Are you sick of wannabe vampires who sparkle rather than self-combust in the sunlight, and who mope around high schools instead of stalking the terrified living in order to slake their never-ending thirst for blood? I know I am, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed Marcus Sedgwick‘s My Swordhand is Singing, a vampire tale that does away with modern interpretations of lovelorn emo-vamps and instead draws upon the oldest known records of these creatures in order to shape its chilling story.
My Swordhand is Singing is set in Eastern Europe (most likely Transylvania, though this is never specified) in the early 17th century. Peter and his father Tomas have only recently settled on the outskirts of the village of Chust, lending their services as woodcutters, and are still treated as outsiders by the suspicious villagers. To be fair, the behaviour of Tomas is strange enough to warrant their attention. Not only a is he heavy drinker, he has built his house on the fork of a river and dug a channel that connects the two adjourning streams so that he and his son live on a man-made island. Peter is somewhat embarrassed by his father’s behaviour, especially since he has his eye on a pretty village girl called Agnes, and neither does he understand why his father carries around a long wooden box that Peter is never allowed to open.
But stranger things are happening in the village of Chust. Livestock has gone missing, and there are reports of the recently dead visiting their loved ones at night. There is a spate of unusual deaths that have the community on a knife’s edge, and the arrival of a band of gypsies does little to assuage the tension. Peter becomes increasingly aware that his own father knows more than he’s letting on about the circumstances, and helped by a young gypsy girl, he pits himself against the supernatural threat that is running amok in the surrounding forests.
My Swordhand is Singing is a vampire story with a difference — the difference being that it is so traditional. Heroes are armed with weapons and folklore. Vampires are bloated corpses that exist only to prey on the living. Both are trying to kill the other for the sake of basic survival. The action takes place in dark forests, snow-covered cemeteries and medieval villages, and Sedgwick draws on extensive research to enrich the creepy atmosphere with 17th century customs and beliefs, such as the burning of straw effigies dressed in the clothes of the departed to prevent their return, or the macabre practice of symbolically wedding a young girl to an unmarried corpse to ensure that he’ll be properly mourned.
Expect no love story here; at least not between a human and a vampire. The key relationship lies between a father and son who are estranged despite their close living quarters, and the main character arc is Peter’s gradual understanding of his father’s reliance on drink and closed-mouth stoicism.
The prose is simple and sparse, but somehow remains incredibly evocative of the Eastern forests and chilly landscapes, and Sedgwick is a master of gradually ratcheting up the suspense page after page until the nail-biting conclusion. It is a reasonably slender volume with very short chapters (some only a page long) and a swift pace, so there’s a good chance you could get it read in one sitting. Not everything works out perfectly: Sofia the gypsy girl seemed a little underdeveloped, and there is an oft-repeated song that doesn’t really have the payoff or satisfactory explanation that it should.
But altogether, this is a refreshingly old-fashioned take on the widely-used vampire genre, and as such is a much stronger and more potent tale that successfully taps into our fear of night, death, and things that go bump in the night. Though completely self-contained, it is followed by a sequel, the more generically titled The Kiss of Death.