Review: VAMPSOV: 1938 A Spectre Haunting Europe, Daniel Ribot

January is a month best spent hibernating with a good book. And as winter drags on, I recommend this dark and witty Gothic tale set in Russia’s snowy wastes and post-war cities. VAMPSOV’s cover promises a high-concept horror story and its contents do not disappoint. Daniel Ribot has great fun with a secret war between ancient aristocratic vampires and Red Army cadre at the very moment Stalinist purges are devastating Soviet Russia.

His opening chapter sees a hard-bitten officer lead a unit into a remote Ukrainian village in the midst of winter. None of his conscripts know that he’s packing silver bullets or why the superstitious peasants have abandoned their crops. But they’re about to encounter a nest of vampires with a predilection for fascism. ‘We go now,’ said the voice, cackling with laughter. ‘Seig Heil, your fucker!’ As the Chief of the Secret Police, Beria, briefs an incredulous recruit, ‘They are obsessed by concepts of hierarchy, blood, family, racial purity and soil … In short, they are true enemies of the proletarian class.’ He sets up an undercover Specialist Vampire Eradication Unit, or Vampsov for short. If they’re lucky, maybe there’ll be a Five Year Plan. But the gulag or a bullet to the head are equally possible.

Ribot teases out the political sub-text through three point-of-view characters heading up Vampsov’s campaign. They are all Party loyalists.  Lieutentant Ganz is the officer who faces that first attack; a courageous, compassionate man with a temper when pushed. A cooler figure is Vassily, a secret agent assigned by Beria to dispense a bloody state justice in the gulags of Siberia. When Vampsov is formed, he’s recalled to Moscow to fulfil his destiny. Vassily lives to destroy his own kind, ‘those who had killed him and made him rise again’. He is the only vampire working for the Secret Police GUGB. Lastly we meet Ludmilla Vatinshkaya, an idealistic Red Army captain with an exemplary record who is promoted to lead Vampsov. Ganz is immediately impressed by her: ‘In this building, with all the purges and bloodletting (her) composure was a rare thing indeed.’ To some extent, that calm exterior is a result of Ludmilla’s blind spot. A committed Communist, whether she’s faced with the famine in the Ukraine or the torture of political prisoners in Beria’s Lubyanka Square HQ, she always assumes such measures are taken for the greater good. ‘Beria was cleaning out a lot of dead wood, which was understandable, but made life very difficult …’

Ludmilla’s faith in the scientific method of the Party has to quickly bend to take in the reality of vampires, as she teams up with Ganz and Vassily. She proves herself to be a highly capable leader in the field, keeping her head during some very grim encounters. The ensemble cast of the Vampsov unit is a great strength in the novel and Ribot convincingly portrays the tensions, boredom and camaraderie of military life between missions. I heard the author speak at a reading of VAMPSOV recently. He revealed that key research for the story was into the brands of cigarettes commonplace in Thirties Russia and their recipes for soup. These details brilliantly evoked the world of Soviet Russia when the prospect of a hearty cabbage soup could cheer a whole regiment amidst chromic food shortages. Yet Ludmilla goes home to a more fractious family life, sharing a tiny flat with disapproving in-laws, a 6 year old son she hardly sees and her ballet dancer husband Mikhail. Mikhail’s work in the Arts is frowned on but worse, his secret liaisons in Moscow’s nightclubs are spied upon by informers.

Horror spills into all corners of this story. Moving between police cells, deserted mansions and underground caves, we compare Stalinist bloodletting with the vampires’ animal ferocity. Even Vampsov’s ‘programme of extermination and surveillance’ carries uneasy connotations. Meanwhile, Count Vlad Drakul’s minions collaborate with Rumanian fascists who makes the Nazis look tame. Greenshirt rituals apparently included drinking blood. Breaking into their nests, Vampsov uncover dungeons of blood-slaves that evoke both Nazi concentration camps and Ceausescu’s grim orphanages. This is a chilling modern take on the Gothic.

The set-piece skirmishes between Vampsov and the bloodsucking hordes are vivid and deftly done.  Ribot handles well the narrative compression and release as pitch battles alternate with Ludmilla’s home problems. It’s only in later chapters that it becomes rather episodic. Ludmilla’s team track a network of vampires living within Soviet cities as well as the frozen hinterlands. Yet Vampsov rush into new locations to replay essentially the same battle. I’d have liked more accelerating tension as we push towards the final Act.

However all trails lead to Transylvania and these scenes deliver peril in abundance. Vampsov suffer real body blows and losses. Perhaps Drakul is too familiar a bogeyman to truly terrify. (I found the earlier figure of Baron Muniau a more intriguing Antagonist.) But a lethal figure lurks behind at Lubyanka Square. Lavrentia Beria was Stalin’s deadliest henchman in 1938. And Ribot takes the story in a daring direction when Vampsov returns to HQ. After a dark and thrilling mission, I’m pleased to hear that Ribot plans further two books that move the story into the war years.

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