FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
In 1792, Philip Radcliffe, the bastard son of Benjamin Franklin,
comes to France to deliver a letter to Thomas Paine. But the
guillotine of the Terror has the nation under its bloody blade -- and
he is caught up in a conflict more horrifying than the
Unkowingly, he saves the life of Prince Vlad Dracula, the most
eminent and honorable of the Nosferatu. In doing so, he makes a
powerful ally, but by foiling Vlad's brother Radu's attempt at
fratricide, he and his descendants are doomed eternally to suffer the
vengeful assaults of a powerful vampire.
Now in 1996, the current Philip and June Radcliffe are kidnapped on their honeymoon. Their captor, a mysterious Mr. Graves, swears that he is trying to protect them. But as his thrilling story unfolds, involving Napoleon, Robespierre, Madame Tussaud, the Marquis de Sade, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Charles Darnay as well as Jerry Cruncher and Detective Dupin, the young couple refuses to believe him -- a mistake that is almost certain to cost them their lives.
"Intelligent mix of historical and modern-day vampirism, with the
ninth return of Saberhagen's revisionist, sharing-and-caring Prince
Vlad Dracula (Seance for a Vampire, 1994, etc), the most honorable of
the undead. The wry punning title focuses on both the wonderful new
guillotine devised for safer, more humane beheadings during the
French Revolution and the vampire's traditional neckjob. ... Neat,
sober Saberhagen and immensely engaging.;" [Kirkus Reviews]
"Saberhagen adds another volume to his long-running, sadly underrated Dracula series that masterfully mixes historical and contemporary characters and settings. . . . . By now, Saberhagens well-imagined Dracula is almost an old friend to long-term followers of the series. Since this latest entry is well up to the highest standards, nobody is likely to be disappointed, unless libraries fail to shelve this one with its predecessors. --" [Roland Green. Booklist]
"Fred Saberhagen invokes his version of Dracula once again for this new book. . . . . Replete with historical personages like Tom Paine and the Marquis de Sade, the novel alternates between the present and the late 18th Century, with a nicely resolved conflict set in each time period. There's more adventure than horror, but whatever you call the book, its good reading." [Science Fiction Chronicle]
"A year before Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, Saberhagen published The Dracula Tape (1975), in which he dreamed up a sympathetic vampire of his own, launching a horror subgenre. Now Saberhagen's Vlad Dracula returns for his ninth novel (after A Matter of Taste, etc), still driven by a sense of honor and still explaining himself to humans; . . . . . . Theres plenty of crisp historical detail, including appearances by Napoleon and the Marquis de Sade. The series ironic contrast between Vlad's innocence and the bloodlust of humans continues, with Vlad's aristocratic narrative voice (which alternates with third-person passages) continuing to impress. To be sure, the pace is languorous at times, but when you're spending quality time with someone who has centuries on his undead hands, what's the hurry?" [Publishers Weekly]
"This is an entertaining and truly unique tale with a new twist on the Dracula legend." [The Charleston Post & Courier]
Albuquerque author Fred Saberhagen takes the readers on an entertaining trip back to the French Revolutions Reign of Terror, where the revolutionaries taste for blood rivals that of the hungriest vampire.
As one might imagine, there's plenty of blood flowing in Saberhagen's latest entry in his Dracula series. Even if you're not interested in vampire stories, this book offers several hours of amusement as Saberhagen uses historical figures from the French Revolution to help advance the story.
In a nutshell, Vlad Dracula and a few friends kidnap two newlyweds in 1996 to protect the groom from an enemy one of his ancestors made about 200 years earlier. Hunting the newlyweds is Vlad's younger, evil brother.
Most of the action is in Paris shortly after the Revolution. In an attempt to explain the danger to the young man, the descendant of one of Benjamin Franklin's illegitimate offspring, Vlad gives him a view of that time in France when thousands were guillotined.
The guillotine is practically a main character. That seems fitting since vampires and guillotines have something in common -- the neck.
As vampires go, Vlad is a kinder, gentler version with a powerful sense of honor, one that spans the centuries. Radu, his brother, likes to torture his victims before dispatching them.
