Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Bloody Favorite Book Genre of Mine: Vampires

And now for something completely different...

I suppose calling something I enjoy a "guilty pleasure" is a bit presumptuous in that it assumes I'll be judged for it without giving the reader the benefit of the doubt, so I'm not going to use that term. What I am going to do is something a bit different: I'm going to write about something you probably wouldn't expect on this blog. My name is Drew and I have a confession to make: I love to write, I love to read, and my favorite genre of fiction is the vampire novel. I do also enjoy vampire movies, but I must interject the caveat here that as far as both forms of media are concerned, I am very picky about those I like and those I don't. And before anyone asks, yes I've read the Twilight series (and didn't think much of them), and no, I don't think everything having to do with vampires is great. But of the ones I have sifted through to find, they've all captured my imagination and for the same reasons. Since I am currently (still) working on my first novel, which I started back in 2010 and falls within this genre, I thought it would be interesting to examine why vampires and their lore has captivated me ever since I was a kid.

Without trying to be an amateur folklore historian, a little bit of background: even though the vampire myth goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it is the Eastern European vampire folklore dating from the Middle Ages that has captured the imagination and fueled the present-day mythos. That's certainly the case for me. There has always been something so entrancing about the Gothic and Medieval feel and tone of the original vampire literature that has just grabbed me. Regarding the beings themselves, the mix of revulsion and attraction to what a vampire is has always fascinated me. In essence, they are undead beings who upon dying were turned into inhuman killing machines, preying on the blood, the very life force, of living people. They are pale and gaunt like corpses, with superhuman strength and abilities and of course, those fangs. And yet, in their undeath they are enhanced versions of how they looked in life: the women impossibly beautiful, the men the epitome of handsomeness. There's also usually a lot of romance as well as some eroticism and sex which, as long as they're not gratuitous, I enjoy as an underlying subtext in vampire literature. I tend to lean more toward the romance aspect of it as I've always been a sucker (no pun intended) for a good love story. Finally, while I've never been a fan of over-the-top gore and violence, I've always been a fan of horror/thriller books and movies. I don't go for slasher films and stuff like that, but more of the type of horror that scares you with what's implied than what's shown, and then shows a glimpse of it for effect. I find that the best vampire books utilize that versus the in-your-face gore of more mainstream traditional horror. These various attributes of the vampire mythos are almost always woven into whatever story is being told, and the breadth of settings for vampires in fiction is vast. I've read everything from historical fiction to futuristic sci-fi and everything in between. It's a very versatile genre, but it's dependent on whether the author can avoid falling into cliche traps while keeping make it interesting.

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Seeing as though my love of this genre inspired me to begin working on a vampire novel of my own, I thought it would be fun to list some of my favorite vampire books. These are the ones that inspired me to try writing my own and the ones that I keep going back to when I need to get my horror fix. I'm not listing them in any particular order apart from the first one...

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The father of all vampire novels. Even though there were other vampire stories that were published before Stoker's book in 1897 (a few of which I also love and which will be discussed below), it was this one that birthed the genre and is considered the masterpiece from which all subsequent vampire literature and film are derived. I've probably read this book twenty times in my life (so far) since the first time I cracked it open as a twelve year old. For those who haven't read it (and may want to), I won't spoil the story for you, but this is one special book. It's told in an epistolary format through the voices of all of the main characters and chronicles the story of how the titular Count Dracula arrived in Victorian England and nearly spread his curse around the world. The story is exciting and thrilling, and Stoker did a masterful job not only with the action sequences, but with some slow-burning and truly terrifying moments that are as chilling to read the tenth time as they are the first. Almost everything that is commonly accepted about vampires comes from Dracula. Yes, Stoker pulled a lot/most of it from folklore sources, but here it all crystallized in the best vampire book of all time (and one of the best novels of all time in any genre). If you haven't read this book, even if you're not that into vampires or horror, I highly recommend you read it at least once. It's that good. My personal favorite version is the annotated one shown below. My wife got it for me as a Christmas present several years ago and the annotations opened up a whole new world of understanding of how Stoker wrote this masterpiece.


