Not All Vampires are Creepy and Boring: A Review of Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, In Which Bethany Learns an Important Lesson about Tolerance

It’s official: I was totally born with the vampire gene. I love vampires. I would love nothing more than to be preternaturally controlled by some creepy immortal dude with sharp teeth and a deeply-rooted guilt complex. In fact, even way back when I was a kid, the Count was always my favorite character on Sesame Street.

While I was suffering through Interview with the Vampire, I was well aware of the ironic fact that the book I was desperate to begin reading was yet another vampire novel. I knew that I would have to explain this strange incongruity here on Postcards from Purgatory eventually. But explaining strange incongruities is what I live for. That and Nutella-and-strawberry sandwiches on fresh-baked homemade bagels. With coffee.

In my last review I wrote that when I read fiction that is somehow surrealistic (e.g. sci-fi, fantasy, fiction with witches and vampires in it, etc.) I only enjoy it if the magical or surrealistic elements help to tell a story about what it means to be human. As an example, I also wrote that I think the Harry Potter series is one of the best narratives ever written about what it means to be an adolescent. In that series, magic serves as a metaphor for genius: Harry is confronted at the age of eleven with confirmation that he is different from the extremely ordinary “Muggles” around him (he has seen signs and suspected as much for years) much as I imagine the young Mozart and the young Einstein and the young Picasso and the young Shakespeare discovered their own uniqueness at some point in their own childhoods. The momentum of the novels, then, comes from the question of what Harry will do with this knowledge. Will he learn to control and exploit it, or will it become the mechanism by which he is controlled and exploited by others? There is nothing fundamentally “magical” about this struggle; on the contrary, it is at the very heart of the human experience, even for those of us who are not Mozart or Einstein or Shakespeare or Harry Potter.

The central conflict in Harkess’ novels is similar. Protagonist Diana Bishop is a Yale history professor who also happens to be a witch – and, in these novels, “witch” is a biological designation that functions like a race or ethnicity. Her parents, like Harry Potter’s, died when she was young. She was raised by her aunt Sarah and by Sarah’s partner Emily (witches and other magical creatures are very P.C. in Harkness’ world – and, yes, some of them are gay married) who were loving and devoted to Diana but who largely failed in their attempt to initiate her into the world of witchcraft. She is aware of her heritage but wants nothing to do with it – and academia becomes her distraction, the camouflage that makes her feel “normal.” She also feels distanced from the world of her aunts because she has never been “good at” casting spells and lighting candles without matches and doing the other things that witches are supposed to do. In Harkness’ first novel A Discovery of Witches, Diana is doing research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she finds an unusual manuscript on the history of alchemy (that’s her research specialty). She recognizes that the manuscript is under some kind of enchantment, but she also quickly recognizes that it won’t be especially helpful to her research, so she sends it back to be reshelved.

Ironically, Diana’s talent as a historian – a career that she sees as a way of avoiding her identity as a witch – is in fact closely tied to the special nature of her witchcraft. Later, when she is studying witchcraft with some experienced witches, she says, “Goody Alsop and Catherine had figured out the secret to my power: It was inconveniently tied to my curiosity.” In other words, when Diana wants to know something – when her intellect and her curiosity are stimulated – witchcraft kicks in to help her find the answers. This is why she is able to access the book in the library that no one else could find. This is also what I mean when I say that witchcraft in this novel is fundamentally a metaphor for talent or genius.

After that, all hell breaks loose: witches and vampires and daemons start swarming all over the place, and there are death threats and pretty soon a sexy vampire named Matthew appears to protect Diana. (OK, he wants the manuscript too. But he’s a good guy, and he wants it for the right reasons.) And then she falls in love with him and he falls in love with her and they go on the run from “the Congregation,” a council of witches, vampires, and daemons whose cardinal rule is that these three types of creatures should not intermarry. (The Congregation also forbids these creatures from interfering in human politics and religion. [insert wry Newt Gingrich-as-daemon comment here].) And over the course of this first novel, it becomes increasingly clear that the union of Matthew and Diana is the fulfillment of some kind of ancient prophesy and that the explanation of this prophesy – and the answers to many other questions about the nature of magical creatures – will be found in the manuscript that Diana reshelved – and that no one, including her, seems able to call up again.

