Parsec Review

The Golden (1993) is like a fever dream. Lucius Shepard had by the end of the 1980s pursued to exhaustion his strategy of visionary confrontation with the matter of Twentieth Century America; now, in his only major work of the 1990s, he shifted his gaze to Europe, to the Nineteenth Century, to the Vampire. The Golden is in outline a supernatural horror, or dark fantasy, novel, with a remote setting, a lack of pertinence to contemporary concerns; as such, it may seem a reversal of course by Shepard, a turning away (into hallucination) from the fierce moral and ideological agenda that made him such a compelling writer in his earlier years. In some respects, this judgement is correct: an ornate dream-fiction, an odyssey in sunless caverns out of Stoker and Piranesi, The Golden is decadent, convoluted, and perhaps a little self-indulgent in its poetic grandiloquence. But it is so energetic, so hectically and concentratedly brilliant in metaphor and diction, that it demands respectful notice.

The plot seems like that of a detective thriller. A young woman has been murdered; an experienced ex-policeman takes the case; there are many suspects, some or all of them dangerous; a general background of depravity and corruption complicates any conventional moral certainties. So far, so noir. But the hero is a vampire; his sponsors, and the suspects, are all vampires; the murder victim, the "Golden," was the outcome of a long breeding programme aimed at producing victims with sublimely potable blood; and the setting is a gigantic middle-European edifice along the lines of Gormenghast, splendid, surreal, and perhaps infinite. The murder investigation leads Michel Beheim into confrontation with a succession of ever more sinister figures, all of them described in an intense poetry of nightmare: a dark Borgesian bibliophile; a mercurial berserker and his equally dangerous fighting automaton; a sorcerous pair who almost cast Beheim into Hell; the fuliginous Patriarch who rules the Castle like an apotheosis of Dracula; and the murderer himself, an individual of ingeniously paradoxical motives . . . Meanwhile, Beheim has lost one lover, only to gain another and much more interesting one. All of this is couched in oneiric cascades of images; the text is bejewelled with long, whimsical metaphors and bizarre prose poetry; Clark Ashton Smith would have envied Shepard such exoticism and eroticism. But there is genuine substance also: the unconscious mind isn't often this resonantly described; original concepts abound, such as the epiphanies that visit vampires exposed to sunlight; Shepard alludes to, and masterfully re-invents aspects of, many past classics of "vampire literature." The Golden is a work that shines light upon the fevered interior of the mind rather than on the political issues of Shepard's earlier fiction; it may strike some as over-ripe; but it is sui generis, an extraordinary vision extraordinarily conveyed.

Few works of vampire fiction refresh their exhausted, clichéd subject. But The Golden imparts vibrant energy to the old corpse, more even than Brian Stableford did in The Empire of Fear (1988) or Suzy McKee Charnas in The Vampire Tapestry (1979). The Golden is, however implausibly, an original vampire novel.

— Nick Gevers, Parsec


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