Vampire Circus by award-winning author Mark Morris (Toady, Cinema Macabre, Dr Who) is a novelisation of the 1972 Hammer Horror film of the same name. While this review recommends a watch for its own sake, the story should work equally well to audiences unfamiliar with the film. Morris has cleverly updated the action to the present day and introduced this classic to modern readers.
The action centres on the small rural town of Shettle, a tight knit community with a strange and shadowed past. Ten years ago, a sinister figure called Mitterhaus resided in the brooding mansion Mitre House (a nice play on words) upon a hill above the town, preying on the blood of its residents. The story opens on a thrilling showdown between Mitterhaus and a small group of outraged and desperate townsfolk. Before he meets a fiery grave, Mitterhaus warns his conquerors that he will one day return to wreak his revenge.
Fast-forward a decade later and the shadows of the past once again fall over the town. The Circus of Nights has arrived, rattling into town with colourful carriages, caged wild animals and seemingly impossible acts. With a host of absorbing set pieces, from trapeze artists who defy both gravity and injury to performers that shape-shift without transition, the circus draws the reader in as quickly it does the townsfolk, who are soon held spellbound. The novel mixes two different worlds, that of the unsuspecting English town and the exotic delights of the circus. The juxtaposition is smooth, and vaguely reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot – or considering the Hammer film’s earlier release, should that be the other way around? Under all the bright lights and dark theatrics, however, the atmosphere is one of creeping dread, the people of Shettle soon finding themselves isolated from the outside world by a strange ‘sickness barrier’ that surrounds the town. This lends the novel a pressure cooker feel as events sink into darker and more dangerous territory.
At the centre of this web is handsome Emil, an unearthly and seductive performer who catches the attention of the town’s teenage girls. As the girls are drawn helpless towards him, caught in the teeth of the circus, the reader learns that all is far from what it seems, and the scene is set for another thrilling confrontation between good and evil.
Vampire Circus is a quick and engaging read, full of creepy villains and evocative scenes that respect and expand on the flavour of the film. On the downside, the changing points of view of the various characters (there are several for such a short and linear tale) does confuse on a couple of occasions, leaving the reader a little unsure of whose head they’re in, adult or teenager, at the start of a scene. Perhaps this is due to the close adherence to the original script rather than a fault of the author, the inevitable result of a celluloid vision re-imagined in words. For all that, the novel does have a great pace and an overall rounded view of events.
A refreshing antidote to the recent craze of light vampire fiction, this novel features gloriously classic monsters hell-bent on revenge. With chills, thrills and gore aplenty, Vampire Circus is a rich and fantastical ride, which horror fans will no doubt delight in.
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