Taking the Long View: How The Austra Family Views Our World
There is a wonderful scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Spike, faced with the fact that Angel and Drusilla really intend to end the world, changes sides. As he explains to Buffy, the world is wonderful and people walk around like meals on sticks (I’m sure one reader can quote his exact words, my memory is not that good) and for all the vampire talk of wanting to unleash hell on Earth, they don’t really mean it.
It was a telling scene for me, because Spike says in that conversation, the theme that has run through the Austra novels, from the first, Shattered Glass (written in 1985 and set in 1955) to the new novel Beyond Sundown (set in the near future) releasing next month: Immortals view our world differently. I say “immortals” because my characters are not exactly vampires. As Stephen explains in Glass, “I am alive, not dead; I possess an abhorrence of coffins, particularly my own; and I was born, not created.” The Austras, for all their power, are a family and, like any family, they look out for their lovers and their children.
I have documented much of the inspiration for the Austra family in other sites and blogs. But in this strange and dangerous winter that has half the nation snowbound, I want to name another. Years ago, when I was in college, I would pull all-nighters before finals at a university library, then walk a few blocks to a friend’s house for a few hours of sleep. Along the way, I would steal lilacs and leave them for him. Today, not even 40 years later, the lilacs bloom here in Milwaukee ten to fourteen days earlier. What changes would someone born in 718 see in our world today? And what would he think of them?
Though the Austra series has been described as “chilling and erotic … with more than one hot and bloody climax” and is far from political, the books are far from one-dimensional. Every story deals with more than just vampire/human passion as I tried to get inside an immortal mind. As a result, the family is also preoccupied with keeping their presence in the world a mystery while trying to deal with the very human penchant for self-annihilation. That’s because they will still be here and their children will be here for all time, they believe, and Earth’s problems will be their problems. Their concerns mirror my own. When I was a child, I endured air raid drills in school where we hid under our desks to protect ourselves from incoming bombs. At night, I dreamed of mushroom clouds and sirens. In Shattered Glass, Stephen watches a newscast of children witnessing a nearby nuclear test and wonders why humans are so very foolish.
By Nocturne, set in the mid-seventies and charting the story of Stephen and Helen’s adolescent children, the world has changed and so have the Austras. Now their concern is with the threat of climate change.
In Beyond Sundown, I attack the problem directly, when Stephen muses to himself:
Ft. Peace had been created a shelter for the next dark ages when the Earth would be seared by fire and deadly storms of ashen rain, and the cold that would surely follow. The family had picked a spot so remote from the hellish battlefields that all they would have had to deal with was the poisoned aftermath. The caves in these mountains would accommodate two hundred easily. When the worst was over, they would have grown fresh produce beneath the well-leaded glass of greenhouses they had never sensed the need to assemble, and rationed meat and grains from their stockpiles to feed their friends and their friends’ families. They would have taken the blood they needed―gently and only from those who were willing to give and by being accommodating and hospitable wolves, they would have survived.
Naive. He had seen what a single small blast of radiation could do, that beast he had become. The poison would have seeped into their sheltered world like Poe’s red death. They would have devoured their flocks, then their friends, and starved until they had no choice but to hunt what life was left in a dying world.
Better the slow warming, the ice that would follow. They could survive that −
But what would happen when the grain belt of this continent turned into another dust bowl?
When the refugees from the coasts stretched the resources of the most wealthy nations on Earth? When countries with more weapons than food turned those weapons on their neighbors? Could his family avoid being caught up in the carnage that would result?
His mind moved out and up, filled with questions, seeking answers from that more eternal God. But whatever hope he found in prayer was mitigated by a cold and terrible fact.
Nearly 6 billion people. Less than 40 of his own.
Though like my characters, I still feel far younger than my years, I have grandchildren now.
Worrying about their future is not quite the same, but similar, to Stephen’s worry for his children and his people. It’s this empathy that authors depend on when writing fantasy. And I look out at the snow and think of the floods in Australia and the drought and driving monsoon rains that have plagued the West Coast and I think it is time that we all think like immortals and take the long view.
