12-Step Program for Vampires: A Review of Fevre Dream by R.R. Martin

Image for post
Image for post
Advertisement in The Moving Picture World for the American drama film The Silent Battle (1916). Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the same old story. He he’s as tough as nails and ugly as sin. He

learns the hard way — so much for all talk and no action, a baptism by

fire. He pursues his burning question. He suddenly finds himself in over

his head, scared stiff, but he gets the answer in the nick of time. He

seizes the day. In the end it’s all’s well that end’s well so we can breathe

a sigh of relief. I find it a dog and pony show, but to each his own.

you thought the above was a quote from the book Fevre Dream, good for you, you have a nose for rotting mass market meat. Add a few names and scenes to my example of cliche ridden idiomatic junk above and you have about any book of this mass market least-common-denominator genre including Fevre Dream. I imagine Martin’s G.O.T. series must be about the same as FD, each book about the same as another, and for that matter about the same as about anything by Stephen K., Margaret A., and Dean K., or any of them.

Mass market novels are bowling balls, big, heavy, loud, and good for one purpose; comparing them to other bowling balls is hardly worth one’s time.

characters in such books are generally stuck on their idée fixe, which they must pursue relentlessly even against logic. They are supposed to have a fatal flaw too, at least according to rules found in poor writing books. They exhibit clinical signs of a histrionic personality disorder. They love telling backstories, and they hold paranoid imaginings of future possibilities. Characters in such books continually grin like fools, shrug, and wash down their dinner. They snicker, they have sleepless nights or they wake up screaming, and they sense people in rooms. They have pet swears or phrases or songs, in this book the pet phrase is goddamn. Viewpoints and chapters shift aimlessly without a core driven reason. Full names are used over and over as though we forget from one page to the next. Such books are easily consumable in a ‘don’t have to think’ way. They draw no attention to writing style. They reinforce our norms both of life, and of easily consumable novels.

In FD Li’l Abner meets Bayou, hence the cutesy name Cap’n Abner Marsh. He’s a washed up paddle wheeler captain who has no goal but to captain a paddle wheeler and to beat the fastest paddle wheeler, the Eclipse, in a race. He mets Joshua, a sort of vampire who is rich, but in a limited rich sort of way, and who wants to build the biggest and best paddle wheeler on Ole Man River for a reason he won’t disclose. This is most of the plot except for the fight with the vampire-like things and various time wasting scenes along the way.

Image for post
Image for post
Steam Boats docked in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1858. Grey Eagle, Frank Steele, Jeanette Roberts and Time and Tide at dock in St. Paul, foot of Jackson Street. Havana Public Library District, Havana, Illinois. R. B. Hillyer Collection. Boat Photo Museum, Marysville, Illinois. Wikimedia Commons.

If you want cheesiness, monotony, and writing as muddy as the Mississippi you’ve come to the right book. If you want horror, vampire creepiness, or psychological terror better you keep moving. FD is a piece of mass market writing with about as much flavor as plain macaroni, zillions of bucks aside, even with a feather in it’s cap, it’s still macaroni. I will concede this however, it takes an expert pen to write stuff that causes even the fiercest action to elicit in the reader no more than a yawn.

In this soggy balled up tissue of a book are found vampire-ish entities. The main one is Joshua who finds the thirst tiresome so he’s sort of a, dare I say holier than thou, recovering vampire. He has developed a a bloodwine mix, vamp Campral,that works to prevent the need to seek the blood of victims, although it is unclear where he gets the blood for his concoction. Oh yes, here we find the A.A.12-Step program starting with:

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over blood — that our lives had

become unmanageable. Joshua’s viewpoint.

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could

restore us to sanity. The Power is his concoction.

The second group of vampire things, headed by Julian, readily find victims but they chine and dine rather than go for a bout of necking. Abner and Joshua make a bit of alliance. Abner will captain the paddle wheeler and Joshua will front the money. It seems that Joshua wants to create a houseboat for all vampires and to get them addicted to his concoction so they drift their eternities away sipping the wine. He may hold an ethical basis for his supposed altruism or he may believe he promotes a utilitarian virtue in which the most good for the greatest number is verified by a reduction in numbers of human victims. We will never know because all we get are only sloppy nods toward these ideas. At any rate, it’s probably good that Joshua doesn’t think hard about slavery or the Civil War since that might gum up his narrow justifcations, a stance which seems to be a crude mixup of a 12-Step group leader, personal agency, utilitiarian ethics, and ethical NOOMBYism, (Not out of my back yard).

Image for post
Image for post
Glass of Red Wine with a bottle of Red Wine for halloween, simulating blood, as a vampire drink. Image by Evan Swigart. Wikimedia Commons.

urt Vonnegut said every sentence should advance either plot or character. In this book as with most mass market books, much of the writing does neither. Instead page after page is filler, styrofoam, time wasting. This is why no matter what happens it all turns to tedium.

Voice gets mixed up frequently. Martin or Marsh, hard to tell who, knows all the details but then doesn’t know things he should know. Here are two examples of this sort of blundering. “Someone was tinkling on the grand piano.” “A family gathered around a little fire they’d built cooking something or other.” An omniscient writer would know this. A character could look to find out, especially when the general m.o. is to go overboard on details about irrelevant things. Laxity in the writing is ultra-common: “Marsh grabbed the rope holding the yawl to the steamer, parted it with one swift stroke of the knife, and threw the blade at Billy’s yapping mouth. But it was a bad throw and anyhow Sour Billy ducked.” Extra credit for those who analyze this passage to show why it fails.

