Monday, 9 January 2012

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, by A E Moorat

Dark forces are afoot in 1830s England, with only a small band of intrepid and well-armed heroes, the Protektorate, to stop them. Distressingly, the fate of the Royal Family, and thus the country as a whole, hangs in the balance, making for an entertaining, if disposable, example of the historical-horror hybrid, very hybrid, novel.

The cover and strapline – “She loved her country. She hated zombies” – are somewhat misleading, as apart from showing a more mature Queen Victoria than that in the book, her opponents for most of it are the titular demons rather than zombies, not forgetting the werewolves and succubi. Purists may bridle at the eclecticism, but A E Moorat mixes his ingredients with panache. The demons it turns out are embedded in the very highest stratum of European society, led by no less a luminary than King Leopold I of Belgium, which may explain something about his son’s later rule in the Congo, and they are manipulating the royal bloodline for their own nefarious ends. The results are sporadically graphic but also at times very funny.

Moorat (Andrew Holmes) sticks fairly closely to the historical record, inventing a secret narrative in parallel. Queen Victoria emerges from this makeover a much more interesting (thanks to her mother) character than the dull monarch of the official biographies. Despite the novel’s genre trappings (and we‘re not talking neo-Victorian high literature here), her twinkling interchanges with Prince Albert have a real warmth which one can imagine being enjoyed by the real-life couple.

The satire is sharp if not always subtle. The scene in the House of Commons, with zombie MPs who represent places nobody else can remember all fighting among themselves and slipping around in gore, is metaphorically any PMQs. The squalor that existed in the real London is here laid on with a trowel, suggesting that really we don’t need demons to make our lives a nightmare. The Queen refuses to sanction torture even for positive ends, which would particularly have resonated at the time of writing with events in Iraq.

The supporting characters are generally well done, from Lord Melbourne, with his nose that tells the Queen when he is lying, to the Archbishop of Canterbury with a fondness for drink. The wicked but inept Lord Quimby was clearly such a favourite of the author’s that he threatens to steal the show. Curiously only the Protektorate, the ones you would think most likely to fly off the page, remain two-dimensional. Another criticism is the pacing, as Queen Victoria has a rather slow first half before the axe-wielding really gets going. It could all have been messy (in a stylistic fashion) but the various strands of the plot come together nicely, and appropriately at Bedlam.

There is a raft of similar recent titles utilising literary classics or secret history, such as Henry VIII: Wolfman (also by Moorat); Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (now a series, Heaven help us); Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; Jane Slayre; Mr Darcy, Vampyre; I am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas; Alice in Zombieland; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, etc etc (classic authors must be bobbing about in their graves in fear that they will fall victim to the mash-up fad), so this looks like a literary strand that will burn itself out in a tide of ever-more tedious bandwagon jumpers. In the meantime, while it is not going to win the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter stands tall, when not slipping over in the guts or worse, and will make every true-born Englishman proud of the way our noble monarch kicks the hell out of Baal’s minions. God bless you, Ma’am!

A minor character is a young John Brown, here a boy gifted with second sight, but who in real life came to be a significant person to Queen Victoria. As the bad guys are not vanquished, only their evil underling (very satisfying), there is scope for a sequel set some time later, though it would be interesting to see how Moorat might handle a heroine stout of body as well of heart (ie the figure on the cover). Now, did Albert really die of typhoid fever after that fateful visit to Cambridge to give his son a bollocking?

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, by A. E. Moorat, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009.