Lucky you. You’re getting two posts this week. Yay!
There’s a reason: I had already written the week’s post earlier, but wanted to write this review. I thought I’d write it and save it for next week, but it occurred to me that, since I want to write reviews now, I could do that in addition to regular posts, not just in place of. I usually read at least two books a week, and I often want to share my discoveries with others. And, since you’re technically supposed to post to your blog more than once a week, it goes without saying that it should be okay if I make those posts on a single day. You can read them at any pace that pleases you, after all.
I’m going to try and talk about three books this week, all of which are from their respective series. I want to warn you right now: there are spoilers here, so take heed.
The first book is The President’s Vampire by Christopher Farnsworth. It’s the second book in his Nathaniel Cade series, the first of which is entitled Blood Oath. In the first book, we learn that Cade is a vampire sworn to serve the President of the US as his agent against the supernatural. He was turned into a vampire in the 1800s and was bound to the presidency by Madame Leveau (there are, I think, several ways to spell her name), the Voodoo Queen. She uses one of the bullets that killed Abraham Lincoln to bind the oath, and it is very binding. If he tries to harm or disobey the president or someone who speaks for him, it actually causes Cade physical pain.
What I like about these books is that Cade has to fight to retain his humanity. In so many vampire novels, the vampires are essentially humans who drink blood and have various powers. In this case, vampires are a separate breed: they are the wolves and we are the cattle. That’s exactly how they view us. There’s a scene in the first novel where the president’s liaison, Zach Barrows, suggests that Nathaniel probably gets a lot of hot sex, like the vampires in movies and books. Cade looks back at him and says something like, “Would you have sex with a cow?”
Vampires in Farnsworth’s world have many of the traditional weaknesses, including crosses, and it’s interesting to note that Cade wears one. He does this because he was a devout Christian. He knows he’s damned by his very nature now, but that doesn’t change his beliefs. And yet, he’s a vampire. His physiology and psychology are both changed. His beliefs help him retain a semblance of humanity, but his nature makes him seem arrogant and cold. It doesn’t help that humans react to vampires with an instinctual fear.
The downside, if it could be called that, is that I’ve also read Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels. Maberry’s series has various mad scientist types (who, amusingly, often recognize that they fit the stereotype) designing pathogens that cause diseases looking just like different kinds of monsters. For instance, in Patient Zero, the first in the series (there are three so far, and I recommend them highly), there’s a virus loose that turns people into zombies. And they aren’t the slow, shambling Night of the Living Dead kind, either. They’re damn hard to kill, and they move pretty fast.
The Joe Ledger and Nathaniel Cade novels resemble one another in that they include intrigue and plots within plots. The Ledger novels, while they take on the appearance of the supernatural while actually delving into the realm of super medicine, are still basically thrillers. The Cade novels, on the other hand, have the supernatural (there are passages that suggest vampirism is some kind of disease that alters things on the cellular level), the plots are still very much from the thriller realm. Both series use the idea of conspiracy theory to fuel their plots. The last Ledger novel, The King of Plagues, has a group known as the Seven Kings actually using various conspiracy theories to make them look older than they really are, and they’re trying to use the Plagues of Egypt to secure huge amounts of money. Basically, they instigate tragedies and reap the rewards when the financial markets start going on roller coaster rides. And in The President’s Vampire, Cade goes up against the fabled reptoids—which are created using a virus that alters humans and turns them into lizard men.
In short, while I enjoy both series, the Ledger novels seem more substantial to me. They go a little deeper, and the characters are a little more deranged. On the other hand, Farnsworth offers some interesting concepts in the Cade novels, and I especially appreciate that his vampires aren’t bending over backwards to recapture their lost humanity.
The next two novels are written by Dan Wells, and the capsule review is that they’re excellent.
Wells hits all the right points in these novels. The first, I Am Not a Serial Killer, introduces us to John Wayne Cleaver, a fifteen-year-old living in the fictional town of Clayton, in Clayton County (he never specifies a state, though its winters suggest it’s a northern one. Feels like Michigan or Wisconsin to me) who’s fighting the monster inside to avoid becoming a serial killer. John knows the signs because he’s fascinated—some might say obsessed, but he hesitates to go that far—with serial killers and criminal profiling. He knows enough to be an FBI profiler, and he’s very familiar with pretty much every serial killer on record.
Now, don’t run off screaming, but I’m fascinated with serial killers, too. Not because I’m fighting some inner monster like John, but just because, well, they’re fascinating. So you can understand why I read these books.
John is a sociopath. Oh, wait. As he says, he’s under eighteen, so you can’t say that about him. He has conduct disorder. Basically, it means he has no empathy with other people. He doesn’t understand the attachments people form with one another. People are things. But he’s gotten good at going through the motions to appear normal, and he’s come up with lots of rules to keep him from crossing the line: Don’t refer to people as it. Don’t hurt animals. Don’t start fires. If you think about someone, ignore them for a week. If you think about hurting someone, give them a compliment. He’s pretty good at following these rules, too.
