‘Midnight Mass’ by F. Paul Wilson – trigger warnings abound

Vampires have always lived in Eastern Europe. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, they began to spread across the continent, then the world, turning whole populations into vampires–or human cattle. Having overrun India, the far East, and the great cities of North and South America, the forces of Night are now spreading into the United States to consolidate their conquest.

In a town on the New Jersey shore, the vampires have just arrived, along with their human henchmen, the cowboys, who round up human cattle for the overlords in return for the promise of eternal life–later. For the vampires wish only a few of their own kind to rule, and feed. The rest of humanity are to be helpless herds, the source of the blood of life.

‘Midnight Mass’ is one of those books that should come with multiple trigger warnings for torture, gang rape, sexual slavery, the murder of children, desecration, executed bodies hung from telegraph poles, and cannibalism.

I read to the end of the book because the plot had its hooks in me and I wanted to see how things would work out. With the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge wasn’t worth the trauma – which means my experience pretty much mirrors that of the ‘good guys’ in the story.

In his ‘Author’s Note’ at the beginning of the book, F. Paul Wilson explains that ‘Midnight Mass’ was

born out of my dissatisfaction with the tortured romantic aesthetes who have been passing lately for vampires. I wanted to get back to roots and write about the soulless, merciless, parasitic creatures we all knew and loved,’

He certainly succeeded in that. There is nothing to like about these vampires and a great deal to fear. They are some of the nastiest vampires I’ve read about: physically repulsive, merciless, predatory, aggressive, fundamentally selfish but organised, adept at psychological warfare and bent on world domination. Perhaps the scariest thing about these vampires is that they think the same way that the guys behind Bannon do. They set out to destroy hope and trust by weaponising the most violent and selfish elements of humanity and then use fear to keep control.

F. Paul Wilson doesn’t stop at one set of monsters. He also gives us the Cowboys / Vichy / Serfs. These are the dregs of humanity – biker gangs, drug dealers,  violent criminals, city traders – who keep the vampires safe by day and wrangle the human cattle in exchange for being turned into vampires after ten years of service.

So who does Wilson set against this growing empire of evil? Sadly the ‘good guys’ read like the start of a joke and they end up being cliché heavy. The ‘good guys’ are:

A Rabbi who is prepared to wear a crucifix if it keeps vampires away. He was the only good guy I believed in.

A nun turned vigilante assassin who uses her chemistry teacher background to make bombs, napalm and suicide vests.

A Catholic priest with a drink problem, exiled from his parish after being accused of molesting a child.

The priest’s niece a vegan, atheist, lesbian and nunchuck wielding martial arts expert.

F Paul Wilson really puts these good guys through hell and he gives no guarantees that they’ll survive the experience.

Wilson describes himself as someone who was raised as a Catholic but is in remission. I was surprised at his very naive portrayal of the two nuns in the book. I’ve never met nuns quite so unworldly as these two.

The best thing about ‘Midnight Mass’, the thing that kept me reading to the end, was the cleverness of the plot. The vampire strategy for taking over America was well thought-through, the vampire world-building was effective without getting mired in detail and I was constantly kept guessing about what the good guys would do to oppose the vampires and whether or not they would succeed.

The bad thing about ‘Midnight Mass’, the thing that almost made me set it aside a couple of times was that the violence was graphic cruel, degrading, frequent and utterly casual. I thought that this was made worse by the unconvincing reactions of the good guys to what was going on. They bounced back too easily. They felt guilty about all the wrong things. They weren’t angry enough. All of which tended to normalise what the vampire and the cowboys were doing.

‘Midnight Mass’ was made into a movie directed by Tony Mandile, who also wrote the screenplay together with F. Paul Wilson. In the movie the good guy characters get compressed from four to two. The rabbi and the nun disappear. The reviews I’ve read are all of the ‘Don’t bother with this’ kind or worse.

The book is better but it’s certainly not for everybody.

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