Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Thursday, 8 May 2008

VAMPIRE LOVER, BY CHARLOTTE LAMB

(You can see the actual cover of this book on the post below: I thought I'd mix things up a little. The picture above is Vampire by Edvard Munch, also known as Love and Pain).

What an incredible book.

It's so good, I'm not even grading it against other Mills and Boon novels, or Presents. It is, quite simply, a dark, subversive, utterly insane (and I mean batshit crazy) romance. It is a category ON CRACK. And I loved it.

To begin with, a summary. Denzil Black is the Vampire Lover in question, darkly handsome and irresistible to women. Clare Summer, our heroine, is a cool blond ice queen, a successful estate agent with an armoured heart. From the beginning, she fears and distrusts Denzil, noting the effect he has on his lovers. First they are hopelessly infatuated and then, as his interest wanes, so they appear to physically weaken, become pale, listless and ghostlike (indeed, one hapless woman is diagnosed with anaemia). Clare wants nothing more than to stay out of his way, but when Denzil begins to show an interest in her young sister - beautiful, childlike and dangerously vulnerable to his charms - she knows she must act.

And boy, does she act.

I loved lots of things about this novel, but I'll mention a few. Firstly, all the allusions to vampires. It's quite cheeky and not at all subtle, but Lamb goes to town with her hero, Denzil Black, who comes into Clare's town in a swirling black coat and buys the large Victorian gothic house called Dark Tam. ...she saw the man's long black coat blowing around his legs, as if he had wings and might take off at any moment and flap away into the night. At one point, Denzil enquires, "Do you like bats, Miss Summer?" Denzil himself is a big shot director and his last project is a darkly erotic 'vampire film.' Then there is the time Clare can't find his reflection in a glass window (ha) and the dreams she has, in which Denzil 'floats' towards her and bites her: she was fainting, sighing with something between horror and intense excitement, her eyes closing again, the darkness overwhelming her.

And let's not forget, Lucy, Clare's younger sister, shares the name of Dracula's beautiful victim in Bram Stoker's novel.

I also love the physical malaise of Denzil's 'victims' (as Clare thinks of them). No less than two of his ex-lovers are hospitalised and Clare watches with horror as her sister becomes 'pale and edgy, living on her nerves; that was how he made women look.' I love the idea of this, the physical manifestation of heartbreak, the consequence of Denzil' emotional vampirism.

Clare is the antithesis of his victims, who are characterised by their emotional fragility and neediness. She is smart, cool and intelligent. Her reaction to Denzil's other women is a combination of horror and contempt, thinking at one point that a woman who lets a man treat her badly 'deserves a good slap.' (Denzil remarks, 'One day I must find out whether or not you have any blood in your veins.") Of course, Clare has a reason for her coldness; a past betrayal that has taught her to protect herself at all costs. This is threatened by Denzil, whose very presence seems to terrify her, and around whom she constructs the fantasy of a deadly, life-leaching monster, a demon lover.

Clare knows she is beautiful, that her legs are long and slender, her hair sleek and that men like the way she looks. Unlike the other categories I've read recently (mostly Presents), it is Clare who jumps to all the wrong conclusions about Denzil, who judges him harshly for his sexual past. Moreover, Clare is definitely the active agent in this novel, acting decisively when she finds her sister threatened, and taking outrageous steps to stop Denzil from ruining her life.

Which leads me to That Scene. The scene where, unbelievably, Clare decides to take matters into her own hands by drugging the hero, tying him up and, effectively, raping him.

Even warned, I could not believe what I was reading. Let's face it, if a guy tried any of this, he would be roundly and rightly condemned. So what makes this any better? At one point, dying to kiss her trussed victim, Clare considers taking advantage of his unconscious state -
She stared fixedly at him, trembling. He was out of it. He'd never know. She could do what she liked and he wouldn't know anything about it.

Yikes. It is a truly creepy moment and at this point, my outrage and sympathy were all for poor, drugged Denzil. But the very next page, I'm rooting for Clare. Yes, she's made him powerless, yes, she's touching him against his will, but hasn't he done the same to her (hasn't every hero of every Presents done the same?):
"A game was it? You touched me against my will, remember? Like this..." She ran her long index finger over his chest... "'helpless' was the word you used - you said we were at war, and I was a helpless prisoner. Well, look who's the prisoner now. How does it feel?"

He looked stupified.