Adding a sharper sense of conflict, Saberhagen has made the brothers arch-enemies.
Of course, as everyone knows, separating a vampire from his head is only a temporary setback. Early on, grave robbers accidentally disturb young Radu, unintentionally helping him rejoin his head with his body. It doesn't take him long to catch up on several decades of missed meals.
His main mission is to repay older brother for planting him in the cemetery among other indignities handed out over the years. Evidently, much of the brothers' reason for living, if you can call it that, is to try to get the drop on the other before he can get the upper hand.
Saberhagen provides a well-paced, entertaining book with several interesting characters and more than one plot twist. He achieves several good moments of macabre suspense without splattering too much blood on the wall.
Though the book is the latest in his Dracula series, it stands fairly well by itself. . . . . On the whole it was a good tale, presenting a believable view of what Paris might have been like during the Reign of Terror.
This book is the ninth in Saberhagen's Dracula series, which began in 1975. [Jeff Watkins. The Albuquerque Journal]
The world abounds in mysteries. But some of the marvels which at first sight strike the observer as most impressive are susceptible to the most trivial explanations.
Allow me to offer an example. Charles Dickens, famed inventor of Christmas ghosts and Tiny Tim, when visiting Rome in 1845 chose to broaden his experience of the world by witnessing the beheading of a criminal. Afterward Dickens wrote: "A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear. And the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder."
In fact, the cause of this seeming annihilation is perfectly simple. When the living muscles of the neck are suddenly cut in half, each end of each fiber contracts sharply, pulling with it the soft surrounding tissues, as well as the small, newly disconnected bones which had made up the spinal column. Tiny fragments are all one can expect to find of whichever vertebra lay directly in the path of the falling knife, which, at least in the classical French guillotine, is not only extremely sharp but as heavy as a small anvil.
Now that we have arrived in France, let me mention, parenthetically, a puzzle that I--I, Vlad Dracula-- find somewhat harder to explain: In all the surviving bureaucratic paperwork of the Terror--I mean the French Revolution of the 1790s--in all the volumes of court orders, prison records, inflammatory speeches, in all the desperate accumulation of decrees and denunciations--the word 'guillotine' does not appear even once. Newspapers, of course, are a different story. Charles-Henri Sanson, chief executioner and high priest of the device during much of that bloodstained epoch, as a rule called it simply la mecanique, "the machine."
I tell you that greedy and most fickle wench, la mecanique, consumed more blood in one year--nay, perhaps in a month, or even in a single day-- than I in a whole century.
The long, broad stream of human history has cast up a hundred variations on the beheading device, from the simple headsman's axe or sword up through an infernal variety of complications. It seems safe to say that the one the world knows best is the eponymous child of Dr. Guillotin, who more than two hundred years ago, as a delegate to the French National Assembly, conceived his mechanical offspring, based on the latest humanitarian principles, in the course of an enlightened search for greater efficiency in Terror.
The guillotine in its classical French form counted its first live human victim on April 25, 1792, in Paris, when used to dispatch a common murderer and thief, Jacques Pelletier. Some three years later, a steam-powered guillotine, intended to achieve the mass production of justice, was on the drawing boards--but by 1795 the number of beheadings, after averaging around twenty-six a day in Paris alone during the previous summer, had gone into a precipitous decline. The French Revolution, a monstrous child of oppression, was stumbling to a halt, choked on blood and tripping over bodies. To the best of historians' knowledge at the end of the twentieth century, that ultraefficient model of la mecanique has yet to be constructed.
Throughout a good part of the 1790s--those strenuous years which in France, at least, are never to be forgotten--Sanson and his sons and their crew (there was never a shortage of volunteers) performed their indefatigable labors, without benefit of steam, while elevated on a stage. Their Parisian theater of operations looked much like a prizefighters' square ring, and had the same reason for its existence--to provide a good view for a large audience.
