A Bloody Habit
I must confess I am not a fan of contemporary fiction. Self-consciously “literary” efforts usually leave me cold, while airport potboilers leave me hot. The first are so understated and intellectual that I’m enlightened but not entertained—yawning, not yearning. The second are so overstated and suspenseful that I’m entertained but not enlightened—my senses thrilled and nervousness heightened.
Where are the Flannery O’Connors and Evelyn Waughs of our day, who can be witty about wickedness and plant their theology in the thicket of character, the turns of a plot, and the twist of a knife? Where are the writers who can be both entertaining and enlightening?
I have made an effort with some of the new Catholic fiction that has emerged, and while they have been worthy efforts, I came away with the conviction that writing good fiction is harder now than it has ever been. I should know. I tried to write a papal potboiler some years ago and, in one of my few acts of mercy towards others, consigned the manuscript to the bottom drawer.
The professional packaging of stories by Hollywood writers, the ease and economical feasibility of publishing, and the plethora of new opportunities for authors means in the world of books the new norm is quantity, not quality. It was therefore with a sigh of mixed emotions that I picked up the new novel by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, A Bloody Habit.
Published by the Catholic Ignatius Press, would this be another worthy, but weak attempt at “Christian fiction”? As a friend once observed drolly and drily, “For ‘Christian’ read ‘inferior.’” Alas.
The cover, at least, was encouraging. It features a whimsically macabre illustration by my genius, eccentric friend Matthew Alderman. Joseph Pearce—always one for the effervescent blurb—promised “a cross between Dracula and The Exorcist written with the literary flourish of the former and the Catholic sensibilities of the latter.” An hors d’oeuvre of praise from novelist Tim Powers also raised an eyebrow, whetted my appetite, and kickstarted my read.
We got off to a good start. I was pleased by the hero John Kemp’s insouciant, English style and delighted by his meeting with the engaging Dominican friar who styled himself as Rev. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., D.C.L – Vampire Slayer. They met on a train redolent of the opulent Orient Express—all dining cars, waiters in white jackets, crystal, silver, steam whistles, smoke, and sleeping berths. That night, Kemp’s first encounter with Nosferatu was truly chilling. It was a worthy opening scene.
Unfortunately, I got bogged down in what my screenwriting teacher said killed most stories: “the long second act.” By the middle of the book a range of characters had been introduced. Most of them were entertaining, but stock English folk: the dour valet-butler, the flighty debutante, the louche aesthete, the wealthy American heiress, the dowager aunt, and the suave, establishment gentleman. Were they all too derivative of an Agatha Christie film or the costume dramas churned out by the BBC? Would we meet Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, or Lord Peter Wimsey?
The plot too got bogged down with incidents that seemed unrelated. Who was that interesting, eccentric occultist we met in the library and what had he to do with anything? What was that peacock box all about? What happened to the policeman who was investigating the murder? I thought he was important. Where did he go? Where did those freemasons come from and what was their motivation and intent? Why all those parties with socialites and the Prince of Wales? I hoped it would all come around and the loose ends would be tied up, and I was getting wearied, distracted, and confused.
Most of all I wanted the vampire-slayer priest to come back on stage. Being a priest and fond of Dominicans, I liked him very much and wanted him to return and get on with the action of quoting Thomas Aquinas while creeping into dungeons, opening the coffins of the undead, loading his pistol with silver bullets, and plunging stakes into vampiric hearts. If he didn’t reappear soon I was going to write Ms. Nicholson a letter asking why she introduced such an intriguing character only for him to vanish like a vampire at dawn.
Despite these doldrums I pushed on, and I’m glad I did. The rotund and cheerful Dominican did return along with a band of merry Dominican fathers. The plot picked up. The loose ends started to be woven together, and the plot started to hum. Most of all, there was plenty of ghoulish gore, necks were duly bitten, bats flew, coffins were opened, and the terror built nicely through a couple of neat plot twists, a few false leads, and a dramatic climax in the incomplete and cavernous Westminster Cathedral.
The slow pace in the middle of the book is my only grumble about A Bloody Habit and even that may be due to my own lack of concentration and dunderheadedness. I was delighted to be delighted by this book. I liked the author’s panache very much. She found a voice, and it seemed like she was having fun with the Victorian atmosphere and style—as if she were in a theatrical costume room trying on hats and mimicking Dame Maggie Smith.
There was something jaunty about it. She caught the Victorian confidence and English eccentricity just right. Not only did she capture the horror of Stoker’s Dracula, but there was a pleasant whiff of Trollope’s comedies of class and a pungent puff of Dickensian squalor. Furthermore, as one who has dwelt in the damp land for more than twenty-five years, Ms. Nicholson seemed perfectly acquainted with English geography, manners, and accent. If she is not an Englishwoman she could pass as one.
Although some of the characters were perhaps a bit too much out of BBC central casting, they were still entertaining. Everyone likes the starchy butler, the warm-hearted cook, the cocky newspaper man, the ditzy debutante, and the hard-bitten Inspector. The hero, John Kemp, was well drawn, and it was pleasing to see his character develop through his adventure into the realm of the dark.
Most of all, Rev. Thomas Edmund Gilroy O.P. was a terrific fellow and a good example of a quality in fiction very hard to create: a character who is not only genuinely good, but genuinely holy. The holy person is hard to create because he or she is humble, and humble people don’t stick out and therefore too often seem dull. If they do stick out they do so for their ostentatious piety—and that is as sure to kill a good story as it does a good party.
Fr. Gilroy is a good and holy character who is also attractive, smart, and memorable. If he is a little too much like Fr. Brown, it is forgivable because he is a vampire-slayer, and that lifts him above dull imitation. How can we dislike a Fr. Brown with a penchant for puns, a stake, a hammer, garlic, holy water, and a crucifix?
A Bloody Habit is a bloody good read because Ms. Nicholson not only entertains, she enlightens. The theological conversations between Gilroy and Kemp are handled with a light touch. They are integrated into the plot appropriately without being imposed, and most of all, the underlying theme of vampires (with sacrifices and the consumption of flesh and blood) being a kind of anti-Catholicism, is done through the storytelling. It is never on the nose, preachy, or didactic.
Finally, the vampire-slayer says time and again that the vampire lives only for pleasure and power. As such, Ms. Nicholson deftly comments and condemns those pursuits which are always the motivation for the disciples of the Prince of Darkness. The worldlings of every age—whether in Transylvania or Pennsylvania, London or Los Angeles—always follow pleasure and power with the same bloodlust as the vampires, and the only thing that drives them out are the water of baptism, a holy priest, the light of day, and the sign of Christ crucified.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the author of sixteen books, including The Romance of Religion and Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. He contributes to many magazines, papers, and journals, including Crisis, Integrated Catholic Life, National Catholic Register and Intercollegiate Review. Visit his blog at Standing on My Head, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.
This review first appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is published here with permission.