The Armageddon Rag (1983), he would shoot off in another direction again. A choice that ended up almost wrecking his career as a novelist. Fevre Dream however, was a commercial and critical success. Written in a time when horror was on a high, it earned Martin Locus and World Fantasy Award nominations in 1983.
The Mississippi river system: 1857. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain down on his luck. Where he once owned a profitable business, owning several steamboats, disaster has struck and he is down to one, severely outdated boat. His luck seems to be changing when he is approached by the peculiar but obviously wealthy Joshua York. Together they build the finest steamboat on the river, and Abner is dead set on proving it is the fastest as well. His partner has some strange conditions for bankrolling the new boat however. Conditions that seem to make little sense to Abner and get in the way of him running his company. Soon York's nocturnal habits and unexplained trips arouse suspicion. Joshua York is clearly not what he pretends to be.
There are a few things that usually don't attract me in fantasy and science fiction, and Martin has written all of them at some point in his career. Time travel (Under Siege, Unsound Variations), comic book style narratives (Wild Cards) and vampire stories tend to make me hesitate to pick up a book. Fevre Dream is a vampire novel. This type of novel has undergone quite a change in the years since Martin wrote this book. Martin wrote vampires in the tradition of Bram Stoker. Dangerous, powerful, charismatic, evil and very hard to kill. Powerful individuals they may be, the modern world is catching up to them. Their aversion to sunlight makes them vulnerable, and places to hide and feed on the population unnoticed are harder to find. The American frontier is still a wild place however, and a group of vampires is making use of that. What they do is horrific and Martin doesn't spare us the horrific details.
There is a bit of a contradiction in Martin's treatment of the vampire mythos. The human characters in the book seem to be aware of Stoker's ideas on what vampires are some forty years before Dracula was published. Joshua even mentions Vlad Țepeș to Abner and some of the characteristics and weaknesses of his race as described by Stoker in one of their conversations. It's a peculiar lapse in what otherwise appears to be a well researched novel.
Most of the novel is set on the Mississippi river in 1857. Martin has done his research on the history of transport on the river and describes the atmosphere in the towns along the Mississippi very well. It is a highly dynamic place, still wild enough to be considered the frontier, but a place where the impact of modern technology and industrialization are beginning to be felt. Along the river the conflict that will explode into the American civil war is already brewing. Martin doesn't shy away from showing the appalling racism that was part of every day life along the river and still echoes through American society. Slavery and the practice of hunting escaped slaves feature in the novel and it contains a lot of language nobody in their right mind would consider using today. Martin uses this part of history as more than a backdrop. Historical developments shape the story and the main character. Martin has a knack for researching a period and then using it to create a great story. Which makes it all the more of a shame he never finished Black and White and Red All Over.
Martin's preference for morally ambiguous characters is well known and it shows up in this novel as well. Particularly over the issue of slavery. Although Abner, being from a northern state, doesn't own slaves himself, he doesn't really object to the practice either. He hires a mate who can keep 'the darkies' in line and doesn't seem to think they are good for anything but the hardest, lowest paid jobs. Not until his clash with the group of vampires, who see humans as cattle, sometimes useful but mostly food, does he begin to appreciate the injustice of their position. His attitude towards Native Americans, only very briefly discussed in the novel, is similarly racist and ignorant. Martin uses it to develop his character to an extent but you have to be able to stomach a whole lot of racism to appreciate this story.
The dynamic between two other main characters, Joshua and his nemesis Damon is another expression of Martin's preference for complex characters. Damon is what you'd expect of a vampire. Joshua on the other hand isn't. In his struggle with Damon he develops into a tragic character. Perhaps his pointless battering against Damon's power is a bit too dramatic for some but it does suit the southern gothic atmosphere of the book very well. He is pulled between two ways of life and even though we see the effect of that exclusively through Abner's eyes, it comes across very well.
A while back I reread Martin's career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. In the 1970s Martin produced a couple of stories that were inspired by poems. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) takes the title from a poem by Kipling, in A Song for Lya (1974) a poem by Matthew Arnold is referenced. Joshua York, it would seem, is a fan of British poetry as well. He references Percy Bysshe Shelley (in particular Ozymandias) and in more detail Lord Byron. Abner is not impressed by York's 'gimp Britisher' but later on in the book it grows on him. Martin must have had an inspirational English teacher to let it influence his work to such an extent. I don't think I've seen any traces of it in his post-Hollywood material though.
Martin may be a fine writer but he didn't convince me to try more vampire novels with Fevre Dream. In the end it is his handling of the characters and the historical backdrop that carry the novel for me. The vampire story itself is rather predictable for a novel published before the Urban Fantasy boom and the introduction of glittering vampires. It's entertaining but of the novels Martin produced in his pre-Hollywood period, this is not the one that stands out. Ironically perhaps, I vastly prefer The Armageddon Rag, the novel that almost wrecked Martin's career. Not everybody will agree with me though. If you like your vampires without glitter, in the hands of an author who can tell a good story, Fevre Dream is worth a try.
Title: Fevre Dream
Author: G.R.R. Martin
First published: 1982