"Emptiness" by Brian Stableford
"Darkrise End" by Mark Laing
"The Blood Tax" by Angelique de Terre
"Blood Is Thicker Than Water" by Lisa M. Bradley
"All The Pretty Monsters" by Alyson Jolly
This issue of Dreams of Decadence starts off with Brian Stableford's "Emptiness" in which a dispirited woman takes in a foundling infant vampire. It seems that there has been a sudden and unexplained incidence of strange births: about one in fifty newborn babies are vampires, with a thirst for blood and a stare that impels others to care for them. Not surprisingly, the public hates and fears them, and such babies are typically raised in institutions, where they are cared for and carefully studied.
Ruth, the protagonist of the story, is on her way home from her late-shift janitorial job when she discovers an abandoned infant vampire. Legally, she should turn the baby over to social services, but one look at it convinces her that she should take it home and care for it herself. In one sense, the vampire infant is no different from a normal one: It is a creature of helpless need and hunger. It has nothing to offer except its own innocence and the knowledge that it needs you. It is empty, continually hungry, and needing to be filled. Her daughter and neighbors hate the idea, of course, but Ruth clings to the baby just as the baby clings to her.
And Ruth is the vampire's perfect counterpart. She, too, is empty, and lacks the means to satisfy that emptiness. Her need to be needed, to have something to do in the hours away from her job, borders on desperation and the story shows that shedding her own blood to fill the baby's empty stomach fills her own emptiness, and how, when the baby is gone, she can never find a connection like that again. There is some talk from the supporting characters that suggests the vampires control their caretakers and weaken their attachments to their other children, but in the end such questions barely seem relevant in the light of Ruth's powerful but devastating emotional fulfillment. This is a complex, beautifully-written story. A real treat for the reader.
Next up is "Darkrise End" by Mark Laing, a tale set in Oethren, a dying world of vampires and death magic. In the distant past, vampires invaded the world, prompting a sorcerer to cast a spell that killed every human on the planet but him. Immortal through his own magic, this last human has played god for the vampires. He was the only way they could ease their hunger, and as long as he fed them, they dared not kill him. But this is the story of the end of a world, and the god, having grown tired of life, arranges his own death, leaving the vampires with their immortality intact but no way to assuage their hunger. There is, in fact, only one small revenge left to them.
This intriguing setting and story concept is marred by two problems. The first is a very literal Deus ex machina ending. The second is the author's style: I have no objection to adjectives, but this story contains an avalanche of them, which creates such a clutter that the scene is ruined rather than set. It's a shame; this is a clever concept.
"The Blood Tax" by Angelique de Terre is next. In this story, an agrarian feudal society has recently been conquered by vampire lords and their warrior servants, and they have instituted a blood tax: Any vampire may feed from any human at will. Sound terrible? It certainly does to Ian Metana, and although his youthful attempt to overthrow his new lords fails miserably, he is not executed. He is instead released to start a family and run a farm. In fact, the new lords do many things which make life easier for the lower classes: They lighten the tax burden, cease evictions and ensure that people no longer starve to death. All they ask in return is a little blood. There is talk in the story that some vampires cull the herd, so to speak, but if it's true there's no evidence of it here. So maybe it's not so terrible after all, not that Ian will ever admit that. He may be unable to openly resist, but he will not let health and prosperity dim his hatred of the undead.
"The Blood Tax" is not a badly-written piece but it is entirely predictable. At the beginning of every conversation the reader can guess how it will end, and as each story element is introduced we can see how it will be resolved. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I've enjoyed books, movies, and television shows that were completely predictable. But the story is undermined by its one unpredictable element: the ending. By the close of the story, Ian's daughter has been turned into a vampire. He wishes he could send her a message, but someone else would have to write it for him, and he could never do that. The end. I read that section three times, and I'm still wondering if he couldn't bear to admit that he was proud that his daughter was elevated to the lordly caste or if he was ashamed of her, and ashamed that she had become the thing he hated most.
Lisa M. Bradley's short story "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" is anything but predictable. Three brothers live together, trying to make sense of their lives after the suicide of their mother. Unfortunately, someone is murdering children in the neighborhood, and the brothers are drifting apart.
The brothers are vampires who have been taught to live as humans. They walk around in the day, teach Sunday school, and each have a unique ability. But they have been slowly reclaiming their heritage, finding their own way back to what they were. It's a powerful story, both grim and mysterious, despite a few awkward phrasings and the unfortunate decision to name one of the vampires "Angel."
This issue closes with "All The Pretty Monsters" by Alyson Jolly, a sharp tale about Kris, an extremely reasonable, well-behaved vampire forced to entertain the spoiled daughter of his employer. It's a clever, well-written story that overturns the traditions of the romantic vampire tale. Kris is a handsome vampire with a seductive French accent–courtesy of his employer's plastic surgeons and speech trainers. It is Cassandra, the woman on his arm, who holds all the power in their relationship, who can point at something, say "Do," and expect it will be done. Her power comes from money, of course, and it's delightful to see the ways tremendous wealth makes a person into a kind of vampire. She even mimics his abilities after a fashion: Kris drives away a mugger by transforming into a dog, and Cassandra saves Kris from her angry father and his professional thugs by transforming into a compassionate, caring human being. It's a canny ending to a smart, satisfying story.
All in all, this was an uneven collection, with enough high points to make it somewhat recommended. There is one side comment I would like to make: The artwork was plentiful, but much of it was substandard. It might be advisable to cut back on the amount of art in order to showcase only the best.