If you start your week off with a horror novel, maybe you’ll feel like your life really isn’t so bad after all. There’s not much worse than being trapped on a ship full of vampires…
So it’s April 1912, and here I am aboard R.M.S. Titanic, on her maiden voyage. By heaven, she’s a lovely ship! Big, too. But I’m a little worried we’re getting rather close to that iceberg. Oh I say, we’ve struck it! Not to worry, old man, everyone knows this ship is unsinkable. What’s that? We’re sinking anyway? Dash the luck! Off to the lifeboats then. What do you mean, there’s no more room? Blimey. Rest assured I’ll write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about this! Alas, I suppose there’s nothing for it but to dress in my evening best, order a brandy, and prepare to die like a sir. Could be worse, I suppose. At least we aren’t being attacked by vampires. What’s that? We are being attacked by vampires! Of all the bloody cheek!
You could read Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia a lot like this: as an extended sketch rather than a novel. Forbeck is a writer with a background in comics and games, and he writes books with a sensibility straight from the movies, which makes him easy reading for people who don’t usually read for entertainment.
Of all horror’s subgenres, I must confess I like vampire fiction the least. Writers of vampire fiction, it seems, limit themselves to one of two very basic story ideas: Lawful Good Battles Chaotic Evil, or Bad Romance. The former was the ball that Bram Stoker started rolling all these years ago, while the latter is what’s hot for a lot of audiences right now. While I suppose it’s good to see writers like Forbeck coming along in the post-Twilight era to save vampire fiction from emo sparkle-boys and reclaim it for the gorehounds among us, the fact remains that I draw a blank when it comes to examples of vampire fiction that offer anything in the way of satisfying, lasting storytelling depth. Vampire fiction has produced a lot of splatterific entertainment, but rarely any real literary achievement.
Well, so what. As long as the arterial spray is flowing freely, screw art, let’s dance. Forbeck’s lightning-paced novel — an unusual example of alternate-history horror — follows three fictitious survivors of Titanic, Quin Harker, Lucy Seward, and her fiancée Abe Holmwood, as they are snatched from certain death in the icy waters of the north Atlantic and into the safety and warmth of Carpathia, the ship that saved the doomed liner’s 710 survivors. Sharp readers will note that those character names are swiped directly from Stoker’s Dracula itself, and while that’s undeniably on-the-nose to the point of self-parody, Forbeck’s contrived explanation for it just makes it all the more hilarious.
Unfortunately for the survivors, Carpathia‘s own passenger list includes an entire colony of vampires, led by suave Slavic metrosexual Dushko Dragomir. If you ever meet anyone with a name that awesome, and he isn’t a vampire, call him a poser, kick him in the junk, and walk off.
Dragomir has convinced his fellow vamps that things are getting a little too hot for them in America, what with all its emerging science and technology and stuff. So in order to survive, they must flee to the old country. But not all of them are eager to go — for one thing, Croatia (Carpathia‘s original destination before it diverted to rescue survivors) is Dragomir’s “old country,” not theirs — and in Irish thug Brody Murtagh, Dragomir has a total loose cannon who wants nothing more than to chomp neck, take names, and feed feed feed on this bounty of human blood pulled from the sea. Everything gets titanic when Lucy, Quin and Abe persuade the crew to confront the vamps, and carnage ensues.
Forbeck keeps everything flying along, and the action scenes have energy. But I found myself casting a little side-eye at one plausibility problem after another. How did all of these vampires (said to be “dozens”) get aboard Carpathia in the first place? Are we asked to believe that no eyebrows were raised when the cargo manifest required several dozen coffins, each containing a body, to be stored in the aft hold? (There’s a reveal later on involving Dragomir’s relationship with the Cunard Line, but that only raises more questions.) Wouldn’t the stewards have thought it strange to be asked to deliver a coffin to the first-class stateroom of seductive vampiress Elisabetta Ecsed? And here’s one horror geeks have been wondering for decades: how is it that when a vampire changes into a bat or cloud of mist, its clothing changes with it?
Lucy is presented as a tough, proto-feminist suffragette, because we can’t have women being shrinking violets in modern fiction. But even with all her self-assurance, she still seems a little too rash and fearlessly eager to rush into the dank bowels of the lower decks to fight rampaging vampires, like she’s some Edwardian Buffy. Forbeck also establishes vampire fiction’s current cliché du jour, the love triangle, between our three human friends, and then does nothing with it you don’t predict from the first page. Carpathia ultimately relies solely on the gimmick of its premise — it’s 30 Days of Night starring Jack and Rose! — to do all the story’s heavy lifting. But while there’s some reasonably good gory action, the final boss battle is anticlimactic, and far too many sloppy storytelling choices send the whole affair to the bottom.