Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Author James Becker
First published 2011
The Blurb: Bohemia 1741, On the Northern banks of the Vitava River an extraordinary event is taking place. Inside a private chapel a high-born Hungarian lady is being laid to rest. But not before her heart is removed from her body and she is buried beneath a layer of heavy stones – lest she rise again to prey upon her victims...
Venice 2010, Holidaying in the world's most beautiful city, Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis discover a desecrated tomb. Inside it is a female skeleton and a diary dating back hundreds of years. Written in Latin, it refers to a lost scroll that will provide the 'answer' to an ancient secret.
Soon corpses of young women, all killed in the same ritualistic manner, start appearing throughout the city. And when Angela disappears, Bronson knows he must find her before she too is slaughtered. But his hunt for Angela leads him to the Island of the Dead, and into a conspiracy more deadly than he could ever have imagined...
The 'Vamp or Not?': This novel does, pretty much, exactly “what it says on the tin” to use a phrase from British advertising.
It opens in the obligatory creepy castle, as a priest supervises the opening of a coffin, delivered 2 days ago from the Schwarzenberg Castle in Vienna. In the coffin is the body of the “high-born Hungarian lady”, the gloriously titled Princess Eleonora Elisabeth Amalia Magdalena von Schwarzenberg. The author describes in detail how the priest checks her body, slicing open the stitches down the length of her body, to ensure the heart had been removed, before splashing her with what we can assume to be holy water and sealing her inside a box which he then fastens inside a coffin. He then has the coffin transported to the church where it is taken underground into a side chapel rather than the family mausoleum, and it is buried in a clay concrete lined hole with large slabs of rock in order “to stop her rising”. He also mutilates a portrait of her, cutting out the head and burning that section of the painting. This, he believes, will end the curse that has plagued the area. This chapter ends with him thinking he was wrong about the source of this mysterious plague, hinting that whatever was happening had continued, but at this point the author flips to the present day, and this is the last we hear from that side of the story. Personally I was a little disappointed and wondered if the author could have continued this novel just along this story, developing the characters and giving us a full 18th century vampire novel, but we move to the present day now.
Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis are holidaying in Venice, and its early November. I must admit to never having visited this city, but from the author's description it seems to be an amazing place, and definitely a place for anyone who likes Italy to visit. They decide, as it's the 1st of November, to take in the Venetian Festival of the Dead and so visit the island used as the main burial area for Venice, the island of San Michele. Whilst joining in, and watching, the torchlight procession through the graveyard, which, upon this of all nights, is misty, they hear a scream.
Bronson, it transpires, is ex-forces and now a policeman, and Angela an archaeologist for the British Museum, so of course they head towards the sound and discover a crowd around a dead body. This is not just any old dead body though......a tomb has broken open and the ancient corpse has fallen out. Whilst they wait for the police to arrive Angela sneaks a look inside the tomb and finds an ancient diary which she secretes about her person. She also notices that skull had been removed and placed between the feet and also that it had a rock jammed in the jaws.
The next morning we hear that a young woman has gone missing, and that she is by no means the first. Bronson, as a policeman, albeit British and far outside his jurisdiction, finds this interesting, whilst Angela finds the diary even more so. Angela explains to him that the tomb they saw last night was that of a vampire, hence the removal of the head and the rock in the jaws. Of course, they both agree, vampires don't exist but times were different when this person died and superstitions then are scoffed at now.
Angela gives Bronson a potted history of the vampire, from the ancient Egyptian god Shezmu through to the likes of Dracula. I won't go into detail about it as anyone reading this will be conversant enough with the vampire genealogy anyway. She does however state that stakes, crucifixes, garlic, sunlight and mirrors are likely inventions of later people, in particular pointing a finger at Bram Stoker, and linking their rise to the Black Death.
Whilst they discuss this Marietta Perrini, the latest young woman to disappear finds herself chained in a room deep underground, with no light whatsoever. Meanwhile Inspector Bianchi, tasked with the investigation into the missing women also meets Bronson and Angela to take statements about the previous night's discovery.
