"An Unattractive Vampire" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Sword & Laser
Written by Jim McDoniel
2016, 309 pages, Fiction
Released on March 15th, 2016
Yulric Bile did everything a proper vampire was supposed to do. He ravaged across the ancient world, leaving death and destruction in his wake, becoming a curse whispered by fearful peasants. Then he takes a little three-hundred-year-long nap, and what does he find? A world filled with new technology, impossible construction, and the word 'vampire' reduced to glittering, supernatural supermodels that cavort around in soap-opera relationships. Talk about a rude awakening.
So begins Jim McDoniel's novel, An Unattractive Vampire, featuring a re-awakened ghoul who's more Nosferatu than Lestat, flung into a world where vampires are no longer feared, but emulated. If you haven't guessed by now, Unattractive is a satirical take of what the monsters of ancient legend would think of today's Twilight-esque definition of vampires. Awakened by Amanda, a closet-goth nurse, and her little brother Simon, who may just be the reincarnation of Yulric's ancient witch-hunter foe, he finds himself struggling to cope with the present. In classic suburban fashion, he devolves from a fiendish bloodsucker to the equivalent of a grumpy couch-potato grandpa. His particular irk (and obsession) is "The Phantom Vampire Mysteries", a True Blood-type TV show that features vapid, beautiful, youthful vampires and their adventures in love. Repulsed but fascinated, Yulric vows to find out how and why vampires came to be this way and, well, hijinks ensue.
Unattractive is a humorous homage to all kinds of vampirism in pop culture, littered with references to TV shows, movies, and books, of which McDoniel is clearly familiar with. What I really appreciate is the loving takedown of goth-vampire culture, particularly in what starts off as a highly dramatic club scene to meet the "vampire elders", only to find middle-age mortals dressed in Victorian knock-offs. This is a theme revisited throughout the story, which doesn't just blast vampire 'enthusiasts' but creates empathy in the reader for people involved in such subcultures – who most of the time are only trying to find somewhere to belong. But Unattractive doesn't hold back when it comes to dark humor. In addition to a lot of violence and nihilistic critiques, it finds ways to comment on the hypocrisies of our own culture, like Yulric finding out how coma patients are kept alive and quipping, "Quite cruel. I approve."
Where Unattractive shines (sparkles? Ouch) is in the level of research and detail that went into the historical/folklore aspects of vampiric legend. This isn't some Vlad the Impaler History Channel dog-and-pony show that everyone already knows about. McDoniel took the time to feature characters based on a variety of little-known legends from across the world, and did so with the appropriate gruesome flourish that they would appreciate. Not only do these add depth to the story, but also remind the reader of the interesting fact that a vampire is not a cultural myth, but a human one, with nearly every society having their own tale of a life-draining entity.
It's a little hard to talk about the flaws with the book, because it really comes down to splitting hairs. The one major thing was is the action sequences, or pretty much any part of the book featuring the cast of the "Phantom Vampire Mysteries", because there are just too damn many of them. The chapter where they are introduced is a blur of preening adjectives that repeatedly hits the same nails over and over again: they're young and beautiful and vain. In particular, this part does lead to a pretty fun fight scene, but the sheer number of characters introduced all at once left me a little confused and needing to re-read it a few times.
Idea-wise, the story is very one note: the modern "sparkly" vampires versus the old-as-the-dirt ghouls of the past. Even when other aspects of the characters are explored, like Amanda taking on the "Mom" role in the face of being orphaned, or the existential questions about Catherine's life/non-life with Yulric, or a subplot with a nerd-turned-supermodel vamp named Vermillion, they seem to be there only to support the ongoing plot instead of adding to it. But honestly, you probably won't notice this because the pace itself moves at an excellent clip. It's a page-turner that resolves itself quite spectacularly; any seeming flaws to the book are only glances made from hindsight, and not anything that would keep you from finishing it.
By the end of the book, Yulric and his kinda-family will have endeared themselves to you. Their odd couple arrangement is quite balanced in their ability to cancel each other out – while Yulric is an ancient evil, Amanda controls the cable bill and Simon is always devising new ways to kill him – and it's a winning formula. Although it's considered a stand-alone novel, there is plenty of material here for the take-off of a series. But that decision is best left up to Mr. McDoniel, and perhaps only if he can convince grumpy old Yulric to go on another jaunt into the modern world.