That is, until a serial killer shows up in Clayton and he figures out its his elderly next door neighbor, Bill Crowley.
I have to wonder about the names Wells chooses. For instance, he states that John is named John Wayne not because of John Wayne Gacy but because his father, Sam (this makes him the Son of Sam, don’tcha know) loves old movies. John’s older sister is named Lauren Bacall Cleaver. Then there’s the last name, which is an implement used by some serial killers. It’s also, if memory serves me correctly, the name of the family in the old sitcom Leave It To Beaver. Wells never states this, so I can’t say he chose it for that as well, but it works.
Like the Son of Sam, John comes to think of the killer inside him as Mr. Monster. It helps him to keep it in control. But he has to let Mr. Monster loose because he learns that Mr. Crowley (allusions to Aliester Crowley?) is actually a demon, and he takes body parts from his victims in order to survive. He’s old and dying and wants to stay alive because…he’s in love.
That’s right. Crowley came to Clayton over forty years ago and quite literally fell in love with a woman he worked with. John keeps telling us that the central question of criminal profiling is: what does the killer do that he doesn’t have to? Serial killers are known for doing things like arranging the bodies like works of art, or taking something from their victims as souvenirs, that kind of thing. Serial killers are also divided into two groups: organized and disorganized. Ted Bundy was organized: he planned his murders so he wouldn’t get caught. It’s why he was able to kill more than thirty people (and possibly many, many more) and get away with it for so long. On the other hand, Henry Lee Lucas was disorganized. He took victims at random and made only minimal effort to cover his tracks. No one’s sure just how many he may have killed. He was a true sociopath and one of his alleged victims was his own mother. At his arraignment in 1983, he claimed to have killed one hundred women.
So when this killer exhibits signs of being both organized and disorganized, it confuses John. He finally witnesses a kill where he sees Mr. Crowley transform into the demon and knows he’s the only one who can stop the killer. And he’ll have to let Mr. Monster loose to do it.
In the second book, Mr. Monster, the furor over the Clayton Killer has died down. Of course, no one knows the real killer is dead, but no bodies have shown up for several months, so the town starts feeling safe. And then another body shows up.
This one is a little different. It doesn’t have the same hallmarks the Clayton Killer’s did, but it and the next one are dumped at the same sites as the first two Clayton Killer victims. John knows it’s not the first serial killer, of course, but there’s no way he can tell anyone that.
He does manage to talk to Special Agent Forman, the FBI agent who came to town during the Clayton Killer’s reign. They’ve had some talks between novels, and Forman is surprised to learn that John knows more about serial killers than he does, and it’s his job to know about them.
It doesn’t take John long to learn that Forman is the new killer, and he came to town because he’s a demon as well. He’s been searching for the demon from the first novel and has a hard time believing that John managed to kill it. When he learns what John is doing, he takes John captive and puts him down in the cellar with his other “toys.” In the finale, Forman comes back to the house with Brooke, a girl who lives down the street from John that he’s started dating. He really likes her, but it really pushes breaking the rules to go on a date with her.
By the end of Mr. Monster, we learn there is a third demon, and John is learning to channel Mr. Monster into killing these demons. He uses Forman’s cell phone to call this other demon, called Nobody, and telling her that he’s coming for her. I’m looking forward to this book.
Probably my favorite aspect of these two books is the contradictions in John’s life. He goes through the motions of being a typical teen, even though his mother knows he’s a sociopath (he pulls a knife on her in the first book). He has a friend, the other weird kid at school, and he likes Brooke a lot. Sure, Mr. Monster gives him fantasies of tying her up in the basement and having his way with her using a knife, but he keeps that at bay.
To me, on the one hand, John is a true sociopath. He has to be told by someone else that the Clayton Killer demon stays in town because of love. It’s not a reason he can conceive of. On the other hand, he really enjoys being with Brooke, and I have to wonder what direction Wells is going to take her in. She turns out to be a little weirder than her teeny-bop, somewhat popular blond girl image would suggest. John finds this fascinating of course, and I kinda doubt Wells will make her another serial killer in hiding. But she’s not what she appears, and I like that.
All in all, I would recommend all three (or should I say four?) of these books, with an added recommendation for the Joe Ledger novels. All of them offer excellent concepts, and the John Wayne Cleaver books have the added attraction of not overplaying the demonic aspect of the serial killers. It’s there, and you know it the entire time, but it boils down to them being, for the most part, straight-ahead thrillers. The supernatural aspect is mostly on the background, and I like that.
Go pick ’em up. And good reading.