Monday, September 18, 2017

“Postmodern Vampirism”: A Review of Grief for Heart (the fourth book in the Vincent du Maurier series)

 by K. P. Ambroziak (Published by the author, 2017). ISBN: 9781548745073

Vampires have gotten increasingly complex.
Sure, there was that blip with the Twilight series, where everything went a little backwards with the complexity and ferocity of the un-dead blood-sucker, but overall they have certainly changed with the times. The metaphors that drive human fascination with this particular breed of monster have morphed and expanded as technology and human relations have grown into their present state in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
In my previous reviews of this elegantly penned series, I have touched on much of this—the addiction metaphors, the lab-created blood sources and tropes of the dangers of scientific advancement, the origins in Western European fears of blood pollution by Eastern Europeans, the sexual metaphors springing from the suppression of the Victorian and Edwardian eras—and I don’t want to take up space repeating it.
What I want to touch on here—what really drives Grief for Heart—are the sexual politics and socio-political hierarchies that Ambroziak’s universe has expanded to in this series, for they are as unsettling a commentary on modern “humanity” as I have ever read in a vampire novel.
Although vampires continue to inhabit the screen and especially TV (Preacher’s Cassidy and the ubiquitous vampires of Supernatural), they are more often than not lacking overall in substance. Even Anne Rice appears to have fallen on hard times with her twentieth Lestat book, where she uses an origin story about Atlantis to provide a play-space for her vampires that doesn’t work in the least.
If Anne Rice is out of touch with the times, even with her exploration of genetics and the rest, we have to look elsewhere for our fix. It’s the younger, more modern voices, like Ambroziak’s, that are the ones to see us through to the next phase of vampire tales.
Grief for Heart (building on its trio of predecessors), like the graphic novel-turned-AMC series Preacher, takes as its launching point the traditional vampiric issues of isolation and dis-connection. Being an immortal vampire is a lonely business, and family has now become the driving goal, and the vampires that populate Ambroziak’s world have taken on the problem with all the creativity their preternatural abilities allow.
What is so engaging is that, in the post-plague world of the du Maurier series, there is a complex hierarchy—one that incrementally grows with the books. By Grief for Heart we have traditional humans (many of whom survive by allying with a vampire who uses them for a continual blood supply); the Hematopes or “New Men,” who are genetically engineered; the vampires who have recollections of their past lives with increasing clarity; and the gods and goddesses who inhabit many of the vampires’ bodies and minds.
The socio-political issues at play in Grief for Heart are deep. Entire families are pledged to a single vampire, an apt metaphor for any kind of feudal lord or lady taking advantage of an indentured servitude with no freedom in sight. Additionally, for reasons both internal and external, the vampires also enjoy sexual liberties—as if the taking of blood were not enough (another analog for feudal slavery—including colonial America).
It is impossible to talk about vampire metaphors without getting to the core reasons why vampires continue to hold us in their thrall (pun intended): Addiction and Psychic Vampirism. Both are at play here—and what is most interesting is that the Addiction resides on both sides. The dynamics go well beyond species preservation and a sense of family honor. The humans like it—despite how viciously the vampires (and gods) treat them. So let’s add Abuse as a prevalent theme.
Don’t expect to like anyone in these books. And I don’t believe you need to. Rice’s characters are no longer likable… Lestat should have stayed dead rather than resurrecting into what he has become—a failing bureaucrat. And as much as Preacher’s Cassidy entertains with his one-liners and dark behavior, as much as we want to root for him to find some peace and solace, his depredations and degradations are wholly vampiric. That is, after all, the point. Addiction, Psychic Vampirism, Abuse—these are not to be made light of. Not ever.
Ambroziak’s writing is elegant and rich. There is a hypnotic lilt to her writing that functions like the vampire’s gaze, lulling us ever Inward. The storytelling is structurally sound, unfolding at a comfortable pace and allowing us to languish in the language. And the paying of IOUs and twists, turns, and reveals make it clear that this is not writing on the fly—these stories have been carefully plotted for maximum tension and effect, without being tawdry or merely monster thrill-rides.
Grief for Heart ends on a cliffhanger; I am interested in seeing where the story goes and what new secrets are revealed.
One thing more. Ambroziak managed to write a successful book in a named character series without that character ever appearing in it! Du Maurier is there by implication, of course—his shadow passes over and holds station in equal proportion as the story unfolds, and, through his force of will and cult of personality in the prior three books, it is enough to sate us until his return.

