There are few things I’m super obsessed with in the folklore category. Having such a short list of things that preoccupy me makes me very ardent about those few things, and The Highgate Vampire legend is probably top of my list. It’s sat at the top of my list for several years, and as such, I have very high expectations when other writers work with the legend. Neil Gaiman’s done it, Audrey Niffenegger’s done it, and Bram Stoker’s… well, Bram Stoker is probably responsible for most of the legend hacking that surrounds the lore and legend of the cemetery. I was hoping that The Vampire of Highgate by Asa Bailey would become an esteemed member of the bloodsucking book club that draws inspiration from the folklore.
The anticipation is roughly the equivalent of waiting for the movie adaptation of your favourite book, and you think of that book so highly that you’re possessed with a certain degree of fan entitlement and terror that they will somehow screw it up.
I think of Highgate like that a lot.
I was considerably impressed, then, that Asa Bailey took the legend of the Highgate Vampire and translated it accurately, respectfully, and in a way that delivered the backstory with a sense of authenticity. He lays the groundwork for the legend as its often retold today, and drew another story out of it entirely.
Following that, one third of the book was a delight for me as a fangirl. On the downside, the story itself wasn’t compelling at all. I was completely and utterly disenchanted by the time I reached the 50% mark of the book, and the remainder was a begrudging slog to get it finished so I could move on to something else.
The setup follows the typical hero story landmarks: mysterious circumstances surrounding Kathy Bilic’s birth, a missing sister and a quest to find her, a journey to a distant land (London), that encounters certain perils and reveals a few uninteresting tidbits about how the protagonist is special. Protagonist meets a couple of people who help her, she loses her mentor, and there’s a contrived bit of romance with one of the head honcho vampire’s acolytes.
Please understand that I am down with the monomyth. I’ve written the monomyth myself. I’m still working at hiding it, but when I see it I often can’t unsee it and it drives me crazy. The skill when working with it is the ability to disguise it, or compel your reader to look at your structure and doubt that you’ve used it at all (or forgive you and forget that you’re doing it because the story’s just so damned good that you can’t help yourself.)
The Vampire of Highgate is mottled with tidbits of backstory that slow down the read, and there’s not really enough development of any of the supporting cast to really care if they live or die. It’s the unfortunate circumstance of feeling very “meh” about the whole situation the characters are in.
Sometimes, the thing that saves a story for me is a monster with a great motive, but unfortunately the vampires were the cut and dry bloodsucking variety and there was no real consequences to the magical system used by the characters to save themselves. (I might compile a post about magic and its cost at some point. I feel very strongly about it and as a reader, it’s great to see magic used successfully but not easily.) Not enough trauma for me to worry for anyone’s safety, which usually results in my gleefully chortling for everyone’s deaths.
Tomorrow’s post follows this book review with a giant collection of Highgate Vampire-centric articles, and I do hope you take the time to pop back in and check them out as a follow-up to give you better context of the legend behind this story’s origins.
One last note: The Vampire of Highgate by Asa Bailey is billed as British horror, but I’d suggest a reclassification of the book: it’s more paranormal than anything else, and not particularly horrifying.
The Vampire of Highgate by Asa BaileyThe Vampire of Highgate by Asa Bailey
Published by Hodder Children's Books on July 7th 2012
Check it out: Goodreads
Kathy Bilic is adopted. Until now, she’s had only a vague memory of her real family. But terrifying dreams and visions of her sister Amber are waking her in the night. When Amber starts giving her messages, Kathy gets a sickening sense that her sister is in danger – from a deadly, inhuman source. Kathy hits London to find her sister – but when she arrives at her aunt’s house in Highgate, she is actively dissuaded from pursuing the mystery.
Undeterred, Kathy’s trail leads her through a bloody murder in the British Museum to a charged meeting with the mysterious, hypnoptic Antwain and a final confronation with her sinister father. Before long, Kathy uncovers the full horror of her heritage and her sister’s fate at the hands of the Vampire of Highgate.
Gripping, atmospheric and sexy, this is British horror at its best.Buy on Amazon