Although a less immediately obvious choice for the Fantasy Masterworks series than some other titles, Fevre Dream, once begun, justifies its place there, first tenaciously, and then absolutely. Throughout his restlessly versatile career, George RR Martin has seemed gifted with a pure unerring grasp of Story; whether he writes SF, or Fantasy, or Horror, or teleplays, or (for all we know) laundry lists, Martin spins a narrative line that, imaginatively exorbitant yet crystal clear, courses magisterially through fraught emotion and resounding symbolism to conclusions full of regret and yet philosophically inarguable. And he has never practiced this art more skillfully, nor more inevitably, than in his major novel of Dark Fantasy, Fevre Dream, the book which signalled his transition from SF to Horror, and so was infused with the best elements of both genres.
Fevre Dream is an Historical Fantasy, and its period is the Golden Age of the Mississippi riverboats. Martin depicts this milieu with an enormous romantic vigour, his debt to Mark Twain constant and fully repaid; but for all the tale's incidental virtues of rich description and twisted antebellum atmosphere, its setting has a more fundamental appropriateness. Martin is, by his own account, an artist of sunsets; his fin de siecle canvas may variously take in dying planets, the death of the modern age, or the long decline of chivalry, but loss is always the keynote, and the mood is ever a frenzied celebration of a glory that is passing. And so Fevre Dream is very deliberately an elegy to the riverboats, straddling their peak in the 1850s and their traumatic decline in the wake of the Civil War and of changing strategies of commercial transportation. Bring to the rotting away of the slave-holding plantation South, and to the sundering of the sidewheeled fleets that served its wharves, languorous conspiratorial factions of Old World vampires, and dark orgiastic sorrow is guaranteed. Martin relates a grand adventure, but his true subject is the anatomy of the tomb, whether the entombment is that of an individual, a way of life, a nation, or a species--all of which extinctions are mooted here.
Martin has a taste for larger-than-life protagonists, and his chief viewpoint character in Fevre Dream is one Cap'n Abner Marsh, a massive, big-drinking, big-eating, large-hearted and large-fisted sort of fellow, who speaks plainly and acts with impulsive celerity. He is accustomed to the brutal immediacy of riverboat life, in which a small piloting error can sink a vessel until then a queen of the river, and fortunes can be lost with the inopportune misting or icing over of the cruel Mississippi. But he is drawn, unwittingly at first, into a covert and thus much more savage and purposeful variety of danger, when a mysterious gentleman, Joshua York, offers to revive Marsh's derelict shipping line in exchange for nothing more than co-captaincy and privacy aboard the great ship they will build together. After a few doubts, Marsh accepts the bargain, but York's enigmatic voyage-impeding errands on shore and disturbing reclusiveness by day soon put a strain on their partnership. York is hunting something, and his efforts to avoid being suspected of vampirism are perhaps too elaborate; and meanwhile sinister personages in Louisiana are coming too close for comfort...
The secret behind these developments is easy enough to guess at, and the good vampires, with Marsh's assistance, duly battle the bad; but the details are far less predictable, and unfold with an eloquent sensuous grotesquerie that has few parallels in the literature. Byronesque confessions mingle with ferocious shipboard brawls, and exsanguinations among the bayous are matched with equally awful episodes of surrender in the face of evils too masterful to be confronted. Science fictional rigour is apparent in biological speculations which seek (however inadequately) to account for and control vampirism, and in the narrative's strong corrective sense of a real, inexorable world of political change and economic expansion, which constricts the supernatural into timid pockets of bloody fascination; and Horror has its full indulgence in the age-old terror yet to be encountered in those pockets, in the thirsts which almost suck Marsh and York down forever. Death claims (almost) everything in the end, of course; but Marsh and the riverboats and the plantations and the vampires roar a mighty defiance in their dying, raging (in powerful echo of an earlier Martin novel) against the dying of the light. They will be remembered, by some at least; they have celebrated, and been celebrated, as well as can be.
Fevre Dream is a superb novel, wisely revived. In it, a piece of the past, resurrected with uncompromising energy and vividness, lives again: death defied even as it is acknowledged...
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© Nick Gevers 3 February 2001