Chelsea Quinn Yarbro,
A Mortal Glamour
(Juno, 2007)

Back in the day when female horror authors were a rarity, and before 90 percent of them could seemingly only survive by devoting long-running and derivative series to heroes and heroines who were either vampires, werewolves, witches, demons or slayers thereof, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro broke into the market and seemed to have a good thing going. The first fistful of her chunky novels featuring the sympathetic vampire Count Saint-Germain was a breath of fresh air in the supernatural meadows. She plunked her hero down in one miserable time period after another and in settings imbued with what seemed like impeccable research into the mores of the day. But after awhile, it dawned on me that Yarbro only had one good plot, and was just repeating it in different places where her characters were constantly in peril because they weren't allowed to do whatever it was they wanted to do and she could hammer home the points that 1) she doesn't like religious authority, 2) she doesn't like secular authority and 3) she doesn't like any other kind of authority.

So I got tired of Saint-Germain, nice enough vampire though he was, and only ever sampled a few other types of prose (mostly impenetrable fantasies that I couldn't finish and one decent movie novelization for the otherwise forgettable piece of B-movie dreck known as Dead & Buried) from Yarbro before taking a long, long break from her wares.

Speaking of long breaks, there was one of more than 20 years in between the original publication of A Mortal Glamour, the tome that finally ended my Yarbroless sojourn, and its return in an "uncut" version that restored more than 25,000 words to this tale of 14th-century nuns going slowly and verbosely mad in the French countryside. Having never read, let alone heard of, Glamour's first incarnation, I can only assume that some level-headed editor was smart and merciful enough to have made those cuts in order to spare readers from a surplus of dismally distracting subplots, mindlessly meandering scenes and maddeningly moribund supporting characters.

The gist of this soulless exercise in soft-core horror porn apparently lies in the notion that "real" supernatural menaces are superfluous when religious and other forms of hysteria are ratcheted up to levels that make supposedly good people do, well, naughty things to one another all by themselves. The action takes place in a time when England and France are at war and two competing Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, claim dominion over Christendom. A mysterious (and sexy) new Mother Superior arrives at a tantalizingly isolated convent that is filled with depressing nuns who are ripe for assault by roaming flagellants, sermonizing by visiting priests and lustful bantering by lonely soldiers.

At first, much of the plot, such as it is, centers on a particular pseudo-nun who is only in the convent as a way to break her spirit because she refuses to wed the man her father has chosen for her. If she cannot have a husband of her choosing, she would rather live a life of wanton "freedom" in the nearby house of ill repute, to which she frequently escapes only to face increasingly S&M-like punishments upon her recapture. It doesn't help that the guy who seems most interested in her at the cathouse may or may not be a minion of the devil. My bet is that he isn't, but just talks a good game -- Yarbro is frustratingly opaque on whether or not our pal Lucifer is really behind the scenes in any respect in this overblown epic, but never more so than in the moments that the almost-nun and her almost-lover share. This could have been a tolerable novel if these two had been the true main characters and a half-dozen subplots and many, many other characters (some of whom can't seem to stay in character as they delight in circuitous dialogue that fills up pages but certainly doesn't make the time fly) had simply been jettisoned down the privy hole.

There was a chance for some honest psychological suspense, a la The Haunting of Hill House or Turn of the Screw, to be developed here, especially if the convent setting had remained more firmly at the center of the bizarrely runaway events, and given the strained relations between the sole somewhat interesting female character and the real nuns. It brought me more a sense of relief than entertainment that these nuns got knocked off throughout the narrative in increasingly disjointed fashion. Even the fate of the nicest of them, in a strangely late-blooming subplot of doomed romance, seemed like so much backfill in the midst of just getting through to the blessed end of this tortuous revenant of a plot that should have stayed buried.

At the risk of sounding like the king in Amadeus who complains about Mozart's music having "too many notes," as it stands, Glamour gloms on just too many points of view and too many chapters that begin by giving you the uncomfortable sense that something really important must have happened in between now and the last time you saw the characters at hand, but you're never going to learn what that was. And with a story that's this needlessly padded to begin with, that's just a mortal sin.

review by
Gary Cramer

24 January 2009

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