With the notable exception of 30 Days of Night, the vampire sub-genre has been stuck in a “sexy-vampire” groove for the last three decades. Of course, what verged on revolutionary when Anne Rice did it has now become cliché, with Twilight threatening to slay the vampire as a serious horror figure for all time. Unfortunately, Verland: The Transformation will do little to change that. But while that may disappoint some of us who crave a return to the demonic death dealers of old, Verland is nevertheless a fantastic novel and a marvelous debut by the author, B.E. Scully.
Verland: The Transformation successfully pulls off one of the more difficult literary feats—the story within a story. The present day story revolves around Elle Bramasol, a true-crime writer hired to write a book about Eliot Kingman. Kingman is in prison for a murder that he claims he did not commit. Prior to his incarceration, Kingman was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, a director who just happened to have recently filmed a movie about vampires. Elle suspects that Kingman has more on his mind than simply telling the story of the murder, a suspicion that is confirmed when Kingman reveals that he possesses a book of inestimable value—the diary (h/t to Bram Stoker) of a man who claims to be a real, undead, vampire. But as Elle learns more about Kingman and the mysterious Verland, a once in a lifetime opportunity threatens to become her undoing.
Verland: The Transformation is, in many ways, an excellent book. It’s a remarkably quick read (I finished it in a single day of travel), and Scully’s talent for immediately hooking the reader well no doubt serve her well in her future books. Scully has an eye for detail, perfectly describing her settings without drowning the reader in the sort of overindulgent excess that plagues so many books. Scully’s characters are as deeply fleshed out as her scenery. These are people with flaws and strengths that the reader will believe in. There’s also little of the convenient stupidity that is a staple of horror—no one runs up the stairs when they should run out the front door.
The only thing that keeps me from loving Verland is the plot itself. The title is accurate; this is really the story of Verland’s change from human to vampire. And while that is enjoyable in of itself, it leaves the reader wanting. Verland suffers from the same problem as most origin stories. It focuses so heavily on how the “hero” came to be that it forgets to invest the present day story with the same level of drama. Nothing much that happens to Elle is that surprising or that exciting. The diary story starts and ends strong, but the middle bit meanders. In the end, a surprising number of questions go unanswered, from the identity of Verland’s creator to the fate of the chief villain. I suppose that this might be the first part in a series of sorts, but it doesn’t really seem that way.
Moreover, we never really fear for Elle’s life. And we don’t fear for Verland’s either. There’s simply too little in the way of conflict. Verland is never in danger. All the vampires we learn of—even the one that is the most blood-thirsty—come off as noble figures. In fact, we completely lose track of the fact that these vampires are murderers. The world Scully creates does not allow for subsistence from animals or blood banks. In order to live, the vampires must kill. I was simply unable to reconcile that fact with the way in which Verland and his comrades were portrayed.
In the end, Verland: The Transformation is a fine debut effort from a writer to watch. If you are a fan of vampires and don’t mind if they are more enigmatic than terrifying, you should check this book out. By the end, you will believe.