Short Fuse Book Review: Fifty Shades of Vlad

As monster fiction, Vlad has hints, now and then, of what Talulla Rising doesn’t aspire to. In the former, Carlos Fuentes peels back the familiar to provide glimpses of the genuinely horrific.

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan. Knopf, 368 pages, $45.

Vlad by Carlos Fuentes. Translated from the Spanish by Ethan Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger. Dalkey Achive Press, 112 pages, $17.95.

The thing about vampire/werewolf fiction is that it draws you in. Yes, I am aware of the convention according to which the vampire can’t enter unless you first invite him. After that it’s not always so easy to disinvite him, to lead him from that misconceived ingress to a nonviolent egress. You’re stuck. The sun is setting. This guest looks weirder, more fangy and confident by the moment. There’s something unwholesome about his teeth, eyes, ears, maybe his smell. You said come in. Big mistake. Now welcome to his world.

In a sense, I’m no different than the teens who mop this stuff up and know more about vamps, including the historic enmity between vampires and werewolves, than they do about Saddam Hussein. This started out as a review of Glen Duncan’s Talulla Rising, the sequel to his The Last Werewolf, but I got waylaid, sucked in/on, so here I am reporting on research. Some shady character dropped Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural through my mail slot—a Harvard University Press production. But how to explain Harvard University Press’s interest in the—faux—science of teratology, the study of monsters, unless someone there got sucked on/in too?

According to this book, werewolves go way back, their “paw prints” traceable to “Greek and Roman antiquity” and from there on to “twelfth-century French lais and English histories.” Werewolves, as per the author, are “indigenous” to the supernatural, native species as it were. Vampires, by contrast, are “exotic transplants”—newcomers, invasive species—unheard of in “Western Europe by either name or bloodsucking habits until the late sixteenth century.”

Be that as it may, vamps have caught up pretty quick. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), gave them provenance and typology, the traces of which can be found in all subsequent vampire media. There is the scholarly vamp hunter, for example—Dr. Van Helsing in the Stoker, who morphs into Giles the librarian in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is Mina, who resists Dracula’s bite and networks new media in a concerted attack on him—new media, in Stoker’s day, meaning the phonograph used as a recording device, the typewriter, and telegrams. Dracula, by comparison, is a Luddite, his defeat assured, as was the downfall of the Soviet Union when confronted with personal computers. (It doesn’t stretch things too far to say that Mina, almost a century and much electronic media later, morphs into Buffy.)

Much studied and sifted through as this material has been, there is a key element of the vampire story that generally escapes attention, namely that vamps are forever on the prowl for real estate. It’s hard to say what they crave more—human blood or good locations. To understand real estate bubbles, forget Paul Krugman: think vamp. To understand bubbles bursting, think vamps again, selling up.

What does a vampire look for in a dwelling? In Vlad, a posthumous novel by Carlos Fuentes, the question receives the attention it deserves. Stripped of his castles by fascism and by communism, Vlad—The Impaler—wishes to touch down in Mexico City, a venue, in his words, of “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Through an aged, quaking acquaintance, high up in Mexican government circles, Vlad connects to Asuncion, a sensual blood sausage who is a realtor to boot.

Asuncion has a pretty good idea of who her client might be and knowingly chooses him over Navarro, her adoring husband. To sweet Navarro she says, “I want a man who can hurt me. And you’re way too good for that.” She adds further, “Your faithfulness is a plague.”

Vlad is a vampire novel that does not scrimp on the sadomasochistic element. Compared to what we learn about Vlad in this short book hundreds of pages of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels are soft core, vanilla. Vlad’s victims do not have a safe word. And as a bonus, Vlad’s cruelty cannot be explained by reference to his having been screwed up as a child. Vlad is just Vlad.

Through Asuncion, Vlad secures a manor that meets his requirements. Windows are bricked up, and the surrounding land turned into a tortured, defoliated ravine, under which a system of tunnels—blood ducts—are dug. There is a basement roomy enough for coffins.

It’s in this basement that Navarro, Ascuncion’s cuckold, tracks an “unbearable stench” to its source—vampire shit. It’s down there that he has the misfortune of seeing everything vaguely normal about Vlad falling away: the “mustache was a disguise”; as were “the black sunglasses. . . wrapped mercilessly around his tiny, childish, and scarred ears, giving the impression that Count Vlad had been the victim of several botched face-lifts.”

Vlad’s body is “as white as plaster”:
“He did not have a single hair anywhere. . . He was totally smooth, like an egg.
Or a skeleton.
He looked as though he’d been flayed.”

Fuentes leads you to the final revelations expertly and by degrees. Navarro suffers from “a feeling of uselessness, of a lack of freedom, of being dragged against my will down a slope.” So will the reader. Despite the fact that at times you may hear someone pumping too hard on organ pedals this is a genuinely creepy book.

Not so Glen Duncan’s Talulla Rising. This is not to say Duncan’s writing lacks for energy. Here, for example, is Talulla, breaking out of human form in one of her unbidden monthly transformations from woman to nine-foot werewolf: “The first shock jerked my backbone. A precipitate canine shot through my upper gum and punched my bottom lip. Hair sprang with a crisp sigh from the skin on my back, thighs, arms. Bone did what the Curse [of the werewolf kind] told it to.”

Not one to temporize with commas or semicolons, Duncan writes forceful, stabbing sentences. And there’s plenty of action, what with vampires contra other vampires, vampires contra werewolves, and factions of Wocop (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) going all out to annihilate each other.

Talulla Rising involves too many Hollywood-style plot twists, too many last minute rescues and coincidences. And Duncan’s not above bits of dialogue that will fit right into the film version of his books, even now being made. For example, he writes, “It wasn’t vampirism that made these two transcendentally indifferent to any law, it was love.” Vamp love conquers all, but vamp lovers can’t ride off together until just after sunset.

Duncan’s books are action novels inhabited by a mostly supernatural cast of characters and imbued with enough vamp/wolf arcana to satisfy the most exacting cultist. Vlad has hints, now and then, of what Duncan doesn’t aspire to. Fuentes peels back the familiar to provide glimpses of the genuinely horrific.

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