Bloodletter, by Warren Newton Beath
June, 1996 Tor Books
Mining the same territory as Shade, Bloodletter concerns the author of a string of wildly popular vampire novels who might be a vampire himself. But while the plot is similar, the two novels are very different. For one, Bloodletter initially came out in hardcover, in 1994 (also published by Tor, and apparently with the same cover as this paperback). And another, author Warren Newton Beath is shall we say a much better writer than Ron “David Darke” Dee – but then, the higher-caliber writing is one of the missteps of Bloodletter. Whereas Dee turned in a grungy, sordid tale filled with lurid situations, Beath seems to want to write more of a literary novel with horror trappings.
But then, for much of its narrative Bloodletter really isn’t a horror novel, at least not in the classic sense. It’s more of a dark psycho-sexual thriller that features a twisted serial killer as well as a famous writer who seems to be batshit crazy. This latter would be Stephen Albright, the “king of the paperbacks,” whose series about a vampire named Bloodletter have turned him into a celebrity. I find it humorous that Beath named his fictional bestselling horror author “Stephen,” but regardless, this particular Stephen is himself a much more cerebral author than one would expect. Indeed the Bloodletter books don’t sound fun at all, judging from what little we are told about them, going for more of a quasi-historical gnostic bent than one would expect for a lurid paperback.
We don’t learn much about the books, but we do learn there are thirteen in the series, all paperback originals, and all trading on the arcane lore of the vampire. While Beath never uses the term “gnostic,” that does seem to be the vibe of the series, in particular that there is a recurring trio dynamic of the titular Bloodletter, his troll-like familiar, and Thanata, a female immortal who serves as Bloodletter’s nemesis through the ages. It just all sounds a lot more cerebral than the popular fiction Beath tries to convey it as; indeed, it sounds a lot like Beath’s actual novel, which itself did not achieve any mega popularity, thus proving out that a “cerebral-literary” vibe does not lead to a popular horror paperback.
The Bloodletter’s schtick is that he is some sort of immortal force of evil who manifests on Earth via the work of an artist or writer or whatever. Albright, who believes the Bloodletter really exists, fears that he has unleashed the vampire on Earth via his novels. And also that the vampire is responsible for a particularly twisted serial killer who calls himself Diver Dan. One disturbed individual, Dan – who apparently suffers from a condition that his turning him into a woman – has a penchant for abducting young women with hummingbird tattoos, torturing them to death, and then having lots of sex with their corpses. There are many scenes from Diver Dan’s perspective, and we know he is the current vassal of the Bloodletter – not only does Dan have the entire 13-volume Albright series of novels, but Dan also believes he had an audience with the actual vampire, and now kills for him.
Beath plays all of this on more of a psycho-suspense angle, particularly given how the main character is a psychiatrist named Eva LaPorte. A hotstuff babe in her 40s who hit it big on the pop-psych scene with feminist interpretations of myth, Eva has been hired by DeMarco, Albright’s boisterous agent – and also, bizarrely enough, owner of a chain of fitness centers(?!) – to see if she can help Albright with his delusions. The true problem so far as DeMarco is concerned is that Albright is about to squander the chance for big bucks: truly given over to the “delusion” that the Bloodletter exists, Albright is about to put the kibosh on the long-awaited big-budget film adaptation of his series. DeMarco wants Eva to get in Albright’s head and figure out how she can get him to stop thinking there are really vampires.
Oh and I forgot to mention, but Albright just tried to kill himself…with a .357 Magnum! How someone could fail to kill themselves with a .357 Magnum is something Beath doesn’t elaborate on; we get the humorous assertion that the bullet “traveled too fast” or somesuch. But then it occurred to me that this was likely another dangling mystery Beath was trying to provide – another clue that Albright himself might be the Bloodletter. The novel is filled with such mystery, with Albright – young, with dark hair and the good looks expected of a vampire – acting increasingly deranged…up to and including having the photos of Diver Dan’s victims hidden away in his apartment. Not to mention a severed heart in his fridge, something Eva discovers late in the novel.
As mentioned Eva is our main protagonist, and it must have seemed a good idea to Beath to view the vampire story through the prism of an intellectual. Unfortunately the result for readers is that the novel is too slow-going and suffers too much from characters, particularly Eva, denying that there are any such thing as vampires. Beath really pulls this one to the stretching point; the entirety of Bloodletter is an extended “do vampires really exist?” riff. The impact of the story is also lessened by the “literary” vibe. The fact that the book is populated by narcissistic Hollywood types doesn’t help matters; Eva in particular is known as a sort of celebrity psychiatrist.
With its “serious” approach to horror and its literary vibe, Bloodletter reminded me of another novel I reviewed here many years ago: The Late Great Creature. There is even the callback to the sordid underbelly of Golden Age Hollywood, with mentions of Bela Lugosi and the actress Peg Entwistle, whose sole claim to fame is that she jumped to her death off the Hollywoodland sign. Another point of reference is clued on the cover, with a blurb from horror historian David J. Skaal, author of The Monster Show and Hollywood Gothic. One imagines that Beath leaned very heavily into these particular tomes, with all sorts of sordid detail on silent horror film director FW Murnau – like that he died in a car crash while getting a blowjob from his boytoy.
This stuff in particular reminded me of The Late Great Creature, as well as another horror film-focused novel I reviewed some years ago, Flicker. There’s a lot of stuff about how Bela Lugosi too might have known the Bloodletter, and how he wanted to do this vampire flick with Peg Entwistle, and also how Murnau envisioned this crazy flick about the apocalypse and vampires taking over the world. All this bleeds into the modern day, with Albright living in Lugosi’s Hollywood apartment and such. But again the subtext is heavy that it’s all in Albright’s mind, and that serial killer Diver Dan is just a plain nutjob, inspired by a fictional character and not by a real vampire.
Beath shows some dark humor in the sequences with Dan, in particular a disturbing bit late in the book from the perspective of one of his victims. Never even given a name – at this point she merely thinks of herself as the latest victim of the notorious killer – this poor girl tries her hardest to make friends with Dan to convince him not to kill her. After all, this is what they said to try on all the true crime shows. The vampire stuff is mostly relegated to lore and Hollywood stories, and also the detail that Eva’s ex-husband, also an academic, penned a tome on vampire history…with the unusual tidbit that vampires were claimed to have double-headed dicks. Well that was a new one to me.
Beath continues to want to have his cake and eat it, too, when a blindfolded Eva is apparently bitten on the neck…by a vampire or by Albright (or Albright the vampire) she does not know…and then starts to imagine all sorts of pangs for blood, or strange sentiments like wanting to tear a child apart. But is it all in her mind, and Albright’s insanity just spreading to her? It just goes on and on…made all the more annoying in the rushed climax. I mean I couldn’t believe it, but Beath, after leisurely telling his tale for 300-some pages, blows right through the finale, with the reveal and dispatch of the titular Bloodletter in just a few harried pages. This annoyed me.
Overall, Bloodletter was definitely written better than Shade, but lacked that novel’s fun drive – not to mention the lurid spirit. While Shade was lovably explicit, Bloodletter also goes for more of a highbrow vibe in the naughty parts. This too reminded me of The Late Great Creature and Flicker. But then, if you enjoyed either of those novels, you’ll certainly enjoy Bloodletter.
Annoying note: For some inexplicable reason, Blogger was flagging this review for content. I can only assume it was the cover, which as you can see does not even feature any nudity. I decided to just obscure it completely in the cover scan above to hopefully circumvent the issue.