Now I'm going to get into some older short stories that predated Stoker which are favorites mine before getting back to newer novels, beginning with one of the best...

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This novella was published in serial form in 1871 and 1872 and predates Stoker by a quarter century. It's not as well known which is a shame because in my opinion it sits alongside Dracula as the greatest of the old vampire stories. It tells the story of Laura and her father who vacation for an extended period of time in the Styria region of Austria and are troubled by the new friend they've met named Carmilla. The story evolves into the tale of how the Countess Karnstein, who was a vampire, terrorized the region for hundreds of years, Carmilla's connection to the Countess, and Laura's experiences during and after their friendship. I don't want to give anything away because there are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but I will say it's as chilling and thrilling a story as Stoker's book and an absolute favorite of mine.


Varney the Vampire (or the Feast of Blood) by James Malcolm Rymer

This one is a little more unusual in that it's a pretty meandering tale that was serialized in the "penny dreadful" format popular at the time of its publication. It dates from 1847 and as such is even older than Carmilla or Dracula. The story centers on the villainous Sir Francis Varney and his reign of terror against the wealthy Bannerworth family. It's not as tight a story as others, but it's still enjoyable and an essential and classic example of pre-Stoker Victorian-era vampire literature.


The Vampyre by John William Polidori

Along the same lines as Varney the Vampire is this short story which, dating from 1819, is the earliest example of vampire literature I'll be discussing. It is widely considered to be the first work to meld the folklore with the romantic horror/fantasy elements we now take for granted as part of the genre. It tells the story of the vampire Lord Ruthven and the terror he inflicts upon his unsuspecting new friend Aubrey. As with Carmilla, there are some plot twists that I won't spoil here, but it's a really cool story and definitely one worth checking out.


Now to get a bit more modern (or at least twentieth century)...

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, as in I'd read every single one of his books up to about 2010 or so. I started to get turned off by a lot of the repetition in his themes, some of his more bizarre and vulgar passages (and it takes a LOT to turn me off with vulgarity), and his insane persona on social media (I'm not going to get into politics here, but King has been more unhinged than usual over the last decade) which turned me completely off of his stuff. However, my favorite book is still one of his finest and is the only true vampire novel he ever wrote. It was his second ever published novel, released in 1975, and tells the story of the nefarious vampire Kurt Barlow's arrival in a small Maine town called Jerusalem's Lot (Salem's Lot for short). Little by little, children and adults alike begin disappearing and re-emerging as vampires, spreading the curse throughout the town. Protagonist Ben Mears, visiting the town for some inspiration for the novel he's writing, witnesses this horror and barely makes it out of the town alive. The entire story is gripping, terrifying, and ends somewhat ambiguously (which I like), but what makes it truly excellent is that unlike in many of his books, King takes the classic "less is more" approach to the terror in the story. I've always found that a few effective sentences which let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination can be ten times scarier than bludgeoning them over the head with graphic wordplay and King succeeds immeasurably in this book. Also worth checking out are the two related short stories he published in Night Shift: the first, "Jerusalem's Lot" is a creepy prequel to the novel while "One for the Road" is a truly terrifying story of what happened to one unfortunate family on a snowy winter night a few years after the events of Salem's Lot. I can't recommend these three works of King's enough to any vampire lover.



I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Dating from 1954, I Am Legend is a gripping story that only has two main characters in it. Robert Neville is the only survivor in Los Angeles where vampirism has spread across the world infecting everyone. By day he scavenges for supplies and research materials on how to cure vampirism and along the way, he has developed efficient methods for killing any sleeping vampires he encounters. By night, he stays barricaded in his house fending off vampires trying to come inside (including one particularly creepy former neighbor who torments him by continuously calling out his name). After years of this lonely existence, he meets a fellow survivor named Ruth who he allows into his house. Without giving the rest of the story away, all is not as it seems between Neville and Ruth and the end of the story is both bleakly despairing and surprisingly uplifting. One of the best, even if it was turned into a fairly lousy movie starring Will Smith.


That brings us to one of my favorite series...

