Maybe my prejudice was shaped by Christopher Lee, whose brilliant depiction of the elegant Count Dracula in the Hammer horror films always scared the living daylights out of me. How I survived those memories of fangs embedded in jugulars is a bit of a mystery. Which leads me to my next point: considering I’ve never even read a vampire novel why am I reviewing one for the Surrey Heath Literary Festival?
Call it the luck of the draw! The organisers wanted a horror author who’s exciting, hip, funny and happening: Simon Clarke ticked all the right boxes. I just happened to be the one who was ruthlessly shamed into putting my hand up when a “volunteer” was needed to review his novel Whitby Vampyrric. So what do I think of it? In a word: Good!
It’s set in the winter of 1942, in the same Yorkshire seaport where in the Bram Stoker story the infamous Count Dracula makes dry land and later menaces the locals. Drac may be absent from Clarke’s narrative but his wayward spirit lives on through dark Viking myths and a cave where something very nasty lurks amongst the stalactites. Evil flourishes in darkness and at night during the wartime blackout the vampires patrol the hood looking for food. There’s plenty of nourishment around some of which quite literally falls out of the sky: without giving too much away just think parachutes! Into this heady, dark, mysterious cauldron walk Beth, Sally and Alec who are in Whitby to make a government propaganda film. It should be a straightforward assignment but it soon becomes clear to the trio that all is not right: what is the secret that local hotelier Eleanor Charnwood is hiding in her basement, why is her reclusive brother Theo covered in mysterious bite marks and who exactly are these vampires roaming the streets?
This is a novel which draws in the reader from the first chapter to the last thanks to some good, fluid writing and the evocative sense of atmosphere that drips off every page. Whitby is a land steeped in ancient folklore and history which Clarke seamlessly intertwines into his storytelling: you can almost feel yourself wrapped in the creepy, swirling fog of the East Cliff, or walking along the same cobbled streets where Saint Hilda famously saved the town from a plague of snakes by cracking their heads off with her leather whip.
But it’s also a book with a strong feminist undercurrent. It’s the women who lead the initiative in the fight against evil and it’s an ex housewife who, liberated from a darts obsessed husband and a life of drudgery at the kitchen sink, brazenly plots to snatch the leadership of the vampire posse.
I won’t spoil things by telling you whether she succeeds or not but even I couldn’t stop cheering her on!
This is a rollicking good read which intelligently subverts the notion of what being a vampire is all about. Don’t expect the clichés of crucifixes, garlic pods, wooden stakes and deranged vicars with rolling eyes. Clarke’s living dead are conflicted souls with human personalities locked in a one sided war against an over powering, blood thirsty streak. We know they have to die but that doesn’t make their demise any less tragic, because in their former lives they were ordinary people with whom most of us would have surely empathised.
A great book, an excellent writer and a first rate story teller: I’m looking forward to Simon Clarke’s next offering.
Simon Clarke will be discussing Whitby Vampyrrhic with Juliette Foster on Friday 20th May at the Camberley Theatre at 8.30pm. There will be a Q & A session towards the end of this feature.
For further enquiries, contact The Camberley Theatre Box Office on 01276 707 600.
Simon Clarke will also be appearing on ITV’s Countrywise on 7th June