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Hellsing or Herushingu

To be honest, there’s very little left to be imagined in the horror supernatural field. Thematically, there has to be a creature or being that cannot exist in nature as we understand it. Individuals or groups are threatened. In the end, enough humans escape for life to continue. So the test of a good modern supernatural fantasy story is that it should take a well-worn concept like vampires and do something different. Whatever that difference, the result should be sufficiently interesting to hold the attention over the run of episodes, in this case, an appropriately inauspicious thirteen. More recently, we’ve seen the young adult cult of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series hit the screens with Edward and Bella chastely falling in love to the accompaniment of werewolves howling their jealousy (as happens in all the best romances). This is fairly mindless romantic drama for kids. Hellsing or Herushingu is an altogether different proposition. It began life as a manga written by Kouta Hirano, first appearing in 1997. The anime version was produced by Gonzo, directed by Umanosuke Iida and written by Chiaki Konaka.

Hellsing the anime deals with two not uncommon themes. The first is directly related to vampirism and follows the emotional journey of someone whose existence is saved by being bitten. The new member of the undead must come to terms with the consequences of the “life”. Secondly, the serial considers the nature of revenge. How long should a “feud” persist and can either side be justified in prolonging the conflict whether in attack or defence? If we think about religion, reconciliation can be delayed for centuries as in the case of Catholicism and Protestantism. Similarly, there are innumerable examples in relationships between countries, e.g. although it’s politically incorrect to mention it following two major wars, England playing Germany on the football field always seems to have an extra dimension.

Seras Victoria getting down to business

I mentioned the Twilight series because these themes are to some extent also present as Bella Swan does become a vampire after having to contend with a revenge attack from a rival coven. There’s also a shared theme of the attackers creating a “vampire” army although, in the anime, this is done by implanting a chip rather than by the more traditional biting — the result being something rather more zombie than vampire in that the soldiers are more slow-moving killing machines directed by the arch-rival to Alucard called Incognito. By way of saying farewell to Twilight, I should explain that Stephenie Meyer did not intend to write “horror” or even “fantasy” novels (albeit simplified for younger readers). The romance genre was always uppermost in her mind. In English terms, this is Mills and Boon meets Dracula (which, by the way, is Alucard when spelt backwards). Both the Twilight books and films are relatively unthreatening. From the first frames onward, everything about the artwork and style of developing the narrative in Hellsing signals a darker intention.

Integra Helling preparing to unlock the seals

Put simply, mashing up the manga and the anime, there’s a Nazi group called Millennium intent on reviving the Third Reich. It creates an army of vampire ghouls or zombies depending on the chip their operatives implant into the captured soldiers who then attack London. There’s a simultaneous attack by a Vatican group called Iscariot. The joint intention is to bring down the British government, kill the Queen and finally dispose of Alucard who has been defending England for a century. This less than modest agenda also includes displacing the Church of England as the dominant religion in the island. So what we see are the first stages of acquiring subjects for testing the chips and, when all the fine-tuning on the transformation is done, we move on to the big climax fight in London.

Alucard reminding us what a shy and charming character he is

The real interest revolves around the relationship between Aculard and Seras Victoria. In her first deployment in Cheddar, she’s taken hostage and, to kill the vampire, Alucard shoots him through her. Not that he feels particularly guilty about this collateral damage, but Alucard does the decent thing and offers to save her. Depending on which version you choose to follow, this “conversion” is possible because Seras Victoria is a virgin. The tradition in vampire lore is that an exchange of blood creates a bond between the empowering vampire and the newbie. In this story, Alucard is more interested in Victoria than we might have expected. In practical terms this may be because Seras Victoria is tough. This is not some wimpy woman. Her father was an undercover police officer. As a child, she was forced to watch his execution. Consequently, she’s turned into a seasoned street fighter and, if necessary, a stone-cold killer. She may feel her morality challenged by now being dependent on drinking blood but, when there’s danger, she embraces her new powers to good effect. Significantly, an early test is the need to take down ex-colleagues from her unit. Seeing what they have become, she confidently disposes of them.

Coming now to the inevitable question of how the women are presented in the story, we have two primary characters to consider. Integra Hellsing is the leader of the defensive team. She’s drawn as androgynous. The basic style of dress is male with little or no emphasis to suggest female characteristics. Similarly her attitudes and behaviour in both getting out into the field and also dominating Alucard suggest real self-confidence and power. Seras Victoria is shown as essentially female but, although there’s some conformity to the more general anime style of sexualised imagery (see Sex, Manga and Anime) with her bigger breasts and the appropriately placed area of shading in the groin area, the overall effect is less obvious than in other series. Taking the image in the context of this bloodthirsty story, the artists show Seras Victoria as a soldier, defending her country against attack.

