on January 2, 2008
I took a course in my undergraduate literary studies called "Fantastic Literature". The reading list for this course included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror, and a long list of gothic tales, magic realism, and horror. It remains my favorite course taken.
Reading Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, a gift I found in my stocking Christmas morning brought back memories of that class. It is the story of Captain Henry Baltimore, who grapples with a vampire on the field of battle during World War I, an encounter which costs him his leg, and ultimately, everything he holds dear. His quest to destroy the vampire is the story, but it is the way in which it is told which makes the book brilliant. I can't say original ; it's more a hybrid homage, a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein's obsessive pursuit of his creation, of the vampire hunters who stalk Dracula, and Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth, with poetic prose references to Andersen's fairy tale. It is told almost entirely in the first person, a key element of most fantastic literature, since it hinges on what Todorov calls "the moment of hesitation," or the idea that the story might not have happened, save in the twisted minds of the characters inhabiting the narrative.
The book has been marketed as a graphic novel, which it is not. It is an illustrated novel; Author/Illustrator Mike Mignola's images are only occasionally direct representations of the action happening in the narrative. Most of the time they are primarily evocative of a mood both Mignola and his co-writer Christopher Golden want to sustain throughout. The pictures help, but unlike Mignola's work on Hellboy, they are a pale reflection of the text, which is brilliant. The opening scenes upon the battlefield are juxtaposed with Baltimore's fevered recollections of playing with his tin soldiers as a boy; instead of resorting to lurid gory detail describing the massacre of Baltimore's platoon, Mignola and Golden utilize Andersen's fairy tale imagery to connote the deaths. The bodies piled in the trenches are compared to the soldiers being returned to the box.
If you are a fan of any of the books I have already mentioned, this book is a must read for you. And for the record, I've decided that if I ever teach a course in "Fantastic Literature", Baltimore will be on the required reading list.