Tuesday, August 23, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Fevre Dream

Released in 1982, Fevre Dream is George R.R. Martin's third novel. While much of his early work is Science Fiction, this is a historical Horror novel, one as concerned with steamboats upon the Mississippi as it is with the vampires it contains, and one that proves as adept at conveying the majesty of 19th century America as A Game of Thrones was at showing us a certain pseudo-medieval world. Yes, this is a vampire story, but it is anything but a shallow imitation of 'Salem's Lot or any of the genre's other classics.

Like all of Martin's work, Fevre Dream is a story of characters. Abner Marsh is a large and honest man, someone slow but bright, the ugliest man on the river (p. 11) and one of its biggest dreamers. He's a steamboatman through and through and has served in every position up tom and most certainly including, captain, but he's now lost just about everything save sympathy due to crushing ice and cruel fate. Abner is a gruff character not much given to warmth or gentleness, but he's a good man that refuses to bow down to circumstance.

Into the picture comes Joshua York, a suave man of indeterminate age, strange hours, and stranger companions. He has a proposition for Captain Marsh: York will supply the money for a steamboat if Marsh is willing to captain it for him. And if Marsh is willing to never, ever question the peculiarities of him or his companions. So their partnership begins, with Marsh kept in the dark. Of course, as any reader of horror worth their salt should be able to guess within a page of their meeting, Joshua's more than he seems. But that does not mean that the novel soon devolves into empty chase scenes. No, Joshua and Abner's relationship is far more complex than that. The chemistry, and eventual friendship, between the two is breathtaking, even while it has to grow around the holes in their knowledge and the mistrust that they can't help but feel.

Damon Julian and Sour Billy Tipton complete our list of characters, and their relationship could not be more different. Julian is the most powerful living vampire, and perhaps the eldest, while Sour Billy is the human he uses to do his bidding. Their relationship is one of greed, with each intending to exploit the other for all that they are worth, and each interacting with others entirely through fear.

The conflict between York and Julian is the central thread of the novel, but far from its only focus. Martin's pace here is slow, drifting down the course of the story and seeing all there is to see rather than sprinting through. The first half of the book, in fact, is almost devoid of direct conflict, instead focusing on setting the scene and building the atmosphere. Martin is able to characterize with only a handful of sentences, and his descriptions are rich and stately, filling the pages with a world over a century old that fills as vivid as the reader's own:

Even empty of carpeting, mirrors, and furniture, the long cabin had a splendor to it. they walked down it slowly, in silence, and in the moving light of the lantern bits of its stately beauty suddenly took form from the darkness, only to vanish again behind them: The high arched ceiling with its curved beams, curved and painted with detail as fine as fairy lace. Long rows of slim columns flanking the stateroom doors, trimmed with delicate fluting. The black marble bar with its thick veins of color. The oily sheen of dark wood. The double row of chandeliers, each with four great crystal globes hanging from a spiderweb of wrought iron, wanting only oil and a flame and all those mirrors to wake the whole saloon to glorious, glittering light. (pp. 32-3)

That splendor, however, can be deceptive. Numerous characters are enamored with beauty, and good is closely aligned with the creation of beauty. And yet beauty is what so often leads to evil, what draws both vampires and thieves. Darkness, too, frequently lurks behind beauty, and the splendor of the Fevre Dream and the river towns it passes through is soon tainted by what lurks underneath: "This city – the heat, the bright colors, the smells, the slaves – it is very alive, this New Orleans, but inside I think it is rotten with sickness." (p. 130) In that way, the majesty of the novel's opening is subverted as its core turns out to be rotted and sick. Great works are built on the backs of slaves, noble characters may be filled with evil, and the beauty of Julian and the ugliness of Marsh provide no indicator of the man beneath the skin.

Fevre Dream, at first, seems a specimen of character driven horror, focusing on the personal struggle between Joshua York and Damon Julian and the darkness that comes from within men. But, as time passes, it soon becomes clear that the conflict is not between those within our brightly lit steamboat and those against another but rather our brightly lit steamboat against the entirety of the darkness without and within: "I thought him evil at first, a dark king leading his people into ruin, but watching him…he is ruined already, hollow, empty. He feasts on the lives of your people because he has no life of his own, not even a name that is truly his. Once I wondered what he thought of, alone, all those days and nights in darkness. I know now that he does not think at all. Perhaps he dreams. If so, I think he dreams of death, an ending. He dwells in that black empty cabin as if it were a tomb, stirring form it only at the scent of blood." (p. 291)

Even as he draws horror from the same wells as Lovecraft and his cohorts, however, Martin's conclusions are vastly different from the cosmic pessimism of the Weird Tales originators. For Martin the unassailable power of darkness is plain, but that does not give you an excuse to surrender. Here, virtue can only be found among the choices we make when faced with inevitabilities: "Choice, you said," he volunteered finally. "That's the difference between good and evil." (p. 178) And so, despite the ephemeral length of their lives, and the vanishingly small nature of their chances, Martin's characters become romantic heroes.

