OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Earthborn – by Arlene F. Marks
Publisher: Brain Lag, Milton, Ontario, 2023.
Cover Photo – by Adam Wilson.
If you are a shapeshifting, quasi-mortal, vampiric alien, what sort of resume will get you a decent job? And how do you present yourself on a first date?
The problem with writing about supernatural horror, i.e., ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other gothic fiction mainstays, is that both treatment and expectations tend to fall into well-trodden paths entertaining only to those who want more of the same, or to beginning readers who know little or nothing about that genre subset. Average, experienced readers may tend to avoid such for fear of drowning in clichés.
However, there’s nothing to stop a creative writer from providing a refreshing take on an old standby and turn it into a ripping good yarn. This Arlene has accomplished. I’m going to try to figure out how.
First of all, the vampiric aliens in question, the Nash’terel, don’t drink blood, they merely suck lifeforce. What the heck is lifeforce? The force that keeps you alive, I guess. This is not new. One of my guilty pleasures is the 1985 movie LIFEFORCE written by Dan O’Bannon and based on the book THE SPACE VAMPIRES by Colin Wilson. Never read the book, but the movie is a hoot! Full marks for outrageous over-the-top presentation, including the bit part by Patrick Stewart, not to mention the scene when the gravid alien space girl escapes from confinement by walking totally nude down a staircase (yes, a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s NUDE DESCENDING THE STAIRCASE—culture can be found where you least expect it). But I digress.
Point is it is not the age of a trope that counts (lifeforce goes deep into our prehistoric shamanistic past), but its treatment. Arlene uses the concept of consuming-lifeforce-to-live as a device to broaden the flexibility of Bilyash (who uses the name “Billy Ash” among humans), the main character. First, because it’s less messy than blood-sucking, but mainly because he can limit his intake so that the victim will merely swoon and, after a deep sleep, awaken with lifeforce renewed to full strength.
As an aside, the last thing the victim remembers is experiencing an incredibly powerful orgasm, or two, or three. This is very useful for building long-term relationships. It’s also a subtle take on the traditional interpretation of the vampire as the ultimate lover. I mean, there must be some reason why a vampire’s kiss is so addictive, hey?
Anyway, depending on need and circumstance, Bilyash can drain a life dry, which drives morticians nuts because they can’t figure out what went wrong, or get himself a pleasant girlfriend who provides useful cover, a steady supply of food, and since he tends to suck lifeforce while having sex, the sex isn’t bad either. Kind of a human dream come true. To have sex and eat at the same time. Trouble is most humans can only concentrate on one or the other. Leave it to an alien to combine lust and gluttony into a single, sublime art form. Can’t help but empathise with the guy.
Second, the Nash’terel come from the planet of Rin Yeng, where their ancestors discovered an extremely rare mineral called “Daskra” or “Bloodstone,” exposure to which caused the local valley-dwellers to evolve into shapeshifting beings who treat people beyond their valley as prey. This caused some upset, and the World Emperor of Rin Yeng sent his army out to exterminate the foul fiends. But, using super-duper science, the Nash’terel discovered a rift in space/time which opens a connection to Earth every now and then. So, the Nash’terel, them as were still alive, fled to Earth, bringing all their bloodstones with them, leaving only dust.
However, said dust evolved the remainder of the inhabitants of Rin Yeng into Nash’terel, but a separate cultural grouping who really hate the original Nash’terel, referring to them as un-nash’terel (get it?) and wanting to slay them all. Plus, they’re rather keen on acquiring the human race as useful dairy cattle, so to speak.
Am I explaining too much? Giving away too much? Heck, no! This is all revealed in the brief prologue. Arlene wants the reader to take it all in and accept it as a credible premise for everything that follows. It sets the parameters for the plot, the characters, and their interaction. It’s the equivalent of saying “this is a WW II submarine mission book” or “this is a wagon train western book.” You don’t worry about the premise. It’s the rock of Gibraltar underlying everything that happens. You take it for granted. It renders the plot solid and credible. See? Prologues CAN serve a useful purpose.
Third, there’s only four characters to pay attention to: Billy Ash, his crazy mad scientist uncle Maldemaur (goes by his human name Maury), Maury’s bodyguard Gershred, who is big enough to shred anybody, and the very human and very lovely Angelina Fiore as Billy’s love interest. They both like orgasms and doing zombie makeup, so nash’terel naturally they’re a pair. This in contrast to numerous minor characters everywhere: humans who keep getting in the way, and wave after wave of Yeng assassins hunting the four main characters.
