Title: Vampire Circus
Director: Mark Morris
Publisher: Hammer with Arrow Books
Released: out now!
The village of Shettle is a typical English rural community; small, isolated and in something of a decline. However the general atmosphere of stagnation and boredom is soon to be broken with the arrival of the Circus of Nights, bringing colour and excitement to the community. But that's not all the Circus has brought – soon it seems that no one can leave the village and an old evil is abroad once more...
As many of you will doubtless know, recently we've seen the iconic Hammer Films rise at last from the grave. After many years of rumours and false starts the legendary studio is now firmly back in business and currently riding high on the huge success of their adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black.
However the new Hammer haven't confined their operations solely to the big screen, for in 2011 in conjunction with Arrow Books, they launched a new publishing line under the tag line of “Hammer – the last word in horror”. Now as well as publishing new novels by authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Tim Lebbon, and reissuing some vintage works from writers such as Graham Masterson, Hammer have also commissioned several works based on their classic movies.
Now when I first heard about this on the internet grapevine, I assumed we would be looking at old school novelisations of their old movies, but as it turns out Hammer had a more intriguing plan – rather than just writing up the old screenplays, instead their chosen authors would be updating and remixing the stories into the modern day.
And I must confess, I did have rather mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I could understand that just doing a series of novelisations, very belated film tie-in books as it were, seems rather redundant when you can easily buy the movies themselves on disc. Yet on the other paw, the idea of moving these stories to the present day and allowing all manner of changes to the original narrative was potentially going to end up with books that didn't capture the spirit of the original films.
However in the case of Vampire Circus, these niggles were somewhat balanced out when I learnt that Hammer's chosen scribe was to be Mark Morris. For I've been following Mr Morris' career ever since being highly impressed with his début novel Toady back in the late 80s. And after the opening chapter I knew this particular exercise in updating a classic Hammer horror was going to work beautifully.
Morris and Vampire Circus are a perfect match, for throughout his career he's been very much delivering horror in the same vein as Hammer. His books are neither rewriting the rules of the genre with extreme splatter nor crafting faux antique prose in the style of the old masters – rather he's been doing what Hammer have always done, serving up terrors that equally mix atmosphere with the blood in tales that are very accessible and solidly entertaining. And as he's previously shown in books like Long Barrow and Stitch, he's an adept at orchestrating a large cast of characters and thrillingly detailing a community being overwhelmed by supernatural forces.
Broadly speaking, the book follows the plot line of the movie faithfully, although in bringing the story to the present day there also lots of fresh wrinkles to the tale. And while it stays very close to the spirit and tone of the movie, this isn't just a prose version of the screenplay with the story tarted up in modern day drag. Morris' Vampire Circus flows like a proper novel, and while being reverent to the source, there's enough new in both the narrative and the telling that it feels like its own story at the same time. The best way I can describe it as a parallel version of the tale, rather than a mere updating of the movie, or to put it in another perhaps more fitting way it's the same juicy cut of bloody dripping meat but roasted in a different way.
Vampire Circus will delight old fans of both Hammer and Mr Morris' writing and newcomers will find a cracking slice of Brit horror. It might not be breaking any new boundaries, but it is a fantastically fun piece of storytelling, delivering a hugely enjoyable vampire yarn that's contemporary and pleasingly traditional at the same time. And I certainly hope we'll see Mr Morris revisiting some other classic Hammers in the future.