Review by Barbara Godwin
The Empire of Fear by Brian Stableford
They emerged as the ruling class – not a class created out of birth, wealth, war or land, but by blood in a way that has nothing to do with progenitor. In this monumental alternative history, by an author who has made vampirism one of his many expertises, the whole of the known western world is in the ruthless vampire grip: kings, princes, courts, church dignitaries – Richard the Lionheart, Machiavelli, the new pope and the college of cardinals not excluded – and the common people give their blood through both fear and love.
The vampire strength, longevity, and personal powers are ascribed to satanic magic, but is that true? Edmund Cordery, Mechanician at the court of Prince Richard, recognises that the vampires are vulnerable, for they fear change, and the arts mechanical outstrip the arts magical. Long life has led to a stultification and resistance to the new. Wisdom does not always come with longevity, and boredom and ennui can take its place. The virulent, aggressive, creative traits of the common man can dog the vampire hierarchy, and the Mohammedan nations have never fallen victim to them, for their very humanity enables them to withstand the vampire clutch.
In England, in court, Edmund Cordery is working on another power – that of scientific knowledge and discovery.
It is a mystery, how a vampire is created out of common men and women, for vampires cannot interbreed and they themselves only have a limited ability to select from their favourites who and who won’t join them in near-on eternal life. There an element of chance. “Their rule is founded as much in fear and superstition, as in their nature,” Edmund Cordery tells his son, Noell, who is to follow in his father’s stead.
Is vampirism then no more than a disease from which some have immunity? Edmund Cordery has made it his life’s study to put the secret to rigorous examination and this has earned him a certain notoriety. He has built a microscope to look into the microcosms of the universe including blood. His past mistress is a vampire lady of the court. He poisons his own blood that she feeds on, killing them both, thereby demonstrating that vampires are not invulnerable.
Noell goes into hiding to escape the repercussions of the lady’s death, which threatens the stability of the vampire rule. He continues his father’s research within the confines of an obscure monastery supported by a monk by the name of Quintus, who represents all that is wise and right in this book, and who influences Noell’s beliefs. Noell, however, remains unable to break through to a discovery of what causes vampirism and how it is bestowed.
Noell’s seclusion is disturbed by the arrival of a pirate and his crew holding a vampire lady prisoner. Not all vampires are evil, nor abuse their power, and Noell is affected by this vampire’s elegance of thought, and her desperate concern for her handmaiden who in turn is viciously murdered by pirates who have no qualms in the violent exploitation of their power.
Noell flees with Quintus and is next heard of in Africa.
There follows an extraordinary journey into the continent’s interior, in search of the legendary origins of vampirism. This journey is one of the most poetical, and also fabulous parts of this book, and throws the story into one of pure adventure – of man versus the terrain and the varied societies that sustain themselves upon it. In this amazing landscape of a little explored country, the small group lose many of their number to death from disease, and to desertion, attack and accident. The journey is both relative to the period and to the psychology of the participants, and has a realism that can only come from immersion in the study of the geography and exploration of the era.
…There were numerous insects, but there were few scented flowers to attract their notice. Indeed, the most colourful things lit by the sunbeams which filtered through the layers of the canopy were the ledge-fungi growing in the clefts formed by the twisting of the tree-trunks, which were often orange or yellow, and sometimes white streaked with purple or blue. Such fungi often clustered on the leafless hulks of dead trees, and the further they went into this region the more it seemed to Noell that every familiar species of tree was represented only by twisted and decaying lumps of dead wood…
This journey cannot fail to remind the reader of the classics of exploration: of the deeply hidden places of legend, lost paradises, and indeed there is reference to this being a vampire Eden. Yet the travellers arrival half-dead from disease, into a place alive with a mix of religious and strange agendas, where both the conscious and unconscious walk together in Noell’s and his fellow-adventurers minds. Quintus influence steadies the group, for the so-called Eden is peopled by both vampires and common men and women and is no paradise.
Here Noell, the scientist, is not tricked with the displays of superstition and mysticism designed to keep his ambitions in check, and applies himself to study of this very different vampire community.
The adventure continues, for even if Noell has, as he hopes, discovered some elements of the secret, he must still return to the west, where the vampire princes seek his life.
The author leads us logically to the idea that whatever is in blood that vampires need, could, in the late 20th century of this alternative history, be reduced to a pill, and that which transfigures a common person into a vampire could become a mere empirical formula.
Throughout the book is the theme of the power of science having the potential to overcome something as vast as vampirism, and to fill the gaps in both human and vampire knowledge. This has resonances in any society where superstition and uncertain beliefs fill such gaps. And more, that the power of informed education and knowledge could develop and enhance lives and choices as it becomes available to almost any member of any society where science has dispelled its myths.
At the end of The Empire of Fear, although some mysteries still remain, and it is expected that future research will overcome most of them, a nagging ultimate mystery remains – that of the origin of vampirism: there are only theories suggested by the knowledgeable. Are there indeed aspects of life that can never be explained?
The vampire myth has been in vogue for a very long time now, but the questions in The Empire of Fear go far beyond myth and delve deep into the heart of society. Brian Stableford projects the logic of scientific development into his luscious fantasy, rich in language, and historical setting, and peopled with heroes and villains gripped in life, death, and the adventure of unnatural existences. It is time to revisit this extraordinary book with its colossal exploration of the underside of power, belief and the seeming randomness of what is gifted.
Skyhorse Publishing in the United States is releasing a new edition of The Empire of Fear in June 2011.
Stableford, Brian: The Empire of Fear, Pan, London, 1990, page 11
ibid: the author acknowledges a number of the sources used in his research pages 519-520
ibid: page 222