Good choices alone, however, are not enough. Time and time again, Joshua faces Julian in battle, and he loses each time, because Julian is unconstrained by conscience and Joshua is not: Joshua had drugged his own beast, had tamed it to his will, so he had only humanity to face the beast that lived in Julian. And humanity was not enough. He could not hope to win. (p. 354) Intentions are not enough to earn triumphs in Martin's world. To achieve something beyond empty heroics, Martin's characters must, to some extent, embrace the very barbarity that they fight, and, therein, comes the almost insurmountable challenge of drawing the line between strength to fight evil and becoming evil oneself.

Throughout, Joshua York is defined by defying the status quo. For millennia, vampires have simply fed. Driven by their need to kill – the red thirst – they ignored morality and took what they required. York does not see them as evil in that period. As he says, Without choice, there can be no good nor evil. (p. 177) But now York has found a cure, a way to banish the red thirst without the need to revel in murder and blood. Only now can he condemn his fellow vampires, those that choose not to abandon their old ways. As such, it is fitting that his greatest foe, Damon Julian, is no longer a prisoner of his thirst. The too-human need to do harm proved ephemeral in him, and, like Joshua, he is no longer bound by it. Yet he still chooses to do harm.

Martin, of course, extends the metaphor to encompass humanity as well. York was born around the time of the French Revolution, when superstitious peasants executed his father while he and two servants escaped. The father, far too much a creature of the night to believe in anything more damning than amorality, does not blame the peasants who come for him: "They cannot help themselves. The red thirst is on this nation, and only blood will sate it. It is the bane of us all," (p. 154) words later used to describe the Civil War that explodes in the background of the narrative. York rejects that idea, claiming that humans are under no compulsion from the thirst; only an evil nature made [them] do as [they] did. (p. 171)

So, from all of this, Martin's point seems to be that we are not good or bad because of our circumstances but because of our choices and that, no matter the odds, we must not allow ourselves to be swept up by evil. Alright, that all makes sense, and it's a message that's well conveyed – except, that is, when Joshua goes and muddies everything up. Traditionally, vampires sort their hierarchy and prove their dominance with a contest of wills, with the loser subjugated to the winner forever, or, at least, until a stronger vampire comes along. Joshua prefers not to use this method, instead attempting to allow his followers a choice. This most certainly fits with his character. After all, vampires would hardly have become a force for good if they only ceased murdering due to being strong armed into the decision. When they choose to defy Joshua, however, he is not above challenging and defeating them. That, too, fits well with the novel's themes: when the right path cannot be achieved by intentions alone, force must be used to ensure that evil does not triumph.

These mechanics become troublesome, however, when Damon Julian enters the picture. First, Joshua attempts to sway him with words, and then with strength. Both times he fails. Joshua, of course, does not surrender. Though he is outmatched, he battles Julian again and again and refuses to give into Julian's immoral way of life (death?). And yet, when it comes to Julian's other followers, Joshua expects nothing of the kind. There comes a point when Abner decides that he will attack the vampires by day with armed men and explosives. Instead of agreeing to the destruction of an evil he cannot vanquish, Joshua says that, if he must, he will fight beside his fellow vampires, because they are not truly evil, for [Julian] controls them. (p. 302)

But is that any excuse at all? After all, the truly evil Damon Julians of the world are rare. Yes, men do instigate great atrocities, but the vast majority of the damage is done by those neither good or evil that simply follow orders, those – to put it as Martin might – swept away by the red thirst that cannot help themselves. (p. 154) Those French peasants so long ago were not scheming masterminds. To say that those carrying out the works of evil men are not only not in the wrong but also deserving of protection is bizarre, a seeming direct contradiction of Joshua's earlier (and later) refusal to accept circumstance as an excuse for evil.

Despite that one inconsistency, however, the buildup of ideas and tension in Fevre Dream is almost flawlessly executed, the world of the novel steadily and inevitably darkening as the characters' dreams fade out of sight and as their nightmares take the stage. The book's middle is a succession of climaxes, followed by the laxly paced and decades-spanning Fevre Years section. On my first read, some years ago, I thought this to be the novel's main weakness. Now I'm more conflicted. This is a great character moment, as well as a thematic one, but it's undeniable that it comes at the expense of much of the prior chapters' tormenting tension. The climax that comes after the lull, however, is anything but an iffy proposition, featuring a fantastic literalization of Joshua and Julian's battle of wills and of their moral philosophies while, around them, the other vampires awake as night dawns.

When it comes to setting and pacing, Fevre Dream might seem an anomaly of sorts in Martin's catalog, but it's linked to the man's other work by the themes it explores and the fantastic quality of its execution. The book's epilogue takes place decades later, in a graveyard overlooking the Mississippi River as the river rolls on and on, as it has rolled for thousands of years. (p. 361) Our characters have departed, the changes that they wrought have been forgotten by almost all, and the very world that they lived in has faded. But we can still see that they made a difference. I've read Dracula, 'Salem's Lot, and more, and I don't think that we've ever, or will ever, see a vampire novel that can equal Fevre Dream.

[Note: all page numbers from the numbered Subterranean edition]


  1. I read this only 3-4 years ago, but I don't think I got half of what you got from it. I recall thinking it was decent, but rather slow.

  2. This was my second reading, and roughly none of this (or, at least, fairly little) occurred to me the first time.