An old evil awakens in the remote Indiana town of Isherwood. Hordes of ravenous vampires threaten to devour everyone and only one man, a Vietnam vet with lots of ammo, can stop them. This is the 1990 horror novel, Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale.
Grady Hendrix, author of Paperbacks From Hell, described this book thusly – “If you thought ‘Salem’s Lot needed more Uzis, welcome to Nightblood.” That’s an apt description, but Nightblood isn’t complete schlock. In fact, it’s pretty well-written and not as stupid as it sounds. The protagonist, Chris Stiles, is a down on his luck Vietnam Vet, shellshocked, burn out, drifting from town to town. But he does have a purpose, namely to hunt down supernatural monsters, the ever-changing “enemy.”
His dead brother, Alex, appears every so often in a ghostly form, offering guidance in addition to some good-natured ribbing that only a sibling can give. Alex was killed by some sort of monster in Central Park and is permanently caught in limbo ever since. This inclusion at the beginning of the novel buckles you in for some supernatural pulp. Alex points Chris in the direction of Isherwood, Indiana, along with one cryptic clue, that even he can’t quite explain – Danner.
Isherwood is a small town full of quirky characters, most of them having small minds as well, not taking too kindly to strangers. Chris Stiles finds himself unwelcome by most of the townspeople, including Charlie Bean, a sheriff’s deputy who is suspicious of this handsome young drifter. But he’s a decent sort of guy, especially when compared to the rest of the sheriff’s department, who are either lazy, incompetent, or power-hungry, or all three. There’s also John Bailey, an old man who is shut up in a boarding house, with only a strange past and dark memories to keep him company.
Two exceptions are young Bart and Del, brothers who are obsessed with comic books and horror movies. On a dare, they sneak into the old Danner house, a derelict structure and the subject of spooky legends. While inside, they come across the emaciated, lumbering figure of Sebastian Danner, who supposedly murdered his mother and brother, some 80 years ago. Danner chases the brothers outside, desperate to gorge himself on their blood, but Stiles shows up and blasts away with his Uzis, saving the boys. Danner, now a gory heap of flesh, limps off into the night.
Stiles is convinced that since Danner won’t be able to find any blood, the morning sunlight will finish him off for sure. There’s a good amount of detail as to how vampires function. Nightblood’s vampires aren’t magic per se, meaning they don’t turn into bats, can’t teleport, and aren’t able to fly. They are essentially animated corpses, who regenerate their flesh and tissue through drinking blood, regaining their youth, vitality, and strength. But they are immortal, meaning they won’t die of old age, however, they can be killed by sunlight or a samurai sword across the neck.
Bart and Del introduce Stiles to their mother, a diner waitress named Billie. Being a single mom is tough, even in a small town like Isherwood, and she immediately takes a liking to this rugged stranger. Of course, Deputy Bean also fancies Billie, and his jealously over their budding romance is palpable. Chris Stiles survives through doing odd jobs, and even talks about writing a novel about the old Danner place, just to throw off suspicion why he’s there.
Does that sound familiar? Readers of ’Salem’s Lot will recognize that as a plot point, being that the protagonist becomes obsessed with the similar Marsten House and wants to write a novel about it. There are lots of parallels to ’Salem’s Lot littered throughout, such as Bart and Del reading Fangoria magazine, a vampire taking root in small-town America and certain rules that govern vampires, such as they have to be invited into the house or they can’t enter. Although, that last one predates ’Salem’s Lot by a wide margin.
But aside from those blatant similarities, Nightblood is also very different and moves at a much quicker pace, with a greater emphasis on action. Chris Stiles is a Vietnam Vet, like most thriller protagonists of the 80s and early 90s, and now employs tactics he learned fighting the Viet Cong against the undead.
The greatest sin of Nightblood is that it’s a little too long and sometimes takes its time on scene descriptions that don’t need that much detail. But this was par for the course during the 80s horror paperback boom. The fatter those books were, the more publishers like Zebra could charge. Plus, according to Grady Hendrix, Stephen King had thick paperbacks, so, the thinking went, why not imitate the best? Still, an editor should have trimmed this book down to a leaner length.
Not much is known about the author, T. Chris Martindale, but he did write a Dungeons and Dragons book – Curse of the Werewolf (1987) — along with three other horror novels– Where The Chill Waits (1991), Demon Dance (1991), and The Voice in the Basement (1992.) The horror paperback market had collapsed by the mid-90s, and only the heavyweights like Stephen King remained. Maybe Martindale was a casualty of this implosion, or maybe he just got tired of the publishing industry. Burnout is far more common among authors than people realize.
Still, Martindale’s prose is crisp and tight, making me curious about some of his other books. But there are some flaws. For example, there are a few scenes will have two points of views that will change rather abruptly, which is commonly referred to as ping-pong POV. In general, you keep one POV per scene, letting the reader know whose eyes we’re seeing things through. But as mentioned, the prose is strong and well-written, without being flowery. It takes us through this fantastical world of vampires and Uzis without reading like a glorified screenplay, as some thriller novels feel like.
The novel really gets cooking when Danner regenerates himself and ambushes Stiles at his own boarding house. After all, if the owner of the house invites a vampire in, it still counts, even if Stiles himself doesn’t agree. A creepy scene follows with Danner explaining his origins, while the threat of rape hangs in the room like a guillotine. Years ago, Danner met an ancient vampire who’d been around during the time the Roman Empire invaded Britain and become something of his lover. Now, Danner seeks to finish what he started years ago, namely turning all of Isherwood into his vampire slaves.
Given that Nightblood was published in 1990, a stupid reading of this book would be to draw connections between the vampires and the AIDS epidemic, but aside from a few one-offs, I don’t think there’s anything deeper here. But hey, people see what they want to see.
There’s a good little mystery (who is John Bailey, really?) and once the townsfolk start turning into vampires, the book cranks into high gear. There’s a real creepy scene where one woman, tired of dealing with her abusive husband, dons dominatrix gear instead of the schoolgirl outfit he wanted. The description of her, now no longer remotely human, raping and feeding on him, is unsettling to say the least.
As mentioned earlier, there are lots of references to comics such as the X-Men, Fangoria magazine, and then-contemporary horror movies like 1985’s Fright Night. The vampires in Nightblood even bear a striking resemblance to those in Fright Night, wide mouth and all, although for Danner’s old man appearance, I pictured Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Clearly, the author was a fan of so-called “trash literature” that he is contributing to. Enter Grady Hendrix once again, who read Nightblood for his Paperbacks From Hell book, a love letter to horror pulps from the 70s and 80s. It gets even more meta since Hendrix partnered with Valancourt Books to rerelease Nightblood, along with various other horror novels, through their Paperbacks From Hell series.
With lots of fog in the crisp autumn air, and vampires lurking in the darkness, Nightblood is a good choice for a Halloween read.