AROUND THE SAME TIME Fred Saberhagen was rewriting Count Dracula as a good guy, and Anne Rice was interviewing Louis de Pointe du Lac, American writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro began what has to be one of the most remarkable projects in the field of vampire fiction.
Emerging first in London, circa 1745, the man now known as the Comte de Saint Germain remains one of histories more entertaining enigmas. No one really knows, with any degree of certainty, who he was, where he came from, when he was born, or how he died (if he died, I should say). The first we hear of him, he is writing operas. Next, he is charged with espionage. Horace Walpole (who would later write the very first "gothic" novel) wrote of him;
He has been here (London) these two years, and will not tell who he is, or whence, but professes [two wonderful things, the first] that he does not go by his right name; and the second that he never had any dealings with any woman – nay, nor with any succedaneum. He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible. He is called an Italian, a Spaniard, a Pole; a somebody that married a great fortune in Mexico, and ran away with her jewels to Constantinople; a priest, a fiddler, a vast nobleman. The Prince of Wales has had unsatiated curiosity about him, but in vain.
Other contemporaries describe him as being "everything with everybody." He discussed philosophy with philosophers, music with musicians, science with scientists, politics with politicians. He was described as strikingly pale, with very black hair and eyes. He never wore anything but black, and was always richly attired and bejeweled.
But it is when he reappears three years later in the court of Louis XV--who inexplicably used the man for diplomatic missions and gave him a suite at the Chateau of Chambord--that Saint Germain becomes really remarkable. Saint Germain charmed everyone around him, including the king and Madame de Pompadour. He was invited to the best salons and dinners but no one ever saw him eat. He claimed to be thousands of years old and to subsist on the Elixir of Life. He spoke dozens of languages fluently and was an alchemist who could create diamonds or repair flaws in jewels. Casanova, who didn't care for the man at all, said that as a conversationalist Saint Germain was without equal. He claimed to be Transylvanian and had a ridiculously long list of aliases; Marquis de Montferrat, Comte Bellamarre, Chevalier Schoening, Count Weldon, Comte Soltikoff, Graf Tzarogy, and Prinz Ragoczy.
Post-Paris Saint Germain seemed to tour the capitals of Europe, until finally in 1779 he is said to have died. I say "said" because people kept reported seeing him for decades after his death. Helena Blavatsky, though not the most credible source, claimed to have met him a century later.
Now all of this is the historical record, but Yarbro went even further when she decided to take the Count at his word. Given a pale, raven-haired Transylvanian immortal who never dined in public, Yarbro drew the only logical conclusion. The man was a vampire. Yet given his extraordinary list of talents, he was without a doubt a very urbane vampire, a gentleman. And since history does not associate him with a string of corpses, he was a vampire that did not kill.
Beginning with Hotel Transylvania in 1978, Yarbro embarked on a (to date) twenty-nine novel chronicle of Saint Germain's long life. While the first installment is about his time in Paris under Louis XV, subsequent titles would explore his existence from ancient Egypt to modern day America. None of these are "horror" novels, and it would be a stretch to even call them "vampire" tales. Yarbro writes meticulously researched historicals; having a protagonist who happens to be an immortal vampire simply gives her the perfect device to explore times and places of her choosing.
Yarbro's Saint Germain begins life as the son of a tribal chieftain or king in very ancient Transylvania. Initiated into the cult of the local god--a vampire--Germain is infected himself with vampirism. In Yarbro's take on the undead, a vampire can only feed on a single person a limited number of times before infecting them. After that, the infected can go on to live a normal life...but after death will rise again, presumably around the age they were infected. Germain's life is cut brutally short when captured by an opposing tribe and executed by disembowelment. He rises, but still with vicious scars of his death on his belly.
For an unspecified amount of time, Germain is a monster, a blood-drinking beast. Yarbro's vampires need emotion as much as blood, and for his first few centuries or so he feeds on suffering and terror. But the monster is captured and eventually dragged to Egypt, given to the Temple of Imhotep, a cult of physicians and healers. In his many centuries there, Germain transforms. He rediscovers his lost humanity, learns to feed without killing, without causing suffering. He masters formidable healing powers himself, including the ability to raise the recently dead as ghouls (Yarbro's ghouls seem human in most respects, but must eat freshly killed raw meat and are as long-lived as her vampires). Germain spends more than a millennium in the "House of Life" before moving on, and when he does leave it is as a wise and deeply compassionate being.
The plot of a Saint Germain novel then goes something like this;
We find Saint Germain settled into a time and place laying low, keeping to himself, not causing any trouble. He will have a stable of women he visits in their sleep to feed on, but never enough to turn them. When he feeds he gives them pleasant (erotic) dreams. Invariably he will meet a woman who becomes a love interest, someone he can reveal himself to. Then all hell breaks loose. Usually this comes in the form of a sadistic, thoroughly unlikeable human being who delights in cruelty. Saint Germain will have to rescue his love interest from this menace, or escape from danger himself.
Stand-outs to my mind include Hotel Transylvania, where Saint Germain is pitted against a cult of devil-worshippers in 18th century France, Blood Games, where he tangles with a completely despicable Roman senator and ends up fighting for his unlife in the Circus Maximus, and Tempting Fate, in which Saint Germain rescues a Russian war orphan and raises her in Germany...until (now as a young woman) she is raped by a gang of Brownshirts and Germain demonstrates why it is a very bad idea to hurt someone he loves. Also notable is the short story, Cabin 33, which finds Germain in America running a mountain resort. When a young woman staying there starts wasting inexplicably away, Germain realizes another vampire is present and sets out to stop him from killing her. Come Twilight is likewise another change of pace, when Germain turns a young woman in Dark Ages Spain into one of his kind but she refuses his teachings. For the next five centuries she builds a clan of horrific vampires who terrorize the countryside, forcing Germain to intervene.
You don't read the Saint Germain stories for the vampirism, though. It is implied the Count has fangs but we never see them. He feeds off camera. Crosses and garlic mean nothing to him, and while the sun weakens him terribly he can lessen its effects by wearing boots in which the soles are packed with his native soil. You read these books for the history, for the way Yarbro takes a time period and brilliantly animates it. Making the past come to life is really the heart of Yarbro's gift and the reason people are still reading her 29 novels in. While comparisons could be drawn to Ann Rice, the two authors could not be further apart in terms of tone or style. Yarbro's tales are incredibly "down to earth." You might forget for a hundred pages there is a vampire in the book. Similarly, you could draw parallels between Saint Germain and Saberhagen's Dracula, but of the two of them Saint Germain is probably the one you would feel safest in the company of. If there were vampires like him in the world, that wouldn't be all that bad.
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