Descent into Dust. By Jacqueline Lepore. Avon. $13.99.
Here is an easily dismissible book that does not really deserve to be easily dismissed. Yes, it is one of umpteen-and-a-half vampire stories, and yes, the plot is entirely summed up in the cover lines designed to get you to buy it: “A vampire rises to power. A woman finds her destiny.” And while we’re at it, yes, the writing is sometimes clichéd to the point of unintentional humor: “It was night when we set out to kill Mr. Hess again.” And in other instances, first-time author Jacqueline Lepore, seeming to realize how silly it would sound to write, “It felt like destiny,” writes the words anyway but puts a few era-setting ones among them: “It felt, if I might be vaporish enough to say so, like destiny.”
Yet with all this, Descent into Dust, the first book of a planned series, is better than many of the other fight-the-undead novels of recent vintage, because Lepore does not try to ring many changes on vampire legends. Instead, she returns to their roots – not the roots of many centuries ago but those of Victorian times, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and John Polidori’s The Vampyre and the numerous Gothic novels to which the vampire books are dark cousins. Descent into Dust is set firmly in Victorian England (although not told in 19th-century British prose), and the basics of that era’s vampire legends remain the core here: the undead must be invited into a house; are sensitive to garlic, holy water and the Catholic cross; must be staked and beheaded to be laid permanently to rest; and are really nasty creatures even though they do have the ability to conjure up (demurely described) feelings of “excitation” in women. Forget the recasting of vampires as teenage heartthrobs or grand forces of nature – these things are vicious, ravening beasts toward which there is no reason to have an iota of sympathy or attraction.
The few twists on the old-style tales that Lepore uses are included at the service of a more-than-serviceable plot. The protagonist is Emma Andrews, a 23-year-old widow (wrongly described as 25 on the back of the book) who was married at her dying father’s behest to a much older, wealthy man whom she respected but did not love. He has conveniently died before the book begins, giving Emma the wherewithal and independence she needs within straitlaced Victorian society to undertake – within limits – her vampire-hunting quest. One twist here is that hunters like Emma, who turns out to be a Dhampir, are born, not made, as Emma learns when she finds out the true story behind her mother’s supposed madness and her death in Emma’s early childhood. Another twist is that, under duress, even an untrained Dhampir can exhibit powers that seem a bit like something out of The Matrix, as Emma discovers (to her own surprise) in a chilling scene in a dark barn.
Vampire hunters can be apparently ordinary humans, though, one such being Valerian Fox, one of those darkly intense, brooding and somewhat ill-mannered gentlemen so common in Gothics, who sets Emma’s heart suitably aflutter while guiding her through some of the fine points of the use of stakes and mallets. In one of several tributes to Stoker’s geography, now firmly ensconced in vampire lore, Emma also has an Uncle Peter who is from Romania and speaks with the usual vaguely Eastern European accent. It is a strength of the book that Lepore seems to know when she is using completely stereotyped characters, although this does not prevent her from making occasional missteps, such as introducing an evilly grinning Gypsy with a huge mustache: his role as vampire-helper-to-be-destroyed-early-on might as well have been lit in neon lights.
Yet despite its more-than-occasional awkwardness and its not-very-meaningful title, Descent into Dust is a surprisingly successful series opener, because Emma is a genuinely likable character and a reasonably believable one for her time. It is precisely because she is not as demure or self-limited as the other women in the story – notably her sister and cousin – that Emma is able to do what she does and learn so much about herself and her history. Lepore frequently hints at Emma’s not-quite-typical personality by having her say the expected thing in an unexpected way: “‘I find it odd that you are so curious about an outing of a widow and a child,’ I said pertly.” Of course, it is Emma herself who narrates the tale – and we know from the start that it is a flashback to decades before the time she is telling it – so perhaps Lepore is merely having Emma show herself in the retrospective light in which she wants to appear while telling the story of her desperate hunt for the master vampire Marius in an attempt to stop him from destroying a child whom Emma loves deeply. More likely, though, Lepore has simply absorbed Stoker, the Gothics and other haunted books and poems of the Victorian era (Coleridge’s Christabel makes an appearance and proves to be of some importance), and brought their narrative style into the 21st century. As long as they do not expect Descent into Dust to be more than the page-turner potboiler that it is, readers will find it quite enjoyable. Emma begins her story with a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but it is a twist on a line from Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that aptly fits the book itself: “No, it is not great writing, nor was meant to be.”