The tall narrow frame of the guillotine, extending almost fifteen feet above the platform, was essentially composed of two stout wooden uprights a little more than a foot apart. The lunette at the bottom of the uprights consisted of two pieces of wood, each with a smooth, semicircular notch, that when clapped together formed a solid neckpiece pierced by a circular, neck-sized hole.
This hole was at the head of the plank bed on which the subject was placed face down. The broad, single plank, painted blood red like the lunette and uprights, slid back from the upright portion of the frame, simultaneously tilting into an almost vertical position. First, as a rule, the subject's hands were tied behind his or her back. Then the man--frequently a woman; sometimes a child--who was to experience the full effect of the apparatus walked (or was dragged or carried) up to this plank, and was secured to it by broad leather straps encircling the waist and legs.
The plank was then tipped forward on its central pivot, bringing its occupant to a prone position. Now a precise adjustment by the machine's attendants, allowing for the subject's height--perhaps I should say for the total length when horizontal--positioned the chin in a nicely calculated way, to overhang the end of the plank by about three inches. The executioners, shifting their grip, slid the whole bed forward in its greased grooves, so that now the chin of the occupant just cleared the lower half of the lunette. The upper construction of curved wood was now clamped down. A final adjustment, if necessary, was accomplished by tugging on the subject's hair, or on the ears if there was insufficient hair to offer a good grip. This part of the operation was not entirely without peril for the technician; more than one assistant executioner lost more than one finger due to premature release of the heavy knife above.
Let us now briefly consider that weapon, its cutting edge poised ten or twelve feet above the waiting neck. Attached to the top of the blade was a mouton, a piece of iron weighing some thirty kilograms, or over sixty pounds, intended to render more forceful the descent of the razor-edged cutter, which in itself weighed about twenty pounds. The impact of all this metal, falling usually on the fourth vertebra, tended to be decisive.
I can offer eyewitness testimony that it was Sanson's habit, each day after work, to bring home with him only the blade of the guillotine, without the mouton. His idea, that of a good workman, was to save the most delicate part of the instrument from rain and rust. Also there was some thought of discouraging curiosity-seekers from playing games with la mecanique, hurting themselves or some innocent victim.
Naturally Sanson, or more often one of his assistants, saw to it that the blade was cleaned very thoroughly before it was brought into his house. Those in charge also took care that the cutting edge, angled at about forty-five degrees from right to left for improved efficiency, was treated tenderly with file and whetstone to keep it sharp.
Up on the platform, when Sanson's shop was open for business, there waited wicker baskets also painted red, and made small and large, to receive, respectively, the heads and bodies of the corpses which were the finished product of all this industry and ingenuity. The baskets were usually kept half-filled with bran or sawdust, in hopes of making the cleanup easier.
How's this for a joke? Executioner to victim being dragged to the machine: "You don't want to do it? But it will only take a second."
Yes, I quite agree. But at the very height of the Terror, in the summer of 1794 (Year 2 of the now-almost-forgotten Revolutionary Calendar) one of Sanson's least intelligent assistants was wont to repeat this wheeze a dozen or a score of times a day. Of course each victim only had to hear it once; but after a few weeks it seemed that the fellow's own co-workers, tortured beyond endurance, were on the point of cutting their colleague's throat to shut him up . . . but I digress.
Where was I? Yes, there is one more point I wish to make about the guillotine, then on with the story, which I trust you will find fully satisfactory . . . whenever, in these post-Revolutionary times, a full-size model of la mecanique becomes available--this happens somewhat more often than you might think--many people find something irresistibly attractive in the idea of trying on, as it were, that tiltable plank and even that lunette. (Few go so far as wanting to hear above their heads the speedy whisper of the falling blade.) Some of these enthusiasts are found among the adventurous elderly, sometimes they are young men, but for some reason the most susceptible to such temptations seem to be young women. All of them want to know: How would it feel to lie down there?
But it would have been hard to conceive of anything more remote than these unsettling matters from the thoughts of Philip Radcliffe and his bride of three months, the former June MacKenzie, on the late afternoon in the early summer of 1996 when those two young people encountered . . . no, not a guillotine, not yet . . . but their first vampire.
