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The General Election put a stop to my book and film review posts (and indeed to the watching of films in particular), so here's a stab at catching up.

This book is a sequel to The Vampyre: the secret history of Lord Byron, which I read a couple of years ago (LJ / DW) and really liked, despite not otherwise having much respect for the author. Where the first book was both about Lord Byron as a vampire and a pastiche of Romantic vampire literature, this one similarly features Bram Stoker as a character, is set in the 1880s, and plays around with a mish-mash of relevant literature and lore, including military memoirs of British India, the goddess Kali, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde, opium dens and (inevitably) Jack the Ripper. It's not particularly closely connected to the events of the first novel, but its vampiric Lord Byron does feature in the sequel, mainly concerned with tracing his descendants from his mortal life and trying to get unscrupulous doctors to investigate whether any cure can be found for his 'blood disease'. He goes under the pseudonym of Lord Ruthven, and his real identity is supposed to be a great mystery which one of the main characters decodes in a massive revelation - a device which obviously did not work for me, or (you'd think) anyone who had read and appreciated the first novel.

Like Stoker's Dracula, this novel is told via a collection of documents and letters, including Stoker's own journal, and we're obviously meant to understand that its events inspired him to write Dracula. He is the busy manager of the Lyceum Theatre during the period when the novel takes place, but befriends a doctor named John Eliot, who draws him into a web of vampiric goings-on. With Eliot, Stoker visits an asylum run by a Dr Renfield which houses an inmate who rips the heads off doves and smears herself in their blood. They also travel to Whitby to unravel mysteries involving Byron's human descendants, with Stoker's journal at that point echoing some of Mina's language from the novel - it is "a most lovely spot, built around a deep harbour, and rising so steeply on the eastern side that the houses of the old town seemed piled up one over the other, like the pictures we see of Nuremburg." Indeed, towards the end of the novel, we jump forwards in time to a point when he has written Dracula, and his correspondence about it with an Indian Professor called Huree Jyoti Navalkar (who seems to be intended as the in-story inspiration for Van Helsing) helps the other characters to work out what really happened during the main narrative, a decade earlier.

The vampire antagonist-in-chief, taking the place occupied by the Pasha in The Vampyre is essentially all of literature and history's female demon-goddesses rolled into one - Kali, Circe, Lilith - and calls herself Lilah for most of the story. There's an interesting gloss on the Kali-aspect of her, whom we first encounter in a fictional border region of India called Kalikshutra. One of the Indian characters carefully explains that the Kali of Kalikshutra is not the normal Hindu Kali, whom he describes as "a beneficent deity, the friend of man, the Mother of the Universe", but rather a quite different being, the "Queen of the Demons". That reminded me strongly of some very similar comments which I learnt from Kieran Foster's talk at the IVFAF vampire festival last year were made by Anthony Hinds in relation to Hammer's planned vampire film, Kali: Devil Bride of Dracula. Having spent time in India himself during the war, Hinds had realised that it would be quite offensive to portray the real-world Kali as an out-and-out demon, and dealt with this in the draft script by revealing that her apparent cult isn't actually anything to do with the real Kali at all, but rather a fraud perpetrated by blood-cultists. It looks like Tom Holland arrived independently at a similar realisation and solution.

Lilah lives in a massive warehouse in the east end of London, which can only be entered via an opium den in the upstairs room of antique dealership run by a certain John Polidori, her abject servant. Inside, the warehouse itself has an impossible, hallucinatory geography of shifting galleries and stair-cases, which weaves together the artistic and architectural influences of all the cultures in which she has ever been worshipped. Just as I'd found Holland's descriptions of the Pasha's castle with its accreted historical layers one of the strongest elements of The Vampyre, I found this warehouse one of the most striking aspects of its sequel too - though he also did a pretty good job on the narrow, foggy streets of the East End. Lilah is more powerful than the Pasha, though, generating the whole architecture of the warehouse as an illusion in the minds of those who enter it, and she likewise has the power (like Circe) to transform people too into whatever she wishes - usually something which she knows they themselves will utterly despise.