The Anno Dracula Series by Kim Newman

This is a series I had been hearing about for years but hadn't gotten around to checking out until 2014 or so. I won't get too bogged down in the details, but in a nutshell the series is predicated on the supposition that Dracula survived his encounter with Jonathan Harker and his band of friends at the end of Stoker's novel. It is a world where vampires and humans live openly side by side and all of the inherent struggles that come when two competing races and their cultures collide (gee, that sounds kind of familiar...). The books are each set in their own time period as follows in order: Anno Dracula (set in 1888 London), the Bloody Red Baron (set in 1917 during WWI), Dracula Cha Cha Cha (set in 1959 Rome), Johnny Alucard (set in 1980s America), and One Thousand Monsters (an interquel of sorts, set in 1899 Tokyo). All of these books feature main character Genevieve Dieudonne, a 450 year old French vampire. Her longtime human companion and lover Charles Beauregard is also present in a few of the books although being human, he eventually succumbs to old age in a way Genevieve obviously does not. What makes Newman's books stand out besides the excellent writing is the amount of historical research and accuracy contained within. He also weaves into the stories numerous historical figures both real and fictional (for instance, real life people like Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Red Baron alongside fictional characters like the aforementioned Lord Ruthven, Dr. Jekyll, Victor Frankenstein, and so on). There's a lot of classic dark British humor (which I'm a fan of) and the books are simultaneously frightening and hilarious (in spots). All in all, it's one of my favorite book series, vampire or otherwise, and one I can't recommend enough.

I think I'll end it here, although I will add that the comic book miniseries 30 Days of Night is an excellent example of vampire fiction translated to the comic medium. There are also two series of books I've been meaning to check out for a while: The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin (which has just been launched as a TV series) and the Vampire Zero series by David Wellington. And before anyone asks, no I haven't read Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and I don't think I ever will. I enjoyed the first book Interview With the Vampire (and the movie) but from what I've heard it got pretty bizarre after that (as did Rice herself). Perhaps I'll check it out some day, although not before I read the Passage trilogy or the Vampire Zero series.

So there you have it, my favorite vampire books. What do you think? Have you read any of these and if so, do you agree or disagree with me? And are there any other good ones you've read that you think I should check out? Please let me know!

Monday, January 21, 2019

This is Not Supposed to Happen: The New England Patriots Are in the Super Bowl Yet Again


In what seems like a yearly occurrence at this point (mainly because it is), my favorite (and the nation's most reviled) football team, the New England Patriots, has once again made it to the Super Bowl.  I wrote about how incredible this run of success has been last year right around this time, as well as in years past, but this year might be the most improbable of all apart from the first Super Bowl they won in 2001. After losing a heartbreaking Super Bowl to the loathsome Eagles last year, the Patriots seemed to be at the end of their dynastic road. Last year marked their eighth Super Bowl appearance in seventeen seasons and capped off a bizarre end to a season that saw quarterback Tom Brady's seeming estrangement from head coach Bill Belichick as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski contemplating retirement. There was also the Jimmy Garropolo trade that seemed to come out of left field earlier in the season as well as Belichick's inexplicable decision to bench cornerback Malcolm Butler which may have cost the Patriots their sixth ring. What it led to was an offseason and 2018 regular season that was as up and down as any during the Brady/Belichick dynasty. At times the team seemed old, tired, undisciplined, and mediocre. At other points they seemed to find their old magic and reverted back to their dominant form. The low points were the back-to-back losses in Miami and Pittsburgh in weeks 14 and 15. Sitting at 9-5, it wasn't certain they'd finish as a top two seed and secure a valuable first round bye. The Patriots had no identity for much of the season and I wrote about all of this dysfunction on Guy Boston Sports earlier this season. It was cathartic to write that, but it didn't make me feel good about this team's chances in the slightest. 

