Written: James Keen
Though he’s come to mainstream prominence over the past few years – and rightly so – for his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ efforts and their resultant adaptations for the small screen, George RR Martin is an author that arguably should be more readily associated with lean science fiction stories and one truly outstanding work of horror fiction;the novel ‘Fevre Dream’.
Published in the early 1980’s and seemingly overlooked by a horror-reading public more inclined at the time to consuming Stephen King, Whitley Streiber and Dean Koontz novels (possibly a marketing disadvantage one of his peers, Robert R McCammon also seemed to suffer from; see Mystery Walk et.al) this vividly realized tale of vampires set in the deep south of America during the 1800’s deserves a re-evaluation for those interested not only in perhaps discovering an absorbing work of dark fiction but also for those who delight in simply experiencing a tale well told.
Martin begins the book with the character, Abner Marsh, a tall heavyset steamship trader of some repute meeting the curious and youthful figure of Joshua York in a hotel dining room. The year is 1857, we are in St. Louis and intriguingly, this appointment takes place after midnight. Though Marsh is initially hesitant he agrees to a deal with York, an evidently wealthy fellow, who proposes to build an opulent new steamboat to navigate the Mississippi River for business and pleasure, with Marsh overseeing the construction and subsequently taking the captaincy of the boat. York cautions the down-on-his luck tradesman during the deal, ‘I am no river man…I need someone who is, who can manage the day to day operations of my boat and leave me to pursue my own interests.’. Marsh is not to question his actions. During this conversation Marsh is asked of his religious beliefs, which he states are negligible, ‘Never cared for bible-thumpers…nor them for me.’ It’s a question that quickly takes on a much larger significance as the novel unfurls.
The odd relationship between the two men is explored by Martin with a marked intelligence and an implied empathy with the reader’s presumptions; just when it becomes apparent that the protagonist, Marsh, is pro-actively suspicious of York’s increasingly strange activities both on and off the newly built vessel (the rather ominously named ‘Fevre Dream’ of the title), Martin switches narrative gears to confound expectation and in so doing slyly ratchets up the tension.
Offset against the mismatched character dynamic of Marsh and York, Fevre Dream boasts a particularly devious and malevolent foil in the shape of Damon Julian. A vampire who, along with his retinue of immortal ‘followers’ and with help from his fanatical human thrall, the unctuous character of Sour Billy, gives Martin’s haunting tale an unnervingly grim focus. York and Damon have something of a history, it seems. As the novel progresses the escalating tension between the opposing camps of the inhabitants of the Fevre Dream and the vicious, morally vacuous Damon Julian fronted group is handled deftly by the author who interjects vivid descriptions of the period setting and a broad background sketching of the times (the Civil War, slavery, pestilence and the uncertain and often perilous nature of the steamboat business) to great effect.
This is an eerily atmospheric vampire novel that spans forty-something years and one clearly written by an author with a profound understanding of the tropes that generally permeate such fiction. However, it is Martin’s subverting of certain elements that we commonly associate with this genre that helps give Fevre Dream such a mesmerizing hold on the reader. The characters are crisply delineated and in only a few instances does Martin resort to rendering them as stereotypical (the ship’s pilot Framm and leading deck hand Hairy Mike are examples thereof). Martin’s ‘steady hand on the wheel’ regarding the direction of the story is assured, though on occasion the pace of the plot is maddeningly slow. Taken as a whole it’s a satisfying (though heart-breaking) journey. The book has much to say about the whittling nature of obsession and its unerring tendency to undermine and destroy, both spiritually and physically, to the point where this thematic device threatens to snuff out the optimistic idealism expressed through the characters of Marsh and York.
Throw in a few deftly used portions of Byron’s poetry (doubling as a clever plot device), a terrifying night time river chase between two steamboats, enough blood-letting to sate aficionados of the genre, a grisly final confrontation that bristles with tension and dread and you have a wonderfully sinister book that was made for devouring late into the night. Not for those readers prone to squeamishness…nor perhaps for those who happen to live near a river.
Order your copy of Fevre Dream right here.