by Lucius Shepard
At a convocation of aristocratic vampires in a vast castle in Europe, a girl bred for generations to serve as a blood sacrifice is found dead, torn apart. A newly-converted vampire, a former inspector in the Paris police, must find her murderer.
This sounds simple enough; the merit of the book is that Shepard consistently pushes every element of the story into more elaborate, more gothic, more sensual, more sublime detail than you might imagine. Start with vampire lore; his vampires don’t just burn up in sunlight, they have illuminations, and die ranting out prophecy. In becoming a vampire, you don’t just die; you pass through Blood Judgement, into Mystery, and then (perhaps) return. Or consider his setting: Castle Banat is a Gormenghast-like edifice, apparently the size of a mountain, containing massive shadowy gulfs, sprawling libraries, and mazes of secret passages. All of it based on Piranesi’s Carceri drawings, and partaking of that hallucinatory quality.
Which last drawings seem to me to suggest the book’s themes; as the Carceri drawings illuminate a fantastical prison, so the book’s main characters come to an end by leaving the castle behind. It’s a kind of vampiric bildungsroman, as we follow Shepard’s undead inspector through a series of encounters which grow progressively more outré and which lead him into increasingly metaphysical terrain. These things change him, but not always in a way which is immediately obvious in terms of character. Overall, though, you can see the progression: he loses his connection to the human world, he becomes increasingly heedless of others, he generally becomes more wicked. But if this is intended, the climax betrays this progression; not that he has any turn of heart, but simply that this tendency toward the psychopathic is given no clear way to manifest.
Discussion of the book often centres about its elaborate style, and I’ve seen the name Clark Ashton Smith invoked a couple of times. To me, it doesn’t read quite as smoothly or as extravagantly as that; I’d go more for Jack Vance, who anyway is not a million miles away from Smith stylistically. And it is quite taut, moving swiftly despite its extravagance of vocabulary and sentence structure. My concern is that I don’t really see the link between style and theme. Style and setting, style and plot, yes, certainly. It’s a gothic style for a gothic tale. But what’s the tale about? On the one hand, by the end, the European vampiric aristocracy, the castle/prison, and the Patriarch who rules both these things, are all abandoned. On the other, it appears a new vampiric colonialism is about to be born. So the political angle seems mixed. Perhaps that’s the point; that power and evil are necessary companions, that power always corrupts. Certainly even the best of the vampires are needlessly brutal and cruel.
A detective story can be about truth, and the search for same; it also can be a way to bring an investigator into contact with a world, giving a character a reason to go from point A to B to C to meet a series of interesting individuals. The Golden certainly follows the latter course. Its mystery is cursory, and committed by the person you suspect early on; and there isn’t really a series of clues suggesting a logical deduction of a chain of events, so much as a lucky stumbling-upon of large arrows pointing in a single direction. The plot, then, is not the point. But the investigator’s motive for solving the crime seems unclear, if not absent; he risks his life (or unlife) repeatedly, but there’s not much of a sense of desperation. There’s the sense that he’s on one of those tours fantasy characters take, shuttling around the world, occasionally getting involved in some episode of violence or another, reaching ultimately some sort of conclusion you can see looming off in the distance from quite a ways away. Still, that being said, The Golden is at least an enjoyable tour. I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately enlightening, but it is definitely engrossing.