I’m an admitted vampire fan, and an avowed disciple of Dan Simmons. So, as I mine through the author’s past works, it should come as no surprise that I picked out his take on the genre, Carrion Comfort, as a valuable way to spend my time.
This being 2010, we are inundated with the Twilight version of the vampire – the pretty, the romantic, the sparkly. (This is not to say that the books aren’t good young adult fare – I have reviewed each on this site. With the exception of the fourth book, they are written entirely from the perspective of a teenage girl. I am told that Stephanie Meyer has a gift for writing romantic first-person teenage narrative, which is very likely why the novels have a huge and somewhat perplexing rabid female following. The same mental anguishes of Bella Swan that make the female masses empathetic make me roll my eyes and skip pages. The result is that of a 700-page book, you can scan through about half without missing anything pertinent. It’s a teen harlequin romance between a girl and a vampire boy, nothing more, nothing less. I definitely like it, but I would never ever put the books in the same young adult league as the Harry Potter series. It’s probably a good analogy to say that Twilight is a guilty pleasure. This is what is known as a digression that has gone on why too long, but my editor is on vacation so who cares.)
Carrion Comfort was published in 1989, before cell phones, before sparkly vampires. It is decidedly in the horror genre, and uses a very different take – instead of beings that have fangs and suck blood, its “vampires” have the mental ability to make regular humans do anything they want.
The story opens with a regular meeting of three of these vampires, who have made a private game of these abilities as a way to pass the time. These vampire have no physical abilities like the traditional vampires; their strength lies in how much effort it takes to manipulate the actions of others. As such, each has at least one “assistant” – a human who over time they have conditioned to the extent that their original personality has been completed destroyed, and they respond to the faintest of mental commands of their master. They serve as bodyguard, servant, and assassin.
The game these vampires play is scored with the blood of innocents – how much destruction in lives has each caused by using their Abilities, as they call them. The plot of the book is initiated after the last game session, where an assassination attempt of one vampire by another initiates a rolling battle through the streets of a sleepy town. Pitched between two mental masters, each and every innocent passerby is immediately recruited and turned into an unwilling but effective assailant or human shield, even small children, until the fight is finished and over a half-dozen seemingly unconnected folks are left dead. This battle draws the attention of an old vampire hunter, who joins forces with the kin of one of the deceased (an old man who never hurt anyone is found to have tried to beat someone he never knew to death) and an old town sheriff in unraveling the mystery. A mystery which has another side, as the vampire “community” is unnerved at the events and soon realizes one of its own is playing “the game” against his or her own kind.
The notion becomes immediately chilling, and Simmons rightly controls the scope of vampire powers. Just like in the traditional sense, vampires can have only one victim at a time – it is extremely difficult for a vampire to completely control two persons at the same time, unless they have been conditioned. Even with these limits, it quickly becomes apparent that any matchup between a human and vampire is a game that the human is going to lose, unless that game is played like chess at incredible risk. And even then the outcome is far from certain.
The book is a sprawling work and epic in scope. As with all Simmons’ work, it is very insightful and unafraid to go to dark places we would go if suddenly aware of a power that gives us complete control over all people we see. Some vampires are content to use their powers for selfish and invasive needs – the sole vampire in the story that can be slightly empathetic over the course of the book uses his ability, initially, almost exclusively for rape. His transformation, his loss, his incomplete budding, is moving and pathetic. Some others in the story are not so content, and have becomes heads of powerful organizations, governments, churches. Their games have global implications, and some are aware that the games are becoming too dangerous and too noticeable.
Simmons’ imagination is leveled with thought-provoking logic about these vampires. The vampire hunter notes that these Abilities come from the ‘reptile-brain’ portion of all humans, the purely fight-or-flight, instinctive brain most noticeably in people when they have had too much to drink. In essence, these freaks-of-nature are a genetic throwback, and worse, since their behaviors usually develop in their youth, they are never taught the lesson that you can’t always get what you want. Imagine what would happen if a child discovered they had to the power to make people do whatever they wanted. The vampires are developmentally stunted, relationship retarded, and because they were never, could never, be given boundaries and told ‘no’, are sociopaths all.
The title "Carrion Comfort" is derived from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins:
- NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me 5
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lion limb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, 10
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Simmons also writes an extended preface about the making of the book, which was years in the making and was a source of great struggle and humor. It’s worth it just to read about the times, which were not so long ago, where one couldn’t so easily backspace without having a bottle of whiteout handy. Try writing 10 drafts of a 1000-word book like that, and you might have some additional respect and awe of this relatively-unknown inspired take on the genre.