The shock of the election is fading and turning into acceptance. So the noob got in. I’ll give him a chance to prove he’s more of a Johnny Ramone than a Hitler, while crossing my fingers and trying to detox from both Facebook and politics.
I needed some comfort reading, so I reached for Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. I had him autograph my print edition at last Worldcon so now I can’t just casually read it while commuting, so I bought it again in digital form. It was every bit as comforting. It reassured me that yes, I am too a speculative fiction nerd, despite my distaste for Star Trek and Marvel, and my constant flirtations with litfic and other genres. I love this cheesy pulp fiction vampire story with all my heart, and I thought I’d try to analyze that. Spoilers shall proliferate but this is a 1982 book which has been in print longer than most people have been alive, so I figure it’s fair game. There’s also a graphic novel, but the prose version is the one permanently lodged in my skull.
First, some history. Together with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s books about the vampire St. Germain (starting in 1978), and Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire (1976, followed by The Vampire Lestat in 1985), Fevre Dream was part of a wave of anthropology horror that considered the proposition of vampires as a parallel species rather than supernatural beings. This theme is alive and well, as any Twilight fan will assure you, but back then it was brand sparkly new. The idea that a vampire could be a protagonist, or – gasp – even a hero was deeply weird, because everyone knew that vampires were creepy guys with Eastern European accents who went around saying “blah” and obeying all kinds of weird superstitions involving mirrors and garlic and silver. Like Grandpa Munster, or the dude on Sesame Street.
Then a handful of novelists started throwing around ideas about vampires being sexy and dashing and minds are still being lost over this concept. Martin wasn’t first, but he was hot on the heels of Yarbro and Rice, adding a unique American spin by blending his vampires with a heaping scoop of Mark Twain.
And then, because the sixties were still alive and twitching in the early ‘80s despite Reagan, and because Martin is a social justice warrior hippie at heart, and because his vampires crossed the Atlantic to become riverboat dandies in the old south, he threw in some parallels to racism. George is a liberal kind of guy who stands against racism, and Fevre Dream is a surprisingly anti-racist book.
At it’s heart, science fiction – and to some extent fantasy, and horror – are about what we’ll do when we finally meet the Other. Fevre Dream is an extrapolation on that riff, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I love it. I’ll explain.
The book starts with two men meeting for dinner. Our perspective character is Abner Marsh, a big fat ugly riverboat captain who has just suffered a devastating business loss, but he’s sucking it up and standing tall like a good American, meeting with a mysterious prospective business partner that just might save him from ruin. The man he’s meeting is Joshua Anton York, who is … odd. At first he has old man’s hair, then he’s a boyish-looking guy with pale blond hair – sort of like the Targaryens in Game of Thrones. He’s a rich dandy who wants to buy himself a premium steamboat – coincidentally, Marsh would like to captain a premium steamboat. The two hit it off, bonding over engineering nerdery.
Now 1982 was still a relatively closeted time, one in which even a luminary like Elton John could find himself on radio blacklists for coming out as bisexual. AIDS was fermenting in the shadows and Reagan would continue denying it even existed. The Rocky Horror Picture Show could only be shown at midnight. And you could still write about same sex friendships without everyone automatically looking for a sexual subtext.
It’s there, I suppose. The idea of York and Marsh getting snuggly does absolutely nothing for me, but maybe there are some readers who would find it appealing. The readers who insist most fictional same-sex relationships are closeted romance have a lot in common with the kind of guys who insist men and women can’t have platonic relationships. Still, I couldn’t help but think that in a modern version Marsh and York would probably be a couple, and I think I prefer them as total opposites. The bear and the dandy. The sophisticate and the working man. Idealism and reality. Felix and Oscar. A perfect contrast for a story about long-ago America.
After the partnership is formed the action shifts to the wonderfully named Sour Billy Tipton. Lank hair, fishlike blue eyes, Southern – I’ll bet you can picture him. Sour Billy is buying a slave. That’s because he works for a pack of vampires, and they eat slaves, because it’s New Orleans and the Civil War hasn’t happened yet. The leader of this vampire pack is Damon Julian, another dandy. You can tell he’s the leader of the vampire pack by the way he decides everyone else’s feeding order.
Back to Marsh and York, sailing along on their premium steamship Fevre Dream, through wide swaths of steamboat lore inspired by Life On The Mississippi. Marsh glances at some slaves during this process. His personal cook is a former slave, whom he bought after tasting his cooking, but he’s never taken much notice of politics before.
