I was introduced to the works of Dan Simmons by an employee at my local bookstore. He noticed I was perusing the horror section, walked over, and recommended what was, in his opinion, the most deeply unsettling book he’d ever read: Song of Kali. Intrigued, I followed his suggestion, purchased the book and, yes, as advertised, was left deeply unsettled by the book. I followed Song of Kali with The Terror, a thoroughly engrossing read (up until it’s final chapter), Hyperion and its sequel Fall of Hyperion, and the creepy as hell Summer of Night that ranks as one of my top 10 favorite horror novels of all time. So I was greatly looking forward to Children of Night which won the Locus Award in 1993 – despite the fact that the summary on the back cover didn’t do much for me. Dracula? For real?
I’m afraid so. The novel starts off promisingly enough, its stranger in a strange and sinister land motif reminiscent of Song of Kali’s parallel sense of isolation and mounting terror by one cut off from their cultural lifeline. Simmons sets the tone early, an undercurrent of dread bubbling just below the narrative surface as the deliberately paced developments build to a blood climax early on. Our protagonist tries to make sense of what has happened to her, then embarks on a quest to save her son. Unfortunately for me, it is the basic premise of the plotting Dracula and his long-fingered Nosferatu minions that undermines here for, as well written as this book is, it struggles to overcome the cheese factor inherent in its antagonists. This isn’t helped by the fact that the vampires, as fearsome as they are, come across as Bela Lugosi clones. Actually, I was reminded of Willem Dafoe’s hilariously brilliant turn as the awkward, long-fingered Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire.
I’ve always felt that, in horror, the unseen and unknown are far scarier than the ultimately disappointing reveal. In Song of Kali and Children of the Night, Simmons does a masterful job of ratcheting up the tension through mere suggestion. The Terror offers up a truly horrifying atmosphere in which the crew of the ship are picked off in the blinding snow and darkness by an occasionally glimpsed supernatural stalker – up until the end when we‘re allowed a peek behind the curtain. I remember watching Stephen King’s It as a kid and being thoroughly unnerved by the first part with its sewer-dwelling clown and elements unknown – then being hugely disappointed by the second part in which the antagonist is finally revealed as…a giant spider?! So it is with Children of the Night except that, rather than build the suspense of the unknown, Simmons haunts us with these gangly Borat-esque nightwalkers led by, and I hate to say it, the biggest horror cliché of them all. I’m sure there was a time when Dracula may have been frightening, but today he’s more kitschy than scary, possessed of all the menace and shock value of fellow cultural icon the Pillsburry dough boy. As great a writer as Simmons is (and I do think he is great), he’s swimming hopelessly upstream on this one.
To his credit, Simmons attempts to ground the vampire myth in modern science and establish the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler through the use of flashbacks, but neither really works all that well. The science, while occasionally interesting, more often overwhelms. And the flashbacks to Vlad’s atrocities, while perhaps historically accurate, are so over-the-top in their sadistic execution that they come across as more cartoonish than horrific.
All in all, incredibly well-researched and fascinating for its depiction of a bleak, Post-Ceausescu Romania, Children of the Night is ultimately undone by its unintentionally comical villains and a fairly predictable ending.
Today’s pics: Some long overdue snaps of the dogs.