Saturday, December 22, 2007

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire – review

Authors: Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

Illustrator: Mike Mignola

First Published: 2007

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: “Why do dead men rise up to torment the living?” Captain Henry Baltimore asks the malevolent winged creature. The vampire shakes its head. “It was you called us. All of you, with your war. The roar of your cannons shook us from our quiet graves… You killers. You berserkers… You will never be rid of us now.”

When Lord Henry Baltimore awakens the wrath of a vampire on the hellish battlefields of Word War 1, the world is forever changed. For a virulent plague has been unleashed – a plague that even death cannot end.

Now the lone soldier in an eternal struggle against darkness, Baltimore summons three old friends to a lonely inn – men whose travels and fantastical experiences incline them to fully believe in the evil that is devouring the soul of mankind.

As the men await their old friend, they share their tales of terror and misadventure, and contemplate what part they will play in Baltimore’s timeless battle. Before the night is through, they will learn what is required to banish the plague – and the creature who named Baltimore his nemesis – once and for all.

The review: I heard about this book when I heard that it was to receive the big screen treatment. I must admit, when it arrived, to being pleasantly surprised. I had assumed it to be a graphic novel but it is actually a prose novel with illustrations peppered through its text. It is also a darkly gothic fairytale that enfolds you in the velvet clutches of night and just will not let go.

The prologue sees Henry Baltimore during what appears to be the First World War, although the Hessians (as the enemies are referred to) were combat units during the 18th century and I am not aware of the German troops being referred to as Hessians during World War 1 – I stand to be corrected however. Baltimore, when injured, finds his mind returning to the tin soldiers he played with as a child and, indeed, the book heads each chapter with extracts from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. This increases the fairytale feel of the book.

We then get the meeting of the three friends and each has two stories to tell. One being their involvement with Baltimore and within these stories we get a larger picture of the main character and his life. The second being their own brush with the supernatural and, through these we get tales involving South American demons, pagan bear Gods and demonic puppets. Each story is fulfilling in its own right.

The vampires themselves were awoken by the war and fed upon the carrion of the battlefield, in an undead stupor. That is until one tried to feast on the injured, but alive, Baltimore. In desperation he sliced the vampire across the face and woke him from the stupor. During the attack the vampire’s breath infected Baltimore’s leg wound and caused it to need amputating. This is very much the nature of the vampires in this, they are plague carriers.

The vampire swore vendetta against Baltimore and he and his kind infected others, causing a plague to spread across Europe – a plague in which the victims might rise after their death, revenants that were not as powerful as the vampires who created them. Many of the standard vampire lore holds true and I loved the idea of the cure for the plague which came straight out of traditional folklore: “This is the vampire’s heart. It must be boiled in clear water and a broth made from it, to be fed to all those who are still ill.”

The book is wonderfully gloomy, and is a gothic dreamscape that escapes totally the trap of falling into melodrama. It is a fairytale – an adult fairytale ripping such stories from the realm of childhood and creating a dark nightmare for a more mature sensibility. A lovely volume, with Mignola’s stylised illustrations adding an extra layer of depth to the proceedings, this comes highly recommended. 8 out of 10.

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