I seem to have a problem with comic novels. I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought, ho-hum. I tried Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind and I yawned. Arguably the latter isn’t Pratchett’s most revered work, but Hitchhiker’s – it’s hailed as a sci-fi humour classic. What’s wrong with me?! The thing is, how can I then pick up Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry (whoever he is!) and get a real kick out of the book’s humour? Go figure. Actually it might have something to do with the fact that both Henry and I are from Northern Ireland; I’m told we’ve got a particular sense of humour over here.
Vampire Dawn is Philip Henry’s first novel. It’s the story of a man called Christian Warke, whose job as a vampire hunter for “The Ministry” ends up putting his wife too much danger. When she gets drained by a vamp, Christian vows to track down and execute the one responsible. Many years later, Christian is a burnt out shell of a man, dependent on copious amounts of alcohol to get him through the day. But he’s finally catching up with Xavier, the vampire he has sworn to kill. Xavier, on the other hand, has his own story to tell about what happened all those years ago.
I like the vampire mythology Henry has created. It has a light-heartedness about it that is probably derived from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without all the ridiculous teen-speak (you know, words like “icky” and “gooey” and “thingy”). There’s even a superpowered female Slayer in the novel, but thankfully she doesn’t take the spotlight. And the similarities end there. The vampire hunters in this novel are not superhuman, but a very ordinary bunch of people who belong to an organisation called The Ministry, something more akin to the FBI than Buffy and her loyal chums.
The first chapter of the novel concerns a young couple parked in a car at night. Before they get predicably bitten, Henry treats us to a series of jokes derived from Queen songs lyrics, as the young man attempts to flatter his girlfriend. Anyone remember “Fat-bottomed girls, they make the rocking world go round”? You can imagine how well that one would go down with a girl. Henry has a genuine talent for telling a good joke, and you’ll find plenty of them scattered throughout the novel. The story also gets very serious in places, particularly near in the end, in a chapter called “Heroes & Monsters,” where there are some jaw-droppingly unpredicatable moments.
Henry’s skill at bringing characters to life is fair – not good enough for me to care greatly about what happened to them, but they’re certainly not cardboard either. At times the good guys acted in such a way as to make me dislike them, e.g. Christian with his drink-driving, toasting his bottle of whisky to a passing police officer and then using his Ministry credentials to bully his way out of a fine. “Well, you see,” he later says to the girl in the passenger seat, “there’s one set of rules for the rest of the world, and one set for me.” It funny and it’s macho-cool, but it harms the reader’s attachment to the character. It’s the same with all the swearing. I can live with it when the author is striving for realism, but not when it just there to sound cool. Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, the characters left me with a slight bad taste in my mouth.
Early on in the novel, Henry introduces a spiritual element: the need to restore a proper “balance of good and evil” to the world. I thought this was illogical and hokey, and I feared it was going to kill the story, but it stays very much in the background, and could even have been snipped right out. Thankfully the story takes some unexpected turns and keeps the reader on his toes, never sure what to expect. Best of all, I found my interest level gaining the further I got into the story. Too often I’ve got halfway through a novel and found myself running out of steam, persevering with a story that has lost its momentum. Henry is a very capable story-teller for a first timer.
The Curse of the Small Publisher unfortunately rears its head with this novel. Maybe it’s too petty to mention but I’ve noticed in general that small publishers do not proof read their books properly. It bugs me because two readers with a red pen each at the pre-press stage is all it would have taken for Black Death Books to catch 99% of the typos. Thankfully there’s aren’t many, and anyone who reads for enjoyment (which is the only way to read) can forgive it.
This one’s definitely for those who prefer Joss Whedon to Bram Stoker. It’s a worthy first novel, and Philip Henry is one to watch.