Baltimore: Or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire (by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, Bantam, $25)
There are many details wrong with this book -- but it's so good overall, so Mignola overall, I don't care.
That's my lead, and I'll get back to it in a minute. First, I'll assuage everyone's Collector Alarm Bell that Baltimore is nothing new: It came out in 2007. I simply didn't buy it then, and instead bought and read the comic-book sequel, Baltimore: The Plague Ships, without really understanding that I wasn't reading the first story in the series. When I found out I had overlooked the first book (just a couple of weeks ago) I ordered it and read it.
OK, now here we are in the present, where I've just read this book, which sets up the world in which the comic-book "Baltimore" stories take place. ("Stories," because there's now a second one in progress, and we can expect more.) And here's the poop: "Baltimore" doesn't refer to the city, it instead refers to a Lord Baltimore in an England of sorts during a World War I of sorts. I have to say "of sorts," because the book makes clear what the comics do not, which is that all of the Baltimore stories take place on a sort of Earth-2, where things are very much like they are here, with key differences beginning, more or less, in 1917.
In the Baltimore world, Germany is Hessia, France is Gaul, the flu plague of 1917 is instead a plague of vampirism, and World War I is and always will be "The Great War," because the events of Baltimore mean that, on this world, there will never be a second World War.
In Baltimore, the book, we find out that the great blood-letting of World War I awakens vampirism. Prior to the war, vampires and other things that go bump in the night were somnambulent, and content to feast on the dead and dying. But the convulsion of death that is WWI, and Baltimore himself wounding a King Vampire with a bayonet, awakens the mystical carrion-eaters who are chewing up bleeding and dying men on the battlefied. The "other world' is awakened by the carnage that men have created. It awakens them ... to active agency against humanity.
Thus begins "the plague," which here on Earth-1, or Earth-Prime, or whatever, was the flu. But on Earth-Baltimore, those who suffered its effects were affected by the effect of the existence of vampirism, slowly sliding into undeath without ever being bitten. And, of course, there are actual vampires having a jolly time among the dead and dying of Europe. And other creatures besides, that had lain in myth and legend and story for some time, arising to bedevil a helpless and prostrate mankind.
As a history buff, I find this all really cool stuff. All of Baltimore's world is valid up to 1917, and what happens after is plausible, and virtually necessary, if you accept that disease is caused by evil spirits instead of germs. Which, you know, is what we believed for millenia. That really rings the right bells.
And as a literature buff, I am also a fan of the book. I love the story of Baltimore, who awakens the devils, and pays for it with his dearest blood, then is selected by "God" (or something) to eradicate evil, but then strikes out of in search of vengeance in such a mindless and fixated manner that he is Captain Ahab more than Abraham -- so much like Ahab that he has a wooden leg and a harpoon strapped to his back. This is Melville mixed with Shakespeare mixed with Genesis mixed with Joseph Conrad. It is a thick, juicy, pseudo-myth mixed with wildly swirling and mind-blowing symbolism.
Plus -- PLUS! -- it's just a beautiful book. Random-cut, thick-fiber, rough-blend pages. Mignola illustrations. Hardcover with Mignola-illustrated jacket.
So, it's a terrific book ... mostly. There are some problems. Alas, I must list them.
First, the book's narrative is fixedly arranged where we are presented with three characters who, for no plausible reason, tell each other (and therefore us) their stories, in order. This is clumsy, because that makes the book so structured that it becomes an obvious chain of expositional dialogue. Nothing happens in the present; it's all stories told by three people thrown together for the express purpose of telling the reader these stories, something the reader quickly becomes aware of, and gets annoyed with. The reader loses suspension of disbelief almost immediately, and then the clumsiness of this structure gets ever more clunky. By the time we actually meet the object of these stories -- Lord Baltimore -- it's almost the end of the book, whereupon the narrative lurches into the present, thankfully. Thankfully, but not soon enough.
And when we get to the present, there's some great stuff, a wonderfully climactic battle of fire and pain and magic and human suffering, and loss and cruelty and thematic finality, which almost excuses what happens next. Because in the last couple of pages, we learn something about Baltimore -- presented bathetically and melodramatically in a single rush of exposition -- that almost makes the reader snort out loud in derision.
And that moment, when it comes, finally makes sense of the ham-handed effort by the authors to tie the story to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Steadfast Tin Soldier (and hence the subtitle of the book). Each chapter quotes the Andersen tale, and Mignola frequently draws little vignettes illustrating the Tin Soldier, although none of it seems aligned with the actual content of those chapters, and it seems really forced. In fact, when the authors finally connect Baltimore with the Tin Soldier, it's so clumsy it made me laugh. And I'd been waiting for some connection for the whole damn book, as the authors slammed with me one quote after another from Tin Soldier that wasn't remotedly connected to the content.
The end result, on my part, was annoyance that the authors tried so hard for literary symbolism and overarching themes, which felt forced and fell flat. But as a great comic-book adventure story with some nice pictures in a very pretty book, it's a great package.The latter more than made up for the former, at least for me.
Because the end result is that the whole thing is very Hellboy-esque. There's a feel, a sense, of Mignola's misty, mythical sensibility. I felt transported by Baltimore, the novel, as I am by Hellboy or B.P.R.D., the comics. Mignola's sensibility governs all, despite the clumsy literary efforts. I was transported by zephyrs of myth, while the story's structure was still trying to start the car.