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Vampire Sextette
Reviewed by Kit O'Connell, © 2003

Format: Book
By:   Edited by Marvin Kaye
Genre:   Horror/Dark Fantasy
Released:   Ace edition October 2002
Review Date:   September 16, 2003
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

I wouldn't call myself a vampire fan, but I like creative, well-done bloodsuckers as much as the next man. When I purchased Vampire Sextette, a collection of six vampire novellas, I figured I would get at least two good stories out of it, having already enjoyed novels by Kim Newman and S.P. Somtow. I hoped to discover new authors I might enjoy; discovering new authors you might never have looked twice at is surely one of the joys of anthologies such as this one.

Editor Marvin Kaye introduces the volume and rather than merely restate the plots of each of the authors' works, he instead tries to give a broad overview of vampire fiction from its early origins to the present post-Anne Rice days. He explains that the title, Vampire Sextette, was meant to invoke "the subthemes of sensuality and music." As a B-movie aficionado, I am afraid it mostly brings to mind Sextette (1978), the regrettable vehicle for wringing the last few drops of fame from Mae West's rapidly shrinking career; this fault, however, may be entirely my own. Blame for the terrible cover art obviously lies elsewhere.

Anthologies can help you discover brilliant new authors, but also teach you which ones to avoid. After reading Nancy A. Collins' "Some Velvet Morning," and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's "In The Face of Death," I can say with confidence that neither will be reappearing on my reading list anytime soon.

Collins' tale concerns her signature character, a vampiric vampire slayer named Sonja Blue. In "Some Velvet Morning," she sets her sights on none other than Countess Bathory. Despite some early shocks when Bathory's human slave captures and kills prey for her vampire master, the story quickly dissolves into a standard tale of a vampire hunter at work. In the end, no one is surprised that Sonja Blue gets her bloodsucker and comes out on top with sunglasses intact. I don't know about anyone else, but I am pretty sick of the vampire-who-hunts-vampires motif.

"In the Face Of Death" is also part of an on-going series, in this case Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain vampire novels. The tale apparently takes place on the periphery of that setting and concerns the torrid, forbidden romance between a progressive, wealthy French woman of the 1850s and the otherwise happily married military man and banker William Tecumseh Sherman. The woman happens to be Madelaine de Montalia, a vampire, but this has little bearing on the story other than her immortality, her mild dislike of direct sunlight and her habit of placing native earth in her shoes. If there's flowing red stuff in there somewhere you'd have to find it with a fine-toothed comb and the basic story would be at home in a historical romance novel or by-the-numbers period movie. Even Madelaine's vampiric strength vanishes as soon as she needs to be rescued by 'Tecumseh' from a drunkard's attempted sexual assault. Unlike "Some Velvet Morning" which is at least one of the book's shorter stories, "In the Face of Death" commits the double sin of being both bad AND long.

I loved Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, an alternate history where Dracula becomes Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, so I was excited that "The Other Side of Midnight" took place in the same timeline several decades after Dracula's death. It occurs in the California of an alternate 1980s where we find returning heroine Genevieve Dieudonne living in a trailer home and working as an undead private eye. She is hired by her friend Orson Welles who is suspicious of a mysterious benefactor funding his extravagant cinematic version of Bram Stoker's forbidden novel Dracula. The novella's strongest moments occur when we follow Welles and his vision. Genevieve's investigations almost seem to detract by taking us away from what was to me the heart of the action. Where Anno Dracula had a strong narrative generously laced with weird and wonderful pop culture and literary references, in "The Other Side of Midnight," perhaps because of its shorter length, the references sometimes seem to obscure rather than enhance. At times we even venture squarely into the realm of camp: supporting characters are killed off in the manner of a 80s-era television drama, there are several (and to me, unnecessary) appearances by "Barbie the vampire slayer," and the story even ends with a fiery explosion that cuts Genevieve free from her ties to California. Although not at a terrible work by any stretch, and not at all dependent on familiarity with his other novels, I can't say that "The Other Side of Midnight" would make me seek out Kim Newman's novels and collections if I were not already predisposed to do so.

So far it may seem like there is little reason to purchase Vampire Sextette, but fortunately the other three novellas make the purchase price worthwhile. S.P. Somtow, author of the brilliant Vampire Junction, shows us a weird and twisted court transcript in "Vanilla Blood." Here he plays on tales of dubious satanic cults or child abuse rings and draws out the darker currents of American morality and prurience in the trial of a multi-murderer and would-be vampiric high school boy. Although the judge continuously objects, witness testimony is erotic and gory, and everyone gets more than they bargained for when a coffin is wheeled into the courtroom.

The stories of Brian Stableford and Tanith Lee, authors who are both fairly new to me, were also highly rewarding.

Stableford's "Sheena" is a philosophical, under-stated story that on the one hand could be seen as merely the romance between a British man his coworker, the eponymous eccentric goth musician. On the other hand, Sheena can also be seen as the latest in the countless reincarnations of a mortal yet eternal vampire. For all its subtlety, the impact of this multi-faceted tale is just as strong. In its way, mortality itself is the greatest vampire of all in the story, drawing life from all our loved ones and ourselves. Stableford includes a glossary of British slang used in the story; while it was not at all necessary to the enjoyment of "Sheena" it is both humorous and educational.

Tanith Lee's "The Isle Is Full of Noises" is not just a good story, it also has one of the best Shakespeare-inspired titles I have seen in some time. Here we meet Yse (pronounced 'ease'), an author living on an island writing a vampire story. Her characters, who in turn live on a similar island, are a man and a woman locked in a passionate but self-destructive relationship. The man is based on a celebrity that Yse herself is perhaps dangerously obsessed with. Fact and fiction mix in tantalizing ways with the arrival of the story's central metaphor and monster, a supernatural,water-borne broken piano. Strange as these elements may sound together, Lee juggles them deftly and creates a work of true erotic horror. Although the sex is explosive, all of the text is infused with sensuality. The effect is arousing, but also undeniably disquieting. As Yse herself reflects, "The story's erotographic motif, at first stimulating, had become, as it must, repulsive. Disgusting her -- also, as it should."

Vampire Sextette partly succeeds at its goals and half its contents really deliver. Were they to stand on their own, the stories by Somtow, Lee, and Stableford would deserve a far higher rating, but the other three authors aren't quite up to snuff (though Kim Newman's novella is still, in the end, a lot of fun). I think you should buy this book, but you might want to pack a backup novel for that long plane trip.

Kit O'Connell is a bookseller and writer from Austin, TX. Vampires take note: when giving blood, he prefers to cut out the middleman and give direct.

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