Dead Red Heart edited by Russell B Farr

Dead Red HeartA review by Nalini Haynes

The review summary is at the top because most people won’t read the full review.

In summary

Dead Red Heart is an interesting, mostly engaging, assortment of short stories seeking to portray varying interpretations of vampire mythology. The sense of place, this is Australia, is the one consistent flavour of this anthology. I recommend pausing between each story as many authors have built disparate worlds; jumping suddenly from a traditional vampire to a pregnant-vampire to an Aboriginal vampire can be somewhat disconcerting. I recommend this anthology for fans of vampire fiction, especially readers overseas who would like an ‘alien’ setting and Australian readers who would like something uniquely ‘ours’.

3.5 out of 5 stars: this anthology would have done better if some stories were culled.

Introduction and ‘The tide’ by half of Australia’s SF/F community

Before I wend my way through brief comments on each of the stories in Dead Red Heart, I confess this is the first vampire anthology I’ve read. I don’t generally read vampire fiction, with a few Whedon-esque exceptions. My vampire viewing tends to be limited to things like  Buffy, Angel, Underworld and a few seasons of Vampire Diaries with limited purpose-driven research including Interview with a Vampire and Lost Boys.

I’m saying all this to declare up front: I am not a vampire fiction expert.

Russell B Farr of Ticonderoga Publications offered me a copy with strings attached:

Write a review.

So, here is my review…

‘The Tide’ was, without a doubt, the best offering of the entire anthology. A collection of newspaper clippings over a period of time, ‘The Tide’ reveals the transition from vampires as unwanted refugees to respected citizens.

I would have adored it if the rest of the anthology expanded upon this journey; instead the anthology was a collection of disparate imaginings of vampires. Each story requires an open mind  prepared to grapple with the rules of a new world so I recommend pausing between stories rather than continual reading.

‘Mutiny on the Scarborough’ by Shona Husk

Vampires are deported to Australia as convicts; the vampire says ‘But I am human. The only difference is the food I crave.’ This was an interesting twist on the vampire mythos, coupling a shift in focus with an alternate history.

‘Sun falls’ by Angela Slatter

This was another favourite, appealing for its descriptive prose with a ‘dad’-like vampire who is about 40 years out of date instead of about 20 like ‘normal’ dads. I enjoyed the twist.

‘Such is life’ by Jeremy Sadler

Entertaining and slightly subversive, this reinvention of Ned Kelly was engaging.

 ‘Apologetoi’ by Chris Lawson

Emphasising Australia’s history, that of immigrants effectively pushed into emigrating from their homes, ‘Apologetoi’ underscores the longevity of that social impact when the immigrants are themselves long-lived. However, this is background to a detective story engaging with concepts of barbarism. While I enjoyed the short story I felt this could be enlarged to explore incomplete threads.

‘Punishment of the sun’ by Alan Baxter

Set in the outback with a dysfunctional family, this story builds the Strine-ness (‘Strine’ = ‘Australian’) of the anthology alongside a suspenseful vampire story.

‘Red delicious’ by Felicity Dowker

A confrontation between loggers and greenies set in the Huon Valley contrasts with characters working in a tattoo parlour, creating a sense of Tasmania as a place of contrasts and conflicts. (I grew up in Tasmania: it really is like this.)

‘Just a matter of economics’ by Yvonne Eve Walus

Attending a vampire conference, this initially-anonymous character threw me. Gradually I discovered he’s male and sexually interested in a female character. I was frustrated though: without any physical description or even an initial indicator of species (although he’s a point of view character), I spent the first act of the story focusing on grounding myself with this character, with less focus on what occurred around him.

An undercover detective story unfolded rapidly after getting some clues about the point of view character.

‘Quarantine’ by Patty Jensen

This was the first of the vampires-pregnant-with-human-babies stories. While Joss Whedon pulled a vampire pregnancy off in Angel, there were special circumstances to enable that pregnancy. I had issues with the world-building for each of the pregnant-vampire stories in Dead Red Heart; unfortunately there were also difficulties with the plot and characters in this one.

‘Out of the grave’ by Amanda Pillar

Following the buddy-cop trope where the cops haven’t bonded yet, these two cops – one vampire and one human – investigate a vampire murder. Enjoyable, this short story felt like the beginning of a series.