As did I, reading the passage. Seriously, in one scene, it felt as though Lamb threw away the rule book and let it rip. There is something extraordinarily compelling about Clare's (forced?) seduction of Denzil, and how it frees her of her inhibitions and ultimately forces her to confront her true feelings. "I think I want you," she said, conversationally.

And she takes him.

Of course, things have to go back to 'normal.' In the end, after Clare has dealt with her sister and saved the day, she returns to her shackled lover, frees him, and consequently loses some of her power when Denzil cuffs her to his wrist. He takes the lead in their lovemaking this time, and Clare recognises that she is losing her power and her control over him, that she is as vulnerable to him as he is to her.

There is plenty wrong with the story. I found the depiction of the other women - needy and helpless - deeply unsympathetic. And there's no denying Clare is a little brutal in her manipulation of her little sister (when Denzil points this out, I cheered). Moreover, the description of Clare's outfit - the one with which she practically rapes her lover, no less - made me laugh and cringe at once:
She was wearing a pale blue angora sweater, a string of pearls around her throat, a pale grey pleated skirt and over that a short grey jacket...

Oh, dear.

But anyway, an enthralling read. Refreshing and shocking and highly readable. An A. Why not.

For another take on this tale, try Sandra Schwab's review.

13 comments:

Sandra Schwab said...

Meriam, I'm glad you enjoyed Lamb's VAMPIRE LOVER. It's such an unusual (category) romance, isn't it?

Best wishes from sunny Frankfurt,
Sandra

Tumperkin said...

You've really reminded me of my reaction to this book about - um - 14 years ago? I remember squeeing a lot.

Having said that, I couldn't give it an A because it's a romance and I didn't leave the book behind thinking - yes, Denzil and Clare are Right Together. BUT I loved its subversiveness and the key tying up scene is just great.

This is the most subversive Lamb I'm aware of, but she had other books with genre-busting elements and lots of very 'risky' stories.

Interestingly, she wrote a lot of variations on the rape storyline in her books. Books with rape victim protaganists (e.g. The Long Surrender, Wounds of Passion), books featuring marital rape (Savage Surrender, Dark Dominion), even a nod to male rape with this book. She also wrote a single title called "A Violation" about a woman overcoming her rape. It was published in the early 80s. My mum read when we were on a caravan holiday when I was about 10 or 11 and - of course - I sneaked it away to read it and ended up being ridiculously petrified.

RfP said...

"at this point, my outrage and sympathy were all for poor, drugged Denzil. But the very next page, I'm rooting for Clare."

You know I appreciate writing that makes imperfect characters sympathetic. But do you really mean this:

"Yes, she's made him powerless, yes, she's touching him against his will, but hasn't he done the same to her (hasn't every hero of every Presents done the same?)"

I realize that one way to fight a stereotype is to turn it on its head, but I'm not so sure about *justifying* characters' behavior based on other books. That sounds like a cop-out. It may be that "reverse" rape scenes are needed to balance out the genre--that's something we could debate. But either way, they need to make sense in the story, not simply stand up to genre convention.

I'm especially keen on this point because I just finished a SEP romance in which the woman rapes the man. I found both characters boring and predictable, so I thought the rape was the most interesting thing the female character did. However, it didn't really go anywhere. It came across as primarily a plot device or a statement, not a start on developing an unusual character or motivation.

I ended up feeling that it didn't add to the story beyond "Oh no, I did a bad thing! I guess I'll keep my baby a secret now." In which case, why introduce such a significant event to start with? On the other hand, in your Lamb story perhaps the rape scene is more integrated into the story's themes? It sounds like power and dominance are referenced. I haven't read it, so I'm curious about our different reactions to at least superficially similar scenes.

Brie said...

Now this sounds interesting. I've been looking for darker stories and this sounds like one. I'll have to look it up.

Meriam said...

Having said that, I couldn't give it an A because it's a romance and I didn't leave the book behind thinking - yes, Denzil and Clare are Right Together.

Ah, but that's one of the things I liked about the book. The cloying endings in some of the other categories I've read (you know, living in domestic bliss on an island/ exotic hideaway with a passel of kids) is a bit too rich for me. But I liked this ending.

I felt it was enough that they loved each other (plus, I totally think Clare could keep in him line... I don't think he would dare cross her).

Meriam said...

Sandra, yes, it is unusual! I have you to thank for reading it in the first place. I remember you posted about it somewhere (Dear Author?) and I was totally intrigued from that moment.