This particular drinker of blood made a first impression all sweet and girlish, with nothing at all in her appearance to suggest, at first glance, the true nature of her being--unless one considered the dark glasses, necessary armor against the day's last, relatively feeble, rays of direct sunlight. She looked very young (though actually well over five hundred years of age, as I can testify through personal acquaintance) and was comely of face and figure. Her hair was curly, coloring on the dark side, more gypsy-looking than African. Wearing faded jeans, a man's shirt, and long silver earrings, she stood at roadside, one arm boldly extended, thumb up in the hitchhiker's time-honored gesture, flashing white teeth--none of them at the moment particularly pointed--as Radcliffe's convertible, slowing to no more than ten miles an hour for a sharp curve on the winding, climbing, narrow western road, drew near.
The Radcliffes' kidnapping by the so-called undead took both of them completely by surprise. At the moment when they first came in sight of the young woman, there had been nothing on their minds more exotic than their choice of places, all hours of driving distant, where they might stop for the night.
But how could an even moderately adventurous young man, accompanied by a wife who invariably wanted to stop for injured animals, resist an attractive young woman standing at roadside at sunset, hitchhiking appealingly in an open area, typical of the western USA, where not even a single thuggish male companion could possibly be concealed? One could see the mountains rising, almost a hundred miles away, with not much of anything but distance in between. There was no broken-down car in evidence, to offer an explanation for her presence.
The girl at roadside came into the view of Philip and June just as the sun was on the point of disappearing behind the western mountains, on what had been till then a day of only minor surprises for the young couple. The youthful-looking hitchhiker was barefoot, a condition made more noticeable by her blood-red painted toenails. It seemed obvious that she had not been doing a lot of walking along the desert road in that condition.
Radcliffe's intention had been to coast on past the waiting figure for a few yards before coming to a full stop. But that plan was thwarted, when the hitchhiker, as if afraid he was going to get away, darted into the narrow road right in front of his vehicle, so that he had to slam on the brakes and curse violently to stop before hitting her. In the next moment, he had the impression that his car had hit the crazy woman; he thought he heard an alarming thump, and believed he saw her body propelled backward a yard or two.
June, her pale blond hair and skin in marked contrast to those of the intruder, sitting beside her husband screamed, and said something. Afterward, no one could remember what.
But in the next moment, it seemed that the impression of a heavy impact must have been mistaken, because the hitchhiker certainly was not harmed, had not even been knocked down. Almost before he had completely stopped, she was at the side of the car, reaching for the right rear door handle.
Certainly whatever had happened was not his fault, but he was half-convinced that his auto had struck her, and he couldnt refuse to stop and open the door for her.
Until that day, the young man would have given the year 1996 a mixed rating. Apart from the joys of his recent wedding, it had not been, for various financial and business reasons, among the very best years of his life. But on the other hand it was a comfortable distance from the worst. Careerwise, he thought it might very well be described as one of the riskiest of times, with the life of a computer consultant in a constant state of flux. But if you looked at the other side of the coin of rapid change, such an epoch was also the most promising.
Philip Radcliffe was twenty-six years old, and almost exactly six feet tall, broad-shouldered but rangy rather than massive in his build. He was blessed, or cursed, with a classically handsome face, which added to the impression of aristocracy. A shock of dark brown hair tended to resist all efforts at arrangement, lending its owner a romantic, wind-blown look.
Something in the young man's features or bearing, the look of his eye, the tilt of his head, along with the lack of styling in his hair, suggested the aristocrat, even to people who had no clear idea what an aristocrat in the classic European sense ought to look like.
Having screeched his vehicle to a halt, half on the road, half off, he opened his driver's door and started to get out of his car. But then he aborted the motion, slamming his door shut again. Because the young woman was already settling into the rear seat.
"Drive on!" his new passenger urged, slamming her door shut too--or at least thumping her hand on the flat panel. Radcliffe couldn't have sworn that she had ever opened the door, but somehow she was in. She gave a small but dramatic wave of one small hand, displaying long fingernails of the same color as her toes, and laughed.
