Written by Alan Draven
Published by iUniverse
One of America’s biggest fears these days is a pandemic reaching its shores from some foreign country and wiping out thousands, or even millions, of its citizens. In his debut novel, Bitternest, author Alan Draven takes that scenario and turns it on its ear by bringing vampires and other supernatural beings into the mix — with surprisingly satisfying success.
Most of Dread Central’s other reviewers have reached the saturation point with vamp-fueled movies and books, but not this woman! So when we got an email from Mr. Draven asking if anyone would like to review his newest release, I jumped at the chance. Vamps and massive death and destruction from a viral outbreak? Sign me up!
Bitternest, Louisiana, is a fog-drenched town with 275,000 occupants and a dark history. Rumors abound of paranormal goings-on, but no one talks of them openly. The narrative begins with our two protagonists, Detectives Terry Graves and Miguel Vallejo, investigating a crime scene where the naked corpses of at least a dozen women have been left in a neatly formed pile. Most disconcerting is the fact that they all have two small bite marks on their necks and the bodies have been drained of blood. Graves is lured away from the area by an Asian man named Kozo who introduces himself as a vampire and requests that Graves accompany him to visit his leader, a centuries old bloodsucker named Cyrus, to discuss a situation that has put not only the human inhabitants of Bitternest but also the vamps themselves in grave danger.
A rapidly mutating strain of avian influenza, H5N1, is sweeping the world. Typically two thirds of those infected die from the disease, including Terry’s beloved wife, Tracie, whose death he has yet to come to terms with due to his heavy workload in the wake of the tragedy. Oddly, however, the death rate in Bitternest is well below the national average; less than a third succumb to H5N1. Meanwhile Graves and Vallejo are also contending with another crisis: Bitternest residents — including a disproportionate amount of children — are disappearing at an alarming rate for no apparent reason.
Adding insult to injury, the purpose of Cyrus’ meeting with Graves is to discuss a fast growing group of half-human/half-vampire hybrids known as blood mongers. These mutants came about as a result of the members of Cyrus’ Vampire Circle feeding on some of the influenza victims. Instead of dying, they became stronger and turned into vampire-like creatures that can survive in daylight. Their numbers are growing as they hunt down the pure vampires and turn more and more H5N1 sufferers into like creatures. By the time Graves meets Cyrus, his Vampire Circle has dwindled to six from its original thirteen. Cyrus proposes an alliance between his crew and Graves’ men to bring down the blood mongers, which Graves reluctantly agrees to in light of the fact that he basically has no other choice.
As if the influenza related deaths, bizarre disappearances, and blood mongers aren’t enough, Bitternest’s most notorious criminal, drug lord Tezano Cortez, is in the midst of doing battle with his underworld rivals in an attempt to set in motion a plan that will place him in a position of ultimate power over the city. Cortez has in his possession a book of spells that belonged to the previous owner of his mansion, a conjurer and master of the occult named Timothy Crane, and has unwittingly released an ancient demoness from hell whom the blood mongers worship. In addition, she has brought with her an army of vicious female children to prey on the remaining populace of Bitternest. Cortez’s story intersects that of Graves, Vallejo, and Cyrus in an ingenious way that doesn’t become clear until the novel’s final chapters.
Along with the detectives, the vampires (the most colorful of whom wears clown makeup), and the gangsters, we’re introduced to a diverse, likable group of individuals that include Terry’s scientist friend who is fiendishly working to come up with both a vaccine for the virus and an antidote for the blood mongers; a ragtag quartet of vampire hunters who balk at first at the thought of working with the Circle but then plunge right in; a foster child named Harmony whom Terry has taken under his wing and does his best to protect from the mayhem surrounding them; an attractive CSI captain who assists Terry and Miguel in the field and thankfully never becomes a “love interest” for either of them; a perfectly paranoid conspiracy theorist; and my favorite secondary character, Aldous Finch, who helps the detectives put some pieces together and about whom I definitely would love to learn more in one of Draven’s future projects. They all speak and act like real people would under the circumstances and greatly enrich the palette that makes up Bitternest.
Bitternest is a scarily timely tale that beautifully weaves its storylines together in a fast-paced, expertly written manner through the use of short chapters that keep the reader glued to the action and turning the pages as quickly as possible. It includes numerous passages of graphic violence and gore so that even the most hardened horror fan will remain engaged. Draven’s descriptions are just long enough without becoming overbearing. He is an author who understands that if you can’t get your point across in a few sentences, expanding it to a few paragraphs won’t make it any better. My only complaint — and it’s a minor one — is that I wish there had been a bit more fleshing out of the ancillary characters, especially Cyrus and Finch, both of whom seem worthy of development beyond what was provided.
For those of you who complain that vampires have become nothing more than mopey Goths who lay about wearing black leather and lace, whining about their condition, Bitternest provides just the antidote you are craving. Instead of only one type of vamp, it offers three diverse incarnations of the breed that are as cold-hearted and bloodthirsty as they come. Not only that, but their human counterparts are pretty darn interesting as well. If Bitternest is an example of what Alan Draven can do for this tired subgenre, then we are all fortunate indeed to have him already hard at work on his next offering!
4 out of 5
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