I, Vampire (1990) by Michael Romkey

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I, Vampire
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Review by guest commentator VamPullet

I, Vampire (1990) by Michael Romkey avoids the potential challenges of organizational vampirism by giving us monsters with big personalities. Their nearly unlimited power poses a plot problem, but not one glaring enough to diminish my enjoyment of the book. 

The novel purports to be the personal journal of David Parker, a neophyte vampire. Prior to his conversion, David had been an independently wealthy Chicago lawyer who, despite his outward success, was deeply unhappy: He was going through a divorce, struggling with substance abuse issues, and stifling his deepest desire to give up law for a career in music. On the verge of suicide, he is transformed into a vampire by a mysterious Russian ballerina, who is actually Princess Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanov, the last member of the Russian Royal family and a member of The Illuminatii. The Illuminati is an organization of the world’s best and brightest vampires, almost all of whom are famous historical figures. They preserve and develop talented humans and gently direct the unfolding of world events to benefit mankind. This beneficent society is locked in battle with the Disciples of Darkness, criminals of the vampire race, ruled by the corrupt Renaissance power player Cesare Borgia. Borgia plans to replace the governments of Europe with a ruthless vampire aristocracy and only The Illuminati can stop him. 

Immediately after biting David and lifting the veil on this secret world, Tatiana leaves him for a period of one year. During this time of apprenticeship, David, with help from his mentor, Mozart, must learn to control his insatiable hunger, develop his vampiric talents, and fend off both attacks and invitations from The Ripper, one of the most brutal and twisted members of Borgia’s network. It is crucial that David resist the temptations of evil because he plays a key part in The Illuminati’s scheme to stop Borgia. If he succeeds, he will be reunited with Tatiana and formally admitted to The Illuminati. But does David have the discipline to be a member of this prestigious group? Is he strong enough to choose good over evil or will Borgia seduce him with promises of unlimited power and pleasure?

In general, I don’t like vampire collectives like The Illuminati and the Disciples of Darkness because I think that isolation brings out the best in vampires and offers writers a wider range of affective possibilities; it gives them license to fully plumb the depth of their characters’ interior lives without getting tangled in group politics.  Untrammeled by their species’ consensus on best practices, solitary vampires can leave victims dead or alive, hunting as gently or as savagely as they wish. If their unpredictable violence is compelling, so too is their utter desolation. Lonely vampires yearn for companions, and they contemplate existential questions about their numbers and purpose. I prefer that there’s no one to provide the answers, and no higher authority to whom they can appeal because, then, it’s all frustration, thwarted desire, and endless speculation–the raw ingredients for tragedy and drama!! Best of all, without a society of vampires to establish behavioral norms, unaffiliated vampires become eccentric and strange, their gestures flamboyant, their passions overdeveloped. Iconic personalities like this are crushed by the bureaucracy of the pack.

This is best illustrated by Interview with the Vampire: Louis and Claudia attempt to kill Lestat, the most fascinating character in the book, so that they can seek out the vampires of Europe. What they find in their search for community is a joyless theatrical troupe (same show every night, folks!) that, acting as a deliberative and governing body, sentences her to death. These hierarchies, rules, and regulations are why I lost interest in the Vampire Chronicles, True Blood, and so many other stories that focus on the politics of vampire clans. 

Romkey avoids this bureaucratic tedium by relegating the organized forces of good and evil so far into the periphery that you can forget about them. The novel’s first page had me preparing for the worst: An opening email between Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo Da Vinci refers to a staff that indexes electronic records and maintains employee profiles. Thankfully, this kind of administrative minutia is absent from the rest of the book. Instead, we get a record of David’s private struggle and suffering. Whether in Chicago, Las Vegas or Paris, David spends almost all of his time alone or with mortals. His mentor, Mozart, makes a brief (albeit spectacular) appearance in the desert but, for the most part, David is left to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. As a company strategy, it’s not efficient, but it is entertaining. 

Like all of the best vampires, David is too self-absorbed and melodramatic to be a good team player. Forever expounding on art, music, women, and wine, he’s pompous to the point of being insufferable until you realize that Romkey is poking fun at his protagonist. He inflates the young vampire’s pretensions to enormous size before comically bursting his bubble. As readers, we ride the wave of florid language as David describes his all-consuming devotion to Tatiana only to find, in the next paragraph, a post-coital scene with a random hook-up. David’s contradictions and exaggerations are best captured when he contemplates suicide. While he wants his farewell letter “to strike a note of high tragedy, of love scorned, of musical genius thrown away for nothing,” he fears that it “might sound pathetic and self-serving” (67). You think? With an ego this large, David can’t be a cog in the vampire machine. And for the sake of entertaining fiction, I am glad. 

Like David, Romkey’s other vampires are eccentric artists, though of a different kind. They are masters of self-fashioning, whose carefully crafted first impressions provide some of the most stunning passages in the book. When David initially spies Tatiana, she is wearing a billowing white gown and running barefoot past a fountain, her dark hair streaming. Absorbed as he is by her beauty, he also recognizes that the scene is contrived ”like an advertisement for an expensive perfume in Vanity Fair” (48). Designed, I assume, to attract his attention, her theatrical production is dwarfed by Mozart’s elaborate opening gambit. The musician lures David into the Nevada mountains where he conjures an abandoned Victorian town complete with a once magnificent opera house. As David enters the hall, the building magically reverts to its former opulence, the footlights come up, and Mozart appears upon the stage. How’s that for an introduction! Not to be outdone, The Ripper choreographs a sensational performance in a Paris restaurant. Meticulously curating these sensory experiences, the vampires choose each sound, color, and movement to achieve a specific effect. Though agents of larger groups, they have the space and freedom for radical self-expression. It’s exciting to read.

While I love the sheer grandeur of their work, I think it creates a plot problem that is increasingly common in vampire fiction and movies. If Mozart can think a city into being, why can’t he think the Disciples of Darkness out of existence? When David learns how to neutralize enemies with his mind, the story ends abruptly because where can it go?. Plot relies on oppositional forces which can’t exist in the presence of a nearly omnipotent being. That’s why I prefer vampires who are limited by the traditional constraints of the genre: stakes, sunlight, crosses, garlic, etc. Without these checks to their power, vampire narratives can get boring fast. Romkey maintains momentum and delivers angsty vampire fun in this novel, but I am hesitant to read the rest of the series. 


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