June, twisting round her slight frame to look from the right front seat, gaped open-mouthed at the brazenness of this performance.
Philip, a trifle dazed by the rapidity of events, started to drive on. With automatic caution he reminded his new passenger to put on her seat belt.
His new passenger only drew in a deep breath, ran her fingers through her curly hair, and laughed at the idea, once more displaying her amazingly white teeth.
He snatched a couple of seconds from his driving to turn his head and look at her again. He said: "I thought for a moment that the car had hit you, back there."
The reply was breezy: "You don't have to worry about that."
Well, thought Philip Radcliffe. Usually he was quite firm in his attitude toward passengers, requiring that they all be belted in. But the laughter was like a jolt of reality. Illogically, seatbelts were suddenly diminished in importance. Welcome a stranger into your car, in America these days, and a sudden accident is one of the least of your worries.
"Where are you going?" Surely a reasonable and almost inevitable question to put to a hitchhiker.
"With you, Philip." And once more the dark-haired stranger laughed, this time more musically. She turned her head a few degrees from left to right. "Hi, June."
Phil was sufficiently disturbed so that his steering, or lack of it, briefly caused the vehicle to wander back and forth across the road. The couple in the front seat, objects of this exercise in identification, looked at each other with stunned expressions, both of them wondering where inside the car or on it their names might be visible. But of course the names were not on display anywhere, and they knew it. The only reasonable explanation was that they knew this girl from somewhere. But no, thought Radcliffe--she was certainly not of the type that he could have forgotten.
For some reason he did not even notice that his new passenger was invisible in the rear-view mirror; or perhaps, as breathers tend to do sometimes, he unconsciously suppressed the knowledge. Dangerously neglecting to watch the road, he turned his head to look at her. Numbly he asked: "How'd you know my name?"
"Somebody told me," she answered playfully, turning her face toward him. With the dying of the last sunspark on the mountainside, she slipped off the dark glasses, revealing warm brown eyes with nothing overtly amazing about them. "Better watch where you're going." Then, as an afterthought: "Call me Connie."
And Phil, even this early in the game, felt a secret pang of guilt at the impression this comely vampire woman made on him.
Not that any suspicion of her status, her subspecies if you will, had yet dawned on the puzzled young man. Neither he nor his bride had any clear idea of what a genuine vampire might be expected to look like. Apart from the enjoyment of a few old movies, they really had no thoughts on the subject at all.
But when the young woman smiled at Philip from between her heavy silver earrings, both observers understood immediately that there was something truly out of the ordinary about her.
Philip's job as a computer consultant, mainly helping companies to rid themselves of their mainframes in favor of smaller, relatively inexpensive hardware, involved a lot of travel. This trip, begun with his wife three days ago in Kansas City, had been designed with a combination of business and pleasure in mind. Already they had detoured considerably from the strict requirements of business, to do some sightseeing at Meteor Crater, and the Petrified Forest/ Painted Desert complex. They had visited Inscription Rock in New Mexico, as well as the Very Large Array of radiotelescopes mounted on railroad tracks, and were regretting the fact that they had been unable to work the Carlsbad Caverns into their itinerary. They were looking forward to the Grand Canyon, and, if they decided to stretch the trip a bit, Zion National Park.
And now the sun had at last dropped securely behind the western peaks, whose long shadows now entirely claimed the road ahead. Automatically Radcliffe switched on his headlights--and at the same moment felt the weight and balance in the car change subtly.
The second vampire to put in an appearance came a lot closer to looking the part, as it has recently been portrayed in films, even though he wore no cape nor displayed any obvious great fangs. The last beams of direct sunlight had barely left the car when he appeared, hatless, clad in a dark suit, sitting in the rear seat beside Connie. His boarding was accomplished without the vehicle having stopped again or even slowed down, without either of the doors opening even for an instant. Radcliffe felt his presence, somehow, and heard him in the rear seat before he saw him.