Excerpt from Beyond Sundown
This novel opens where Nocturne ends, in Romania. Here Catherine Austra, the antihero of Daughter of the Night, frees a young man who shares her blood from a hellish prison immediately after the fall of Ceausescu. She has picked him because of all the powerful prisoners there, he was alive when the rest had died of starvation. The most powerful of them, she will make him her lover and the instrument of her horrible plans for revenge on her family.
Vasile lay on his cot and waited for death. Though he was half human, death kept her distance but did not completely ignore him. Vasile tried to sleep and as he did, it seemed he dreamed and that his mind merged with those of others in different cells this strange prison. He felt their hunger as well as his own. Some of them were much younger than he, some far older. Some were toddlers, the product of forced breeding. Some were still infants. These were the first to die, clutched in their mothers' arms, sucking at barren breasts. Through the thick walls, he heard the mothers' wails. Half mad, he roused himself and beat his fists against the wall in time to the beating of others' fists as if their combined efforts could crumble the stone walls that held them.
The exertion only made the pain in his guts more intense. He wore only thin gray pants and a black flannel shirt, not enough to keep out the incessant cold. He wrapped himself in the wool blanket from his cot and retreated to an inside corner of his cell where he folded the blanket's edges under his bare feet. He drew his legs tight against his chest and the pressure relieved some of the empty feeling in his stomach. Resting his cheek on his knees, he said the prayers his mother had taught him so many years ago. He prayed for death. For a time it seemed his prayers would be answered. His heart rate fell, his breathing slowed. And all he sensed as he lived on was the others fading. Weeks later, he sensed no life at all. He woke to sudden noises; soft, but after so much silence, the sounds deafened. He heard a human moan, a cry cut off as soon as it began. He sat up, dizzied by the effort, waiting in silence as something shuffled down the hallway outside his cell. Through the thin slot in his door he detected the heady scent of blood, of food. They had come back! They would feed him! He crawled to the opening, reached his hand through the slot. "Va rog!" he called. Please.
Someone touched his hand, the first touch freely given to him since he'd come here so many years before. The locks of his cell groaned and broke, the door opened and the room was filled with a burst of light. Vasile shut his eyes against its sudden pain, cringing when someone reached for him. "Shhhh," a voice said, a comforting hiss as his body was pulled into the warmth of an embrace. He thought of his mother, so long ago, she has been soft like this. Gentle. Her scent, so much the same.
"Shhhh," the voice repeated. "I am Catherine and I will be your mother today. Like her I give you life."
"Va rog," he repeated, not certain what he begged for.
But she knew what he needed. She pulled back for just a moment then drew him forward. Eyes still shut; his dry lips brushed her skin, his tongue running over the softness of it, the sweet copper taste flowing from the wound she had made.
"Drink," Catherine told him, inviting him to take what he longed to take. "Please," she added, a chuckle purring in her throat. As her warmth coursed through him, it seemed that his own blood began to flow for the first time in days. Wanting more, he held tight to her shoulders but she was stronger, pushing him away before he was sated as if he were a greedy nursing child. She left him and his eyes fluttered open, seeking her, seeing only her form silhouetted against the door's blinding light. He focused on the shadows until she returned dragging a heavy burden. The scent of blood filled the room. He groped at what she had brought. A man. His fingers moved to the neck. No pulse. Fingers wet. He licked them, tasted blood. "Eat," Catherine whispered, voice so soft she might have been speaking into his mind.
"But this is a ... a corpse," he argued, having to seek the word he'd rarely heard. "Human blood. Human meat. It is no different than that of any animal to one like you, child," she replied. When he did not move, she added, "Then drink. You've done that before, have you not?" Vasile had, but until moments ago never directly. They had drained the blood, passing in a cup with his food through that little door. He had been starving when he drank from her; still starved, but the thought of taking blood from this corpse disgusted him. Yet, what a wonderful scent! He lowered his face to the jagged wounds on the man's chest and neck and drank, then without thinking, found himself ripping at the flesh as well, worrying it like a wolf, devouring. Mid-feast, a new scent caught his attention. He dug into the pocket of what was left of the man's coat and found a wax paper packet: bread and cheese, and a bar of chocolate. He remembered how when he was young and still crying for his mother, one of the guards would sometimes open the little door to his cell and toss him some chocolate. He never spoke, and Vasile guessed that kindness had been forbidden. But he had given hope with the sweets. Could this be the same man? Sickened by what he had done. He turned away from the woman and the corpse, holding the treasured food tightly, afraid she would take it from him. When she did not move, he ate all but the chocolate quickly; that he savored one small bite at a time.
