Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Review

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THE EVIL THAT MEN DO

by Nancy Holder

reviewed by Shiai

Nancy Holder

At its worse, the violence generally found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the television series as well as the books) is somewhat akin to that of cartoons. Lots of monsters are killed, and while the heroine and her friends may take their licks before ultimately triumphing, the wounds heal quickly with no lasting damage. Much like Wile E. Coyote falling off of a cliff, the violence doesn't seem to do any real harm.

But in this story, author Nancy Holder decided to bring some real violence into the world of Buffy. And by real, I don't mean supernaturally gruesome, as one might expect from a horror novel. Rather, Holder didn't have to look to any horror books for her inspiration...she only had to read a newspaper.

That horror is visited upon the reader fairly early. We are introduced to a teenaged character, Brian Dellasandro, who is apparently under the psychotic influence of drugs (although it's hinted right from the start that his affliction is actually magical in nature). Brian brutally murders his parents, then goes to Sunnydale High School.

Holder describes his rampage in painful detail, wrenching the reader through a truly horrific chain of events. There are equal parts small acts of heroism and bits of cowardice among the students under fire, but mostly there is confusion and panic and fear.

And there is death.

This book was published in the year following the Columbine High School shootings, and it's easy to believe that Holder used that tragedy as a touchstone for her writing. Indeed, she seems to eerily tap into the specific madness that struck on that spring morning. Reading her fictionalized account, it's impossible not to compare her work with what we know happened in Columbine. And when Brian Dellasandro's massacre is finally, mercifully halted, the reader is left shaken and deeply disturbed. Which is exactly what we should be feeling.

Astonishingly, however, we now know that Holder wrote her story before Columbine. Of course, there had been high school shootings before that, but it was Columbine that gripped the nation as no other such tragedy had. And when the real life rampage erupted, the publisher shelved this story for a time, fearful of being seen as somehow trying to profit off of Columbine. Once society had gone through the grieving process, Simon & Schuster, to their credit, elected to release Nancy's powerful work unchanged.

[There is a parallel with the BtVS television series: an episode involving a supposed school massacre, "Earshot," which was to air shortly after Columbine, was yanked by the WB network until some months later.]

Supernatural elements finally start to enter the story in force afterwards, with a strange madness descending upon Sunnydale, affecting virtually everyone. Buffy's Watcher, Rupert Giles, reduces her to near tears with a cruel, callous tirade of her many shortcomings as both Slayer and person. Buffy's mother, Joyce, also viciously insults her daughter. Xander very nearly pummels a hated teacher. Worst of all is Willow, who's shot by Brian at school, and furious at Buffy because the Slayer seemingly hasn't been overly dedicated to finding Willow's boyfriend, Oz, who has disappeared. Arguments are escalating into physical violence all over town, and Buffy is at a loss to understand why.

Buffy's efforts to uncover the truth are hampered not only by the erratic behavior of her friends, but also by the need to protect Mark Dellasandro, Brian's younger brother, from a bloodthirsty vigilante mob intent on punishing him for his bother's crimes. The mob grows as the madness spreads, until even the police are intent on lynching the boy...and killing anyone else, such as Buffy, who seek to help him. Literally, Buffy has to elude the entire population of Sunnydale...not to mention more than a few vampires who are playing a role in the machinations of the true villains behind the scenes.

Julian and Helen's origins go as far back as the days of Caligula, the mad Caesar of ancient Rome, and the book takes a number of trips back into the past to explore in depth their earliest days together. Indeed, in a sense, Helen was the Willow of her day; the best friend of that era's Slayer, Diana, Helen inadvertently revealed Diana's identity as the Chosen One to her enemies. But in a mix up, it is Helen who is mistaken for the Slayer and captured. Julian is Caligula's "court vampire," and when Helen is brought to the monarch, it is discovered that she is not the Slayer. But Julian is smitten by her beauty and fire, and so Helen is not slain, but given a chance to live...albeit as a gladiator for Caligula and Julian's amusement. Fighting for her life day after day, Helen becomes the greatest gladiator in the arena. And with every passing day, she curses and hates Diana a little bit more for abandoning her to this fate.

Ultimately, Julian sires Helen so that she may live by his side forever, and Helen kills Diana. Nearly two thousand years later, she still keeps Diana's skull as a gruesome trophy. Helen has also bested more than a few other Slayers over two millennia, and she's looking to add Buffy to that list.

Oh, and in the 19th Century, she also had a torrid affair with Angelus, and she's anxious to purge Angel of his soul and revert him back into the monster she still loves. Julian knows Helen would betray him for Angelus if she could, but he loves her too much to kill her.

The vampires have a plan to unleash an ancient demonic power upon the world, destroying humankind. For that, they need the Slayer's heart. And for their amusement, they create a version of Caligula's arena in the catacombs beneath Willy the Snitch's bar, and they capture Buffy's friends one by one, with the intent of having them battle her to the death. It turns out the madness potion affecting the town is what will be used to send the Scoobies into berserk rages, forcing Buffy to either have to kill them herself or die at their hands.

Holder's a practiced storyteller at this sort of thing, and she knows the Scooby Gang about as well as any other novelist. She captures their personas well, and adds some nice touches. For instance, it was fun to read how Cordelia, captured and made to learn to fight as a gladiator, didn't do the obvious and shrink in fear from the task, but rather went into "Queen C mode" and drove herself to learn as much as she could about using the weapons so that she could try and help Buffy escape later on. Oz also gets to prove himself in a daring escape attempt.

And I particularly enjoyed the flashbacks to the First Century, chronicling Helen and Julian's earliest days together. They make for effective villains, in large part because Holder invests a great deal of humanity into them. They have logical motivations for their actions, and Julian is a particularly charming noble rogue. There's a slight tinge of insanity to Helen that might favorably remind readers of another female vampire foe of Buffy's, Drusilla.

Nevertheless, a few elements of the story don't work all that well for me. The continued subplot with Mark Dellasandro, which seemed to consist of repeatedly saving him from a mob, only to have him panic and do something stupid and slip out of Buffy's hands, grew tiresome after a while. And frankly, I think just a little too much madness descended upon Sunnydale; we're talking about the entire population reduced to savagery, burning and maiming and killing. And while there's a nice little nod to continuity with the TV show at the end in how the authorities choose to explain the mass lunacy (citing PCP), it's all just a little too pat. Numerous lives were shattered by this event, and it's all just sort of written off at the end as the usual Sunnydale weirdness, with everyone going back to their regular lives as if nothing really happened. Granted, the fine folks of Sunnydale have a particular blind spot to recognizing the oddities around them, but this just goes beyond the pale.

Still, these are small quibbles. Holder has overall crafted a solid, entertaining adventure, with plenty of nice little touches that will please longtime fans. Yet, in my opinion, it also ranks as the most frightening Buffy tale of all, because of the school shooting passage.

As this book proves, the evil that men do is far more horrifying than anything which the monsters can inflict upon us.