Marsh himself is not really developed beyond the fact he’s fat, likes to eat, and has a single agenda item. He uses “ain’t” as easily as he says “I believe I will…I do believe I will.” He loves the word goddamn to let us know things are serious. We read, “The pilots weren’t nobody hired by Marsh.” This is evidently the author speaking but using Marsh’s sometimes unrefined language.

As with most mass market junk, the writing is glib. Here’s one example of absurdity that occurs as a result. “The impact jarred Marsh’s teeth together so hard he almost bit his tongue.” Either he was sticking his tongue out or not, so he would have bitten it if it were out, and he wouldn’t if it were in. You don’t almost bite your tongue when your teeth are slammed together. This is what happens when one writes without really considering what one is saying, when one just tosses out idioms that describe nothing in specific. A page later the boat is jarred again, “This time Marsh did bite his tongue….It hurt like hell. Fortunately he hadn’t bitten it clean off.” I guess he was sticking his tongue out at someone in the violent knife fight for this to happen, but I doubt it would have been a clean, clean meaning entirely and precisely. It’s this words a-dribble, these weary colloquial sentences, this a continual slinging of idiomatic phrases that exhausts us. You may have bitten your tongue once right? It does hurt in fact so much that it bothers you for a day or two. But having bitten it almost off Marsh doesn’t mind. Soon after the fight he eats hot chicken, drinks two glasses of wine, and polishes off pie.

case you forgot, dear reader, Marsh is desperate to win a paddle wheeler race between Fevre Dream and the Eclipse. There’s not much beyond this silly agenda, a sprint that promises to be as exciting as a cockroach race, but as they once said on MASH, people only go to them to see the crashes. Eventually the agenda switches to Marsh killing the big boss vampire, as we expected, and everything then goes exactly as we expect it will. Some of the novel takes place during the Civil War period but it’s not there for these characters. There’s no mention of the war of the states and no mention of the Mississippi River Campaign or the events at Vicksburg or Port Hudson even as the paddle steamers go up and down the great river.

Image for post
Image for post
Mississippi Queen 1 of only 10 steam paddle boats left on the river. Photo by Ron Shawley. Wikimedia Commons.

Vampires here are mean but apparently they are not very bright. They evidently haven’t figure out how to save or get much money. It’s no surprise that any sociological ideological underpinnings become contradictory. Characters seem to presupposes that human life is generally inviolable and yet Marsh and Joshua are quick to kill to support their goal to do no harm.

Marsh is expectedly, because evil forces always offer the protagonist to join their side for substantial benefit in such mass market books, offered the deal of a lifetime to work with the vampires but, again expectedly, he spits out his adamant refusal and so we get the expected response from the evil side, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” Oh, sorry that was from Goldfinger. The line here is “Instead, you will die.” As always in these books when the antagonist offers alternatives the protagonist holds to the dictum, “If you won’t join ’em, beat ‘em.” “NEVER! will I _________.” Each individual mass market book’s main character fills in the blank.

to wrap up, there is the final showdown, as boring as expected even as it flings words telling us it’s all supposed to be exciting. The fight lasts a few pages during which Marsh has his arm snapped in half by the vampire thing named Julian. Think about that, his arm was snapped in half by force. Think thathurts? We’ll let’s see what is described:

  • “nursing his broken arm” (p. 444). The idiom supersedes all. “Nursing,” while in a battle, doesn’t even fit or make sense.
  • “throbbing in his arm” (p. 444). Idiomatically, things always throb when they hurt in such books.
  • “very still, and held his arm….arm hurt like hell” (p. 445). Another idiom to let us know how it hurt.
  • “his arm was broken and in agony” (p. 447). In case we forgot we’re reminded the arm is broken. Martin actually means Marsh was in agony, not that the arm was in agony. Arms don’t think in order to recognize feelings.
  • “his arm throbbed” (p. 449). Welcome idiom yet again. We missed you.
  • “he squeezed his arm” (p. 449). People squeeze broken arms?
  • “clutched his arm” (p. 449). I see that squeezing changed to clutching.
  • “It was a broken whisper” (p. 452). My mistake, got all excited thatother things were also broken.
  • “whose agony (another person’s) almost made Marsh forget his broken arm” (p. 453). Yeah, who believes this? More glib half idiomatic nonsensical word dropping.
  • “the gun kicked back into Marsh’s arm and he screamed. For an instant he did black out.” (p. 454). So he braced a big elephant gun thingagainst his snapped in half arm and with nearly unbearable pain shot. Of course, that’s what anybody would do. Nobody said he didn’t black out, so why say he did black out? He blacked out. Don’t worry he’ll come to in the next couple sentences or so to win the battle.
Image for post
Image for post
Headline and editorial cartoon for a story on superstitious beliefs in rural Rhode Island including Mercy Brown, January 27, 1896. Boston Daily Globe. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s all so third grade.

The Fevere Dream and the Eclipse never race, and the final touch is to describe a relief carving on Abner’s tombstone that shows the Fevre Dream beating the Eclipse. Ain’t that sweet, or at least schmalzy enough to knock a dog off a gut wagon. This isn’t the worst novel I’ve read this year, Dacre Stoker’s terribly written Dracul takes that dishonorable position but certainly FD is a close second mainly because the goal of this mass market slobber-fest, like all other mass market grease feasts, is to provide a diet that doesn’t require chewing.

O Cap’n! My Cap’n our fearful trip is done.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store