This latest newcomer, who had arrived so incomprehensibly, seeming to have blown in like a cloud of mist, or dropped in from overhead like an invisible bird. He materialized as a rather serious-looming man of indeterminate age, though certainly not gray or wrinkled. This well-built stranger, lean body slightly taller than average, face dark for a Caucasian and rather handsome, reached forward, unsnapped Philip's and June's safety belts, one with each hand, and pulled both breathers unceremoniously into the rear seat as if they had been no more than four years old.
Somehow he accomplished this feat without breaking any of their bones, leaving any bruises, or even tearing any of their clothing. In the next moment the Radcliffes were flanking the stranger in the rear. He had one brotherly arm around each of them, holding them more utterly immobile than any seat belt. Had the vehicle in which they rode not been a convertible, top down, it would, according to the modern taste for economy in manufacturing, have offered barely room enough to occupy a seat let alone go changing front to rear. In that case, who knows what that forceful fellow might have done to get his kidnapping victims where he wanted them? But he'd have found a way.
The three adults now sitting in the rear enjoyed sufficient room because, in the same instant as the Radcliffes were forcibly transported rearward, the young-looking woman with the gypsy eyes had somehow transferred herself to the front seat, where she had already grabbed the steering wheel with one hand. Radcliffe hadn't really seen how Miss Gypsy had performed this feat of acrobatic stage magic, and he couldn't really believe it. But there she was anyway, now sliding neatly under the wheel and assuming all the chores of driving. So smoothly was this change of command accomplished that the automobile hardly hesitated in its forward passage, hardly wavered from its central position in the narrow road.
Almost before the Radcliffes had the chance to be alarmed, they were already prisoners. Neither of their kidnappers had bothered to gag them, because neither cared in the least if the victims yelled.
June let out a wavering sound. It seemed not so much a cry for help, as a recognition that crying for help would do no good.
No one paid her outcry any attention.
Fear arrived, for both victims, with a strong rush of adrenalin, but much too late to do either of them any good.
Philip Radcliffe thought: Violent kidnapping is something that happens to other people, not to me. Not to us. Therefore, this can't really be going on.
But it was.
"What is this?" His own voice sounded strange and awkward.
"For your own good," said the couple's new companion, who was now wedged in between them, with an air of permanence, as if he'd been there for the whole trip. His deep voice carried some flavor of middle Europe. He sounded as if he were trying to be reassuring, and he gave Radcliffe's shoulders a fraternal squeeze.
Why am I letting this man restrain me with one arm? Who in the hell does he think he . . . Philip, at last energized by anger, willed himself to relax as a deliberate tactic--then in the next instant, struggled violently to be free.
More precisely, he tried to struggle violently--actually he could not move an inch. The single arm which pinioned him felt like a steel cable. The next step in his plan had been to punch the man beside him, or maybe slam him with an elbow. But any such heroics proved utterly impossible to accomplish as long as both of Radcliffe's elbows were being held immovably against his sides.
While Phil was trying to think of something to do next, part of his mind took note of the fact that the young woman behind the wheel did not really seem to be concentrating on her driving. The car was going considerably faster now with her in control, but still it seemed perhaps that the task was too trivial to hold her interest. Now she had turned on the car radio, and punched in one station after another until she came to a man on a talkshow declaring loudly that there was obviously no chance of that other candidate, the wrong one, being elected in November. Voters would have to be crazy to pick that villain, declared the hectoring, annoying voice. Because of course if that scoundrel should happen to get in, America was doomed, the children and grandchildren of everyone out there in the radio audience faced a future bleak beyond belief. They'd all spend the rest of their lives jobless but paying enormous taxes. Not only would they be buried in debt, national and personal, but half of them would be held hostage by domestic criminals or foreign terrorists.
"Turn off the noise," the man who was holding Philip immobile commanded harshly. (He had no wish to be mistaken for a hostage-taker, and might have allowed the radio to stay on if that word had not surfaced amid the babble. On the other hand he might not.)
The girl in the front seat did not turn her head, and Philip thought she hesitated briefly, on the brink of arguing. But within a couple of seconds she obediently punched the radio off again.