Monday, May 23, 2016

Review of The Golden by Lucius Shepard

Vampire fiction. There are a lot of ideas and opinions tucked into those two words. From perhaps the most ruminative look at the concept in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the cheese and pomp of Twilight and innumerable other similar consumables, a wide swathe of views and representations of the blood-sucking legend have appeared in fiction. As that thimbleful of regular readers will know, this blog is no friend to most vampire stories, precisely because so much material tends to be so far skewed to the sensational/operatic side. But there is a middle ground—a fuzzy place where mediocrity does not set this reviewer raving. Books like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream will not set the literary world on fire, but they remain reasonably digestible samples of the medium. While on vacation, I decided to take along another sample: Lucius Shepard’s 1994 The Golden.

After generations of gene purification, the Golden has been created. A woman with blood of the finest essence, the vampire families have set aside their feuds to gather at the castle of the Patriarch to feast. Trouble is, the day before festivities the Golden is murdered in most brutal form. Protégé to the powerful noble Agenor, the volatile Beheim, has been assigned the disreputable task of finding the murderer. Needing to be solved in the coming two days before all the guests leave, Beheim’s questions and answers take him to the darkest corners of the castle. Talking with the likely murderers, friend and foe become ever harder to discern, and ultimately Beheim’s own life is put into jeopardy as the vampire social fabric comes unraveling around him.

The Golden, from almost all perspectives, is standard vampire fiction. In Shepard’s realization, they suck blood, can be killed by wooden stakes, burn in sunlight, and are immortal—the major, standard tropes in play. The main storyline motivated by a murder mystery, the novel is to be read as straight-forward entertainment. But Shepard does bring something small and unique to the table: elements of the surreal. Impressionistic phantasma steadily coloring Beheim’s investigation in ever more foreboding hues, the mystery is at times surrendered in favor of something more heady, more darkly fantastic. The core of the story is still vampires doing vampire things, but Shepard decorates the intrigue with imagery organic to and enhancing of scene and setting.

In the end, The Golden is a conventional vampire story that achieves something slightly more through quality prose and elements of something more darkly fantastical, slightly altering the thrust of what is otherwise a classic story of warring vampire houses. Shepard basing his story on familiar elements, the Van Gogh-ish pall adds a layer helping the novel achieve mediocrity.

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