Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Vetala: A Novel of Undying Love – review

Author: Phillip Ernest

First Published: 2018

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Nada Marjanovic, professor of Sanskrit at the University of Zagreb, has spent more than twenty years translating an obscure text on the vetala, a parasitic, vampire-like being that possesses the bodies of his victims. When her mentor and collaborator in the Indian city of Pune dies, she finds herself face-to-face with the undead that the text describes, an evil which long ago killed her lover - and set her on the path of an obsessive scholarly revenge. She must rely on her intellect, mythic lore, and even dreams to piece together the mystery of the manuscript. The vetala's opposition grows increasingly violent as Nada nears the book's conclusion, and with the help of two colleagues, struggles to decipher its climactic secret, which would allow her to exorcise the demon at last - freeing not only the mysterious man whom he has possessed for centuries, but also, perhaps, her own imprisoned and forgotten love. Suspenseful and unforgettable, Phillip Ernest's debut novel captures the most universal elements of human experience - even the monsters we face.

The review: When one accepts a wider definition of vampire than that drawn from the Slavic folklore from where we get the V word, then the folkloric/mythical incidents of blood drinkers, unquiet corpses and beings with vampiric traits is truly staggering. The vetala is such a creature, this time from India. Sir Richard Burton, 19th Century polyglot and explorer (amongst other things), first brought the vetala to the Western consciousness in the book Vikram and the Vampire. In the preface to the 1870 edition it is said that “The Baital-Pachisi, or Twenty-five (tales of a) Baital—a Vampire or evil spirit which animates dead bodies—is an old and thoroughly Hindu repertory.” In a footnote to this it is explained that, “In Sanskrit, Vetala-pancha-Vinshati. “Baital” is the modern form of “Vetala”.

Author Phillip Ernest is a Sanskrit scholar from Canada, living in India, and has chosen the vetala as the focus of this novel and the world of Sanskrit scholarship as its stage. The book itself is a curious (in a good way) mix of supernatural horror, academia, high octane action (with one scene particularly coming to mind) and romance. It all merges together rather nicely and the book hurtles along with a sprightly pace.

The vetala itself is, within the lore of the book, dualistic with regards modus operandi but deliberately so. The vetala is a possessing spirit and it has the ability to possess a corpse and bring it to a state of undeath – raising the corpse like a more traditional Western undead. However, in this the vetala is also an entity that inhabits a living man (though there is a primary person the vetala possesses, it can also possess other people as well). The primary possession is of a man named Avinash who, centuries before, became jealous because his twin brother Amruteshvara fell in love with the woman he loved. It was this jealousy that allowed the vetala to take a hold of him until he was possessed.

Since then the three – the two brothers and the lover – have been reborn time and time again, the brothers always as twin brothers and the vetala possessing Avinash. Amruteshvara learned to replicate the tricks and powers of a vetala and the two brothers remember their past lives as they struggle with each other through their incarnation. It was Amruteshvara who wrote the obscure Sanskrit text that Nada had been working on with a respected Sanskrit scholar, who leaves her the manuscript and the task of completing the translation on his death. The book itself acts as a weapon and apotropaic against the vetala, who cannot allow the secret it holds (how to destroy it) be found. I won’t spoil the pay-off but suffice it to say it draws upon a trope that will be familiar to those who know the Western media vampire.

Definitely worth your time, this book touches on a variety of the vampire that deserves more exposure. 7.5 out of 10.

In Paperback @ Amazon UK

No comments: