Based on title alone, Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare, Vampire Hunter might seem to be just another pulpy horror knock-off, but book’s pedigree sets it apart. Black and Deep Desires is the brainchild of the venerable literary critic, Graham Holderness, born out of a larger scholarly, pedagogical, and creative experiment (which I shall let Graham explain more carefully in my next article, an interview with the author) that seeks to explore what occurs when one sets Shakespeare in a “creative collision” with other cultural phenomena. In this case, Shakespeare’s works (and the man himself) are put on a crash course with the gunpowder plot, a small army of vampires, and tops it off with a little bit of movie-style action.
The result of this mash-up is Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare, Vampire Hunter. And it is a hell of a lot of fun. Unlike the similarly named Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Black and Deep Desires isn’t a slash-and-stake bloodfest, but rather a more carefully crafted narrative that engagingly ambles through Macbeth, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Dracula, 1001 Nights, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and Dante’s Inferno, on its way to a Hollywood-worthy finale. As the novel opens, William Shakespeare, recusant Catholic, joins Guy Fawkes and his cluster of co-conspirators in a plot to dig under the walls of parliament, to plant enough gunpowder to kill the King. When the plotters hit a wall (quite literally), Fawkes heads to Europe to find workers, and is eventually led to a shadowy eastern European aristocrat, who offers him a small company of strange nocturnal labourers, who travel to England in wooden boxes. If you think you know where this is going, you’re mostly right, but don’t get too comfortable. As the story unfolds, to become the play-that-was-nearly-Macbeth, Will encounters the Dark Lady, Robert Cecil, and Simon Forman.
Holderness’ Shakespeare is a middle-aged man in search of something to believe in. His Catholicism, which begins as an unpaid debt to his late father, is not manifest until experience changes his mind (I know that’s Marlowe, but just wait). Will is disconnected, ambivalent about everything but his art, forced into action by the ghostly echoes of his father, and machinations of state authority. Yet, as one might hope from William Shakespeare, he is a quick witted, amiable, lusty fellow, whose response to the demand that he become a hunter of the undead is, “well, to be honest, you know, it isn’t really my line of work” (192).
As the narrative twists and turns to incorporate the Dark lady, the Gunpowder Plot, Simon Foreman, and a delightful cameo appearance by Kit Marlowe, the novel’s wry humor remains an ongoing wink to the reader that is indicative of the gleeful ease with which Holderness plays with his Shakespeare. Holderness’ comfort with the text, and own philosophy on the use of Shakespeare manifests itself in the endless flow of humorous references throughout the book. For example, when William meets Kit Marlowe in the sodomite’s circle of hell, he can’t resist asking him “Hell’s not a fable, then?” Even more enjoyable is Kit’s reply: “I’m still not convinced” (136). These characters are everything you want them to be, and more.
Ultimately, Black and Deep Desires blends criticism, history, and a fast-moving narrative that will keep you turning the pages. It’s a literary scavenger hunt, and terrifically enjoyable read.