Having but four principle characters allows Arlene to craft fine details with each passing chapter which converts them from reader assumptions into fascinating “people” in their own right, plus show them evolving and learning, not only how to cope with the enemy but also how to relate better with each other and, frankly, with themselves. There’s something about being constantly under attack that matures a person quickly. These are not stereotypical characters, all of them change and evolve, not only in the reader’s eyes, but their own as well.
To be fair, since Billy is the point-of-view character we mostly witness change in his thoughts and moods. With the other three it’s a matter of more being revealed about them as the plot progresses, except sometimes they surprise themselves. All four have individual quirks and obsessions that render them well-rounded characters, which in turn intrigues the readers. Besides, I like quirky details. Makes characters come alive for me.
Fourth, one of the quirky details common to all Nash’terel is that they age very slowly and live incredibly long lives. They can only be “Dick Clark” or “Keith Richard” types for twenty or so years before partners, co-workers and neighbours begin to wonder. So, they have to disappear and start new lives lest they blow their cover. Arlene has a lot of fun with this. For instance, at the start of the book Billy lands a job as a make-up artist with a film company shooting a zombie movie in Toronto. He can’t put on his resume that he used to work with D.W. Griffith in 1920s Hollywood. And if he gets slightly drunk at a party and starts telling stories from the “good old days” his cover is blown for sure. He has to watch himself.
And that brings me to the fifth reason the book works so well; it’s basically a light-hearted Philip K. Dick novel on steroids. Think about it. The slightest mistake can lead to potentially fatal consequences, given the human predilection to lash out at things they don’t understand. Even worse, any unusual fuss could attract Yeng like flies to a corpse.
Speaking of which, the Yeng are ideologically-driven fanatics whose greatest pleasure is offing Nash’terels. Highly motivated, they spend every waking moment tracking down their quarry, and they never give up. (Hmm, might make an interesting reality TV show, were such creatures to exist.)
Worst of all, the Yeng could be anywhere. They are shapeshifters, after all. They can resemble any human they wish, or take the place of any disposable human like your boss, your lawyer, your drug supplier, anybody. If you’re a Nash’terel, you can’t trust anybody to be what they appear to be. Not even your closest friends and relatives.
In short, Philip K. Dick-style paranoia is paramount. Nothing is what it seems, at least potentially. When meeting somebody again you don’t say “Hey buddy, long time no see.” Instead you ask subtle but leading questions to find out if this really is your buddy. Fortunately, the Yeng are often inadequately trained and don’t fully understand the cultural minutiae of the people they’re imitating. A sharp observer can usually spot the giveaways. Unfortunately, less and less as time goes by, as the Yeng Assassin training academy seems to be learning from the experience of its graduate failures. If you are a Nash’terel, sooner or later your complacency can get you killed.
Sixth reason the book works so well? For the above reasons the book is incredibly complex, in that it builds complexity as it goes. Allow me to demonstrate. Take for granted a brilliant boobytrap is like a computer, obsolete by the time you deploy it. You absolutely must be paranoid about the prospect, but not too paranoid because that might make you predictable. To avoid this you have to anticipate how the enemy thinks, yet he’s just as paranoid as you are. You must outwit him, so you can’t miss a trick, yet overthinking will betray you. Consequently, even the simple act of knocking on a friend’s door is rife with risk. Is it booby-trapped? With Yeng technology? Old-fashioned human technology? Obsolete or something totally new? You can go insane thinking about it. Is insanity a handicap or a survival trait? WHAT’S HAPPENING?
It’s a bit like being a human ferret. Always sniffing and asking “What’s this? What’s this?” The only difference is that a ferret doesn’t pause to get an answer but moves on to the next sniff, whereas a human is in mortal fear of what the answer might be. What they have in common is the frantic pace of their questioning.
And that’s what I like about this novel, it is a rollicking roller-coaster ride of plans gone awry, unexpected surprises, evil villains, occasional orgasms, off-beat details, treacherous encounters, and all of it not only unanticipated but enlivened with wry humour including date-sparring, politics as unusual, sociological and anthropological nonsense, and a fine sense of the outrageous.
This book offers the reader a genuinely entertaining good time. Some books are interesting. Some are intriguing. A few are addictive page turners. This book is all of that but most of all it’s fun to read. I loved every page of it. I’m glad I read it. I found it very satisfying. Pretty sure you’ll enjoy it too.
Find it at: < The Earthborn >