Blood Sisters: Shipwrecks Above

Blood Sisters is an anthology of vampire stories written by women, and it’s worth noting that they consider “written by women” to be a cover-worthy selling point. I’m always skeptical of anthologies that advertise themselves with “written by [demographic],” because even if you are trying to give more writing opportunities to [demographic], you have presumably selected authors who are actually good at their job and who can be advertised on their own strength. I got this one as part of a Humble Bundle and I’m gonna dive into it here principally because it’s a short story anthology so I can pick one, write a blog post about it, and then move on to another book if I feel like it.

Something about the first story in the book, A Princess of Spain, was so immediately boring to me that I decided to skip to the second story in the anthology, Shipwrecks Above. I’d tell you why, but I have no idea. For all I know it’s a perfectly good story, but that first paragraph somehow just repelled my eyes beyond what would be reasonable for text to accomplish.

Shipwrecks Above, though, opens with this:

This one, she rides the tides. She has been hardly more than a shade drifting between undulating stalks of kelp, and she has worn flickering diadems of jellyfish, anemones, and brittle stars. The mackerel and tautog swap their careless yarns of her.

Fish are spreading rumors about some drowned undead? I have no idea what this has to do with vampires, but I’m down to find out.

A few paragraphs into the backstory of this drowned woman, we set the tone for the story:

Her father and lover, her self-appointed Lord in all matters of this world and in any to come hereafter, ferried her high into the Carpathian wilderness, up to some crumbling ancestral fortress, its towers and curtain walls falling steadily into decrepitude. It was no less a wreck than the whalers and doggers, the schooners and trawlers, she has since sung to their graves on jagged reefs of stone and coral. And it was there, in the rat-haunted corridors of István’s moldering castle, that she did refuse this dæmonic paramour. All his titles, battlefield conquests, and wealth were proved unequal to the will of a frightened girl. When he had raped her and beaten her, he had her bound and, for a while, cast into a deep pit where she believed that the Archangel Michael, bringer of merciful Death, might find her and bear her away from this perdition unto the gilded clouds of Heaven.

What buy-in the opening paragraph managed is rapidly wilting. The only thing the story particularly has to say about incestuous rape and torture so far is that it sucks, so we certainly appear to be in full edgelord mode here, something that I’d suspected might happen in a vampire anthology. This is the kind of story where a story about human evil is confused for a story contrived to be maximally evil.

And maybe also kind of fetishistic? But in a weird way where it just refers to her as a prostitute or whore for no immediately discernable reason. See, her thing is that her evil father and would-be husband used his spooky Wallachian powers (he post-dates Vlad the Impaler by quite a bit, but is an ally of House Draculesti) to drown her and condemn her to emerge from the water only once per year to slake her thirst for blood. So, sucks to be her. Here is how that goes early on:

This small inland sea was her first tomb, and for many decades it seemed to her a boundless vault of wonders, as tombs go. She found a voice she’d not had in life, and with it she trilled raging storms and canted days when the waters grew so becalmed all sails hung limp upon their masts. She sang to sailors and to fishermen from Sevastopol to Varna, from the coasts of Georgia to the port of Odessa. She appeared, sometimes, to suicides, inviting them, and with her melodies she did draw to their deaths men and woman and children, and even cattle and wild beasts, when the mood found her.

Which, I’m kind of disappointed that the description of the inland sea she lives within is described entirely in the same terms as would be used by people who live atop it. It’s a bottomless vault of wonders, but the important part is apparently the ships and ports at the very top. Later in the text, we get another reference to how assume the secrets of the submarine world are, but still without any example of what those actually are:

And there are too many lighthouses and sea caves remaining that she has not yet harrowed, too many ships she has not foundered, countless beating hearts not yet stilled by drowning, entire oceans left unexplored.

So this is why she kills people, despite having apparently been all virtuous back when she was a sixteen year old mortal (because of course the victim of incestuous rape was a teenager). The story really would’ve benefited from a paragraph or two describing her exploring a shipwreck or sea cave, especially since it’s her primary drive for survival now, as contrasted to her desire for defiant death at the beginning.

But also, she is a siren who entices sailors into the waters and then feeds on them as a vampire. Okay, cool. But why, then, is she referred to as “the sea’s prostitute” or a “bedraggled doxy?” Is she offering sex? Because it sounds like she’s just singing, and if men jump after her because they want sex, they’re making a Hell of an assumption that it’s on the table. Like, I can see bored and lonely sailors on becalmed ships occasionally being that stupid, but that’s still not prostitution.

Despite having enough easy targets on hand to eat like a billion people, force of habit (irrational in-universe, naturally, but reasonable as a character motivation) and fear of discovery (dumb – you have an entire ocean to hide in, there is only one of you, and you exclusively target the working class, so no one will ever marshal navies to chase you down) compel her to select only one victim. And it is at this point that we learn that she has sex with her victims, for…reasons:

Later, in the aftermost instant left to him, when she has been bedded and fucked and he is, for the moment, spent, she will cast aside the charade.

It does not explain why she feels the need to exhaust her target before cutting their throat open, when you’d think having your throat sucker-cut would be pretty incapacitating on its own, nor why she doesn’t just find already exhausted targets. Like people who are asleep, for example. Also, still not prostitution. She doesn’t have clients, not even in a Faustian contract kind of way where the clients are suckers, she just has flat-out victims from whom a toll is extracted without any agreement having been made in advance.

And that is the end of the story. I really like the basic concept of a vampire cursed to emerge from the water only once every year and whose driving force in life is that the ocean is full of strange wonders she wants to explore, but in order to endure she must periodically eat people. I wouldn’t mind if said vampire seduced her victims and pounced on them after they were exhausted from sex just because that is how she do. What we have here, though, is someone who utterly loathes the man who raped her and would rather die than submit to him, and then three hundred years pass offpage, and then she is using seduction to kill people. It’s not that there isn’t enough time for the transition to have happened, or even that she couldn’t be both at the exact same time, it’s that the progression from or connection between the two traits is never explained.

If you replaced the entire first seven pages of this ten page story with a handful of paragraphs explaining that this particular vampire was cursed to only rise from the waters in which she’d been drowned once every year, with no explanation as to why or who had drowned her or anything, those final pages would stand on their own exactly as much as they do now. Likewise, if you cut off the entire part where she rose from the waters to feed on someone three hundred years later and ended the story after her origin was complete, it would be just as sensible a finishing spot as the one we got, provided you tacked on the callback to the opening paragraph. Not only is the three-ish page hunt at the end the only interesting part of this story, the early part isn’t even necessary for it, and mostly just adds a bunch of edgy shit about incest-rape.

It makes me wonder whether this is referencing some actual historical event that my Google-fu has failed to turn up? Because a Wallachian noble raping, torturing, and subsequently drowning his daughter who is also his niece is something I could see happening – the middle ages sucked precisely because only random chance could save a peasant from having a total psychopath for a lord – and it would make a lot more sense if this story were historical fiction. A story based off of a real atrocity that actually happened is more interesting than one that is simply the most horrible thing the author can make up. Sure, the story works just as well if the protagonist was drowned and everything else is gratuitous, but if everything else actually happened in real life to a specific person, then it would be somewhat cowardly not to include it. Thing is, I can’t find any trace of this lord’s existence. It’s not like I’ve done a full archival search or anything, but if he exists, he’s pretty obscure.

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