Suzy McKee Charnas, |
& Other Phantasms
Dr. Edward Weyland, the vampire to whom the title Stagestruck Vampires & Other Phantasms refers, is a bloodsucker with a difference. He has no fangs!
As author Suzy McKee Charnas once told me, "Mostly it was just a matter of realism. I've never understood how anyone could masquerade as a human being when he had these big fangs hanging out of his mouth. It always struck me as extraordinarily ridiculous." So Charnas turned to Polish folklore for a more plausible form of vampirism; a needle-like sting located beneath her character's tongue is employed to puncture the veins of his victims.
It's an elegant solution, one that fits neatly with her suave yet emotionally detached character. As she explained, "the vampire is a kind of jumped up mosquito ... he's a parasite. He's not this romantic semi-slasher."
And so we come to Stagestruck Vampires & Other Phantasms, an odd book that doesn't quite come together thematically. At its core are three stories featuring Dr. Edward Weyland, and a wonderful article that describes the arduous, invigorating road Charnas traveled in taking her Nebula Award-winning vampire-in-therapy story, "Unicorn Tapestry," from the page to the stage.
"Unicorn Tapestry" and "A Musical Interlude" are both beautifully written stories, structurally complex and thoroughly engaging. "Advocates," the third Weyland story, was written in collaboration with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It's a bit of a muddle as it desperately attempts to marry Yarbro's modern vampire mythos to Charnas's. In the introduction to "Advocates," Charnas points out that the ending to the story "stands as it does because we could not, between us, take the story any further and still agree. I guess collaboration has its limitations after all." Indeed it does.
Stagestruck Vampires also contains Charnas's idiosyncratic takes on such horror mainstays as the werewolf ("Boobs") and the psychopath ("Beauty & the Opera, or The Phantom Beast"). "Evil Thoughts," another trip into horror territory, is the story of a woman whose uncharitable nature twists not just her soul but her physical self as well. Meanwhile, "Peregrines," the lone story written in this century, takes us somewhat further afield as it mixes fantasy and science-fictional elements into a haunting tale of shamanistic magic and terrorism-inspired paranoia in a near-future New York City.
But the two inclusions that really feel out of place in Stagestruck Vampires are the story "Listening to Brahms" and the nonfiction piece, "They're Right, Art is Long." "Listening to Brahms" is a post-nuclear-disaster story that sets a handful of human survivors down on a distant planet, then examines the characters' reactions to their decades-long slide toward extinction. "They're Right, Art is Long" is a chronicle of the quarter-century Charnas spent writing the story of Alldera, the heroine of her four-volume science fiction masterpiece. Walk to the End of the World (1974), the first book in the series, was originally conceived as a standard post-apocalypse adventure story, but as Charnas became sensitized to the feminist movement the book mutated into a raw, unflinching exploration of gender themes.
Both of these pieces are well worth reading, but neither can properly be called "phantasms." They might have seemed better integrated if this collection had featured a wider range of Charnas's writing. As it stands, however, they feel tangential. And "They're Right, Art is Long" is further undermined by its lack of a reference point. I've read the four novels about which the article is written and so found the essay enlightening. But I'm not sure how much a reader unfamiliar with these books would gain by reading the piece.
I think a far better choice for Stagestruck Vampires would have been to eliminate these two pieces and instead include "Body Work," the play Charnas adapted from "Unicorn Tapestry." It would have allowed readers to follow the creative path mapped out in the article "The Stagestruck Vampire" and more fully appreciate the evolution of story into play.
Charnas is a talented writer whose output is far from prodigious, so any new offering, while cause for celebration, brings with it high expectations. Stagestruck Vampires & Other Phantasms is a bumpier ride than one might have wished. Yet when one reads a passage such as "I glance sometimes at a man or a woman in a shop or cafe, at a friend or a student sitting over coffee with me, and I wonder what towering joys, and howling depths lie concealed behind the mask of ordinary life that each one wears" (from "Beauty & the Opera "), celebration wins out over any small disappointment.