I don’t mean to get too bogged down in the first novel, since this is supposed to be a review of Shadow of Night. But, long story short, Diana finds out that far from being “not good at” witchcraft, she was in fact such a prodigy at magic (and, specifically, at “timewalking” or time travel) that her parents – who foresaw their early deaths – “spellbound” her. In other words, they magically restrained her talents in order to keep her safe. In the magical world, spellbinding is considered an extreme measure that is usually only performed as a punishment or precaution against witches who are insane and/or have used their magic to commit criminal acts. The reaction of other witches who find out that Diana has been spellbound suggests that the idea of spellbinding an innocent young child is considered completely unconscionable in this community. So at the end of A Discovery of Witches, Matthew and Diana prepare to go back in time to Elizabethan London so that Diana can find a witch with an advanced level of knowledge who can help her to understand her talents. Their secondary – but still important – goal in going back in time is to find the alchemy manuscript before it was enchanted and hidden in the Bodleian stacks.

Note: Just so you know, the information I’ve just given you above doesn’t even come close to “spoiling” A Discovery of Witches. There is SO much more. Read it. Even if you think witches and vampires are kind of stupid. These particular witches and vampires are an exception to that otherwise totally valid rule of thumb.

Shadow of Night takes place almost exclusively in the years 1590 and 1591. As a vampire, Matthew was alive back then, and his previous self sort of mysteriously disappears and his replaced by his (kinder, gentler) twenty-first-century self in a convenient narrative technique that is not at all well explained. I mean, wouldn’t it have been much better if there were two Matthews running around in 1590 – sort of a cross between A Comedy of Errors and Back to the Future – confusing people and causing trouble and playing guitar at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance and becoming incapacitated when their hands start to disappear because their teenaged parents haven’t started making out yet?

I’m digressing again, aren’t I?

Since a version of his former self did live in the sixteenth century, Matthew can conveniently provide for Diana quite well after their “timewalk”: they have several well-appointed houses, tons of money, connections among the rich and famous, and a coterie of weird and interesting friends, including Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, George Chapman, and – if we use the word “friend” loosely – Queen Elizabeth I. In what I think is a pretty shrewd narrative move on Harkness’ part, the sixteenth-century Matthew is in fact the historical figure Matthew Roydon, who was in fact friends with all of the “School of Night” poets and appears in dedications to their books and that sort of thing, but who otherwise barely appears in the historical record. Like other vampires in these novels, Matthew has to stage a series of “deaths” every fifty years or so and then go into hiding for a while and re-emerge using a different identity. Unlike Anne Rice’s vampires, though, his life is lived largely in public. He does not sleep in a coffin during the day and emerge at night to feed, and he interacts regularly with “warmbloods.” His desire to feed off the blood of humans exists but is conquerable, allowing him to live a public and sociable lifestyle.

OK, summary over. I want to return for the moment to the idea that – for me – magic only works as a plot device in fiction when it is fundamentally irrelevant in and of itself but contributes to the novel’s metaphor and symbolism. Other than the Harry Potter series, which I love, these two novels do about as good a job of harnessing the symbolic power of magic as anything I’ve read. Harkness is a master of characterization – while the idea of a love affair between a male vampire and a human woman (or, in this case, a witch) is hackneyed and overdone, the relationship between Diana and Matthew in this novel never feels stilted because Harkness paints both characters with so much humanity, insight, and humor. Her prose is good: clear and rhythmic and varied without being self-consciously stylized. Her humor – which is always understated – is at times hilarious. Shortly after arriving in the sixteenth century, Matthew sets out to find a witchcraft tutor for Diana. Elizabethan England, of course, was fond of persecuting witches, of course, so Matthew, who in his own sixteenth-century lifetime participated in some of these persecutions – knows just where to look for one. When he brings a local crone back to his house to meet Diana, Diana comments, “Enter the witch from central casting” – meaning that the witch looked and acted like every stereotype of a Halloween witch: wart on the nose, stringy white hair, black clothes, missing teeth. I chuckled over that line for days after I read it.

To me, one of the most fascinating characters in the novel is Philippe de Clermont, Matthew’s father. A Discovery of Witches devotes a lot of time to Ysabeau, Matthew’s mother, but Philippe is dead in the twenty-first century, so it was only in the sixteenth that Matthew can reunite with him and Diana can meet him. Philippe is an incredibly interesting character – strong and commanding and possessing seemingly infinite power and influence, yet inwardly conflicted and vulnerable. In A Discovery of Witches, we briefly met Matthew’s brother Baldwin, finance czar and family bully. Juxtaposing him with both his brother and his father does a great deal to characterize Matthew as conflicted about the power and influence that comes from being immortal.