‘Desert blood’ by Marty Young

Toby and Sarah’s ill-fated romance was a weird little horror story, the first and, in my opinion, the best of the Aboriginal vampire stories. While I enjoyed this story – as much as I’m going to enjoy a horror story – I am concerned about the appropriation of Aboriginal mythology for white-invader-centric stories.

‘Thin air’ by Simon Brown

Vampires. The Roman Catholic Church. Poetic justice. An interesting little tale. Did I mention, I like justice?

‘Kissed by the sun’ by Jodi Cleghorn

Strong themes of dysfunctional family and teenage romance cross over into the vampire genre in this story. Exploration of story and characters occur while events unfold. The setting was very much contemporary urban Australia. Enjoyable, especially if you’re into teens, romance and vampires.

‘Bats’ by Jane Routley

An aging actress struggles with alcoholism, her partner replacing her with a younger model and her career at a cross-roads. A vampire frightens her then she wonders if this could be the answer to her problems. This one is a must-read.

‘Black Heart’ by Joanna Fay

A vampire tired of immortality comes to Australia to grieve and die. Very short, this story is most notable for its prose like ‘Now her flesh, its frozen time unbinding into looped and knotted threads, forced her to suck air like a fish in a dried river-bed.’

‘Renfield’s Wife’ by Damon Cavalchini

The point-of-view character is a human who willingly serves his vampire mistress although she is more animal-like than traditional vampire in her muteness and relationships. Developed as an interesting, possibly unique story, I particularly enjoyed the unexpected ending.

‘Listening to Tracy’ by Jen White

Told in the present and as post-Cyclone-Tracy historical remembrances, this is an exploration of those who inhabit Darwin. A mystery with character development, this is an enjoyable read.

‘Breaking the drought’ by Jay Caselberg

This is a dreamtime story (Australian Aboriginal mythology). Well-told, my only concern is that of appropriation; Jay looks very white to me.

‘Children of the cane’ by Jason Nahrung

Characterisation shines in this short story however a trigger warning for pedophilia is appropriate. The end was very distasteful and, I thought, a young adolescent ‘mowing the lawn’ was unlikely although not impossible. To explain further would spoil the story.

‘The sea at night’ by Joanne Anderton

Good characterisation and descriptive prose combine to present an exploration of the Australian cultural landscape – beaches are prominent – in this aftermath of loss.

‘Sky in the morning’ by Sonia Marcon

This little horror story has a twist I visualised in Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion medium. I expected the ending but was entertained by the journey.

‘Taking it for the team’ by Tracie McBride

Narcissistic footballers are probably my least-favourite people group so I felt like cheering this little number.

‘All that glisters’ by Pete Kempshall

Determined to succeed financially after failing socially in earlier life, Hanson plots a take-over at Markham’s expense but Markham has a few secrets of his own. The vampire in this story is quintessentially Australian. May this vampire meet more bloodsucking mining execs.

‘The rider’ by Martin Livings

Telepathy of sorts couples with the vampire trope to create uncertainty and suspense.

‘Vitality’ by George Ivanoff

The opening scene totally lost me: a vampire hung two human bodies from a hills hoist to bleed out over the ground. He was supposed to be full but going to this extreme is like a human taking time to decorate the backyard with the unwanted remnants of a meal.

This story seems to be a snapshot in the life of Michael from the Vampire Diaries except that the vampire-drinking-vampire’s-blood (or the super-supernatural trope) was omitted. Other details didn’t add up either; this story struck me as intended to be horror first without a focus on plot and plausibility..

‘Coming home’ by Kathryn Hore

A story of two people separated by ‘illness’ but united by love, this story was engaging although I felt the opening scene didn’t quite dovetail with what followed. It seemed two separate stories were pushed together to create a whole where a pared-down opening would have served better. Once the protagonist is inside the house the story is fairly consistent and engaging: characters’ choices, past and present, are sometimes surprising yet believable.

