Host, The

Rating: 
3
The Host & Fright Eater
Review by The Mad Bibliographer, submitted on 12-Nov-1998

This review was originally posted in November 1998. Contact and bibliographic information has been updated for this posting.

A version of this review appeared in The Vampire's Crypt 19 (Spring 1999). The Vampire's Crypt web site is: http://members.aol.com/MLCVamp/vampcrpt.htm

Selina Rosen. THE HOST, 1997; 164 pp.; ISBN 1-893687-00-7; $7.00; FRIGHT EATER, 1998; 176 pp.; ISBN 1-893687-01-5; $7.00. Both are comb bound, digest format; add $2.00 per ORDER S/H direct from Yard Dog Press, 710 W. Redbud Lane, Alma, AR 72921-7247. Check 'em out on the web at http://www.yarddogpress.com/.

Tracy Cohen is the closeted lesbian rabbi of a small congregation in Jones Port, Arkansas. She also has her own landscaping business and participates in the local Medieval Recreation Society (MRS), a pastime that frequently has her putting on plate armor and whacking away at opponents with a rattan sword. But although Tracy is not prone to jumping at shadows, she can *feel* that something wrong and evil has come to Jones Port. Her pragmatic housemate Bill soon sees concrete evidence of what he's more inclined to laugh off: The first of a series of mutilation murders that point to ... cultists?

Investigative reporter Jane Weston has seen murders like these before. But when she tried revealing the truth, she lost her job and gained the unwelcome attentions of *them* -- things that laugh at guns, garlic, crosses -- even stakes. They follow her across the country, forcing her to leave job after job, making her afraid to get into her car or go home to her apartment because *they* might be there. She had hoped that in a town as small and obscure as Jones Port, she'd be safe from *them*. But the mutilation murders prove her once more wrong, and she wonders where she can run to now....

Damon and his "children," Davil, Devon, and Natas, travel the country following and feeding on their Host. But Jones Port offers them something new. Damon realizes the sheer potential of the place when he feels the power he can draw from a hellfire-and-damnation church service. The congregation is speaking in tongues, laughing, crying, kneeling and praying -- all terrified because of their conviction that they have sinned and their fear that they may not be cleansed or forgiven. Damon staggers out of the church laughing, drunk on the fear in the air. This is a town where TV commercials warn that Satan is knocking at the door -- a whole town so fear-filled it can be a host for Damon and his company, a gold mine of power such as Damon has only dreamt of before.

Damon's "children" discover the fly in their ointment when they try to grab their one-person Host for some fun; a nearby band of Medieval Recreation Society fighters go after them with their rattan swords and actually *hurt* Davil, something that Damon had told her was impossible. A trip to an evangelist-healer's revival service (with its fear-filled audience) fixes Davil up once again, but Damon swears vengeance against whoever, *whatever* caused her harm.

It was Tracy's sword that did the deed, and simply seeing and being near Jane's attackers makes her realize that *they* are the soulless ones, the ones doing the mutilation murders; and that they must be killed. Fellow MRS-ers Mitch, Hugh, and Burt don't agree with Tracy's conclusions about what the creatures are, but seeing that they ran away from damage that should have sent them to the hospital in an ambulance is the impetus for the impromptu formation of a band of vampire hunters -- a band that Jane Wescot insists on joining, because Tracy has given her courage to fight the creatures she has been running from for so long.

The pace and the suspense rise as Tracy and company confront the vampires and kill one of their number but sustain some damage in the process; the vampires, in turn, look for a replacement for Natas and find someone particularly well-placed for killing Tracy's friends ... so her fear will make it all the more rewarding when they kill her.

Although a rattan sword is Tracy's physical defense against the vampires (later she also uses shovel handles), more important is study of the Kabbalah, a book of Hebrew mysticism, and the Torah. Even after Tracy masters the Kabbalistic secrets that enable her to see the hidden meaning of the Torah, she remains as down-to-earth and pragmatic as ever. When Damon taunts her for showing a lack of faith by using a weapon against him instead of trusting in God, she replies, "If God had wanted me to do battle with my bare hands, he wouldn't have given me a sword, or the knowledge of how to use it."

THE HOST is more than just mutilated bodies, sword-swinging, and the occasional vampire-feeding revival meeting, however. Tracy and her friends are real people with backgrounds, beliefs, and concerns that affect how they deal with each other and with the vampires. The "Note from the Author" at the front of the book warns that "If you bought this book because you thought it was about lesbians, you are going to be very disappointed.... The characters in THE HOST have real lives and real problems quite separate from their sexuality, just like real people in the real world." Although this is true, the characters also have significant problems that *do* stem from their sexuality. Tracy and Jane have been rejected by their families for their sexual orientation; Jane has never dared search for a partner because of possible consequences to her career. Author's note notwithstanding, the book *is* about lesbians. It's also about fear, courage, and the nature of biases and religious beliefs.

