Whoever you are, the vampire speaks to you. And so vampire stories flow from the pens of members of the literary class like a swarm of bats or a river of blood and the libraries and bookstores are stuffed with books that are full of vampire stories. One of these books came to my attention recently--1997's Girls' Night Out, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg. Messrs. Dziemianowicz, Weinberg and Greenberg, and their publishers, Barnes & Noble Books, market this anthology as a feminist blow against our patriarchal culture which, they say, sees the vampire as a male figure. You have to wonder if D, W and G and B & N actually believe this, seeing as our popular culture has been full of female vampires for over a century: there are multiple female vampires in Dracula (1897), Vampira was on TV in the mid-1950s, Lily Munster (1964) is a vampire, Vampirella arrived on the scene in 1969, and female vampires appeared in many films before 1997.
Well, I didn't buy Girls' Night Out in order to attack D, W and G for saying things they don't believe in order to sell copies of their anthology or stay in the good graces of college professors or whatever; I bought it because it contains 1990s stories by Kathe Koja and Barry Malzberg, Tanith Lee, and Robert Bloch that I can't seem to find on the internet archive, and it is these stories I will talk about today.
Here's some MPorcius trivia: I'm one of those people who cleans everything with baking soda and vinegar because he's afraid of getting harsh chemicals on his sensitive skin. There goes your vision of me as a rugged he-man!
As readers of this blog know, Robert Bloch never tires of telling us that Hollywood is sleazy and corrupt, and this undisputed fact is a major theme of this award-winning story. The protagonist of "The Scent of Vinegar" is Greg, a cinema history buff and Hollywood trivia nerd who is also a drug addict and would-be blackmailer of rich Hollyweird has-beens. When we meet him he is following up rumors of a long abandoned whorehouse in some out-of-the-way spot near Beverly Hills because he thinks there might be documents in this dump which he can use to squeeze money out of the place's former clients. Bloch also exploits Westerners' fascination with the mysterious East (or as we used to call it, "the Orient"): when the brothel was abandoned it was being operated by an Asian madam who staffed the place with girls from places like Malaya and catered to clients interested in S&M, and Bloch makes the centerpiece of his story the penangallan, the monster of South East Asian folklore which I am sure many of my readers remember from the Fiend Folio. Bloch structures "The Scent of Vinegar" like a hard-boiled crime story--Greg worms clues out of old guys with whom he gets into conversation, discovers the brothel, flees when he sees something horrible there, but then is forced at gunpoint to return to the whorehouse by a criminal more ruthless and competent than he is who requires a guide. On this second trip to the place he swore he'd never return Greg runs a gauntlet of horror featuring a fountain of blood, a pile of skeletons, evidence of cannibalism and a hands-on experience of murder!
This is a good story. First of all, I want to tell you that Bloch doesn't waste our time with his psychological mumbo jumbo or his distracting puns, and he keeps the Hollywood references under control; those that do appear are pretty appropriate. This restraint is what we in the sciences call "a necessary but not sufficient condition." More importantly, Bloch does a great job with the descriptions of the old brothel, of Greg's climb up an unmaintained dirt track to the crest of the hill where sits the forgotten whorehouse, and of the penangallan and the bones and all that gross stuff. Maybe today's readers will wince at how Bloch repeatedly describes Asian characters' eyes as "slanted" and their skin as "golden," and Greg's use of a slur for Asians that sounds like the name of Gwyneth Paltrow's snake-oil retailing enterprise, but Greg isn't working in the HR department at a small liberal arts college in 2020, he's a drug-addicted thief in 1990! Cut this lowlife some slack and respect his lived reality! (And it's not like the Asians don't get their revenge on him in the end!)
Thumbs up! I think Bloch's reputation is inflated, but sometimes he lives up to it, and he does so here. "The Scent of Vinegar," after making its debut in the anthology Dark Destiny, won a Stoker award, and was included in the 1995 edition of Stephen Jones's Best New Horror and in the 2012 volume The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners.
For the last fourteen years, 28-year-old Jeluc has been a soldier fighting in the interminable wars, living in the mud with bullets narrowly missing him, round shot killing his comrades, etc. As a kid his grandfather had a fishing boat and Jeluc is still an able sailor, and now that he has been paid off by his regiment and left the soldiering life he wants to go to sea. In a depressed fishing village he buys a small white vessel that one seaman can handle, La Dame, and sets out alone, only to find the little ship is haunted. No bird will land on its single mast, no fish will bite at the lines he baits everyday. His dreams and his days are full of visions of men, some whom he knew in the wars and were killed, others he has never met who seem familiar with La Dame, all of whom seem to be warning him, and of a woman, pale and blonde and skinny, "her face all bones," who seems to represent or to be La Dame or the sea, which Jeluc's grandfather had told him was female, a demander of sacrifices and a devourer of men. Jeluc and La Dame become lost, no land in sight for days, and finally the woman of his visions appears to Jeluc clad in red and bites his throat and he is lost forever.
This twelve-page story is well-written, all the sentences and images being good, and the themes--a man so weary of war in the mud and trees that he wants to leave the land forever; woman as devourer of man--are also good, so I liked it. But it does feel a little slight, I think because it moves in a straight line to where we always knew it was going without any twists or turns or surprises; La Dame sails forward with a sort of inevitability that leaves the reader wanting more.