Saturday, May 14, 2011

Baltimore


I've noted before that I'm always looking for something new in genre fiction. For those times when someone brings a different take to timeworn conventions and makes me remember why I love reading fiction anyway. Mike Mignola's and Christopher Golden's Baltimore is just such a book. It's an illustrated, Gothic/horror/adventure novel with vampires and demons and monsters of all sorts and yet it's also a book about damaged people who have , as Hemingway said, become "strong in the broken places."
Baltimore is subtitled The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and elements of the plot are linked to the old Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. It begins during World War One when British Lord Henry Baltimore, an army Captain, leads his men on an ill fated mission into no-man's land. The Hessians are waiting in ambush and Baltimore and his men are cut down by machine gun fire. Baltimore survives, but as he lies wounded, among the bodies of his troops, he sees what appears to be a flock of kites descend on the dead. But these dark winged creatures aren't carrion crows. No, these are ancient vampires, come to feast on the blood and flesh of the dead and the dying.
Baltimore manages to wound one of the creatures as it attacks him, but wounded as he is, Baltimore can't put up much of a fight. The vampire, still in bat-like form, takes hold of Baltimore's wounded leg and breathes into the wound. This will cause the leg to become corrupted and later have to be amputated. But that's only the beginning of the now scarred vampire's revenge.
Creeped out yet? If not, you will be. There are worse things waiting in the pages of Baltimore. The vampires in the novel aren't precisely the creatures of Bram Stoker's Dracula but they are closer to traditional vampires than other recent portrayals of the bloodsuckers in films and books. They are foul, evil, ugly things of the night. Some of their victims become vampires themselves, while others merely become pale, gray creatures who cannot abide the light of day. Vampirism as plague, if you will. And there is some unseen presence lurking behind the vampires, an older darker power, The Red King.
The book has an interesting structure. Things swing away from Baltimore and the reader is introduced to three men whom Baltimore has summoned to a remote village in Europe. None of these men know each other but all are acquainted with Baltimore and each man has his own reasons for believing Baltimore's tales of vampires. The middle of the book features three separate stories, as each man relates his own encounter with the supernatural. A pale hungry thing that waits at the bottom of a dark lake in South America was, to me, the creepiest monster in any of these stories within the story.
Once the tales are told we learn more about Baltimore from a journal. Golden and Mignola are very coy about actually showing Baltimore after the book's horrific beginning, saving his reappearance in the flesh until the book's grizzly climax. It's a nifty bit of storytelling slight of hand, because the reader anticipates Baltimore's arrival, knowing that once he is on the scene, all hell will break loose.
And it does.
Mike Mignola, as some of you probably know, is the creator of Hellboy, and no stranger to Gothic trappings. He fills the book with his delightfully creepy drawings. I hadn't read anything by Christopher Golden before but I know that he has many horror and fantasy novels and short stories out there. I'll definitely be reading some more of his stuff.
Anyway, can't say enough nice things about Baltimore. My buddy Jim had been recommending it to me for some time, so I decided this week to give it a try. Really glad I did. Recently Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of Hellboy, have put out a Baltimore comic book mini-series, also written by Mignola and Golden. This isn't an adaptation but a new story. A collection of the mini-series will be out in June. You can bet I'll be picking that one up.

2 comments:

Alex said...

I read this straight after reading your review, and I have to say: good call! In many ways this reminded me of nothing so much as Robert E. Howard's writings: a pulpy supernatural adventure story in exactly the right tone, with exactly the right kind of big characters and swashbuckling action. I'll be picking up the comic collection too. Thanks for the recommendation on both counts.

Raises the interesting question, by the way: if Howard were alive (or had been born) today, might he be writing for comic books and graphic novels, arguably today's surviving equivalent of the pulps of his time?

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Excellent, Alex. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I thought it was great, and yes very pulp-like. I'm giving some thought to Robert E. Howard surviving past 1936. Think that deserves a post of its own.