The story moves on from here, Angela translating the Latin script, in the process learning it gives indicators as to how to “make” a vampire. Unfortunately for her, it is missing a key part, the scroll of the title. Other people are also interested in this, and whilst they are out enjoying the sights Bronson is knocked unconscious and Angela kidnapped. Bronson is warned by Bianchi to let the police do their job and find Angela, of course we know this won't happen.......and it doesn't.
Angela finds herself on one of the numerous small islands scattered about Venice, where she is forced to fully translate the diary. She is also told that as she has seen the faces of the people holding her, when she has outlived her usefulness they will kill her. Knowing this, and believing Bronson to be dead, she duly translates the diary. Thankfully it is indeed missing the scroll, but there are clues as to its whereabouts, thus giving her a reprieve for the time being.
Bronson, as we know, is not dead and is hunting for her all over Venice. He by chance returns to San Michele and recognises the person who assaulted him, giving him the break he needed. He reports this again to Bianchi, and again is warned about interfering in an on-going police investigation, so takes matters into his own hands.
Angela is taken to another remote island, and in a clock tower she finds the missing scroll. This is a bonus, as she stays alive in order to translate this to the captors, who include a hooded man who never speaks, has prominent canines and smells strongly of rotting flesh.
In order to save the review being the length of the novel, things now move apace and Bronson manages to tail the kidnappers to their lair, reporting this to Bianchi, who sends a launch to investigate, only to discover it is the wrong island. However Bronson sees another behind it and sets off to rescue Angela who has, by this time, translated everything and is taken into a cellar, where she meets Marietta. The scroll has provided the missing instructions for the creation of a vampire, and Marietta is a key ingredient.
Bronson hides on the island and sees a group of men, immaculately dressed, arrive for a ceremony. He phones Bianchi, and is astonished to see one of the figures answer the phone. Bianchi, it would appear, is one of the vampire cult, which leads Bronson to assume that is why his help wasn't wanted or encouraged. He gets into the cellar by knocking out one of the cultists and wearing his robe, where the ceremony is about to take place. We know that he won't stand by and let this happen and of course he doesn't. A gunfight ensues, and the Italian armed police also burst in to capture the cultists. Bianchi it now transpires was an inside man and had arranged this in order to arrest them all.
As the smoke clears he finds Angela, and the hooded vampire have gone missing. Bronson finds the obligatory secret passage and a chase in speedboats across the water of Venice ensues as we rush towards the climax. Bronson shoots the hooded figure at close range and it falls into the water, he gets the girl, the police break up the murderous cult and everyone lives happily ever after. Or do they? The author ends with no body ever being found, but a few months later an abandoned building becomes a place of fear as strange sounds emerge, and the smell of rotting flesh becomes stronger.
This book is definitely not an actual vampire, more vampire cult, but as I stated earlier the opening chapter cold have been the start of a traditional vampire novel of some promise. The rest of the novel is a conspiracy theory/Dan Brown-esque adventure thriller featuring a cult who believed they could create vampires.
As a last aside however, the author did have an interesting idea I hadn't come across for this actual creation (and I stand here to be shown up by my ignorance). The ceremony involved 2 human victims, in this instance Marietta and Angela. One had to be of noble, indeed vampiric lineage (Marietta) and the other just a common person (Angela). Both were force fed the milk of a she wolf before being raped and murdered. They were then to be bled and the blood collected, mixed with the powdered skull of a vampire and drunk. This would lead to the creation of a vampire. As I say, not a concept I personally have come across before, and an interesting one that may have worked better in a traditional vampire story.
Not vampire, but enjoyable enough as an adventure story.
Taliesin’s Thoughts: Clark is correct when he states that there isn’t actually a vampire in this, however (without having read the novel) I personally would class it as ‘Vamp’ due to the belief in vampires.
What is interesting is that James Becker has clearly conflated two real world storys that have recently been documented in a televised form. The story of Princess Eleonore Elisabeth Amalia Magdalena von Lobkowicz was investigated and theorised upon in the documentary Vampire Princess and the skull with a brick was found in a Venice plague pit and examined in the book Vampire Forensics, itself a companion to a National Geographic TV documentary of the same name.
Interestingly the author has clearly taken Princess Eleonore’s habit of taking wolf’s milk (as a cure) and conflated it into a vampire creation myth – like Clark I haven’t seen this occur before.