Although vampires have become a cliché to the point that they seem to have lost much of their ability to scare, I still can’t resist a good vampire story. For every boring, unimaginative Twilight rip-off, there’s a lesser-known gem lurking in the darkness somewhere, waiting to be devoured. Or, perhaps, to devour unsuspecting readers first.
One such story is Necroscope by Brian Lumley. First published in 1986, the novel went on to spawn seventeen more novels, the most recent one published in 2013. Not that long ago, yet I had never heard of the series. When it was mentioned in a tweet by the excellent Kendall Reviews, its combination of Cold War spy novel, supernatural mayhem and vampirism sounded right up my street. I just had to get my hands on the first novel in the series and see for myself.
This turned out to be no easy task. Like many forgotten novels, Necroscope is contantly in or out of print, and while I managed to snap up a copy, some others who tried in the same week didn’t. Not only was I one of the lucky ones simply by virtue of being able to get a copy in the first place, I also got one with a beautiful George Underwood cover, in itself gorgeous enough to make my purchase worthwhile, even if the book would have turned out to be underwhelming after all my trouble.
Fortunately, though, it wasn’t. Sure, some parts of it feel a bit dated. It’s a very masculine novel. Women play no part in the narrative to speak of, and where they do appear, they are described as objectified nymphomaniacs to the point where the story becomes unintentionally hilarious. These scenes are few and far between, however, and while I’m glad that society has since moved on it didn’t bother me much. After all, this is a story about vampires, so its claims to realism were always going to be shaky at best.
To the current-day reader, so used to instant Netflixified gratification, the novel may also appear to progress very slowly. Clearly intended as the first instalment in a much longer series, much of Necroscope is exposition and world building. There’s action, and gore, but not enough to satisfy those who like their horror quick and dirty. I however quite liked this slower pace. It created a sense of mystery not dissimilar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the vampire is a menacing threat rather than the omnipresent main character. Necroscope takes its time to build up tension, allowing its narrative to gradually unfold, its characters to become three-dimensional and intriguing. For me, this made the novel deeply satisfying, even though the story was clearly nowhere near finished after I’d turned the last page.
So, on to the story. During the Cold War, a man called Harry Keogh is recruited by the British secret service due to his unusual talent. Harry is a necroscope, a man who can communicate with the dead, a skill which could surely prove useful in an espionage context. But this being the Cold War, the Russians are a force to be reckoned with, particularly because they don’t shy away from the paranormal either. Their agent Boris Dragosani is a necromancer, a man who can pull secrets from the dead by quite literally ripping them apart. This makes for one particularly memorable scene and Necroscope is worth reading for this scene alone.
As if the above premise didn’t already show plenty of potential, Lumley also throws vampires into the mix. Like Dracula, Necroscope‘s vampire only hovers around the perimeter of the story, not in the least because he is buried and unable to escape from his grave. Yet he – all Necroscope‘s vampires are male – still manages to be one of the most terrifying vampires I have every come across. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scene in which a new vampire is recruited is so creepy it still makes my skin crawl when I think of it.
All in all, Necroscope is a novel that demands persistence and patience. It does not give its secrets away quite as easily as many other horror novels. For me, it was so much the better for it, and I will definitely seek out other novels in the series to see the story unfold. The combination of vampirism, telepathy, communication with the dead and Cold War espionage, all rendered in skilful (if a tiny bit dated) prose has made me eager to explore more. After all these years of reading widely and voraciously, it’s still such a pleasure to discover something that feels unlike anything I’ve come across before. Necroscope is definitely a novel that fits that category.
Image: Necroscope cover designed by George Underwood