Over the years, I have developed a library-within-a-library of books I return to and reread, each time with increasing pleasure-Stephen King’s It and The Stand (the complete version, of course); Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Wolf’s Hour, and Stinger; science-fiction classics such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series; the high fantasy of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; and others.
Ranking high among the horror entries is Dan Simmon’s massive, masterful exploration of human greed and cruelty, Carrion Comfort, with its deft and highly believable creation of psychic-vampires that outdo even historical Nazism in depravity and barbarism. They apparently have everything, including longevity, inordinate wealth accumulated from their victims over decades, and the power to control minds absolutely.
Yet, in the end, they are defeated … or at least dealt a crushing blow.
Robert S. Wilson’s Shining in Crimson has the clear potential to become another book to be read and re-read.
He has chosen a broad canvas against which to paint his dystopian vision of an America-more technically, an American Empire of Almighty God-under the leadership of Lord Caesar, in which choice has been eliminated, individual responsibility repudiated, and morality subsumed beneath the will of those in power. Violations of the law, and particularly of the morality laws, carry an immediate punishment … exile to Necropolis.
And here is where the novel becomes truly interesting. Wilson posits an agreement (an accommodation, to use my term from my short story by that name) between the Empire and the Vampires of Necropolis that allows both sides to coexist in relative peace. Lawbreakers are consigned to Necropolis, arriving at dusk in order to present the best targets for the blood-seeking vampires. No human, except a single government official, the Mediator, is allowed to set foot in Necropolis … and live.
For their side, the Empire allows the vampires full, unhampered freedom within Necropolis, what at one time was called Law Vegas, “Sin City.” Through the Mediator, both sides can negotiate changes in the status quo, even though for various reasons, most Mediators do not live long enough to see many changes occurring.
Add to this complex relationship a two-tiered array of vampires. Human vampires – they drink blood, avoid the sunlight, and in general do most of the things one expects a vampire to do – control the city, led by the millennia-old Ishan. They meet directly with the Mediator when situations require it.
But there are also the Ancients, non-human, possibly sub-human vampires that live in the shadowy underground labyrinths of Necropolis, emerging to fly like gigantic bats in search of human blood … the convicts’ blood. Yet there are secrets about them that even the human vampires do not yet understand and that are only hinted at in Shining in Crimson.
Then, of course, the stability of the entire arrangement is threatened by two things. A new Mediator arrives on the same night as a shipment of convicts. He is unable to disguise his disgust at what he finds; and he is equally unable to accede to the vampire council’s single demand – that the Empire give them New Orleans. His double failures doom him, but not in the way he expects.
At the same time, one convict, Hank Evans, manages to do what no other convict has ever done. He evades immediate capture and death and begins planning his escape from Necropolis and, ultimately, his reunion with his young son, Toby. His plans, as one might expect, go devastatingly awry.
It might seem as if I have ‘given away’ most of the novel; in fact, I’ve only begun skimming the surface of a richly complex narrative that takes quite seriously its characters, its landscape, its political and religious satire, and its place in the horror tradition. Shining in Crimson does not simply set up vampires as strawmen – on strawUnmen – to be knocked down by the first hero who happens along. They have power. They are intelligent and forceful. They have their own hidden plans, their own agendas, their own currents and countercurrents of dominance.
Likewise, Hank Evans and his son have their own intricate history of rebellion and acquiescence, of mystery and hidden hopes. Neither is superhuman; both undergo hideous suffering and pain in their attempts to remain true to each other.
What results from this accumulation of narrative threads is a strong story with strong characters; a landscape as threatening and as foreboding as Dracula’s castle in Transylvania; and conflict on levels both seen and unseen. In all, Shining in Crimson is fascinating and engaging.
Except for one thing.
It is, as the title indicates, “Book One.”
From what I have read, however, the book feels less like the first volume in a trilogy than the first part of a coherent, unified novel … on the order of The Lord of the Rings, which was originally intended as a single volume and divided primarily for reasons of cost. It feels more like a companion to The Stand or Swan Song, and especially to the vast, labyrinthine texture of Carrion Comfort than the usual trilogy.
One hopes that Wilson will complete exploring his unusual and ingenious world of vampires and humans.
[Editor’s Note:] Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writings are available at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.