As a longtime fantasy/horror fan,* I’ve been a bit perplexed by the recent explosion of vampire-related stuff in popular culture, and judging from this post by author Frank Tallis, I’m not the only one. When did vampires become cuddly? Suddenly every vampire in literature and on TV is puppy-eyed and conscience-endowed and longing for a mortal woman to make his existence complete. (This is only the male vampires, of course. With few exceptions, female vampires exist only to be jealous and suspicious of our adorable human heroine.) And once again, I would like to go on record saying that I don’t believe for a second that an immortal with 100+ years of life experience would find bliss by listening with rapt attention while an excruciatingly ordinary teenage girl talks about how she doesn’t fit in at school.
This is not to say that everything in the cuddly-vampire genre is awful. The Sookie Stackhouse books are good fun, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” season 2 rules, and “The Vampire Diaries” TV show is an addictive guilty pleasure. But I like vampires best when they’re scary. And apparently, so does Barbara Hambly.
I knew Hambly primarily as the author of the Sun Wolf and Starhawk fantasy trilogy, which I read last year and enjoyed tremendously (don’t let the horrible 1980s covers put you off). I hadn’t heard much about her other books, but the summary of Those Who Hunt the Night intrigued me.
We open in Oxford, 1907. James Asher is a professor of philology–and also a former agent for the British government. On the night the book opens, Asher comes home to find his wife and servants in a deep sleep. A pale young man sitting at his desk introduces himself with these words:
My name is Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro, and I am what you call a vampire. Do you believe me?
We quickly learn that someone is killing the vampires of London. Don Simon has come to recruit Asher to solve the mystery, and he makes it very clear that if Asher refuses, or attempts to betray Don Simon at any point during the investigation, both Asher and his beloved wife Lydia will die.
Make no mistake: while Don Simon has some admirable qualities, Hambly’s vampires are not cuddly. They survive by preying on humans and their powers are dependent on actually killing their victims. There is a real sense of menace and danger as Asher learns more about the vampires’ world — and as he encounters vampires who may or may not really care about honoring Don Simon’s bargain.
In addition to being an effective work of horror, Those Who Hunt the Night is also an impeccably plotted mystery. At several points in the book, a crucial new piece of information actually made my jaw drop — a mixture of genuine shock followed by “of course! It all makes sense!” The mystery’s solution manages to be surprising — and pretty darn ingenious — while still playing fair with what has gone before.
One of my favorite things about this book is the way Hambly involves Archer’s wife Lydia. Rather than keep her in the dark, Asher immediately tells his clever physician wife everything that has transpired between him and Don Simon — and, when she insists on helping his investigation, he agrees. Lydia’s scientific knowledge and tenacious investigative skills prove to be tremendous assets, and I loved reading about a married couple who are truly partners in every sense of the word.
So, to review: effective horror, fascinating mystery, terrific protagonists. If those sound like ingredients you’d enjoy, go pick up a copy of this book immediately.
Rating: Buy it
* Just to be clear, when I say “horror” I’m thinking of Frankenstein and Alfred Hitchcock and the original Dracula, not the witless “torture porn” that passes for modern horror filmmaking. There is not enough money in the world to pay me to sit through one of those.