Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
Fantasies or even science-fiction based on the Victorian era are a fascinating sub-genre which is heavily dependent on the skill of the author to evoke the spirit of an age in which God was an Englishman and shag was a type of tobacco. Whereas Humphrey Wilkes gets knocked off his bicycle by an omnibus of 1913 in Cambridge, suffering severe head injuries, this tale fits admirably into the spirit of that type of fantasy even though it is set twelve years after the sad demise of the Queen-Empress.
Due to his injuries the unfortunate Wilkes becomes subject to an experiment in brain surgery in those early times. This involved the use of ice to prepare the brain for the removal of bone splinters. With his head firmly swathed in bandages and his body chilled in ice Wilkes commences a pilgrimage from his sickbed. This journey is in many ways dictated by the nature of the medical treatment he undergoes and the injury to the soft tissue of his brain.
Not unsurprisingly Wilkes finds himself stranded in the Arctic ice on a mission with a destination bizarrely located in Karstein in alpine Germany. This involves a succession of meetings with the late Sir John Franklin, the explorer who vanished with his Royal Naval ships and crews into the Arctic ice in 1845. Sir John proves to be a valiant supporter of Wilkes much against the malice of members of his crew now turned into vampires. There is also a strange meeting with Scott of the Antarctic and his tragic team who seem to have become transported to the North Pole to eat their suspect pemmican. Along the way, Wilkes is nurtured by one Lucy another vampire but with a human touch.
The village of Karstein in Germany is the location of the strangely named Block and Stake Inn. This establishment is kept by Herr Bauer to a very meticulous standard. He does have an aversion to pumpkins, particularly on All Hallows Eve. This is when all the local witches and vampires assume a pumpkin identity due to the curse of a seventeenth century witch who remains extant. A drunken riot inspired by a number of locals who should have known better and abetted by Wilkes leads to the destruction by fire of a golden coach belonging to the local lord, Baron von Reitz of Vratnik Castle, as it contained the mother of all pumpkins. Of course, following this event Wilkes becomes enamoured of Katrina another vampire, perhaps even an aspect of the original witch, to fall into the hands of the unpleasant Baron von Reitz and his peculiar wife.
This leads to Wilkes being imprisoned by the wicked Baron. He is rescued again by the wily Lucy and her other vampire comrades. They return to the Arctic to escape and after a lot of adventures, including a further intervention by the redoubtable Sir John Franklin, Wilkes finds his way back to Cambridge and recovery. A happy ending is bestowed upon the reader.
I have mentioned elsewhere that tales based on medical experiences need to feel authentic. The pleasing thing with this story is that medical interventions are inserted into the text, often to predicate the next change in the narrative. This allows the reader to see the distinct parallel between the medical treatment being undergone and the wider plot. The fascination with pumpkins is clearly a reference to the soft tissue of the brain.
This book attempts a number of things. The archaic formula of English life a century ago is carried off very well, plus the authenticity of the medical treatment interacting with a truly fantastic world of a damaged brain is well presented. This book is a short but entertaining, quality read.