You can tell when Rosen doesn't approve of characters, or at least of what they are doing, because the writing suddenly becomes so thin you can see the holes in it. This is unfortunate because THE HOST begins with ominously shallow dialogue in which Hugh's housemates bicker about his flaky religious beliefs -- a beginning that nearly made me dread reading the rest of the book. Although most of Rosen's writing is strong and vivid, the bottom falls out of it in "non-conversations," such as Jane's camera crew exchanging stereotypical redneck remarks about "hetherens with their weirdo religions." The shallowness, hypocrisy, cowardice, and general uselessness of the local Bible-thumpers is portrayed much more effectively by showing how the vampires go out of their way to attend church services in order to feed on the congregation's fears, or how the non-Christian, non-hetero women are the ones with the most character and who have, and solve, real problems.

Although THE HOST is not a humorous book, it has some funny moments. When Tracy takes home her first staked vampire and runs his body through her trusty chipper/shredder, she reflects that "John Wayne never had to clean up his mess." The scene where Tracy's housemate Bill hears an ominous noise and bursts into her bedroom, gun drawn, only to find her and Jane making love, is priceless. (Next time, there's a sign on the door: "We are not being brutally murdered. We are having sex.") And yet this kind of thing, although rare, shows as much as anything else the *balance* of the book. It's not just dealing with vampires and overcoming personal fears. It really is about people. Including a couple of pretty cool lesbians.

In FRIGHT EATER, three years have passed. Tracy has come out as a lesbian to her congregation, and they have rejected her; Jane can't tolerate Tracy's lifestyle of traveling the country to fight soulless ones and has left her for a job in Los Angeles. Tracy is now part of the IDL, the Internal Defense League, an agency so powerful it can tell the police what to stay out of and what to put in their reports. When the ritualistic murders begin in Wako City, California, Tracy has more than her soulless enemies to deal with. A neo-Nazi group has planned a march through the town, including the Jewish section where her parents live. Even though they sat shiva for her some eight years previously (thereby declaring her officially dead) and hang up the phone when she calls them, she is determined to warn them and get them out of the neighborhood for their own safety. She realizes the neo-Nazis are a front for the fright-eating soulless ones, and she comes to town with Liz Carver, a radical and utterly fearless environmentalist who played a minor part in THE HOST, and the aptly named mute Joseph Golom.

Tracy has advanced significantly from what we saw in THE HOST. Now a Kabbalistic adept, she has powers. She can see when a mutilation murder is a copycat killing; she wields a stick that grows to a staff in her grip; she can command Joseph, the golom she has made, and "hear" his silent speech. Nonetheless, Tracy has weaknesses. Separated from her family, her past, her home, and her lover, she lacks the power that she needs in order to fight evil. Only Liz, however, would (and does) sum up Tracy's problem as "You really need to get laid."

Sent by her new employer, Center Line, to cover the neo-Nazis' parade and reactions to it, Jane interviews the leader of Citizens' Action Coalition, a group opposing the neo-Nazi parade. They see the march as a blatant attempt to intimidate the Holocaust survivors whose neighborhood is part of the parade route. Jane is shocked to learn that the coalition's leader is Richard Cohen, Tracy's brother -- part of the family who disowned her.

Richard, however, has gotten a harsh dose of the error of his ways: his son Isaac realized that he was gay and that his family would not accept that, so he tried to kill himself; he's now in an institution. And although Richard doesn't know it, he has another problem: the leader of the neo-Nazis wants to kill Richard's other son, Jason. That death will inspire fear in their opposition -- fear so great it will give the fright eaters power to walk in the daylight.

Being in the same town and working on almost the same project, Jane and Tracy do eventually get together, but there's very little time to kiss and make up. Although the attempt on Jason's life fails (thanks to Tracy's timely and near-miraculous intervention), the soulless ones desecrate a church with another corpse, and only Tracy's Kabbalistic powers prevent the blame from falling on Jews, as neo-Nazi leader Justin Price plans. Justin, incidentally, is a demon with his own reasons for helping the fright eaters, and he is a much more formidable foe than the soulless ones.

