Gay monks. Issues of Control. Plots and abuse. Michael Schiefelbein gives us all of this and more in Vampire Thrall. I felt uneasy for a time with this potboiler, not only because the debate about gays in the Catholic priesthood has not been resolved, but also because at first the hostility towards Catholicism seems malicious. Schiefelbein does not bother with these in a delicate way, preferring to plow through them. But sex is not the main impetus for the action in Vampire Thrall. Brooding and deceitful Victor Decimus rages against Jesus who spurned him 2,000 years ago, creating a general air of spiritual sadomasochism.
Setting the story in a predominately Catholic world lends itself nicely to this atmosphere with images of the wounds of martyrs and, saints never far behind. I, by no means, think that Catholicism is innately sadomasochistic but I feel that the paraphernalia of that faith lends itself to that end for those looking for those connections. The main whips and chains are of an S&M from the mind, with the exception of one scene of flagellation. Schiefelbein might have issues with the Catholic Church, but the urge to eroticize the spiritual comes naturally to humans. Don’t think only of the Kama Sutra, but also of Christ as the Lover in Song of Solomon. So much of our cultural understanding is pinioned between religion, which often dictates sexual conduct, and sexuality, which offers us explanations for the spiritual.
The undead element is also well suited in the churning of sex and spirit, fitting nicely in the socket provided by the intersection of the body and soul. None of this material cuts into new territory, but Schiefelbein does not overdraw the story, keeping the narrative short, not over-dealing the fantastic elements or giving us pat and simplistic answers to the questions it poses. When the supernatural elements do come, they are mostly what we expect from movies (at times they are too predictable.)
The vampire is a convenient and marketable delivery device for the philosophical questions the book raises: What is the function of a deity while living corporeally? Do they have normal human desires? Schiefelbein tells us they do, but their spiritual mission overrides their physicality, their humanity. Though these questions are never satisfactorily answered in this book, at least they are asked.
Schiefelbein’s most ardent critics of the Vampire Vow (the prequel to the current book) seem more incensed with the fact Jesus was put in a gay context as the beloved of Victor, the vampire. Memory and hallucinations blend in the carnal lust for Jesus after two millennia. This is muddied through a type of spiritual relativity, which places the central imagery of Catholicism and the less-realized concepts of voodoo and vampire mythos on the same plane. This weakens the thrust of the Messianic element in the book. What the Nazarene Youth who instills lust in Victor and the Omnipotent Lord made Flesh could stand for is lost in a churning world of spiritual equality. The punch remains but it has been pulled.
Vampire Thrall is not exclusively a book struggling with a philosophical question; it can also be read quite mindlessly: a great book for a sunny day on the beach providing a pretty enjoyable tale.