RfP
I realize that one way to fight a stereotype is to turn it on its head, but I'm not so sure about *justifying* characters' behavior based on other books. That sounds like a cop-out. It may be that "reverse" rape scenes are needed to balance out the genre--that's something we could debate. But either way, they need to make sense in the story, not simply stand up to genre convention.

Hm... where to begin.

Well, I honestly think, in the first place, that this books is what happens when a Present's heroine snaps (or the writer gets bored). The sex scene is so insane, I think Clare has a psychotic break.. but it's not out of the blue. You have this tightly controlled (frighteningly efficient and often manipulative) woman who has constructed this powerful monster mythology around a man she is uncontrollably attracted to. He literally poses a physical threat to every woman he seduces, and one of them is Clare's younger sister (an innocent, childish woman whom she mothers). Clare has erotic dreams about him biting her, draining the life out of her. Falling for him would lead to her destruction, so in a way, what she does to him is the only way she can have him; bound up and in her control.

So it fits, though it is utterly crazy.

In a wider context, I think it does balance the genre. Totally. When Clare gave her little speech, I thought of every little instance that a hero has kissed his heroine 'punishingly,' or 'crushed her in his embrace' or held her against her will, touched her inappropriately... however much of a cop out, it was a very powerful reversal. I thought Clare/ Lamb were railing out against more than just Denzil.

Denzil, incidentally, is a total lamb. The first time he kisses her, it's with a piece of holly held over her head, utterly sappy and romantic. He totally and blatantly has the hots for her, even though we never get to hear his POV.

As for SEP, sometimes I think her utterly preposterous premises (have you read Nobody's baby but mine yet??) are just a prop for her characters to be cute and funny and deliver smart comebacks. Kevin and Molly's was particularly stupid, because there were other ways to bring them together around an unwanted pregnancy that didn't involve, like, RAPE.

Meriam said...

Brie, it's the strangest book I've read in a good long time. It's also well written and tightly constructed and real piece of ... surreal art. I liked it a lot.

(three posts and I'm out)

RfP said...

"this books is what happens when a Present's heroine snaps"

I may have to read this....

"her utterly preposterous premises (have you read Nobody's baby but mine yet??) are just a prop for her characters to be cute and funny and deliver smart comebacks"

I can see why you say that but (no, and I can't say I'm likely to) I also thought that scene had a strong element of deliberately contravening genre. I was puzzled by the book overall--in some ways the craft (repeated symbols, etc) reminded me of Crusie, but in many regards the characters seemed to inhabit a very gender-conservative world that gave me the creeps.

Meriam said...

SEP as Crsuie's creepy, conservative doppelgänger: an intriguing premise.

Having said that, I'm afraid to confess, I quite liked Nobody's Baby But Mine. Not for the premise - which is so stupid, so asinine, so preposterous I can't think about it too much - but because it made me laugh at lot. I can't help it; I'm easy. If it makes me laugh, I can forgive any number of sins.

(And I totally recommend VL, obviously)

RfP said...

I have no idea how SEP herself leans on any particular issue, but I thought the world of the book was pretty specific. My feeling was that much of the book might have been deliberately set up to sit in a particular corner of the genre, but whether there was an intended "message"--or whether it would be conservative--I don't know. I can see her books could be funny; this one didn't hit the spot for me.

Hmm, my library system has 4 Lambs, all large-print editions.

Meriam said...

Was it your first SEP?

The other thing she does is have a secondary romance in her novels, often with a much older couple. I quite like that aspect of her novels; it's not often people over 50 get to have romantic storylines of their own. (I don't read many contemporaries, so maybe I'm wrong here).

RfP said...

Yes, first.

Sandra Schwab said...

But I liked this ending.

That was also one of the things I liked and found refreshing about this book: the ending is a bit more open and the heroine's issues / problems aren't all resolved yet. Nevertheless, the ending gave me the impression that even though this couple might have still a bit of a struggle ahead of them, they will make this relationship work.

Or perhaps I'm just an optimist. *g*

In a wider context, I think it does balance the genre. Totally. When Clare gave her little speech, I thought of every little instance that a hero has kissed his heroine 'punishingly,' or 'crushed her in his embrace' or held her against her will, touched her inappropriately... however much of a cop out, it was a very powerful reversal. I thought Clare/ Lamb were railing out against more than just Denzil.

Yes, yes, yes! When I read this scene I felt like shouting "Whee!", clapping my hands and cheering her on. I love M&B novels to pieces, but in some novels the heroines seem bend on behaving like doormats and let the heroes get away with truly appalling behaviour without ever fighting back in some way.