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Blood Price, Tanya Huff, DAW, 1991, 272 pp.
For those who might judge a book by its cover, Blood Price gives mixed signals. The title, along with the spooky illustration, might give the impression that this is a horror novel. But in the little DAW box on the spine, we see a clear label: FANTASY. I find this bit of pigeonholing highly misleading, and would have preferred to see this book thrown under that other (admittedly creaky) catch-phrase, horror. Why does this matter? It doesn't, except that I'm no longer much of a reader of horror novels, and would have appreciated less garbled messages before starting to read Blood Price. The book has some gory sections and a good deal of occultic matter, like demon summoning, vampires feeding, and so on. Huff introduces some excellent characters, who are all much better served by the immediate sequel Blood Trail. Blood Price has a few other strengths, like Huff's strong sense of place (the book is set in Toronto), but it is all in the benefit of a narrative that is clearly horror. With many of the typical expectations and gratifications that are the baggage of horror. Again, why does this matter? Am I saying that the entire genre of horror can be written off according to my private theories of excellence? Maybe. I would like to examine how well the genre expectations are met, and then take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
Blood Price follows the story of Vicki Nelson, a private investigator who chose to leave the Toronto police force for her own reasons. The book opens with a murder in a subway station, and Vicki gets a fleeting glimpse of the perpetrator, who seems almost supernatural to her in his fleetness. Her old friend from the department, Celluci, comes to the crime scene, and we get the first in a series of escalating confrontations (conversations?) between these two volatile people. Two more murders happen in quick succession, and soon the tabloids have convinced people that a vampire is stalking the city. Henry Fitzroy, a real vampire, is understandably offended, and through a convoluted series of events, starts working with Vicki to find the real killer. Vicki has been hired by the girlfriend of the first victim, who is also convinced a vampire is on the loose. All of these people converge on the scene of the denouement, and in a bit of clever plotting, win the day through brains and fast-talking.
The characters are all well-written, with one exception. Vicki Nelson is immediately sympathetic, and she is easy to cheer for, with her keen intelligence and her passion for fighting crime. The opening scene in the subway is enough to grab our attention right off, as Vicki charges in to help. And I liked how Vicki was portrayed as extremely competent and extremely gutsy, especially in scenes where she was venturing into danger. I don't know how many cheesy B-movies have a woman (hired for her looks and her ability to scream) going, say, downstairs, and you know that she is totally clueless. Vicki often does go behind the forbidden door, so to speak, but there's never the sense that she is about to go to pieces. I liked Henry Fitzroy, the typical vampire in some ways, with his historical roots in the Elizabethan era. Mike Celluci is also a solid character, who does his thing and argues with Vicki often. Unfortunately, the villain was more than a little ridiculous -- turns out that this is the reason for his hair-raising descent into evil. But he is still ridiculous, and that detracts from the intended effect of a horror novel, namely, fear.
Ironically, Huff herself states one of my major points about horror, and uses it to create a more terrifying narrative. In a section two-thirds of the way through the book, a nurse who works the night-shift gets murdered. But not by the villain of the piece -- some men who have been whipped into hysteria by news reports think that she is a vampire and kill her with a sharpened hockey stick. This is indeed something horrible, and the implications about human nature are indeed frightening. But the very point of this susceptibility at the fringes of rationality is my objection to the horror genre. I definitely don't think all art should be sanitized, especially in a book aimed at adults (what children should or should not read is an entirely different matter that I don't have the ambition to discuss here). But should writers be held responsible for a copycat crime, based on something of their own creation? I don't know, but personally I would find such a thing unbearable. Huff herself has written a fantasy novel (Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light) where the small things that humans do to hurt each other strengthen the powers of Darkness, a message reminiscent of Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty, where Tepper takes deliberate potshots at the horror genre. But it's still a grey area, and Tepper wrote a number of horror novels under a pseudonym near the beginning of her career.
Violence has always been a part of human storytelling, and I think that, for me at least, the line is drawn according to the intent of the storyteller. And in horror, the transgressive force (whether it is supernatural or psychological or other) seems to be celebrated, as much as the ending typically returns order to the universe. Celebrated in a kind of titillating way that makes me very uneasy about why this is considered entertainment (see my review of Species 2 for example). The fact of a kind of transgression of the normal social order is not the problem -- that could be a description of almost any piece of literature -- but rather the context. The intent. And as much as the murder of the nurse in Blood Price is a commentary on this cycle of horror, Huff herself falls quite clearly into the same trap with the novel as a whole.
Blood Price is another swiftly-paced novel from the pen of Tanya Huff, but hopefully my warnings are clear for those who dislike horror. I know that many will disagree with my comments about the genre as a whole, but I stand by them.
Last modified: July 20, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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