By Michael Talbot (Avon; 1982)
To be sure, a lot of crap was published during the horror boom of the 1980s, but some real gems also made their way to publication during that period, and were inexplicably lost in the shuffle. Examples of the latter include the early novels of Jack Ketchum, which have only recently gotten the attention they deserve, and Michael Talbot’s THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY, an unassumingly packaged paperback original that has yet to receive its full dues.
The late Michael Talbot (1953-1992) is best known for nonfiction texts like MYSTICISM AND THE NEW PHYSICS and THE HOLOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE, as well as the horror potboilers NIGHT THINGS and THE BOG. As I recall, the latter novel received a fair amount of critical acclaim back in 1986, but THE DELICATE DEPENDECY, Talbot’s fictional debut, is the title that should have gotten all the attention.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the most ambitious vampire tales I’ve ever read. Set in the early 1900s and taking place throughout England, France and Rome, it’s a staggeringly researched historical saga as well as an unerringly learned and intelligent contemplation on the nature of vampirism, driven by unpretentious storytelling magic. Writers like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Anne Rice have attempted similarly themed novels, but THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY is stronger than anything I’ve read by either–in fact, I’d venture to say it’s the very best novel of its kind.
Dr. John Gladstone is a widowed London-based virologist formulating an experimental flu vaccine. Gladstone’s life changes one day when his carriage nearly runs over Niccolo, a young Italian man whose Angelic appearance directly recalls the androgynous angel of Leonardo Da Vinci’s MADONNA OF THE ROCKS–and with good reason, as Niccolo is the angel pictured in the painting, being a centuries-old vampire who knew (and loved) Da Vinci personally. Niccolo dutifully fills Gladstone in on the particulars of vampire life, which is spent in pursuit of knowledge and lorded over by Lodovico, a mysterious figure who’s been around since before recorded history. Niccolo has much more to tell, of course, but before he can do so he abruptly disappears with Gladstone’s feeble-minded young daughter in tow.
Gladstone pursues Niccolo with the help of one Lady Hespeth, whose inquisitive zeal is invaluable in tracing Niccolo to a house in Paris. Upon arriving at said house Gladstone and Hespeth are confronted by a gaggle of vampires led by des Esseintes (the name of the protagonist of J.K. Huysmans’ proto-surrealist classic A REBOURS/AGAINST THE GRAIN, a novel referred to several times here). Des Esseintes imprisons Gladstone and Hespeth in dungeons beneath the house, where Gladstone’s every move is monitored by a monstrous raven, making escape difficult. That’s all I’ll reveal of the wide ranging narrative, other than to say that quite a few surprises are in store for the protagonists and the reader, with the shadowy Lodovico making a surprise appearance in a climax that can accurately be termed mind-blowing.
Historical fiction tends to be stymied by stiffness and overwriting (see the abovementioned Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Anne Rice novels for evidence), but Talbot avoids both pratfalls, crafting a crisp and compelling narrative whose period detail feels authentic, and with a suitably refined narrative voice that fully befits a Victorian intellectual. The novel, in short, is a neglected masterpiece long overdue for a reprisal, or at the very least a reprinting.