FRIGHT EATER is packed with adventure and suspense. Thanks to the IDL, in this one Tracy no longer has to clean up her messes, but she's far from home free: a bullet through the torso is as deadly to her as to the next person, and the Black Dog (as she terms the neo-Nazis' demon leader) understands her defenses and can overcome even her guardian golom. But like THE HOST, it's not just shooting and staking: Jane, Tracy, Richard, and even Ben, the down-to-earth cop who watches over Tracy when she'll let him, work toward new understandings of themselves, each other, and the universe.

Although there are plenty of "messages" here about tolerance, courage, and hypocrisy, they occur naturally, without being imposed on the narrative. Being a Jew, a rabbi, and a lesbian are all givens for Tracy, and when she encounters problems because of any or all of the above, there's nothing artificial about it. Isaac's tragic attempt to solve the "problem" of being gay and Jewish is all too believable. In contrast to the sympathetic characters, whose problems are narrated engagingly, the empty, broken lives behind the movement's soulless leaders get flat descriptions that almost beg to be skimmed rather than read. These are sheetmetal evils, strong enough to be dangerous but flat, flat, flat. Of all the antagonists, only the demon using Justin Price's form has any appreciable depth of character, and that perhaps because he is, in Tracy's words, "bad" rather than "evil." Fortunately the narrative concentrates on the protagonists as they deal with conflicts on all sides, including within and among themselves.

For me both of Rosen's books had resonances with ZEN IN THE ART OF SLAYING VAMPIRES, if only in the superficials: non-Eurocentric belief systems applied in opposition to vampires; protagonists whose spiritually advanced state gives them special vampire-fighting powers; a powerful agency backing the protagonists and overriding the police. Speaking of the last, I'll be curious to see whether Rosen's next book develops the IDL, and particularly its abuse of power. In ZEN IN THE ART OF SLAYING VAMPIRES, the narrator felt that The Ministry was ultimately failing in its goal by stopping at slaying vampires rather than trying to aid their spiritual growth. IDL agents not only dispose of vampire bodies; they have no compunctions about killing innocent bystanders who are in the wrong place at the wrong time and incriminating the fright eaters' followers in the interest of cleaning up the case expeditiously. Will Tracy continue working with an organization that has it ends and means fucked up even worse than The Ministry?

Both of these books have problems with copyediting/continuity and proofreading. Probably the worst continuity glitch is the business of reflections. In FRIGHT EATER the soulless ones don't have mirror reflections; but in THE HOST Jane sees her soulless attackers in her rearview mirror. And there are others: "Jones Port" in THE HOST becomes "Jonesport" in FRIGHT EATER; an obnoxious evangelist is alternately Jay Cole and Jay Coal; God is spelled out in THE HOST but written G-d in FRIGHT EATER.

And then there are typos. I think my favorite is "the first thought that pooped into my head." (I won't make the obvious joke about this. I won't, I won't, I won't.) The books are sprinkled with typos. Unfortunately, most of them are irritating rather than amusing. Bill believes in the "boogie man" [bogeyman]; Jane and Tracy are SCREWIMG; and Jane affectionately refers to Tracy as "a big ole dike" (surely not just because she wants to stick fingers into ... no, no, no, I didn't WRITE that! ;-) ). Many compounds that should be closed or hyphenated are spelled open: copy cat for copycat, T shirt for T-shirt, run in for run-in (the noun), and on and on. I honestly don't know how many ordinary readers would notice any of these, but they hit me in the face, and I don't think it's just because I get paid to clean up stuff like this in Real Life. I was that way *before* I went pro. And I can't be the only one.

But the glitches, typos, and shallow descriptions of bad guys are minor points. The characters, the plots, the action, and even the magic are better than a lot of mass-marketed stuff out there (and yes, I realize that's damning them with fairly faint praise). These books are worthy of a wider audience than they are likely to reach through Yard Dog Press. How easily they could ever find mainstream distribution, or at least a publisher who would give them perfect binding, I don't know; in publishing, as elsewhere, being queer is a real impediment to getting anywhere. And if a Kabbalist lesbian rabbi's own parents won't have her, I don't know what the chance is that a "real" publisher will.

I'd encourage readers not to let that stop them from buying and reading these books. There's romance and action, and the magic is presented with just the right blend of matter-of-factness and gee-whiz. They're about lesbians. And fright-eating vampires. And characters who really are people and make realistic progress toward solving their problems. And now and then even get laid.

The Mad Bibliographer

Fanged Films

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

Drawn to Vamps?

Vol. 1 No. 3

Vol. 1 No. 3
Death & Betrayal--Am I Damned? Part 2