[originally posted here at Castalia House]
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Martian war, Lucy Harker, the half-vampire daughter of Mina Harker and Dracula, is an agent for the British government who has been sent on-board the Titanic to make sure that the plans for the Nautilus don’t fall into the hands of German spies; Lucy’s stepfather and CO, M, has asked his friend, the viscount of Greyborough*, to keep an eye on her, but running into the alluring Countess of Karnstein puts Lucy’s mission and heart in jeopardy!
Sounds crazy, right? It is. The Adventure of the Incognita Countess is pure and unabashed fan-fiction of the pulps and pre-pulp science fiction. By all rights, it should be a total train wreck (or shipwreck, in this case), but somehow Cynthia Ward has managed to turn all of this into a fairly enjoyable story.
While The Adventure of the Incognita Countess is not the sort of story I normally go for, Ward’s writing kept me interested and entertained and wondering when Lucy and Carmilla were finally going to tear each other’s clothes off. Yes, there’s some heavy fan-shipping going on, but it’s tasteful. Certainly more tastefully done than the uncannily true-to-the-book exploitation flick “The Vampire Lovers”. This is a bit more evocative of the yuri shojo with love bubbles of the conflicted “this is wrong, why does it feel so right?” variety, for one thing.
The first person present prose was a strange choice, and one you don’t see very often for good reason. That said, there were only a couple places where this style of narration trips up the exposition. Lucy gets a bit navel-gazey in few places later in the story, and as she is the sole perspective character, some of potentially the best action scenes of the book get told, rather than shown (Tarzan staying on board the Titanic to save Carmilla, for one).
The moral dilemma Lucy faces with Carmilla is an intriguing one, even if it is at odds with the character (though it is acknowledged in story that LeFanu’s account is not wholly accurate). The Carmilla of this story had more in common with Rymer’s Varney the Vampire than LeFanu’s creation. I did, however, feel like there was a failure to fully reconcile Carmilla’s late-found humanity with the string of corpses she left behind**; there was guilt and regret but no apologia for the past or a concrete moment of heel-face-turn (unless I missed it), and her compassionate interactions with her morality pet just weren’t quite enough to sell it for me.
The Adventure of the Incognita Countess did far exceed my expectations given its premise. It’s probably not the sort of story that would be recognized as “pulpy” by those going into it hoping for something written in the pre-1950s mold despite its pulp and pre-pulp SFF roots. Is this the sort of story I’d buy myself to publish? Probably not. But I did enjoy it. And if you’re looking for a quick-reading girls-love story featuring a bunch of 19th century SFF characters & references where Tarzan helps save the day, this delivers.
Ward is clearly someone familiar with the classics and has an appreciation for them. I’m curious to see how she does with her own characters in her own setting. Both she and Cirsova contributor Adrian Cole have pieces in the upcoming issue of Skelos, so I’m looking forward to that one.
Short Reviews will return next week with Leigh Brackett’s The Moon that Vanished!
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*:while one could say that he’s an expy of Tarzan, it should be noted that in Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs says that he has changed the names. One nit-picky bit is that here, Jack & Jane have a daughter, rather than a son; main reason this bothers me is that Tarzan’s daughter in law set the bar for badass, by-the-bootstraps, pulp action heroines.
**: I’ll not go into theories on Vampirism as analogy for LGBT; those are awkward and messy and fall apart for the same reason that X-Men is a terrible metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle.