Marvin Kaye (editor), The Vampire Sextette (Science Fiction Book Club, 2000)

The Vampire Sextette is a group of six novellas compiled by the well-known anthologist Marvin Kaye. In his introduction, "The Erotic Myth of Blood," Kaye explains that the title refers not only to the number of vampire tales included, but also to the fact that sex is a major component of all of the stories.

For many years, Kaye found vampire fiction unappealing, but in the past twenty years new writers seem to have found ways to reawaken interest in the genre. I personally have an off-and-on affection for vampire tales -- the old Gothic tales have been done to death, so to speak -- and it takes a truly different spin to catch my interest nowadays.

Of the six stories in The Vampire Sextette, four worked for me and two of them left me cold. The first story in the book falls into the former category: Kim Newman's "The Other Side of Midnight." This tale takes place in Los Angeles in the '80s, and features Newman's sympathetic vampire heroine Genevieve Dieudonne. Genevieve has become a private investigator. She is hired by Orson Welles to investigate a mysterious man who wants to fund the director's long-postponed Dracula film. Kim Newman is a film critic and historian, and it shows in this satire of Hollywood. It's a fun story that parodies modern vampire lore as well as throwing in movie references all over the place, including my favorite character, Barbie the Vampire Slayer.

Three of the stories in this anthology feature recurring characters from other series, but this one is by far the most well written of the three. If you are unfamiliar with Newman's previous work featuring this alternate world, he does a perfectly fine job of filling in the details about "Anno Dracula" and Genevieve without resorting to unnecessarily heavy-handed exposition, or worse, leaving the reader completely baffled as to what's going on.

Nancy Collins doesn't manage to do this nearly as well in her tale "Some Velvet Morning," which features her vampire-slaying vampire, Sonja Blue. Collins begins the story with a really wonderful and interesting new spin on the legend of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, and catches us up on the Countess' activities over the centuries. Unfortunately she doesn't do enough to explain the Sonja Blue universe; she just drops her into the action near the end and turns it into another "Buffy" type story. I enjoyed this story but it could easily have left out the slayer and been just as exciting.

S.P. Somtow's "Vanilla Blood" parodies the sensationalism of tabloid journalism. It reads like a transcript from "Court TV," explaining the strange circumstances of a case involving a small town vampire cult and a teenage serial killer. It's hilarious, and becomes more ridiculous page by page until the bizarre and over the top ending. I absolutely love this story -- it's stylish, funny, and smart.

"In the Face of Death" takes place in San Francisco in the 1850s. Written by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and set in her Count St. Germain universe, it's the story of a romance between vampire Madeleine de Montalia and pre-Civil War banker William Tecumseh Sherman. "In the Face of Death" is written in Yarbro's characteristically beautiful prose, but unfortunately beyond that it's just plain old period romance. Sure, Madeleine's a vampiress, and slightly more liberated than most women of the time, but still the story is fairly typical of the time period illustrated, and to be frank, it's dull.

My favorite story in the book is the sad, haunting, and utterly riveting "Sheena." A Goth girl meets a fairly normal guy, they hit it off, and what follows is one of the most romantic and beautiful love stories I've read in quite a while. I have to admit the incredibly accurate description of life in a tech call center had me grinning my head off, and the rest of the story -- the description of falling in love, the desolation of losing a loved one -- rang just as true. Brian Stableford's story is brilliant and enthralling, emotional without deteriorating into mush, and erotic without the need for graphic description. Truly a fantastic tale.

The book ends with Tanith Lee's "The Isle Is Full of Noises." The story of a lonely writer in a futuristic Seattle, this is my least favorite story in The Vampire Sextette. When it comes to Tanith Lee, I tend to either adore her work, or deplore her work. Her more straightforward and poetic storytelling can enthrall me and enrapture me. Her obscure, "arty," affected stylings are terribly off-putting and leave me bored. This story is, sadly, the latter. While I've read Sextette through several times, after the first reading I've never been able to finish this story. It's full of symbolism and surreal imagery and it just doesn't do a thing for me, except make me yawn. Of course, there are as many Lee fans who have the exact opposite taste in her work, so they'll enjoy everything in this story that turned me off.

As to the erotic aspect of the tales in Sextette, it's as uneven as the stories themselves. Lee, who can be chillingly stimulating when she chooses, misses out entirely in her tale. "Vanilla Blood" is graphic, and steps over the line into soft porn several times, but then that's part of the fun. Newman's story misses on the erotica also, while "Sheena" takes sex beyond the merely titillating into the realm of fulfilling love. Yarbro offers fairly unimaginative sex, no more exciting than the story that wraps around it. These are also not frightening or chilling in the traditional sense of vampire tales -- you can read these late at night and have nothing to worry about.

Vampire lovers should find this anthology enticing; fans of Newman, Yarbro, and Collins at least should enjoy hearing more about their alternate worlds. As one who finds vampire fiction hit or miss, I'd have to call this one a hit, with the few reservations that I've mentioned previously. Definitely worth a read.

[Maria Nutick]