March 12, 2005

Stagestruck Vampires, by Suzy McKee Charnas

I really wish I could say that I liked this book, which is an anthology of Charnas' short fiction. She writes well, and the stories kept my attention; there's certainly no lack of quality here. So why did I find them so uncongenial? I've been pondering this, and I've come up with a number of reasons.

To begin with, there are the vampires. I like a good monster as well as the next person, but I'm not really down with the whole psychosexual Anne Rice vampire thing. It does nothing for me. For what it's worth I suppose I like Charnas' vampires better than Rice's.

Next, there's the style. Although work of book-length fiction is commonly called a "novel" these days, there's an important distinction between the novel proper and the romance. I don't want to go into it in detail here, but simply put, in a novel the action is largely internal and in a romance the action is largely external. Many books work in both ways, of course, and those are the ones I tend to prefer, but otherwise I'll take a straight romance instead of a straight novel most days of the week.

Anyway, in my view Charnas is using romantic conventions (vampires, werewolves, and so forth) to write stories which aren't romances at all. All of the important action is inward, inside the characters. I don't say that this is bad; but I do say that it's not to my taste.

The third problem is exacerbated by the second, and that's the worldview, Charnas' model for how the world works and how (consequently) people can change. She and I clearly have different assumptions about some basic things, enough that her characters feel somewhat alien to me, and the manner in which they evolve is unconvincing. I kept founding myself saying, "But the world isn't like that. People aren't like that." It might seem silly to lay stress on this over stories that are overt works of fantasy, but the internal component is so important to the story that it typically overwhelms the plot. If it doesn't work, the story doesn't work. And in this case, it doesn't mesh with my own experience of life.

All that said, there's some striking storytelling going on here. The first tale extends the Phantom of the Opera; what if lovely Christine chose the ugly Phantom over handsome Raoul? Why would she, and what would follow from it? Another tells of a girl on the brink of womanhood who discovers that the full moon brings out the wolf in her--and that this offers the means to a highly desired end. Another takes place at a performance of Tosca at the Opera House in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during which Puccini's music drives a vampire wild; the description was crystal clear and almost made me wish I was there--though the plot itself was negligible and not very interesting.

I suppose my least favorite moment comes during a story called Peregrines, which was written just last year; its background is so clearly a liberal nightmare of post-Bush America, and yet it's just too absurd. Let's see. In this future America you need a permit from Homeland Security to travel from one of the 50 states to another. Anyone who looks or speaks differently than their neighbors is liable to be taken away by Homeland Security for "questioning"; such people don't come back. This is all due to the victory of the Fundies, who got control after terrorists bombed the Status of Liberty.

Now, this is all background, and most of it is superfluous to the story. The essential thing is the specter of the secret police, which is used to add suspense; the rest is gratuitous. The only reason I can think of for why Charnas included it is because it seems like a real threat to her. She really thinks that the "Fundies" want to turn to turn America into a police state where immigrants are harassed and oppressed merely for their looks and language.

The kicker, for me, was the reference to the terrorists bombing the Statue of Liberty. Dude, the Statue of Liberty is a major American landmark, sure. But the significance of September 11th isn't that a pair of landmarks were bombed and subsequently collapsed. The significance of September 11th is due to the 3000 people who didn't get out in time--or who tried to fly.

Frankly, it rubbed me the wrong way.

Anyway, those are the reasons why I can't say I liked the book. On the other hand--if Charnas' style is the kind of thing that appeals to you, you should check it out; she definitely knows her craft.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 12, 2005 07:46 PM