‘The little red man’ by Raymond Gates

This is another Aboriginal vampire story, focusing on what appear to be two white Australians going camping, one enthusiastic while the other longs for the comforts of home. My concerns about appropriation have been mentioned before but this story had added plot holes. If Karen so desperately wants to go home, why does she act against her desires and common sense when things go wrong? I didn’t buy it.

‘Deathborn light’ by Helen Stubbs

Definitely the best of the pregnant vampire stories with character work and development. If you move past the idea of a cold-blooded (presumably dead) creature getting pregnant and having a human baby, then it’s a good story.

‘The life stealer’ by Donna Maree Hanson

Another Aboriginal-based vampire story, the point-of-view character, Jake, is part-Aborigine working as a ranger – how apropros! – while engaging with more traditional yet contemporary tribes-people. I felt this was the most appropriate of the Aboriginal-based stories because the characters are mostly Aboriginal in a suspenseful tale.

‘Behind the black mask’ by Jacob Edwards

Of all the Aboriginal-based vampire stories, this was my least favourite. The prose was verbose, overblown, although admittedly in character for the storyteller. The narrative felt like smoke rudely blown in my face interspersed with indecipherable comments from Aboriginal characters. This was also the second re-imagining of Ned Kelly’s capture in this anthology.

‘Interview with the Jiangshi’ by Anne Mok

I assume the title of this story is a play off Anne Rice’s novel but, only having watched the movie, nuances may be lost on me. The historical parallels with the Buckland riots also went straight over my head until reading the afterword.

April and Jackson attend a convention for vampires on South Bank in Melbourne; Jackson is mistaken for human due to an absence of fang in Chinese vampire style. Humans protest outside while conflicts arise inside the convention.

Being a Melbournian, I was jolted out of the story with a sense of ‘Wait, what?’ when South Bank appears to be adjacent to China Town instead of a brisk walk of about twenty minutes for the closest point, double that from the Convention Centre. This was still an enjoyable story.

‘White and red in the black’ by Lisa L Hannett

This is a story of graziers in the outback coupled with vampires instead of the usual hazards. Vampires are reframed as another Australian plague, somewhat like rabbits although dangerous like packs of dingos hunting humans and livestock. Dialogue is so colloquial I ‘heard’ it in broad Strine accents while the narrative evoked images of dry bush and flies.

‘Lady Yang’s lament’ by Penelope Love

Imagine a vampire vignette from Deadwood set in Australia focusing on the Chinese community.

Some details need polishing like the orchestra (I assume this means the people) run for their lives (I assume  they left their instruments behind) only to spontaneously perform musical accompaniment for Lady Yang in the street or the bush or wherever the final confrontation takes place.

Overall an enjoyable story; it’s interesting to try to climb inside non-European mythology.

Editing and Design

Even before starting to study editing at university, errors in books seemed to leap off the page, breaking the story flow. Errors were as minor as lower case for a name (‘Or nosferatu at the beach?’ in Russell’s introduction) but what really annoyed me were the ellipses, of which no two were the same. I can’t show any examples because the box that breaks up the three little dots comprising an ellipsis ENDS THE POST AND CUTS OFF THE REMAINDER OF THE TEXT. [Kermit yell while waving floppy arms]

Fiction publishing tradition dictates specific design features including indented paragraphs without additional leading (line spacing) between paragraphs while electronic texts should use left justification (text should reach the left side of the page allowing for jagged ends of lines on the right side). Dead Red Heart’s PDF review copy complies, however there were other formatting issues with the PDF copy that could be improved.

I haven’t seen the paper version but I’d recommend looking at a paper copy before choosing your format. I suspect the paper version is preferable (hopefully with correct ellipses) as long as you can read the small print. Besides, the paper is an ARTEFACT that can be autographed by the lovely authors with their willing pens.

In summary

Dead Red Heart is an interesting, mostly engaging, assortment of short stories seeking to portray varying interpretations of vampire mythology. The sense of place, this is Australia, is the one consistent flavour of this anthology. I recommend this anthology for fans of vampire fiction, especially readers overseas who would like an alien setting and Australian readers who would like something uniquely ‘ours’.

I’m also putting a request in for a second anthology, one using ‘The tide’ as a theme and premise for the world, with stories telling different yet overlapping tales, progressing through this fictional history. [Looks pointedly at Russell]