Then a funny thing happened: the team finished off the season with two blowout wins against division opponents Buffalo and New York (Jets). They secured the two seed in the AFC, secured a bye, and seemed to be rounding into form. Still, there was a little bit of doubt at least on my part because of the fact that they'd finished 11-5 (one of the lowest win totals of the Brady/Belichick era) and because those two games were against bad teams in the Bills and Jets. I did feel strangely confident as the playoffs began to unfold and I wrote on Guy Boston Sports about how the Patriots had a seemingly straightforward path to the Super Bowl if everything played out a certain way. The Patriots did their part by defeating a very good Chargers team, but the Colts couldn't hold up their end and lost to the Chiefs. That sent the Pats to Kansas City for the AFC championship game with the tall task of having to win a road playoff game for the first time since 2006 (remember: because they almost always finished as the one or two seed, the Patriots have barely played any road playoff games since 2001). I didn't think it was an impossible task, but I did think it was a difficult one. For the first time in my life as a Patriots fan, while I was excited for the game and wanted them to win badly, I felt that they were playing with house money. With how schizophrenic the team had been all season, they had already exceeded my expectations by getting this far. While I wanted them to win in the worst way, I didn't have my usual pregame jitters and just wanted to enjoy the game and see what happened. Either way, they'd salvaged a weird season and I was fine with that.

What we got instead was a vintage Patriots performance on both sides of the ball that resulted in a thrilling overtime 37-31 win that sent the franchise to their record ELEVENTH Super Bowl. It will be the ninth Super Bowl appearance for Brady and Belichick, the team's third in a row and their fourth in five years. To update the overall statistics from last year's post:

Since 2001, the Patriots have now:

- had a winning record every season
- won the AFC East division 16 times, including the last 10 in a row (in 2002 and 2008, when they didn't win the division, they finished tied for the best record in the division but lost out on tiebreakers)
- appeared in 13 AFC Championship games, including the last 8 in a row
played in 9 Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017, and now 2018)
- won 5 Super Bowls in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, and 2016 (and lost the other 3, in 2007, 2011, and 2018 all on last minute fluke catches)
- won 3 Super Bowls in a 4 year span (including 2 in a row: 2001, 2003, 2004)
- appeared in 4 Super Bowls in a 5-year span (winning the first two in 2014 and 2016 and losing in 2017, with this year's appearance marking their first back-to-back-to-back appearance)

This is not supposed to happen, folks! In an NFL with a hard salary cap that has pushed for parity (which is really a nice way of saying they want every team to be mediocre so that everyone has a chance), the Patriots have somehow created the greatest and longest-lived dynasty in NFL history and one the greatest in all of sports. It has all flowed from the ownership of Robert Kraft and the sustained excellent and longevity of Brady and Belichick, who are in their 18th season together. How much longer this can go on is anyone's guess. I and numerous others thought that this year was the beginning of the end, but instead it's only a continuation. Now that the dust has settled from the AFC Championship game and I've had some time to reflect on it, I think this season might be the greatest coaching job of Bill Belichick's career. He took a team that wasn't as talented as his teams usually are, with all of the dysfunction and uncertainty that has never afflicted the Patriots in years past, and somehow got them to play their best football of the season when it mattered most starting in mid-December.  What looms now is a rematch of the very first Super Bowl they won against the Rams (who called St. Louis home but are now back in Los Angeles). It would be a fitting completion of the circle if they won their sixth title by beating the team against whom they won their first. Whether that happens or not we'll have to wait a couple more weeks to see, but in the interim we should all sit back and take stock at how ridiculous this run of excellence has been. I was a month shy of 22 when they won their first Super Bowl; I'm a month shy of 39 as they prepare to play in their ninth since then. This is not supposed to happen, but it has and it has been glorious to behold. As I tell my kids, who are young enough to know nothing but the Patriots winning all the time: This Is Not Normal. It's not supposed to be like this and we will almost certainly never see anything like this ever again once it's over, so sit back, enjoy it, and savor every moment. I know I will.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Why I Prefer Going to Major League Baseball Games Over NBA Games (or the Realization That I'm Getting Old)

