It’s not often you find vampire novels that both hearken back to Bram Stoker’s original and also put a new spin on the genre; Baltimore’s dual accomplishment is a credit to the vampire tradition.
For somewhat curmudgeonly traditionalists like myself, today’s vampires are too sexy. They wear too much tight black leather. They dance too much in dank goth clubs. They’ve become so glamorous we can almost forget that they’re half-demons who kill decent Romanian peasants for food and essentially rape to reproduce. Not so posh after all.
These are the vampires that haunt this book, which is set at the end of the First World War, during the flu pandemic which killed over 50 million people. Here the flu is ambiguously called “the plague,” and we soon learn its secret: that the vampires have come en masse. Bat-like creatures converge on small European villages, and a few days after draining their victims of blood, they rise to carry on the killing. These vampires are not svelte and pretty; their skin has started to decay, their dislocated bones creak and crack into awkward positions, with appearances more akin to zombies. Magnola and Golden have captured that which is often forgotten by contemporaries in Dracula’s gothic castle and velvet interior: the sheer ugliness of evil.
Setting the story in WWI establishes a constant tension throughout the novel: the world is hurtling towards modernity at breakneck speed, yet old, mythic forms of evil roam the Earth. And what else can we expect from a war that was fought in tanks and on horses, with machine guns and sabers? Old and new, magic and modern are at full-out war, and the vampires stand poised to suck dry all the promise of the future. What complicates this tension is that human bloodshed itself summoned the beasts: “All of you with your war. The roar of your cannons shook us from our quiet graves.” While not a particularly new or profound criticism, Magnola and Golden denounce our innocence of the plague by making our modern atrocities its spawn. (It’s worth noting that the real plague was carried to Europe by American soldiers, which may be the inspiration for the authors’ imagining.)
The Van Helsing of this narrative is Henry Baltimore, the only survivor of his unit and riddled with guilt and rage, for it is his blood that has brought the vampires into the world. With a wooden leg and more weapons than you’d think one man could carry, Baltimore travels across Europe destroying every vampire he can, avenging the vampires’ murder of his wife and family. He has summoned three distant friends—the only human ties left to him—to wait for his arrival at a town inn drained of vitality from the scourges of war and plague.
While awaiting Baltimore’s arrival, the men share stories of their encounters with evil and human folly, fostering an unsettling intimacy through the horrors they’ve witnessed which allow them to believe Baltimore’s tale. The most recognizable homage to Stoker’s gothic vampire tradition is through its storytelling, relying almost entirely on second- or third-hand accounts as well as journals written by Baltimore himself. While this tactic may seem frustratingly distancing for the modern reader, it succeeds in setting up a series of frames we must look through to peer at the fantastical, mythical, and horrifying. These men have stories to tell, and that’s the only way we can interact with folk monsters; they’re stories themselves, symbols which represent ideas, aspirations, and fears. Portraying the battle against Dracula through these lenses not only lends a certain old-school authenticity to the novel; it also enhances its effectiveness.
The gothic storytelling is coupled with a thick gothic prose, again looking backward toward Stoker’s stylistic roots. While welcome and fitting, it achieves mixed success; at times, it’s painfully evident that Magnola and Golden are 21st-century writers, but even there one may appreciate the tension of old and new that so characterizes this work.
I must make a note of Magnola’s illustrations, which give Baltimore that extra push it needs to be truly original. These stark black-and-white woodcut-like pictures function in concert with the prose to sculpt an atmosphere we may have some initial difficulty accepting. While some of them are simply banal (two pictures of tree branches on one page do little to enhance the scene), they never distract the reader. The full-page illustrations are a joy to behold in all their frightening simplicity, which does an exemplary job of rendering the alien, ugly aspect of evil. Magnola’s style combines ruddiness with precision. On first viewing, the color boundaries are clean and the alternations of color are sharp and striking, hiding and revealing detail a hair-width apart. But closer inspection shows the spots in the single-color areas and a use of etching-style detail to make the figures rich and evocative, all while shrouded in shadow.
Baltimore demands to be accepted on its own terms: not a novel, a comic book, or a folk tale, but a mesh of all three. I’m still disappointed by the simplicity of the theme, given some of the interesting directions it could have taken, and the narrative structure is annoyingly formulaic. Others may scoff at the seemingly binary treatment of good and evil and the clichéd anti-hero type of Baltimore. My only suggestion is to peer into the hearts of those who the protagonists come into contact with and try to imagine just how pure they are. Baltimore may employ primarily old-timer techniques, but always with a modern flair.