The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles

The cover of The Route of Ice & Salt. Using varying shades of blue and white the background is the bow of a ship moving through water.

Over the boat is the author's and translator's name, José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles. Over the water is the title in larger font. The Route of Ice & Salt. 

The snapchat caption reads: Hot vamper summer, followed by a forward facing boat on water emoji.

(Not spoiler free)

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I was expecting this book to be less queer than it was, but I was expecting it to be more subtextual. I suppose that’s because I was thinking about the time period in which “Dracula” was originally was written, and how queer readings of “Dracula” all rely heavily on coding and subtext. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, I loved every queer minute of it and I am so so very glad that we now have an English translation of this wonderful book.

Book quote: "I am the Captain. 
Impossible that I order one of my men to come to my cabin and ask him to undress, much less insist he stand still and permit me to clean him with my tongue, lightly biting his flesh, trembling with craving for his skin."

Snapchat caption: I was expecting the queer aspect to be more subtle than this, but who am i to complain about a book being MORE GAY than i expected.

“The Route of Ice & Salt,” as you may have already guessed, is explicitly queer and you never forget that for one moment. The whole novella is grappling with the overlapping acceptance, shame and guilt of one’s own identity and actions as well as society’s perception of queerness as monstrous. It opens with our narrator, the captain of the Demeter, musing on his mens’ bodies, expressing attraction, but also noting that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to act on that attraction, and it ends with the captain proclaiming as he faces the monster aboard his ship that he is not a monster for his desires. 

Book quote: "I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood.
Not even Sin.
It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous."

Snapchat caption: Yes yes, this

Much like the original novel, “The Route of Ice & Salt” is epistolary, and made up of the captain’s log and his private diary. It is in the private diary that we learn about the captain’s inner life and how he navigates his sexuality. There is a fine balance between erotic and horror, particularly as the captain’s dreams become influenced by the vampire aboard the ship. 

It is in these dreams that we learn about the captain’s lover, Mikhail, who is rather at the center of the captain’s turmoil surrounding his sexuality. He blamed himself for Mikhail’s death, following his brutal murder at the hands of the townsfolk. It is also noteworthy that they treat Mikhail’s corpse as if he were a vampire, cementing the connection between the monstrous and the queer.

There is repeated connection too of vampire bites to the neck and the bruise sucked into the neck by a lover. In fact, when the captain sees such a mark on one of his crew, his mind goes to the later instead of the former. 

My absolute favorite thing about the book, however, was how brought up various different cultural ideas surrounding vampires, even before the captain knows there is something on board he would call a vampire. The vrykolakas of Greece, the strigoi and vrolocks of Romania, the rakshasa of India. It was an expansion of vampire lore, through the lens of these sailors’ own backgrounds as well as lore of the places where they had sailed, which I thought was just… so great and clever.

Book quote: "Is it not said that to kill the vrolocks, the vlkoslak, the bloodthirsty living dead in Romania, one needs only living water?"

Snapchat caption: Love how the vampire mythos of various cultures has come up throughout the book.

Some potential warnings to note, in addition to the aforementioned murder:

There are several mentions of age gaps between partners. The captain is noted to have been younger than his lover by some undisclosed number of years, and there are several mentions of ambiguously young sex workers.

Additionally, if you are familiar with “Dracula,” you will know that no one living survives the passage from Varna to Whitby. This is a queer erotic horror story that fleshes out a small piece of the original novel. There is a cathartic ending, but if you’re looking for a fluffy happy ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.

That said, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Dracula” and anyone looking for queer horror or queer nautical fiction. 

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The Rise of the Vampire by Erik Butler

Cover of "The Rise of the Vampire" by Erik Butler. An all black background with the title in white at the top and the author's name in red at the bottom. There is a drop of blood that drips down the cover emerging from the bottom of the V in vampire.

