By Michael Rowe
ChiZine Publications, 2011
275 pgs. Trade SC.
$15.95 US/$17.95 CAN
Vampire fiction. Just whisper the words and they’re likely to evoke groans from horror readers, writers and editors across the globe. Let’s face it, the vampire is a character which—pardon the expression—has been done to death. Of course, every once in a while, a King or a Rice or a Brite comes along and unexpectedly re-invents the old vamp, giving him back his teeth and his terror, but then hundreds of sub-par copycats inevitably follow, flooding the market with sparkly, erotic or just plain pornographic vampires who lack bite as well as literary merit. Understandably, respect for vampires falls dormant and the welcome mat at publishing houses is withdrawn. Despite this cycle, there are always those authors unafraid of tackling the subject; luckily, for readers, Michael Rowe is one of them, his debut novel Enter, Night beautifully capturing a feeling and horror and dread long absent from most vampire fiction.
Built on the blood of the displaced Native population and the backs of generations of its residents, Parr’s Landing, in 1972, is a ghost of a community, its gold mines long run dry, opportunities scarce, and the people wanting nothing more than to find a way out. Fifteen years earlier, Christina Parr and her husband were one of the few to escape the suffocating confines of the town, one ruled with an iron fist by matriarch Adeline Parr. Not long after, Christina’s brother-in-law Jeremy also escaped after a gruesome attempt at gay reparative therapy forced upon him by the controlling Adeline. Following the death of her husband, however, Christina, her teenage daughter Morgan, and Jeremy have no other choice but to return to the Landing to live under the roof and constant eye of the woman from whom they had once fled. But Adeline Parr isn’t the only thing Christina and her family has to fear; for far beneath the ruined mines of Parr’s landing lurks a horrific being who has just been awakened after 300 years.
Enter, Night may be Michael Rowe’s debut novel, but Rowe is far from a neophyte. A lifelong devotee of all things horror, a seasoned editor, short-story writer, and journalist, Rowe has numerous awards under his belt for both his fiction and non-fiction work; so it’s not surprising that Rowe’s freshman outing has a maturity and style about it that puts other first time novelists to shame. His prose is lean but at the same time lush, evoking not only a sense of time and place, but also an atmosphere of intense suspense. In his hands, Parr’s Landing and the surrounding countryside come alive, transforming into characters in their own right: At night, Parr’s Landing breathes in its population and doesn’t exhale them until morning.
This skill isn’t limited to the setting. Rowe likewise has a deft hand when it comes to creating characters that we understand. We may find them endearing or infuriating, but never boring or one-dimensional. And this applies evenly to all the characters, not just our “leads.” Even the most minor of characters are rich and deep; while they may be little more than vampire fodder within the plot, they are never, ever disposable in Rowe’s hands. We feel each of their “deaths” immensely because Rowe finds the details in their lives that resonate with the reader. He opens them up (sometimes literally) so that we see all of them. And it is this penchant for making the reader care about each and every character that makes the horror and tension more palpable. Because in this novel, every single character is at risk. We feel it almost from the moment we meet them and the loss of each one—even those we fear will disappear—is felt deeply. Take, for example, the following, which reveals a relatively minor character, Jordan:
Late at night, Jordan sometimes heard his parents arguing through
the wall of his bedroom. His father’s voice would rise and Jordan would catch words
like normal and wrong and dreamer and other boys in between his father’s raw
profanity. . . His mother’s voice would rise in answer. Jordan heard words like
someone and out of this town and success. And dreams, which sounded like
a completely different word when his mother said it.
That passage tells us a lot about Jordan and while we may think we know where the author is taking the character, Rowe always manages to throw in a bit of a curve. And this extends to the major characters as well. Though matriarch Adeline may at first seem a stock horror character, Rowe imbues her with a depth and history that manages to endear even this cold-hearted bitch to the reader. Christina is a woman shrouded in grief, but hardly in a shambles or a pushover. Jeremy, who has experienced the freedom of gay life back in Toronto, is forced to confront not only the homophobia of small towns, but also the reality of a long lost love whose time may have passed. Add to the mix, young outcast, Finnegan, a comic book nerd whose strength surprises even himself, the aging but appealing Donna and her closeted “beau” Elliot, and the sadistic and insane Richard Weal and you have a brilliant mix of characters that are rich, darkly humorous at times and fascinating through and through.
Rowe also manages to work in a bit of social commentary within the novel, though he does so with a subtle hand. He expertly captures the realities of smalltime life: how such a life traps one but also how the residents also seem to take comfort in their captivity. He touches on bullying, homophobia, the repercussions and collateral damage of living in the closet and, with the most fascinating character (Dr. William Lightning), the treatment of the Native Canadians and the stereotypes of them that infect small-minded people. Rowe never beats us over the head with it; it’s all there, though, skimming the surface.
Rowe draws on the entire history of classic vampires, from Stoker’s Dracula to the better vampire films and, most importantly, from the amazing work of writers and illustrations such as Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer—and connects it all both regionally and theoretically to the legend of the Wendigo. But perhaps what Rowe does best of all is to resist the urge so many authors who tackle vampire cannon fail to. Rowe isn’t interested in reinventing the vampire, on putting his “unique stamp” on the lore by creating new abilities or making them little more than whining, introspective gadabouts. You’ll find no vampires walking around in the daylight, or eating meals at the local malt shop, or getting married to their high school sweetheart. His vampires aren’t interested in discovering why they are the way they are, what great sins lead them to their lot in life. Rowe’s vampires still fear the symbols of Christianity, still must be invited into a house, still fall prey the slings and arrows affecting the most historic of vampires. They are fierce, brutal, enigmatic, appealing, and terrifying.
In the end, Rowe manages to do what so many others writing “vampire fiction” fail to. . . he creates an astoundingly creepy, violent, atmospheric and frightening novel that not only pays homage to the literary and cinematic past, but also manages to restore the vampire to his former and deserving glory. Highly, highly recommended.
—Paul G. Bens, Jr.