Book Review / Vaudevillian vampires and the scent of baloney

Supping with Panthers by Tom Holland, Little, Brown, pounds 12.99 Serva nt of the Bones by Anne Rice, Chatto, pounds 15.99
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Tom Holland is, in the tradition of the great English gothic novel, an over-educated young man who has taken to writing lurid pot-boilers with great aplomb. But there all resemblance to his gay and asthmatic late Georgian forbears must end. Holland is no Beckfordian fantasist, no Orfordian aesthete - and thankfully no Dr Polidori, whose contribution to the early Victorian Penny Dreadful genre, The Vampyre, proved the inspiration for Holland's previous best-seller.

Supping with Panthers is set initially on the frontiers of the British Raj in India, before packing its vampire-killing equipment and decamping for foggy old London during the time of Jack the Ripper. Holland bags historical and fictional personalities like so many hunting trophies and throws them all together into a ripping yarn

His real and imaginary game-room exhibits include the much-maligned Dr Polidori appearing as an "undead" opium-den doorman in Rotherhithe; Byron as a vampire gets a second reprise, and Bram Stoker as himself endures the "real story behind Dracula", his de-fictionalised virginal ward, Lucy, still the prey of international bloodsuckers. Oscar Wilde does a vaudevillian turn, voicing a few feeble bons mots of Holland's invention. The title of this book Supping With Panthers is perhaps a reference to Wilde's description to the rent boys Bosie liked to use. Holland's use of the phrase is self- consciously more exotic, yet at the same time, more mundane. His panthers are the creepy followers of the Indian goddess Kali on a Saga Holiday to the hub of the Empire - with a little literary flavour thrown in like so-much Garam Masala.

It's possible, I suppose, to be charmed by Holland's unabashed re-use of genre material - though I found it exasperating, without a single original thought or image. The book certainly opens at a jolly pace and pretty soon we're in a battle with zombies that seems like a cross between Carry On Up The Khyber and Night Of The Living Dead; despite its silliness, when this opening section concludes (purportedly written by a retired officer but Holland doesn't have the skill to stay in character) the book never recovers its earlier, more fulsome quality.

Fulsome is a description easily applied to Anne Rice, whose books are always compared to orchids and lush hothouse effusions of morbidity and sex. I found Servant of the Bones beguiling and seductive in a quite unexpected way: it is old-fashioned and sad and decorous with none of Holland's testosterone-driven narrative.

The bones of the story are as follows: a young woman, Esther Belkin, dies in a violent mugging in New York with the name of a Babylonian spirit, "Azriel", on her lips. She is the step-daughter of a powerful cult-leader, a Brooklyn cabbalist who is plotting to unleash millennial genocide on an unsuspecting world. Azriel is a spirit of uncertain provenance who has been trapped by an ancient ritual in his own gold-plated skeleton. Whoever owns the Sumerian box with his remains curled up like a foetus inside gets a certain amount of influence over the reluctant spirit.

Like all of Rice's best supernatural creatures, Azriel is personable and tormented, easily the best human in the book. Why he has appeared, after centuries of sleep, at the death of Belkin's stepdaughter, neither Belkin nor Azriel really know. Azriel is an unwilling lackey, despised by the Jewish Rabbis who have looked after his remains, though his ability to inspire terror and death are never directly described. So he remains in Rice's imagination a beautiful boxed in demi-daemon who responds to kindness and can even pleasure women

Rice aficionados - and there are millions of them - will no doubt detect all her familiar touchstones, the death of a daughter being the most obvious. They will also be pleased to find her apparently back on top form, writing with confidence and with the odd flash of brilliance. As usual, she is able to introduce very bizarre ideas into a populist genre and never makes the reader feel an ounce of discomfort.

The mystery of Anne Rice is how she manages to animate large parts of her novels which are simply conversations with not much obviously happening. Her narrative here is surprisingly complex, but almost incidental to the true star of the novel, which is the tone of sweet solemnity that pervades the book with a scent - yes, perhaps it is of lightly phosphorescent, top-canopy orchids.