As he did, the woman pulled off the man's shoes and gave them to Vasile. He put them over his bare feet. For years he had worn only sandals but he managed to recall how to tie the laces. She laughed. "Such a memory!" she said. By then, the shadows had darkened and Catherine stood, took his hand and pulled him to his feet. "Come," she said. And though he trembled with fear, he scooped up his tattered blanket, pulled it tight around him and staggered after her into the fading daylight that scorched his unpracticed eyes. She pulled him down a narrow path that led away from the building. Only when they were in the dark comfort of the woods, did she turn and face him. Vasile recalled his mother's face. He had been told often enough that he looked like her and so when he saw his own face in the mirror in the warden’s office, he would think of her – her dark hair, her deep brown eyes, her high cheekbones. He occasionally saw female prisoners but not often enough to form any idea of true beauty. But to him, this woman was beautiful. Her black hair long and thick and loosely curled, her eyes just as black and slightly slanted. Her body beneath the loose black pants and sweater she wore seemed almost as thin as his own, delicate. If he touched her too hard she would break.
In response to his thought, her lips parted. She grinned, then laughed and he saw the long second incisors beyond the first. He ran his tongue over his own teeth, those same four pointed like hers though not nearly as long.
Perhaps he and the woman were kin?
"We are, Vasile, and soon we shall be more than kin," she said and began to move deeper into the forest. Holding his blanket tightly around his body to keep out the chilly air, he followed.
Excerpt from Shattered Glass:
She waited for him in a house filled with roses and white lilacs, delivered without a card earlier in the day. Breathing in their fragrance of love and renewal, she ventured one last hopeful look out the window. No, he had not returned. Leaving the door unlocked, she went to prepare for bed.
Her hair fell in a pale flood over her shoulders and, as she brushed it out, she studied her reflection in the mirror. Did the strands shine brighter? Were her eyes more blue? Was she beautiful? She had always believed it, yet now she longed for perfection. But the flaws –– well, she must wait for the flaws to mend.
She undressed, then reached for her nightgown, but it seemed too youthful and she left it in the drawer and slipped naked between the sheets to revel in the unaccustomed feel of her arms against her body, her skin against the cool, crisp cloth. Anticipation filled her and she ran her hands down her stomach to rest on her thighs. My hands, soon his hands. All those nights I’ve longed for him and now –– please now! –– let tonight be the beginning of my life!
Her eyes had not grown accustomed to the darkness when she sensed his presence.
“Stephen?” she whispered, then saw in the shadows near the door the single teardrop that had gathered to itself the few faint rays of light from the window and intensified them into a deep glow.
–Yes.– He slipped from the darkness and gathered her into his arms. “You were so late.” She spoke without reproach. “I didn’t think you would come.”
“Didn’t you?” The laughter in his voice implied otherwise, and pulling her head against his chest, he stroked the side of her face, then kissed her. “Helen, will you join with me now”
“Yes, but ...” Her voice trailed off and she was astonished at her embarrassment. Too many people had been, of necessity, intimate with her body for her to feel modest any longer.
He removed the robe of indigo silk he wore over a loose dark peasant’s shirt and wrapped it around her. It had been warmed by him and each touch of the fabric gave a reminder of acts to come. He carried her confidently up the lightless back stairs, then through her uncle’s empty apartment. For one moment she stiffened as he jumped from porch to porch with easy grace.
He smiled at her alarm, thinking there would come a day, and soon, when five times these few feet would be inches to her and she would feel no fear, only knowledge of how much was possible.
For the first time, perhaps the only time, life would be his gift. The wonder of her filled him.
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