Overall, there’s some confusion about precisely who the different enemies are and which group they represent. The failure of the British authorities to give complete backing to the Hellsing Organisation is also not well explained. It all makes more sense when you read the manga. But despite a sense of being rushed through the plot, Hellsing or Herushingu is one of the better supernatural animes and worth watching.

Screenshots are from the ever-reliable Autumn Rain.

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Instead of starting with an autobiographical note, I thought I’d kick this review off with a number of definitions. Let’s start with “original”. This is a word we routinely see applied to the latest offerings in all media. Whether you’re talking about the latest blockbuster down at the multiplex, the next bestseller in bookshops or the newest release from the top group, the prime virtue is that the work is something fresh. Rather than recycle or derive ideas from another source, the creator has produced something sufficiently unique that it will be copied by others. Yet when you look at the millions of words and images that are hyped for our attention, and then multiply that across several centuries of effort, you realise how difficult it is to produce something that is not to some degree derivative of, or copied from, the works of others.

So this brings us to “derivative” which, in principle, is the adaptation of someone else’s work. It applies most frequently in the shared universes where, with the permission or consent of the original copyright holders, new creators are allowed to continue the development of the storyline. These major franchises cover a multitude of sins from the Lovecraftian to the Star WarsStar Trek industries that churn out new works for the delight of their fans (most recently seeing the latest and most brilliant contribution to the Batman canon to hit the big screen as The Dark Knight). But there are more authors who quietly borrow concepts and ideas from their peers, modifying them sufficiently to avoid plagiarism. After all, the dynamics of plot are basically rooted in human relationships and, unless you come up with new ways for people to interact, you can only cover the same ground as everyone else — simply changing the factual context to avoid copyright infringement actions.

And then there are the “parodies” — the works that satirise or mock the work of others. In such works, the author clearly identifies the sources and then makes fun of them. At least that is the usual intention. Yet as cultures diversify, so it becomes more difficult for humour to cross boundaries. Thus, works that are intended to amuse often anger or annoy different groups. Such works avoid liability as copyright infringements because the creators invest enough of their own imagination and labour to justify separate copyright protection.

Which all neatly brings us to The Bone Key by Sarah Monette. This collection of linked short stories pays homage to the work of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft (although the latter’s contribution is more tangential than direct). Well, that proves me an unreliable narrator qua critic because I have immediately stepped outside the three definitions. But that is the word used by Monette in her introduction. In essence, a homage is a work that shows respect for the individual(s) named. It reflects the spirit of the original in very recognisable ways, but adds a contemporary commentary or gloss. To that extent, it is close to being a derivative work, but it does not need the express consent of the copyright holders because the author avoids any direct quotations or other borrowings. The work is original but deliberately reflects the spirit of the originals.

So does this collection (close to being a fix-up novel but avoiding it) genuinely show respect for her two nominated sources of inspiration? The style is very definitely Jamesean. It has the same dry, slightly deadpan tone. But it avoids the rather more hyperbolic excesses of Lovecraft. You will not find any of the Elder Gods wandering around the museum where her protagonist works, although we do have a parade of revenants and other supernatural beings which borrow something from the Lovecraftian canon. To that extent, she succeeds in creating a genuine sense of period writing. Is this a good thing? Well, being of an age to have read these works more than fifty years ago, I immediately recognise the understated quality of James whom I continue to think is a master of the genre. However, I am not sure how well this style travels in time. Modern readers are used to a more explicit approach to the horror and supernatural content. Retaining some of the sensibilities of writers working so long ago is a dangerous ploy.

To leaven the mix, Monette takes the slightly radical decision to make her male hero gay. As an aside, I note that the magic employed in the Doctrine of Labyrinths has a homoerotic side with Felix overtly gay. Thematically, Monette seems to find it easier to write about gay rather than straight male characters. In this instance, the homosexuality is a reasonably good fit because the hero, Kyle Murchison Booth, comes from a wealthy background, goes through private schooling and therefore fits the stereotype of the slightly effete, intellectually obsessed individuals who closeted themselves away in museums in the early part of the last century.

In this context, it certainly does bring the characterisation into the modern era. Too often, the writers of the last century focused on the plot and said little about the interior lives of their characters. It also poses all kinds of interesting questions as: does an incubus also sleep with men or is it the succubus that swings both ways? Nomenclature is always important to us critics.

The stories are of a reasonably even standard with The Wall of Clouds the most interesting and the new Listening to Bone the weakest. The stories are divided into two camps. The first, to a greater or lesser extent, illuminates our understanding of Booth by reviewing his early life and schooling. This helps to explain how and why he has become the man he is in the second group of stories representing the mid-period of his life.

Overall, I think Monette has avoided the dangers of pastiche (in the more pejorative sense of the word) and has created an interesting blend of older and modern sensibilities. Thus, accepting the derivative nature of the work, there is a sufficient overlay of original contemporary feelings and emotions to make the fusion work.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men (jointly with Elizabeth Bear), a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

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