John Eliot, the maverick doctor whom Stoker befriends, starts the novel in Kalikshutra, shunning the ex-pat community and investigating the local blood-born disease, but then comes to London to treat the poor and downtrodden of the East End instead. He is partly Sherlock Holmes, leading investigations into Lilah using logic and deduction, and having been taught at Edinburgh by Joseph Bell, while Stoker is his Watson, making naive observations and suggestions which turn out to be of great importance. The Sherlock Holmes stories evidently also exist as fictional works within the novel, though, as one character recommends them to John, and when he has read 'A Study in Scarlet' he remembers Conan Doyle from his university days and realises he must have taken on board Joseph Bell's methods of deductive reasoning. During the middle part of the novel, John treats and helps women with the same names as Jack the Ripper's historical victims, but this is intended to have a dark pay-off. Eventually he is seduced by Lilah and transformed by her into Jack the Ripper - that is, what she judges the antithesis of everything he wanted to be - and is thus able to go out and murder the very same women he had been treating, because they already know and trust him. I suppose it's not the worst way to deal with Jack the Ripper in fiction, since in between his episodes of murderousness he does indeed suffer, as Lilah had intended, with the knowledge of what he's done / going to do. But I still just don't ever want to read about Jack the Ripper, ever at all, and found it very unpleasant indeed to have to be inside his head (as he was narrating it all in the first person in a letter) during those episodes.

Oscar Wilde features as a patron of the Lyceum Theatre, and indeed the novel's title is (sort of) taken from De Profundis, the long letter which he wrote to Bosie from prison, and which was published posthumously. But the relevant line there, in which he's talking about his association with rent-boys etc., reads: "It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement." And indeed Holland evidently knew this, as his character of Wilde speaks more or less the same line during a dinner hosted by Stoker: "I prefer a beauty that is dangerous. I prefer to feast with panthers, my Lord." Given all of that, I really can't explain why the book itself is called Supping with Panthers, rather than Feasting with Panthers. (I should add that it does feature the occasional mention of actual panthers, living in Lilah's warehouse, but they're not a substantial element of the plot.) Meanwhile, Holland can't resist the conceit of sending a little literary influence back in Oscar's direction. At one point, Byron, with the insight of a true immortal, gives Oscar the idea for The Portrait of Dorian Gray by observing: "A face that did not age would be nothing but a mask. Beneath its show of eternal youth, the spirit would be withering, a hideous mess of corruption and evil."

In the end, it is vampire-Byron who defeats Lilah by drinking her blood, after which John Eliot / Jack the Ripper cuts out her brains and heart and the whole elaborate interior of the warehouse disappears, leaving behind only the very ordinary abandoned warehouse building it really was all along. Though we're given to understand that she probably isn't really dead forever, and will resurface some time in another guise, her hold over John / Jack does at least evaporate, so that he ends up as merely a vampire.

Overall, worth reading I guess if you like this sort of thing, but it never quite sang to me in the way the The Vampyre did - especially the earlier parts set in Albania and the Pasha's castle. Much like the latter parts of The Vampyre, it felt a bit too beholden to the weight of Holland's historical research, and probably more so in this case for attempting to weave together a wider range of late Victoriana. I'm kind of glad he didn't write any more sequels.


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  • 24 Nov 2020, 09:10
    Ciao caro.
    Ho ascoltato la canzone Domine Salvum Fac su youtube. Ripete la parola Domine due volte dopo che segue Salvum Fac e non capisco oltre. Ma mi sembra che il testo non corrisponda del tutto…
  • 8 Nov 2020, 13:25
    I think just 'not being Trump' proved to be enough!
  • 8 Nov 2020, 12:29
    Yes, that's it. Just having someone in charge who isn't actively making things worse for the world is a big relief.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:34
    There are many, many doubts and worries. But still, there is an enormous rock of anguish that has been weighting on my soul since the first days after that monster's election which has now lifted.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:32
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