It being October at the time of this writing, I decided to reread and review a fitting novel for the spooky season: A Bloody Habit by Eleanor Bourg Nelson. Set in early 1900s London, the lawyer Jack Kemp, a young English gentleman bachelor, finds himself tangled in the dark truth of vampires (while he’s reading Dracula, then a new novel). Also, there are Dominican friars who hunt vampires and occasionally play practical jokes on each other.
This is a really good horror novel, but not in the mode of many modern horror novels, which are nihilistic or trite or both, somehow. For one, the vampires are actually vampires, horrible monsters whose effect is physical, mental, and spiritual. It has darkness and light both and quite bit of dry humor, too (the title didn’t tip you off?). A lot of this had to do with our narrator’s dry voice and his special lack of self-awareness.
I rarely read a character who is as unaware of who he actually is as Jack Kemp. He maintains he is a serious, unimaginative, sober English gentleman, not inclined to excesses of emotion or dramatic thoughts or imagination. He is, in fact, the opposite of this self-image. He is as inclined to drama as any gothic hero. He imagines all sorts of ridiculous things (and doesn’t imagine as many as he’s hoping). There are parts of the book where it feels like he’s shouting to himself “I AM A SOBER, RATIONAL MAN!” as he’s jumping at shadows during a walk down the street and treating a lady badly because of a dream. He is not a people person. He is, underneath it all, a good man, and is a very likeable narrator.
He (by which I mean the author) can also turn a phrase. This is a great source of humor, especially his descriptions of people, and also makes it a satisfyingly atmospheric book. It is really well written and both times I have read it, I wish there was more, especially with Father Gilroy, who is an excellent character. All of the good guys are excellent, truth be told. I like them all.
The villains are really villains. The vampire acts like a vampire and the whole way they work is well done, especially with their nature being a perversion of Catholic understanding of the body. They’re also terrifying. One of the things that makes Kemp so likeable is he picks up on how messed up things are pretty quickly when he encounters the vampire or his minions. Their appeals to power and lust don’t work for him- he has no real ambition except, maybe, to be left comfortably alone- so he just sees the effects the vampire has had on these people, how pathetic and disgusting they have become.
It is easy to lose some threads as you read the book. The plot has a thriller structure to it and you can get lost. I have to dig around to see how one character from the beginning is tangled in things because I cannot remember. Mostly, however, it flows very smoothly. Some things are left more open than others, but it makes sense given the narrator and the nature of the threat. You won’t get all the answers but you will get a resolution.
If you are looking for something funny, chilling, and interesting for October, even if you don’t normally like horror or vampires, you can’t get much better than A Bloody Habit.