He’s enjoying his new boat heartily, even though some of his crew are a little suspicious of co-captain York’s odd habits, such as avoiding daylight. This is the part where I hate giving up spoilers even though the word “vampire” was right there on the cover when I first picked this book up. Martin does a masterfully suspenseful build. Oh, okay, there are vampires and York is hunting them. Oh, all right, fine, York is a vampire. Oh, since you asked, York is actually a good vampire hunting bad vampires, and thanks to a magical drink he concocts out of sheep’s blood and laudanum, he’s also a vegetarian vampire, which is the reason he’s a good vampire.
Marsh is down with this. He really likes his boat. York likes it too, and learns to pilot it in the dark, using his super vampire night vision. They are two men in love with their boat, but alas, Damon Julian eventually comes between them.
He does this at a banquet, at which a slave baby is served as a centerpiece. Marsh is finally morally appalled, and he gets a couple of his crew members killed attempting a retaliatory sneak attack on Julian later on. But Julian outsmarts him and dominates York, leaving Marsh in the messy position of discovering them, holed up naked in their cabin drinking blood together.
Marsh barely escapes with his life, and spends some effort trying to get his boat back before settling into a far less than illustrious career in a dying industry. He does take some time out to serve in the civil war, having picked his side shortly after watching Julian’s disgusting child sacrifice. He grows old and retires, and sits in his house looking at the river until one day he gets a letter from York. Hasn’t aged a day. Wants Marsh to help him prevent Julian and the evil vampires from crashing the last great steamboat race.
So Marsh and York head out to Julian’s plantation, where they find the Fevre Dream, gray with age and neglect, sitting on dry land, in disrepair. York apologizes for lying, telling Abner he’s been Julian’s lackey all this time, and Julian has finally decided to end it all in a blaze of glory, which will surely get the last handful of vampires killed. And not only that – York’s vampire girlfriend is pregnant.
I’ve already spoiled everything else, so I’ll spoil the fight, while noting there aren’t a lot of fight scenes in this book. Murders a-plenty, including some sad demises of minor characters that foreshadow all the carnage Martin would eventually sublimate into Game of Thrones. Martin has a way of making you care deeply about characters shortly before snuffing them, bless his heart.
After getting York in a stalemate, Julian parks him in the sun and waits for him to die of solar exposure. However, the elderly Sour Billy Tipton is still lurking around because Julian promised to turn him into a vampire some day. Sour Billy would like for it to be today, since Marsh has just inflicted some grievous spinal cord injuries on him with a high caliber vampire-hunting rifle.
An exciting skirmish happens, during which Sour Billy learns Julian's been lying to him all this time, and Marsh saves the ending by firing his last bullet into York—this pisses York off to the point where he can beat Julian, plus he’ll just regenerate, so it’s all good.
And then the epilogue, telling all about that lonely little graveyard beside the river, and the custom made headstone showing the faint outline of a racing steamboat along with the inscription “So, we'll go no more a roving, So late into the night,” (Marsh and York bonded over the poetry of Lord Byron earlier in the story) and the visitor who sometimes arrives (only at night). And I cry every time.
On this last reading, the race stuff is what caught my attention. Marsh does a one-eighty from being mostly ambivalent about slavery to fighting for the union and spending his dying days with a housekeeper that is impliedly black. In contrast, Julian’s predatory reliance on it renders him too crazy and stupid to come up with any plans beyond decay and self-destruction. It’s not anvilicious or spotlighted, it’s not a central theme. It’s just a little ripple running through the background of some riproaring pulp fiction about vampires and steamboats. York decided to be a good guy, and that decision had lots of reverberations, including Marsh’s change of heart.
Friendship can flourish through even the strongest cultural barriers. Such a lofty theme for a little pulp fiction vampire story, a hippie dream about achieving peaceful brotherhood by keeping all the predators high on poetry and laudanum and American idealism.
Decades later, Twilight would mine some of this territory to overwhelming success. Vampires and werewolves as reflections of racism in America. Heroic paladin vampires who eschew throat biting. Buffy would get in there a little earlier, putting a very American spin on fighting supernatural badness. Anne Rice would get there a little after Fevre Dream with The Vampire Lestat, an exploration of vampires as sexy rock star paladin goth poetry reading fashion plates. Blade would interact with race and America and vampirism.
And none of them, absolutely none of them, could make me cry even once. Not like Fevre Dream.