I don't think anyone thinks of George R.R. Martin as a "horror writer." With the immense success of his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series the marketing machine usually labels him something like "the Master of Modern Fantasy" or whatnot instead. But Martin is the kind of writer I very much admire, who catches the scent of a story like a bloodhound and chases it down no matter what genre the trail leads through. He's written some excellent fantasy, but he's also written damn fine superhero fiction and a few gripping horror stories. One of those was "The Skin Trade," a novella about werewolves. Another was 1982's "Fevre Dream."
"Fevre Dream" wears yet another label, that of the "vampire novel," a term I rather dislike. Given the immense diversity of books that get pegged with it, it's just about as meaningless a label as saying something is a "human novel." If you really want to classify a hardcore horror story like King's "Salem's Lot" with Meyer's multi-volume "good girls wait until marriage" sermon "Twilight," be my guest, but the two have practically nothing in common. You might as well put "Cujo" in the same category as Armstrong's "Sounder" under the heading of "dog tales."
I mention all of this because "Fevre Dream" is too rich to be filed under any one single label. Yes, it has vampires in it, but it is also a well-researched tale of mid-19th century steamboat life on the Mississippi (and yet curiously is not labelled "steamboat fiction"). It concerns captain Abner Marsh, whose fleet of boats is wiped out by a freakishly harsh winter. He is saved by entering a partnership with the enigmatic Joshua York, a pale and elegant gentleman with a fortune to spend. York finances construction of the Fevre Dream, one of the largest, fastest, and most elegant steamboats on the river. But this comes with a price. He wishes to be co-captain with Marsh, to live aboard the ship, to transport a strange menagerie of curious guests no questions asked, and demands frequent stops along the river without explanation. Marsh's suspicions build as they steam down from St Louis towards New Orleans. After all, York is never seen by day, drinks bottles of some strange elixir, and is obsessed with newspaper articles of unsolved murder. By the time Marsh confronts him, the reader is already certain what York is.
The reader is wrong, however.
Without giving too much away Martin does here for vampires what he (and his friends) did for superheroes in "Wild Cards," and in many ways what he did again in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. He takes a genre you think you know, dismantles it, and puts it back together again in a whole new way. Not that his approach to vampires is all that unique; Suzy McKee Charnas and Whitley Streiber both beat him to it (see "The Unicorn Tapestry" and "The Hunger"), but the way he handles this sort of...ahem..."vampire" is very well done indeed. I would also add that it is entirely secondary to the novel. The engine that moves "Fevre Dream" along is Martin's engaging characters and plot twists. Though not very scary, it is a gripping page-turner. It also is a book with something to say, nicely comparing the master-slave dynamic of the period with the vampire-prey one.
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