Verland: The Transformation, the debut novel by Eugene author B.E. Scully, is a welcome return to a time when vampire stories were actually about vampires. And when I say vampires, I don’t mean brooding sex symbols who might enjoy a snifter of Type O every now and then when they aren’t busy romancing vapid teenage girls, but the vampires of old: superhuman, disquieting predators with an overpowering thirst for human blood.
The nominal protagonist of Scully’s story is Elle Bramasol, a true crime writer who ekes out a living on the mid-lists when she isn’t busy having conversations with her mother’s grave or hanging out with her two cats or policeman boyfriend. That all changes one day when she gets a call informing her that famed Hollywood producer turned murderer Eliot Kingman has made a personal request for her to write a book about the events that led to his glitzy, high-profile trial and subsequent conviction.
However, Bramasol soon learns that Kingman’s case is the furthest thing from his mind. During their first interview, he rambles on about the nature of life and grief, then tells her that he has found a loophole to mortality, a way around death itself. When she inquires further, he directs her to visit his mansion, where his wife and his assistant give her a sheaf of translated pages from a book purporting to be a diary that begins during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s.
It’s at this point that the novel really comes into its own as the diary introduces us to Verland, a young Prussian soldier who is turned into a vampire by a mysterious medic after being left to die on the battlefield. As Scully unfolds the vampire’s story through multiple series of diary entries, Verland soon supplants Bramasol as the de facto protagonist of the story; he is a fully-realized, complexly layered character, and his diary is the most interesting part of the entire novel by far. In fact, the entries are so compelling that they begin to overshadow the rest of the book, and it won’t take long before readers will find themselves skimming through Bramasol’s investigations so they can get back to reading about Verland’s life story.
The passages dealing with Verland’s diary succeed as well as they do by never making the mistake of lingering for too long on any one subject. By turns Verland is a wretch overridden with existential anguish, a terrifying predator who revels in his powers, a passive observer to important historical events and personages, a detached clinician who performs unsettling J.G. Ballard-style experiments on his own flesh, and an outsider who knows he must remain apart from humanity but can’t quite still his yearnings for the simple pleasure of social contact. And no matter how far Scully pushes her titular antihero, his thoughts and actions always feel true to the character she has created.
One of the more fascinating themes running throughout the book is the constant juxtaposition of the vampire’s overriding monstrosity – i.e., the need to feed via murder, up close and personal – with the evils of human society in all their depersonalizing, depraved cruelty. In a way, Verland’s simple animal urge to seek out prey paints him with a purity of purpose that somehow elevates his bloodlust above the far murkier motivations behind the predations of normal humans.
Verland’s passage through history also works to take the vampire mythos created in seminal horror novels like John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and carry it intact up to the present day, free of the glitterpires and other misty-eyed romantic trappings that make contemporary vampire fiction so unbearable to read. The novel’s historical and literary references sometimes devolve into little more than rote name-dropping, and at times the scope of the story outstrips Scully’s ability to fully realize it, but that’s a small complaint. It’s hard to fault an author for daring to reach for something just beyond their grasp instead of playing it safe and composing a lesser story.
So, while Verland: The Transformation doesn’t avoid the usual smattering of problems that seem to plague all debut novels, B.E. Scully nevertheless succeeds in writing an engaging, satisfying tale. It may not be high literature, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s a straight-up vampire novel, and a damned good one at that.