one sudden wave, sounding as if the woods themselves were collapsing, coming down around them.
. . . the more powerful they get . . . the less human they become . . .
And from the trees came blurs—dark forms in period clothing—dropping from the sky, smashing tree limbs as they went, groans and growls mixed the thudding impact as they hit the ground, falling all about them.
With a horrific scream, Alex was gone, snatched away and dragged back through the woods.
As the others crept closer, Stefan bowed his head and began to weep.
I find this passage eerie and disturbing, and I think it helps illustrate Gifune’s way of writing about the uncanny. Fundamental to the passage’s power is that he does not attempt to wall his readers up in words. Language is by its nature suggestive and incomplete (no matter how much we might sometimes wish it to be otherwise). This remains true no matter how much of it we use. Rather than piling up words and details to try to show us the full horror of the damned, Gifune is sparing with language here. He chooses to work with its suggestive and incomplete nature rather than battle against it. We see nothing more specific here than “blurs—dark forms,” and our own imaginations are free to fill in the verbal blanks. It’s the kind of stuff that leaves me staring into the shadows behind the words trying to make out what’s there and has me peeking around the corners of sentences. Or maybe I should say straining my ears for low whispers, since most of the details Gifune presents here are aural rather than visual--which helps capture the disorienting and awful experience of an unexpected attack from above in the faint pre-dawn light. The description of the events is punctuated with fragments of earlier conversation (italicized in the original) that function like a cinematic voice-over, guiding us through without straight-jacketing our imaginations.
Having read a good bit of Gifune’s work over the years, I’d say that all this is a matter of conscious craft on his part. He’s a careful, deliberate writer. There is, furthermore, a rough logic to all this: because language shapes and is shaped by our experience of the world, it stands to reason that one of the qualities of the otherworldly is that language struggles—and, perhaps necessarily, fails—to capture it. One of the key attributes of the supernatural is that it is that of which we do not know how to speak. In this passage (among many others), Gifune finds ways to sketch the murky fears that stand beyond. He has long been, and remains, one of the most effectively suggestive writers in dark fiction on the contemporary scene.
I was just about to make some sweeping generalization about how this suggestive use of language is essential to evoking fear on the page, but I was stopped short of such grand abstractions by the ghost of Jack Ketchum chuckling in my ear. Sometimes he comes in the night and whispers the most horrible things to me. A little Off Season goes a long way to reminding readers that the explicit and detailed ravaging of flesh can be pretty damned frightening. The best authors, Gifune among them, understand the terrifying power of blood just as they understand the power of suggestion, and they use both to construct their nightmares.