And I do look forward to him returning, to face the hell he’s wrought.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Review of Sarah Cave and Rupert M. Loydell’s Impossible Songs

(Cornwall, UK: Analogue Flashback Books, 2017).
Several months ago I reviewed Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, Dear Mary, which is a series of (far-ranging) meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. This follow-up, co-authored with Sarah Cave, is a series of “21 Annunciations,” using the same source-event, but presented in wholly different ways.
There is no indication of which poems are penned by which poet, or if they are all collaborations. This is interesting to me, because I recently reviewed another book of poetry, Blue, by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda that did not indicate which poet contributed where.
The annunciations in Impossible Songs are refracted through a wide array of prisms. “A Polar Bear Annunciation of Self” is a first-person poem from the polar bear’s point of view, interdicted with narrative from Barry Lopez, the environmental/humanitarian writer. This poem is followed by another with an Arctic theme. In the third stanza I was struck by an echo from the poem “Bright Flags” by Jim Morrison, wherein he says “There’s a belief by the/Children of Man which states/all will be well.” In the Cave/Loydell poem “Shadow Words,” the line is “she convinces herself/all will be will be well.” This would seem reviewer-centric if it were not for a poem several pages later, “The Impossible Song,” which quotes Morrison in its epigraph and then begins:
“The voice of the serpent/slid into my ear, creaking/leather and snakeskin/black boots aslant…”
and ends:
“dead in the bath,/a drowned angel/who lost his voice”
This poem is preceded by a poem “for Leonard Cohen” and followed by a poem called “An Annunciation of Christ’s Dark Matter” “after David Bowie.” This poem contains lines from “Ashes to Ashes” (“strung out in heaven’s high”) and other Bowie tunes and is darkly evocative, as Bowie so often was.
We now have as inspiration a triumvirate of dead songwriters who were all also poets. A few pages later there is a poem called “Tightrope Annunciation.” Perhaps this truly is tenuous and reviewer-centric but there is a song on Other Voices, the album recorded by the three remaining Doors after Morrison’s death, called “Tightrope Ride.”
Loydell is a painter as well as a poet, so it is no surprise that some of the annunciations are based on paintings, such as Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning. The cover art is a study of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.
“The Art of Silence” is three poems in one. The two columns can be read as individual poems or the lines can be read straight across to make one poem.
“The Deserted Garden” considers the first mother, Eve, who was pregnant, before Cain and Abel, with knowledge.
One of my favorite poems in Dear Mary is about annunciation as alien abduction. Impossible Songs contains a similarly themed poem titled “annunCIAtion,” which presents Mary’s experience as conspiracy theory. There are several theories therein of how she was impregnated (to which I add Roman centurion) and there is even a visit by the “men in black” (“secret agents or aliens”). Could the Pharisees and Sadducees been among their number? Or was it an infiltration?
“Notes on an Almost Annunciation” brings to mind Mary Lee Wile’s powerful novel Ancient Rage. While Mary and Jesus were made so much of, there was also Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist, who suffered much the same but didn’t quite get the press.
For readers who, like me, find added value in an artist coming back to subject matter again and again over time, especially when it is a single line or other form of bread crumb, the final line of the final poem in Impossible Songs is “The God-duck wore his Mitre at an angle in church on Sunday.” This line echoes back to a chapbook edited by Loydell titled The Gospel According to Archbishop Makeshift.
Speaking of chapbooks, along with Impossible Songs I received several quarter-fold chapbooks. Two in particular bear mention in the context of this review. They are point–counterpoint collaborations between Loydell and Peter Gillies and are titled “The Angel Gabriel is not Your Friend/The Angel Gabriel could be Your Cousin” and “Fra Angelico is not Your Friend/Fra Angelico could be Your Cousin.”
As evidenced by these three works, Loydell is mining themes that resonate with our times, leading to collaborations with a talented array of fellow poets, allowing for a synergistic pulse of varied views. He and his fellow travelers ask difficult questions and offer open-ended answers through the time-tested holy triad of ethos, logos, and pathos.
The grey space of possibility is one that more artists should commit to create in.