The snapchat caption reads: "VAMP TIME"

I really didn’t know what to expect from this book. Despite my longstanding love of vampires, I’ve read more vampire fiction and folklore than I have any academia on the subject. Having read it now, my ultimate assessment is that if you’re looking for an introduction to the history of vampires as they exist today this is a very good starting place.

“The Rise of the Vampire” is entertainingly written analysis of the rise of the vampire in folklore and fiction and how they have prospered in some areas and not in others, but remain fixed—yet ever evolving—in the cultural conscious. I also enjoyed the frank, though limited, discussion of the anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tropes that pervade vampire fiction. 

Book quote: Visibility entails risk for the undead, but it can also mean peril for those who would track them. Vampires work by deception, after all. We should proceed with caution in this endeavour, lest we find ourselves entangled in a web of illusion that delivers us, helpless and exposed, into enemy hands." 

Snapchat caption: I'm living for the drama of the prose.

If I talked about everything I loved about the book my review would be as long as the book myself, so I’ll keep it to my absolutely favorite things. 

1. The origins of the vampire mythos in Eastern Europe as a way for the the native Serbian people of the region to assert some control during a time when their homeland was in the control of others. I found this fascinating, because I’ve only ever read about the origins and history from a perspective of “here are diseases that could have contributed to the vampire mythos.”

2. The utter evisceration of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight.” I don’t mean Butler was derogatory or dismissive toward the series or tore it apart in a negative way. He treats it as he treats any iteration of vampire fiction, one with good aspects and bad aspects, but he takes it apart incredibly thoroughly and in a way that exposes that darker and much creepier aspects of the books, which I appreciated a whole awful lot. I will say, the one issue I had during his assessment was is use of the term “redskins,” when describing Meyer’s racist depiction of the Quileute Indian Tribe. I understand that he was trying to make the point that Meyer had done a bad job, but using a slur felt unnecessary. 

3. Maybe Abraham Van Helsing and Quincy Morris in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” are actually vampires. This blew my mind, particularly with regard to Van Helsing. Butler’s break down of his reasoning is incredible and it makes so much sense. The vampire hunter is a vampire himself. This makes me think, in particular, of dhampir lore, which says that the child of a mortal and a vampire will be a born vampire hunter. 

Book quote: "Whereas all the other characters suffer in some manner or other from the Count's machinations, Van Helsing does not. Could it be that Van Helsing knows so much about Dracula because he is a vampire himself?"

Snapchat caption: I am LIVING for this theory.

4. Spike my beloved. Butler’s assessment of Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is so good. His analysis of Spike’s song (“Let Me Rest in Peace”) in the episode “Once More With Feeling” had me rolling. The line “The song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo,” could honestly just be an assessment of Spike as a whole. There’s a big ass softie beneath that cold seeming exterior, which is exactly why he’s my favorite. 

Book quote: The whole song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo. Abandoning his usual appearance of cool, Spike makes the melodramatic gestures of a Top 40 troubadour, clenching his fists, sweeping his arms and jumping onto a coffin to make a show of his feelings. When he bares his heart in this way, he can be wounded.

Instead of laying his torments to rest, Spike resurrects the bad poet who died. The vampire's potential for mystery and menace disappear utterly when he sings. Spike reveals a gooey, sentimental interior at odds with the image he otherwise projects."

Snapchat caption: Listen, this isn't a flaw, this is EXACTLY why Spike is so great. It's the layers.

One final quibble I will bring up is that this is a very European and American centric look at vampires. There are plenty of other cultures that have vampiric equivalents, even if “vampire” isn’t the word used for them. If this book can discuss non-vampire characters as vampiric in nature then, why not give a nod to some non-Western vampiric entities, say the obayifo of Ashanti folklore or the Malaysian penanggalan? Of course, there’s only so much room in the book and it already covers quite a large swath of time and location, but I would have appreciated at least some acknowledgment of vampire lore occurring in other cultures. 

All in all, this was a riveting and informational read and I would highly recommend to vampire lovers everywhere. 

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