Thursday, August 08, 2013

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the VampireBaltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire uses the story within a story narrative very successfully.  Three of Lord Baltimore's close acquaintances, Doctor Rose, Demetrius Aischros, and Childress all meet at a pub, awaiting Baltimore.  They each tell their story about how they came to meet Baltimore and when they became aware of the unnatural evil that exists in the world around them.  Interspersed is the narrative about how Henry, Lord Baltimore, came to be the formidable vampire hunter who is nearly as frightening as the creatures he hunts.

As a huge fan of Victorian horror and ghost stories, I enjoyed the narrative device, which reminded me of MR James's ghost stories and William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki tales.  Except this is a lot darker in content.  Baltimore is a hero who lives in the dark, on the edge of despair, with everything he loved having been destroyed by the same vampires he hunts.  He is definitely a tragic figure, seething with anger and rage.  Yet, he's still sympathetic, which is a feeling underlined by the fact that three of the narrators are men who are still loyal to him, despite having seen him at his worst.  For all his rough edges, he is definitely needed in this world in which the Red King continues to afflict his deadly plague on humanity, and his minions go from town to town, spreading destruction.

The stories that each of the men told were creepy and disturbing, a melange of weirdness and horror, with a vintage feel.  They have an air of dark nightmares, in which you question the reality. However, you know that it happened, because that is why these men are meeting together.  They are survivors of those nightmares, and in different ways beholden or loyal to Baltimore.  Each character is distinctive, their narrative fitting their personality and worldview. 

As the name indicates, the story pays homage to the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier.  Baltimore saw himself as that soldier.  A man who had a loving family and a loving wife when he left home to fight in the Great War, but lost everything.  He is that soldier moved around a battlefield by an indifferent creator, who feels nothing for his suffering.  Like the soldier, his beloved is forever denied to him, but still he fights.  This allusion is achingly poignant and beautiful, a needed element in this story of unrelenting darkness and despair. That is not to say that good does not conquer, but the cost is extremely high for those who fight on the side of the light.

Baltimore, in the end, was a good book. Mignola illustrates it with his woodcut/engraving-styled, black and white drawings.  They add somewhat to the narrative, but they are so stylized, it's not the same as a graphic novel, in which the illustrations help to tell the story. However, they bring to mind the woodcuts you might see in a Fairy Tale collection, such as Andrew Lang's fairy books.  I could see that as a deliberate choice on Mignola's part.  One of the other things I really appreciate about this collaboration is that you cannot tell which author is writing which part. It's a seamless finished product, demonstrating much appreciated creative harmony between Mignola and Golden. 

Once again, I'm glad I was able to get this from my library, since these kinds of books are too pricy for my budget. It's definitely worth reading, especially for fans of the above authors and those who enjoy classic horror literature and fairy tales.  Although it's dark reading, it was imaginative and involving.  I'd recommend it.

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