In the three years David Gedden has been governor of Boston, he has helped implement vampire Alex Marshall’s vision of a harmonious coexistence between humans and vampires. With the establishment of blood banks and the taxes vampires pay, there is new growth and prosperity for all the citizens and vampire-caused deaths are almost zero in the entire state, illustrating that vampires can choose civilization over the remorseless excess they are susceptible to. Unfortunately, both David and Alex are the singular focus of Stephen, Alex’s dhampir son, and Arturo, the vampire complicit in Alex’s vampirism.
Arturo and Stephen are determined to expose the precariousness of the human-vampire community and use the violence and destruction they instigate to break both men down. Stephen’s reasons are twofold: make David into the vampire he needs so they can embrace the devouring love David ran from, and get back at his father for refusing to turn him into a vampire by stealing his protégé. Arturo is more than willing to weaponize Stephen in a bid to release Alex from his stranglehold on goodness and humanity and bring him to his side—a battle he has been waging for a millennium. In a contest of humanity, responsibility, and sacrifice against the icy seductiveness of vampiric self-gratification, whose resolve will prevail?
Beside the Darker Shore is a tale of obsession and love and how they interact with concepts such as ideals, free will, fear, and what defines living. The vehicle of obsession takes many forms—addiction, obsession with humanity, other people, miracles of nature and science, etc. to explore dualities, extremes, and whether one’s will can be stolen or if its surreptitiously given over in the face of matters that can consume the mind and soul. The battle for David’s humanity is the linchpin of these themes, while Stephen’s connection to all the performers and also being the instrument that reveals the chink in David’s armor (which Arturo exploits) makes them the central characters. Though David attempts to model his life under the benevolent virtuousness of a Stoic, there are cracks of fear and resentment in his foundation. He’s not sure of who he is and has lived his life drifting along the waves of other’s needs and ambitions. Abandoned emotionally and physically by his parents, David had no choice but to grow up quickly and lock away his pain and emotions to make life manageable. Pressured into becoming governor, he champions Alex’s vision and uses the purity of self-sacrifice and Alex as touchstones to make peace with the emotional void he hides in. Unlike Alex, David does not have unshakeable belief in this way of life, but wants it to be his reality.
It’s also a shield against the almost bestial and irresistible passion Stephen provokes that taps into David’s fear of love and the vulnerability inherent in it. Stephen unnerves him because he makes David acknowledge his fear of what he might do if making his own choices. Being in Stephen’s crosshairs again and meeting the alluring Arturo has David desperately clinging to his imperturbable persona and will power. In contrast to David’s stranglehold on civic and personal responsibility, Stephen is almost remorselessly feckless, leaving flames and ruination in his wake with few regrets or thoughts of the consequences. He is both petulant child and tragic figure, a man trapped between two worlds: truly immortal but human in most ways. The flaw in his creation that directs his path is the vampiric craving for blood he cannot sate; his only reprieve is by being drained himself. In Stephen’s miraculous conception, Alex hoped for a human son; creating an immortal who craves the darkness Alex has shunned is his biggest regret and failure. Despite Stephen’s need to be a vampire (his only option for finding a place to belong), Alex refuses to attempt to turn him, leading Stephen to spill blood the only way he can—breaking everything his father wants to build.
Arturo, with his languid Byronic airs and penchant for waxing poetic in dramatic, seductive ways feeds Stephen’s basest impulses, especially when it comes to shattering Alex. For as long as their lives have been intertwined, Arturo has been riveted by Alex. His innate goodness brought Alex to Arturo’s attention and then into the teeth of their maker; his continued belief that humanity is a gift challenges Arturo’s hedonism. As a human, Arturo reveled in destruction and, as a vampire, has had ample time to create decadent chaos. He’s desperate for a connection with Alex, but only on his terms, believing that the inherent abandon of vampiric nature will eventually strip Alex of the limits he imposes on himself and turn his kindness and generosity into the casual pitilessness and pleasure-seeking Arturo espouses. Despite their differences and the extremes they embody, all the main characters are trying to find a true home.
The story is interesting in its examination of its themes, as a character study, and in its brief exploration of the politics involved in decreasing human bigotry against vampires in the face of their powers and potential deadliness. Yet, for a tale of passion in its many forms, the narrative can be quite passionless; passion is typically expressed in cerebral contemplation that is sometimes less than subtle and graceful. I am told the characters are experiencing deeply intense emotions, yet I feel like I am watching novices in a play. This held me at a remove and kept me from immersing myself in the story, particularly with Stephen and David. Their epic love/lust/passion was created before the events of the story and their connection is only tenuously established before Stephen begins to twist David into knots and their tortuous and circuitous dynamic begins. I could see their conflict and intertwined existence because I was told about it, but I couldn’t always feel it. However, the ease with which David is tempted does successfully convey his subconscious eagerness to fill his emptiness.
To me the writing is as unpredictable and tangled as Stephen, which drags the pace, especially in the second half. At times the push and pull, conflicting motivations/feelings, and sometimes unwieldy and opaque dialogue clash in distracting ways. David’s journey is especially filled with vacillations and crises—about his autonomy; the choice between light, dark, and grey; the search for identity; defining what is or isn’t wrong, etc., which all makes sense. However, the prose that conveys this has a tendency towards lyrical language but stilted, overdone monologues and some ungainly transitions. Moreover, for all the connectedness of the characters and plot beats, the narrative can be disjointed. The research plot-line is a good example. All the main cast engage with this element, but it often lacks cohesion with the narrative and feels out of place. Instead of scientist Elena being organically consumed by her obsession with true, unfettered immortality, she becomes a caricature, and all the characters eventually transform into more pathos than substance. While Beside the Darker Shore may not have been an engaging read for me, I can see others enjoying its brooding, metaphysical essence.
Originally published in 2011 by Eternal Press