In many ways, both of Harkness’ books are novels about stereotypes. A reader doesn’t have to be a sociologist to figure out that the Congregation’s ban on intermarriage and the ill feelings between vampires and witches and between witches and daemons (but not necessarily between vampires and daemons) are intended to reflect the complicated relationships between the nations, races, genders, ethnicities, and other groups of real-life humans. And if you told me in the abstract that someone had written a book about prejudice using a variety of magical creatures as stand-ins for humans, I would have assumed that this book would be absolutely horrible – dogmatic and moralistic and full of clichés. But Harkness’ characters are “real people” first and foremost; their roles as magical creatures, not to mention as figures in an allegory, are entirely secondary.

This novel is sometimes comically modern – but I think this comedy is intentional on Harkness’ part and adds to the novel’s richness. By “modern” I mostly mean politically correct. Early in the novel, after a spat of some kind, Matthew says, “If you think I will ever lay a hand on you in anger, you are mistaken, Diana,” and later – after it had been revealed that Matthew suffers from “blood rage,” a tendency toward uncontrollable anger that some vampires are subject to, Diana coaches him toward forgiveness by saying, “You are more than this disease, Matthew.” And Matthew is cogent and self-aware (as one would hope a 1500 year-old man would be!) when he explains how he copes with his vampire instincts: “Every day of my life is a battle for control. I fight my anger and the sickness that follows in its wake. I struggle with hunger and thirst, because I don’t believe it is right for me to take blood from other creatures – not even the animals, though I can bear that better than taking it from someone I might see again on the street… ‘And I am at war with myself over this unspeakable urge to possess you body and soul in ways that no warmblood can fathom.”

I remember a Saturday Night Live sketch from the late ‘80’s (which I can’t find on YouTube – but it existed, I swear!) in which a vampire (played by Kevin Nealon, maybe?) circulated at a party at some kind of creepy castle. He approached women from behind, baring his teeth and ogling their necks with desire but stopping himself just before digging in. “Did you receive a blood transfusion between the years of 1979 and 1985?” he asked his intended victim. “Do you engage in intravenous drug use or sexual intercourse with multiple partners?” “Did you travel to Africa between 1975 and 1980?” This was Saturday Night Live’s social satire at its best – using the vampire myth to mock the growing fastidiousness even of predators in the early years of AIDS – but also showing that what seemed “new” in the 1980’s (i.e. AIDS) was just part of a long tradition of humans both knowingly and unknowingly “contaminating” one another. And I thought of this sketch a lot when I was reading both A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night.

(On a related note: I ALSO thought of this sketch a lot when I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey – starting around the time that the full text of Christian and Ana’s BDSM contract was printed in its entirety for the THIRD time. This is ravishing-the-fair-maiden porn for the litigious age, I remember thinking. And, just to make things more interesting, I thought of Fifty Shades of Grey when I was reading the two Deborah Harkness novels. And, when I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought of Twilight. Detecting a pattern? Apparently the guy who wrote How to Read Literature Like a Professor was right all along: vampires ARE erotic. Who knew?)

And just in case you think I’m reading too much into this, Harkness gives us this exchange between Diana and Matthew: “‘Sex and dominance. It’s what modern humans think vampire relationships are all about,’ I said. ‘Their stories are full of crazed alpha-male vampires throwing women over their shoulders before dragging them off for dinner and a date.’ Matthew was aghast. ‘Do you mean…?’ ‘Uh-huh. You should see what Sarah’s friends in the Madison coven read. Vampire meets girl, vampire bites girl, girl is shocked to find out there really are vampires. The sex, blood, and overprotective behavior all come quickly thereafter. Some of it is pretty explicit.’ I paused. ‘There’s no time for bundling, that’s for sure. I don’t remember much poetry or dancing either.’”

The reference to ‘bundling’ refers to the fact that Matthew is extremely cautious about consummating his marriage to Diana (and they are married – in two different ceremonies in two different centuries, actually). Again, he’s a very politically correct vampire who wants to make SURE that Diana is ready for each new stage of their relationship. Throughout A Discovery of Witches, the couple never has intercourse but only practices the Puritan custom of ‘bundling’ – wrapping themselves in blankets and talking in bed all night.

The conversation continues: “You’d be surprised how many women seem to want a vampire boyfriend anyway, though.’ ‘What if their vampire boyfriends were to behave like callous bastards in the street and threaten starving orphans?’ Matthew asked.” (This comment refers to Diana’s anger at Matthew for the vehemence with which he defends her from a pickpocket in the streets of Elizabethan London.) “‘Most fictional vampires have hearts of gold, barring the occasional jealous rage and consequent dismemberment.’ I smoothed the hair away from his eyes. ‘I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,’ Matthew said.”

