Monday, September 24, 2018

The Vampire Tree (1996/2016) by Paul Halter

I’m a little unsure of this one, honestly.

The Vampire Tree is Locked Room International’s twelfth translation of Paul Halter’s work. The first mistake they made was naming it that instead of naming it by its far superior French title, The Tree With The Twisted Fingers.

The book is less of a whodunit, and more of a Gothic thriller. Patricia Squibby, a nurse, has just married Roger Sheridan, presumably to escape her horrible name. While on the way to her husband's house, Patricia is left stranded at a train station due to a conversation with the weird horror movie victim (this part comes later) Thomas Fleming. During her wait, she learns from a kid about a child killer stalking the town, a killer that leaves shockingly little blood at his crime scenes.

Adding to the general creepiness of her stay is the Sheridan ancestral home she’s living in, which has a vicious, gnarled tree dragging against the window. Not to mention the fact that it was the hanging site and burial ground of an unfortunately named witch, Liza Gribble, who was rumored to keep herself young via a steady diet of children’s blood (which as wee all know, is quite rich in protein). Also not helping the atmosphere is the mysterious death that took place under that tree, many moons ago…

Patricia is shown a diary that belonged to Lavina, a woman who lived in the house years ago. One night after a party, her fiance Eric made some ambiguous comments about someone not liking him, before Lavina went to bed. After having a nightmare of the creepy tree right outside her window, she awoke to find him strangled outside under the tree, with no footprints in the snow. Patricia decides to look deeper into the case, and finds herself drawn more and more into Lavina's mind...

The first part of the novel mainly focuses on Patricia, Roger, and their circle of friends and acquaintances, such as David, a sculptor who is assigned the task of sculpting a wood carving of Patricia, Maude, a painter and friend of Roger (who may or may not harbor feelings of jealousy towards Patricia) and even the obligatory sin-hating reverend who creeps in people’s yards, crucifix in hand. They’re all idiots to one degree or another.

In fairness, not every single one of them are fools. One or two escape the plot unscathed, but the vast majority of the plot is driven by people being stupid. One person jokingly tells the police of their suspicions of another person, and are surprised when the police actually take the claim seriously. Another flat-out knows, or at least heavily suspects, the killer’s identity, but refuses to say for….reasons. As JJ points out in his own review, there are some good moments between the cast, such as the confrontation of Patricia and Maude, but the effect is rather diminished when the rest of the plot is driven by madness.

The mystery, sadly, isn’t all that redeeming. The resolution of the past narrative is a bit perfunctory, and while it works it’s a tad bit of an anti-climax. Not to mention the idea that you can make an accurate diagnosis of someone from a few snippets from a diary of an outside observer. The modern day as well is...weak. It’s clued, I suppose, but only really in retrospect: Once you know what happened and why, you can look back and see the clues, but I would be impressed if anyone was able to piece it together from what we’re shown in the book.

It annoys me, because the ending made me want to like the book. It edges into disturbing territory that I don’t object to seeing explored, and the reveal of what that circle in the snow near the bodies was and what it was used for is certainly creepy. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that some director of Italian giallo movies had lifted this particular plot point. It touches on elements that I find both creepy and fascinating. Even the bleak ending didn’t shake me, partially because I knew it was coming and partially because I don’t mind the occasional dark ending in my fiction, as long as it isn’t spiteful. This ending avoided that.

But in the end I can't find myself able to recommend this. Again, I got the impression that Halter was going for more of a Gothic horror tale in this one, but the tale is weak and lacks even the over-the-top melodrama of such tales. Heck, no one has much response to a child killer running around the village! I would expect police to be scattered on every corner, but no one has a response. Not even the parents of the cruelly murdered children have much, if any, screentime. I don’t expect Halter to play to his weaknesses in characterization, but I would expect an acknowledgement of the pain and agony that these parents must be going through.

All in all, there are better Halter’s out there that are much more worth your time. Not recommended.

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