This post actually piggybacks off of another one I recently wrote titled Why I Love Sports. That one, which you can (and should) go back and read if you haven't already, was inspired by a comment one of my daughters made at an NBA game which led to the realization that even though I love rooting for my favorite teams, I just enjoy sports in general and for many reasons. There was one sentence in that piece, though, that germinated in my mind and which led to this offshoot post: "we had fun although the constant barrage on the senses (mainly noise) of modern NBA games drove me absolutely nuts (that's a topic for another post)."  At work the day after that game, a coworker asked me how the game was. I reiterated to him that the game itself was fun, but that the game presentation left a lot to be desired. He agreed and then we laughed when we realized we sounded like two cranky old men (I'm pushing 40 and he is in his mid-50s). Still, when I mentioned to him that, for as much as I love basketball, I will go to a baseball game over a basketball game nine times out of ten, he agreed. As is typical with the way my mind works, that got the wheels in my head turning and spawned this post that you're now reading.

So what is it about the experience of a baseball game that I like more than a basketball game? (Or conversely, what is it I dislike more about basketball games than baseball games?). Before I start, let me point out that this isn't me saying one sport itself is better than the other. Anyone who knows me and/or has read this blog knows of my passion for baseball, but I am just as passionate about basketball. They were the two sports I started playing and watching when I was five years old and I'm as big a Boston Celtics fan as I am a Boston Red Sox fan. When my wife and I were dating in college and into the early years of our marriage (i.e. before kids), we used to go to tons of Celtics and Red Sox games in Boston. They were always a lot of fun and we managed to still get to the occasional game when our kids were small, but it wasn't until the last few years once our youngest was old enough that we started taking the kids with us. We've taken them to see the Red Sox at two different ballparks (including their first trip to Fenway Park) as well as multiple AA and AAA minor league games. The NBA game we went to recently was their first, though; it was also the first one I'd been to in probably six or seven years. What struck me was how different the in-game experience was in 2018 compared to 2012 when I last went. For all of the games I'd been to since the mid-1990s, I remembered a fair bit of extraneous stuff that went on in between the game action. They'd play some music during TV timeouts or game timeouts, between quarters, and of course at halftime. There was the occasional t-shirt cannon fired into the crowd and of course the silliness on the JumboTron. But there was never, EVER, anything going on during the game except for the game itself. The second the whistle blew and the ball was inbounded, the music, the noise, the extra stuff all stopped and the focus went back to the game. Well, let me tell you that it wasn't like that at the game we just went to a couple of months ago. There was all of the requisite and expected noise during the down time, but during the game itself there was constant music, constant flashing lights, constant nonsense on the JumboTron, just constant STUFF going on. It was so loud and bright and incessant that it drove me nuts. With all the garbage going on during the game, I can't imagine it wasn't as distracting for the players as it was for us in the stands and it's a testament to their focus that they could filter all of that out. Speaking of focus, it's a sad statement on how short out attention spans are as a society that all of the bells and whistles are necessary to keep people entertained when, you know, the actual BASKETBALL GAME itself should be the reason we're all there in the first place. It made me realize how fortunate we are that all of that unremitting noise isn't audible when watching the games on TV.

Now contrast that with watching baseball at a ballpark. True, it's not a sport that lends itself to short attention spans and constant commotion in the first place, but that's one of the many things outside of the game itself that I love about it. When you go to the ballpark, you go for the experience and the atmosphere as much as for the game. What do you hear the majority of the time when you're there? Mainly it's the sounds of the game. The murmur of conversation throughout the ballpark, people yelling out cheers (or jeers), vendors hawking beer and soda and popcorn and peanuts, polite applause after a pitch or a put-out, the crack of the bat, the ball smacking the leather of a glove, the sudden rush of excitement when the ball is put in play. Sure, there's a bit of noise at baseball games, mainly the walk-up music for each hitter (which I think is silly). Still, it's only a 5-6 second snippet per hitter over the course of a nine inning game. For minor league games (of which we go to many), there's a bit more in the way of entertainment during down time, but minor league teams have long been known for this in their attempt to draw people to their ballparks and it's actually one of the charms of minor league baseball. Usually there will be silly things like a wacky race between some kids or a quiz where the contestants chosen from the crowd can win prizes, but even these are much less noisy and irritating than those during NBA games. I'm sure being outside at a ballpark versus inside an enclosed arena helps the sound to breathe and dissipate more which makes baseball games seem less noisy. Again, I realize the nature of the two sports is quite different, but it didn't always used to be so oppressively noisy at NBA games.

