Paul Lake builds his first novel, "Among the Immortals," on Percy Bysshe Shelley's reputed connection with vampirism. The novel's hero, Derek Hill, is a Berkeley grad student of about 30, who is enamored of Shelley's work and eminence. The villain, Julian, is a reincarnation of Shelley, or so it seems to Hill.
Mr. Lake, a poet and associate professor of English at Arkansas Tech University, is a former Baltimore resident and a graduate of Towson State University. His first collection of poems, "Another Kind of Travel," received the Porter Fund Award for the best book by an Arkansas writer published in 1988. Mr. Lake's poetic ability works for and against him in his present book.
Based primarily on a questionable interpretation of several Shelley poems, the novel tells a grisly though oddly engaging story. It begins and ends with murder. In between are insanity, magic, hypnosis, sex, suicide, poetry and performance art. All of these events attach themselves like flypaper to Derek Hill. How he copes is the plot.
Hill had been diagnosed several years ago as an incipient schizophrenic. That diagnosis was later changed to manic-depressive syndrome. Hill somehow pulled himself together and began writing poetry. Later, he majored in English, taught in a Baltimore high school, then moved to California, where he began graduate studies. Knowing that few people read poetry and fewer people publish it, Hill -- as the novel begins -- hopes to make his reputation as a literary critic.
Then, Professor Watson, Hill's mentor, is murdered. Watson, readers learn, was interested in the occult, teaching courses that required such books as "The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories," all of which Hill read and absorbed. Watson was also interested in Shelley and possessed several letters supposedly written by Shelley. Those letters were taken by the murderer. When Hill finds the murderer and the letters, his life changes drastically.
The story that unfolds is an unusual mix of Gothic thriller, literary history/criticism and biography. That mixture focuses on Percy Shelley, whose poetry is quoted at length and analyzed. The story also refers to works by other Romantic poets and makes lengthy reference to several stories of the occult, such as "Frankenstein" (written by Shelley's wife, Mary) and "Dracula."
The references serve several purposes. They broaden Mr. Lake's story, lend credibility to his characters, heighten tension, explain several allusions and give Mr. Lake an opportunity to play with fascinating biographical details (for instance, Shelley's heart didn't burn when he was cremated but was plucked out and given to his wife). But these references also make the novel somewhat difficult to follow. It reads like a combination of Anne Rice, Peter Straub, and Percy Bysshe Shelley -- a version found in Cliff's Notes. The story advances as Hill uncovers Shelley's references to ghosts, vampires, etc.
For example, in "St. Irvyne Or The Rosicrucian," one of Shelley's Gothic tales, Hill learns about a character named Julian, who resembles Shelley and who also resembles Julian Ginotti, Hill's antagonist. Julian and Hill became locked in deadly combat for the Shelley letters.
The beautiful and sexy Gretchen Nordhaus (Mr. Lake suggests parallels to Coleridge's "Christabel" and Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci") also wants the letter. Gretchen, supposedly Julian's protege and lover, seduces Hill, creating further confusion across the various levels at which this novel can be read.
On one level, this is a murder mystery, with Hill finding the murderer and the Shelley letters. Those letters lead him to several dangerous people with whom he becomes involved, partly because of love, partly because of lust, partly because of ambition. On another level, the story -- filled as it is with dreams and flights of poetry -- can be seen as a psychological novel. An overworked, overwrought, and mentally sick Hill has a major breakdown in which he imagines he is pursued by Julian/Shelley.
On yet another level, the story can be seen as an interesting experiment with wordplay. Here, the would-be artist is a psychic leech; he survives by sucking the creative lifeblood from the true artist, only to learn that he is still unable to make art. Finally, the story works as cautionary tale. On this level, good battles evil and evil wins, proving once again that a man can gain the whole world and lose himself.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. Sh is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.
Title: "Among the Immortals"
Author: Paul Lake
Publisher: The Story Line Press
Length, price: 308 pages, $14.95 (paper)