You think you know all there is to know about vampires? You don’t - not
unless you’ve read David Wellington’s 13 Bullets and his latest novel featuring vampire huntress Laura Caxton, 99 Coffins. These vampires aren’t the romanticized, cape-wearing, dual-fanged bloodsuckers that we’ve come to know and love from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to present-day bestsellers like Twilight by Stephanie Meyers. Oh, no. The vampires of Wellington’s books don’t have fangs; they have a full set of translucent razor-sharp pointed teeth, like sharks. They bite huge chunks out of their victims and drain the blood by swallowing it that way, rather than by using hollow fangs like a thirsty man uses a straw on a Big Gulp.
There are other differences. The vampires in 99 Coffins aren’t immortal if left unmolested by vampire hunters. With increasing age comes a corresponding increased need for more and more blood - and that merely to stay alive, not to maintain youthful vigor and strength. They can still enjoy an existence much longer than a mortal man’s, but if you encountered one from, say, the time of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg - as Caxton does - you’d expect that the vampire would seem fairly old and decrepit.
That’s far from what faces our intrepid heroine in 99 Coffins. State Trooper Caxton faces a veritable army of ravenous, bloodthirsty vampires who, though cadaverous-looking, gain tremendous strength from the blood of their victims, almost as if they’ve just become vampires recently instead of almost a century and a half ago. Left unchecked, Laura figures that many vampires could kill the entire population of present-day Gettysburg in one night.
Where, when, and why did so many vampires suddenly show up to endanger the inhabitants of Pennsylvania? That’s what makes 99 Coffins a “historical novel.” The novel is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Laura Caxton (in the third-person) and Union soldiers from the Civil War. Some soldiers, perhaps sick and dying or wanting to bring a faster end to the war and thinking that sacrificing themselves would help accomplish this, agreed to become vampires with the aid of ancient female vampire Justinia Malvern. Justinia still clings tenaciously to a very precarious existence, despite being over 300 years old, and Caxton and her vampire-hunting mentor consult her advice via computer keyboard at various points in 99 Coffins.
Discovered by Marcy Jackson, “a criminal justice major” who as an undergrad working on a student dig with archaeologist Jeff Montrose and Professor John Geistdoerfer at Gettysburg hit a wooden floorboard “with her trowel and thought it sounded hollow,” the ninety-nine coffins at first seem to be little more than a fascinating archeological find. But one of the coffins, the hundredth one, was smashed to pieces, its contents gone.
On the strong suspicion that the hundredth coffin had contained a vampire somehow reunited with his heart (the only way to bring it back to life, once the heart has been removed), the horribly mutilated vampire hunter Jameson Arkeley from 13 Bullets enlists Laura Caxton once more to destroy any vampires that might somehow have managed to make it alive to our times. Though Laura discovers vampire skeletons in the other coffins, she’s relieved that, at least, no hearts are anywhere around. Yet somehow, one coffin is smashed, one vampire has been reunited with its heart, and he is on the loose - and someone alive must be helping him. As Arkeley has told Laura, it’s never a good thing “to underestimate a vampire.”
If one vampire could be reunited with its heart, cheating the inevitable decline of strength that time wreaks on all things, could the same possibly happen to the other ninety-nine? If the hearts could be wrapped in tar, and stored in a barrel, could an entire army of vampires be raised, to devastating effect? What hope can one person, albeit one with the authority to form her own small army of policemen, National Guardsmen and others, have to vanquish an almost invulnerable opposition, each of whom with one bite can tear an arm or leg or head off, with one bite can kill?
99 Coffins will keep you up late into the night reading - and double-checking under your bed and in your closet at bedtime, and making you jump at sudden noises. When the wind blows your curtains, can you be so sure it really is the wind, and nothing more? I missed Jameson Arkeley’s not taking a more active role in the novel, but Laura Caxton comes into her own as a character and does a great job kicking vampire ass. When Arkeley does take a more active role late into the novel, it’s the proverbial icing on the cake. If you love the horror genre, you owe it to yourself to check out 99 Coffins.