Perhaps it's simply a sign of the times? Basketball is full of fast-paced action and NBA gives you constant stimulation of the senses which caters to today's low/no-attention span society. Contrast it with baseball which is more old fashioned, slower paced, demands much more attention, and only has short bursts of action in between pitches. MLB and MILB couldn't get away with offering an NBA-styled in-game experience because it doesn't lend itself to the sport at all. As I rapidly near forty years of age, and even though mentally and physically I still feel like I'm only twenty, I've come to the irrefutable conclusion that I vastly prefer going to baseball games over basketball games, at least of the professional variety. Whether that means my tastes are changing because of age (I don't really think so) or that I just don't like the modern presentation of NBA games (which I'm sure is the real reason), I'm comfortable with this conclusion.

What about you? Do you prefer one over the other? And if so, why?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Jimi Hendrix - The Day I Was There


Astute and/or long-time readers of this blog will recognize that this is yet another entry into a series of books I've read and reviewed called "I Was There." So far I've reviewed "I Was There" books about the Who, Beatles, and Rolling Stones. This latest addition to the series concerns arguably the greatest and certainly the most influential electric guitarist in rock history, Jimi Hendrix. As is usual with these books, author Richard Houghton has collected and collated firsthand recollections from fans who saw Hendrix from his early pre-fame years all the way to his final concert in September 1970 a mere two weeks before his untimely death.

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As is typical with this series, the book format is a chronological look at Hendrix' live career as told by the lucky fans who saw him in person. Starting with some of his pre-fame gigs, the book traces the story of Jimi's discovery in New York City in 1966 by Animals bassist (and first manager) Chas Chandler. After taking Hendrix with him to London in the autumn of '66, Chandler set about getting a band together for Jimi and securing a record deal. The earliest gigs played by the newly christened Experience are recounted in the book including the occasions where Jimi sat in with Cream. After the release of his first singles ("Hey Joe," "Purple Haze") and one of the greatest debut albums of all time in early 1967 (Are You Experienced?), Hendrix rocketed to stardom. It's interesting to see how quickly he graduated from playing at clubs and pubs in the UK and Europe to theatres and larger venues. His star really took off once he made his triumphant American debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. From there to the end of his career, Hendrix was a megastar who was also one of the top grossing live acts of his era.



What's interesting in reading the fan recollections is that, as Jimi's career progressed, the change in his performance, as well as his appearance and demeanor, was noticed by the fans packing the arenas. Many of the memories in this book clearly state that they preferred his live shows from earlier in his career and that by 1969 and 1970 he was sounding (and looking) very ragged and worn out. It's interesting that even concertgoers were able to notice the effects of the music business (and his second manager, Michael Jeffrey) chewing up and spitting Jimi out as they worked him to the point of exhaustion in order to stuff their coffers. Reading through the concert memories also takes the reader back to a more innocent time when tickets were cheaper, seating was anywhere you found a spot, and it was easy to not only catch a moment or a word with Hendrix, but even hang out with him in many cases! Some of the fans who shared their experiences were wrong about songs played or events at the concerts they appeared at (corroborated by the numerous Hendrix bootleg recordings circulating), but with the passing of so many years (and the consumption of so many illicit substances in those days), it's understandable. More valuable are the concerts for which there are multiple accounts; while in some cases there are conflicting reports of what happened, in most there is corroboration of what was said or done (a particularly memorable concert from Wisconsin in 1970 instantly springs to mind after having read the book).



Jimi Hendrix: The Day I Was There is another fun entry in this series that will take fans who were alive during those heady times in the late 1960s back to their youth, while for those of us too young to have experienced it the first time, we can instead be transported back through the fan recollections. There isn't any new information about Hendrix or his music to be gleaned from the book, but that's not the point of this series. Instead, this book takes the reader back to a time when Hendrix was a completely new and unknown force on the music scene who reinvented what the electric guitar and rock music could do, one blown mind at a time.

MY RATING: 9/10