Halloween is the perfect excuse to revisit your favourite monsters: Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies and other things that haunt our dreams, so how do you decide who to go with?
For me, the first thing is that I’m not that interested in monsters as monsters. My imagination gets snagged by people who see themselves or are seen by others as having become monstrous. It’s that mixture of transformation and social exclusion that drives the most interesting characters. I like the idea that what was once human now has a dual nature. It’s fascinating and disturbing, a thing to be feared or pitied or envied depending on the control the person has. Choosing to change is freedom. Having to change is servitude.
The next thing I look for is originality. Something new for me to chew. Preferably something that shows the same knowledge of the genre that I have and yet still surprises me.
In other words, I’m looking for a writer who is a skilled Trope Twist in my mental rodeo.
Helen Harper’s Bo Blackman series is one of my favourite examples of a Vampire trope-twist. She has created an alternative England where “Tribers” (vampires, witches and daemons) operate openly.
Instead of writing about Vampires as secretive predators, hiding from society as much as they hide from sunlight, Harper imagines them as part of the English Establishment, formed into powerful Houses that regulate vampire numbers and control vampire behaviour. This is a world where people APPLY to be vampires and only the privileged few are selected.
The trope twisting doesn’t stop there. Bo is not a fan of vampires and becomes one without her consent. She spends the rest of the series tangled in intrigues to find a cure for vampirism. Her actions set things in motion that may result in open warfare between Triber factions and between Tribers and humans. Bo, the reluctant vampire, will have to choose a side.
The series starts with “Dire Straits”.
One of my favourite trope twisting werewolves is a woman called Kitty.
Kitty was an optimistic college student, from a loving middle-class home, with nothing much to fear in life, when she was dumped in a National Park by her jerk boyfriend for not wanting to have sex with him and was then savaged by a werewolf, who turned her. Traumatised, she became the most junior member of the pack where she was routinely abused with the approval of her Alpha.
This is a long way from the normal tortured-but-noble, struggling to master my dual nature by drawing on the strength of my pack traditional werewolf story.
When we first meet Kitty, she’s just started a late-night radio talk show called “The Midnight Hour” were, knowing that no one will believe her or her callers, she talks through the challenges of living life as an in the closet supernatural.
As the series progresses, I enjoyed the way Kitty came into her power, built her own pack but never accepted the traditional Alpha bullshit. Kitty always tries for a solution that doesn’t involve ripping out her enemies throat. As the series goes on, Kitty builds alliances with various supernaturals and finds herself in conflict with the world’s oldest vampire.
The quality of the series is variable but it was always surprising. My favourite book is the first one, “Kitty And The Midnight Hour”
Zombies never appealed to me. All that shambling and falling apart, and trying to pronounce “Braaaiiiiins” without having one and only being able to catch something that moves REALLY slowly. And the eating brains thing, maybe it’s because I’m a vegetarian but how can that be cool?
Then I met Angel Crawford and suddenly I was a zombie fan.
The trope twist here is mostly about Angel herself. Angel would describe herself as White Trash High School dropout who spent her time getting high with her loser boyfriend to avoid going home to her drunk dad. Then she ODs, dies and wakes up with a craving for brains, a mysterious benefactor who gets her a job in the morgue and provides her with a starter pack of zombie nutrition.
The rest of the series follows Angel getting her (undead) life together while solving some mysteries, becoming an upstanding member of the zombie community (until she isn’t) and fighting against the evil humans who want to make zombie super soldiers.
It’s a hoot. it’s also quite heartwarming, or at least as heartwarming as a story about brain-eating zombies at war with megalomaniac sadistic humans can be.
The series starts with “My Life As A White Trash Zombie”
So, other than Vampires and Werewolves and Zombies, what other creatures make good reading for Halloween? It seems to me that Witches and Ghosts have to be in there somewhere.
My favourite trope twisting witch spends her life talking to ghosts (often on behalf of the undead.
Fashion in witches changes. I’ve seen them go from old crones who eat children to witty women who help their hapless husbands with a twitch of the nose, to voluptuous women painting symbols on themselves in blood while dancing around a forest, apparently impervious to the cold and to sharp objects underfoot.
Recently witches seem to have become kiss-ass heroines using white magic to save the world.
The trope twist that appeals to me on this is in Melissa F. Olson’s Boundary Magic series which stars former US Army SergeantAllison “Lex” Luther, who, while looking after her dead twin sister’s child, discovers she can’t die. She discover’s this when two vampires kill her while trying to abduct the child and it doesn’t take.
Lex, although she doesn’t know it, is a Boundary Witch, capable of using death magic to do a variety of scary things, the least scary of which it talking to the dead. As the series progresses, Lex learns about “The Old World” , the secret realm of Vampire, Werewolves and Witches but has to fight for her place in it. What I like about this series is that Lex is as far away from the image of a Wiccan White Witch as it’s possible to get and that her power scares her as much as it does the people around her.
The first book in the series is “Boundary Crossed”.
So what do I recommend as the creature of choices for your Halloween reading? Well, any of the above would be a good place to start.
If I had to choose, I’d say that zombies, Angel Crawford excepted, are still my least favourite choice. Vampires and Werewolves that twist the tropes to squeeze out something new rank together. My prefered choices are the writers who come up with new twists on magic users. Typically, they live in worlds that routinely include Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies but they have a more human perspective.
In addition to Lex Luther, you might want to look in on:
Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Yellow Pages. It’s series that starts with tropes twists around vampires and werewolves and moves on to become something darker and bloodier in its own complex world.
Anne Bishop’s “The Others”, a series where man is not at the top of the food chain but where their constant belief that they should be may turn humans into an endangered species.
The main character, Meg, a seer on the run from the men who cut her to get access to her prophecies, is a unique creation and her affinity with all those not-at-all-human-no-matter-what-they-look-like creatures creates fascinating situations.
The first book in the series is “Written In Red”.
If you want something really different, try Faith Hunter’s Soulwood series.
This is set in the same world as the Jane Yellowrock series but the focus is on Nell Ingram, a young woman who doesn’t fit into any of the typical supernatural categories in Urban Fantasy.
Nell was born and raised in the “God’s Cloud Of Glory” church. She’s not in the church anymore but she owns land that neighbours it and, thanks to the assistance she gave to Jane Yellowrock, in “Off The Grid” she knows that some members of the church want to reclaim her and her land by force.
I enjoyed the way this book cut its own path rather than going by the well-travelled Urban Fantasy routes. Nell is not a typical kick-ass Urban Fantasy heroine. She doesn’t have fur or fangs or tote a sword of power. She avoids conflict when she can and mostly she wants to be left alone with her land and her trees. Yet she carries a shotgun when she works in her garden and is prepared to do what she can to repel the attack she knows is coming from the church. As the series progresses, Nell develops her powers in surpising ways and starts a law enforcement career but she never loses touch with her Church roots.
The first book in the series is “Blood Of The Earth”.