Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas
According to the Stanislavski system, an actor has to access the “reality” of a character by first considering the external person and then seeking out the characters’s inner thoughts and feelings. I’m reminded that Alec Guinness once famously said he could never get into character until he found the right pair of shoes to wear. Sir Laurence Olivier used to take his characters to see a therapist (only metaphorically, of course). In a sense, such anecdotes capture the essential problem for stage actors. The proscenium arch both separates the stage from the auditorium, and provides a doorway for the imagination through which the audience may empathise with the characters on stage. What attracts the audience through the arch? Why will they suspend disbelief? Although it remains unspoken, there’s a conspiracy between the actor and the audience. The viewers must be convinced of the authenticity of the movements so, if those movement fit the prevailing stereotypes, the performance will be deemed a success. It’s a difficult balance between naturalism and an entirely artificial technique. Think of it as a craft. Those who master it become famous.
One of the more interesting aspects of the writing process is to watch the author find the prose style that most comfortably fits the subject matter. The intellectual process of selecting the words, arranging them into sentences and committing them to a page (virtual or otherwise) creates the proscenium arch. Now the trick for the author is to persuade the readers to pass through the words into the performance by the characters on the page. Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas (Necro Publications, 2011) is a slight departure from the prose style we see in some of his more overt horror and supernatural writing. This is more densely written, layered with more detail and interior monologue. It takes its time and challenges the reader to move more slowly. So why does this style fit the subject matter?
There are two reasons. The first is Jeffrey Thomas has chosen to move us through time. He begins the story in 1909 and ends in 1996. On the way, we meet several people from history and some of the events match those in the real world. This takes more time to set up. Just as a stage or film production must achieve some degree of credibility in the set design, the choice of furniture and the placement of other more personal objects, an author must decorate his text with sufficient detail so we can believe ourselves in different times. Like the performance, it’s a difficult balancing act to insert just enough information without it becoming a boring history lesson. So, as to external reality, we must have the places described and get the right period shoes for the characters to wear. Then we must come to their inner thoughts and feelings. This marks the second reason. Although we meet a number of people, Blood Society is the journey of Attilio Augusta who, in unexpected circumstances, finds himself changed into something different.
This is not a conventional monster book (insofar as any book about what resembles a vampire may be considered a book about a physical monster). This is a young man who finds himself cast adrift on the seas of time. In due course, he decides the best fit for himself is as one of the mafiosi. Not as one of the leaders, of course. The inability to age would give him away if he was seen too often in public. So he finds a way of working behind the scenes. Although none of the mobsters take kindly to paying him a percentage, he creates enough fear to ensure he becomes rich without being the subject of interest to the police. After all, he does have interesting skills to offer his criminal associates. Years pass, but therein likes the rub. Without anyone else to share his life, he faces the loneliness of immortality. A solution would be to turn others to join him. Together they could watch the humans age and die. But this offends his notions of morality. He was not given a choice. . . Then circumstances conspire. The woman who turned him reappears. Her motives are less than clear. And his adopted son is seriously injured.
One of the central preoccupations evident in the short stories and books by Jeffrey Thomas is the nature of identity. No matter whether we are pitched into contemporary America, an alien world or Hell, we are challenged to understand the main protagonist(s). In this instance, we have a young Sicilian fisherman with an eye for pretty girls. He’s physically strong, a good lover and inexperienced in the world outside Sicily. When he has all the time in that world, what could he become? He could spend the years learning to paint or play an instrument, but he was born into a culture that placed no value on such frivolous activities. In part, this is a class issue. His cultural outlook limits his choices. So, predictably, he drifts into crime. The question is whether this will be his only future. Once formed, habits are difficult to break. He’s accumulating wealth but, at some point, he’s going to ask what value the money has. Perhaps loneliness will divert him. Will the fisherman who was turned into a physical monster and chose to become a criminal monster turn away and find a different life?
I confess to being fascinated. Attilio is the prisoner of his own limited education. He lacks the imagination to experiment, to explore the new body he has developed. He’s essentially passive, relying on reactive defensive skills to get by. Only when his world view is challenged does he make any effort to grow. Even then, he seems locked into the mobster mentality that you meet violence with more violence until the other side has lost too much to continue the battle. So, at each point in time, Jeffrey Thomas finds the right shoes for Attilo to wear and we can cross through the more detailed prose style and understand the tragedy of this monster’s existence. Blood Society is well worth seeking out as one of the more thoughtful and, therefore, best vampire-type books of 2011.