So yeah. Deborah Harkness knows what she’s doing. This novel plays with some of the traditional lore surrounding witches, vampires, and demons (and the constant appearance of figures from history in this book is great fun), but fundamentally this book is a product of its own era – with all its silliness and its political correctness and its tendency to congratulate itself excessively for being tolerant of difference. Perhaps part of what bothered me in Interview with the Vampire was that I felt as if Anne Rice was trying to conjure up an era in history that was not innately bound up with the story – or that the gothic quality of the novel’s setting ended up overwhelming the characters.. She might have been trying to create a novel that was “timeless” (or maybe she, like many authors of woman books, believes that conveying time is irrelevant). But no work of art is timeless. Works of art are always about the time period in which they are created – even if they take some other time period as their setting. I know more about what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century as a result of reading this novel – and that is really the only reason I like to read.

***

Oh, and P.S: I am convinced that in third and final installment of this trilogy, we will find out that in his human life, Philippe de Clermont was Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father. His personality matches everything I’ve ever read about Philip, as does the name, and we know that Philippe lived in ancient Greece. Others who have read it, what do you think?

Doubt me if you must. But when the time comes, just remember that you heard it first on Postcards from Purgatory.

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15 Responses to Not All Vampires are Creepy and Boring: A Review of Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, In Which Bethany Learns an Important Lesson about Tolerance

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I think when I post my review of this book I’ll just write “See Bethany’s review, except I love vampire/witch/daemon fiction.” This book is as good as the genre gets, evidenced by the fact that you liked it, and you hate this sort of thing.

  2. lfpbe says:

    It’s good for me to know that you feel that way. Part of me suspected that real aficionados of the genre wouldn’t like it much – since I liked it so much.

  3. Maria says:

    On the magic being a metaphor for human-ness, have you read The Magicians, and The Magician King? Good reads, and all about that metaphor. It took me a while to appreciate them, because I wasn’t really sure what I was reading, satire, magic-punk, or what, but I ended up liking them a lot. I am not necessarily a vampire person, but Dracula is a pretty amazing horror novel. Twilight, horribly written in my opinion, was a page turner, although the following three books got more and more ludicrous. (Notice I read them all!) I have never read an Anne Rice book. There is this female fascination with the “taming” the evil male-who-really-is-good-inside and who will adore you for ever more as well. That is where vampires come in, and the erotic part is useful too.

  4. lfpbe says:

    I haven’t read either of those Lev Grossman novels, but I have them both and plan to read them. I read his earlier novel, The Codex, which is about video games, and I was totally shocked and impressed that there was a writer out there who could make me want to read about video games. I read all four Twilight novels also, largely pulled forward by how absurd and grotesque they were (and also enjoying my assuptions about what was going on in the mind of a Mormon housewife as she wrote). I thought Dracula was comically awful (I mean, how many puns on the word ‘grave’ does any novel need?).

    • Maria says:

      Gee, I didn’t notice any puns when I read the book, many years ago! I was just totally creeped out! I am a little impressionable.

  5. lfpbe says:

    I read it about two years ago. Maybe I was just too old and cynical for it. I did find it sort of interesting from a psychological/sociological/anthropological perspective in how well it revealed the Victorian desire for women to be weak and frail.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I read Dracula last year? Or maybe the year before. I didn’t find it creepy though I think I would have if I’d read it when i was younger. I enjoyed it but not as much as I expected I would. Probably there’s some sort of inverse relationship between how much it creeps you out and how much you enjoy it. Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version certainly creeped me out. I haven’t seen that in a while, but I’m pretty sure parts of it still would, and I’m not just talking about Keanu Reeves’ acting or Gary Oldman’s hair.

  6. lfpbe says:

    I thought you read it back in high school…

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I started it a couple times in high school but couldn’t ever get into it. Also the copy I had at the time had a really lame drawing of Dracula on the cover and I didn’t want to be seen with it.

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  9. Malcolm McGannon says:

    I don’t know how I ended up so far back in the archives, but I couldn’t help but bring to your attention (if it hasn’t been already) that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was initially written as “Twilight” fan-fiction, and somehow ended up being turned into a standalone novel series. Thus the similarities between those two are far from coincidental, or even unintentional.

    • bedstrom says:

      Yes, I do know about E.L. James’ beginnings as a Twilight fan fiction writer (although I can’t quite understand how something called ‘fan fiction’ can move completely away from the characters of the original work) and also about the seemingly-inextricable connection between vampires and sexuality.

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