“You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me” -Palmer, The Thing.
I gave in. I don’t know what convinced me to start the second Necroscope book so quickly after finishing the first one, but start it I did. And finish it as well. Let’s face it in the previous entry about the Necroscope series, I kind of fell in love with what I referred to as the fuckin’ br00tal nature of it all; the piling of thing upon thing upon thing in such a manic way that you kind of just go along for the ride. “Vamphiri!” is… something else.
There’s a filmmaker named Jim Wynorski, who’s made something along the lines of 150 movies. He’s really done it all, from porn to family films, but is largely known for the insane b-movies he made. There’s a documentary about him, “Popatopolis”, which follows him while making a soft core porn film, and uses that as a jumping off point to talk about his career. Inevitably, he gets asked about his first movie “The Lost Empire”, which is, in the sense I’ve been using it here, also fuckin’ br00tal. Wynorski basically says that he didn’t know if he’d ever be allowed to direct a second film, so he just kind of threw every single idea he had at this one. I get the impression that “Necroscope” was kind of like that.
“Vamphiri!” (ugh, there’s an exclamation point in the fucking title) sees Brian Lumley sort of slow his roll. Given that he largely killed off his antagonists in the first book (and the protagonist too, kind of), we get a couple of new ones, first the new head of the Russian ESPionage unit, one Felix Krakovitch, and a new sort of vampire, Yulian. There is also a fuckton of backstory. Lumley wants to build out his world a little, but a lot of it is a thinly-veiled retelling of Dracula. Lumley makes some hay about the notion that our modern impressions of Vampires come from a distant understanding of his Wamphyri, which is fine, but there’s a boatload of what feels like pointless flashbacks to the early part of the century, where we learn about the rise and ultimate demise of Theibor Ferenczy, the Wamphiri who turned the antagonist from the last book, and it goes on and on.
There is, once again, a lot of plot. There are also new rules by which the Wamphyri operate, which is kind of vexing. One of the things Necroscope did well was balance its insanity with a set of rules. Rules are, ultimately, very important to horror. We need a grounded understanding of what the horrible monster can and cannot do; the rules help us understand the peril. Sometimes, we can figure the rules out alongside our protagonists, sometimes they’re spelled out in some other way (the ‘expert’ or the ‘prophecy’ and the like), but they are always present, and when they shift, it can be an irritant. It can also be an interesting twist, but here it just feels like Lumley needed a change in order to keep the plot moving. He very clearly established that Wamphyri can only reproduce once, but he needs a new Wamphyri, so he gives us a new concept— that Wamphyri are also kind of like a fungus, who can use parts of themselves to create ‘thralls’ (akin to Renfield, I guess). The rules behind these thralls is hazy— they can be zombie like slaves, or they can have sort of, er, essence of Wamphiri in them. There’s a lot of metaphors used to describe this process.
Yulien is one of them, created in the womb through a set of circumstances too convoluted for me to relay here. Yulien can, in turn, create thralls of his own— which he is sometimes unable to control. The idea that one’s creation can theoretically turn on one at any time is solid, from a horror perspective. But the all important rules are really hazy at that point in the book, and Yulien is…
Yulien is not as interesting as Boris Dragosani. He’s sort of a weird incel, who turns his cousin and her mother into thralls and repeatedly has sex with them, in passages that gave me the ick. (This book contains substantially less hornyness than the first, but it’s somehow grosser, and in spots, feels more misogynistic). Perhaps because the book is so stuffed with backstory, Yulien isn’t given much more of an identity other than “malevolent”, which can work, but does not work here. We’re supposed to like and relate to the Necroscope, Harry Keogh, and dislike the antagonist. “Necroscope” the book presented the pro- and an- tagonists as two sides of a coin. Keogh and Dragosani were both able to extract information from the dead, but it was the method by which they did so that differentiated them. Not the strongest of angles, but an angle to work with. Yulien somewhat confusingly becomes “the vampire” and is evil because vampires are evil.
Everything is really overstuffed. This book goes deeper into the workings of the ‘ESPionage’, where everyone has some sort of power, and they constantly have to remind you of what that is to keep them straight. These ancillary characters are forever describing their ‘talent’ to each other, or the narrator reminds you of it, and the phrase “his talent” is employed so often it starts to feel like a euphemism.
We also have Harry Keogh, our series protagonist, being sort of reincarnated in his young son; with his son kind of absorbing Harry’s essence, and holding sway over what I would call (but the book studiously avoids calling) his soul. Harry can only communicate with the outside world when his son is asleep, because when he’s awake he calls Harry back to him. You’d think this might play into the plot somehow, but it really never does. We’re again reminded that Harry is beloved by all who meet him, living or dead.
There’s some of the old magic in the last few chapters, when the ESPionage team move in to kill Yulien. The battle between him and the agents crackles, the head of the British agency is kidnapped by the Russians. There’s a real sense of peril, and Lumley writes action scenes well. Ultimately, I had the same general problem I did with the first book, that there’s never a sense of direct danger to the outside world. It’s implied that Yulien is a sort unbalanced loon who’s not going to hold back on his vampire-ish-ness, but aside from his immediate family, he never poses a threat to the outside. There’s a further implication that his fungus-like nature may somehow spread unchecked, but it’s underdeveloped, in a novel which is not afraid of overdeveloping things.
I was primed to like this; I was. But at the end of the day, the Necroscope series is, thus far, more of a set of superhero novels than horror ones. I don’t really care for superheroes; there’s a tendency for them to paint themselves into a corner in a rapid fashion. When everyone’s all powerful, no one is.
But it’s not just that; there’s something at the core here that fails, and I think I know ultimately what it is. There’s a quote from the book I specifically wrote in my notes, which I think is both sad and illustrative: “Books only describe emotions, they rarely make you feel them”.
I can think of more incorrect statements, but I can’t think of an incorrect statement that make me sadder. However, it goes a long way to explain why my notes feature the word “meh” a lot. Whatever reason we’re reading for, even if it’s just for a good story, part of that needs to engage the reader emotionally. The emotions don’t have to be complicated— even just a simple “fuck yeah” when the good guys win is fine. But that doesn’t happen here.
We’re constantly told that Harry is cool, that Yulien is evil, that the agents of the ESPionage team are people we should care about, but we never develop the kind of attachments to/fear of them we should. I want to feel things. I want to find Harry Keogh as likeable as the people he interacts with do. I want to be shit scared that Yulien will figure out the full extent of his powers and unleash them on the world. I want to be saddened when Alec Kyle, kindly head of the ESPionage team and the closest thing Harry Keogh has to a mentor, has his brain quite literally emptied by the Russians. But I’m not, and it’s because “Vamphiri!” only describes things, it doesn’t make an effort to make you feel them.
You certainly can get by with a lot of manic energy and a fast moving plot. If you shift your energies and go deeper, then the writing should change along with it. It we’re going to slow down and take a look at the deep backstories of the characters, then it’s time to allow us to get to know them and become invested in them as people. The fact that does not happen is a shame, as Lumley has made an effort to build an interesting world.
It’s tough to live in a world which isn’t going to make you feel, however, and I don’t know if I will continue on with it. Maybe, if I grow curious enough about where the series ultimately ends up. For now though, I’m gonna wrap this essay, and this series up.