Monday, February 17, 2014

Ethics of the Undead By Loren Schechter

Ethics of the Undead
By Loren Schechter
Merrimack Media
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Review by Wendell Smith

The misdirection of Loren Schechter’s first sentence, “Edna LittleHawk hurried after the three young hunters as they raced down the canyon’s slope toward the dying campfire and a midnight meal,” and what followed hooked me. The tempo with which the scene developed set the hook and pulled me into the first chapter of Ethics of the Undead. The anticipated midnight meal that drove these hunters as “Light on their feet and full of confidence, the teens hurdled over brush and used low rocks as if they were trampolines, oblivious to the risks of falling with rifles and packs on their backs …” was not cooking the results of a successful hunt. The midnight meal was the campers by that campfire. Edna and these teens were vampires.

This hunt completed, the chapter continues in a ghoulish, comic vein as Edna slows their attack  “‘Enough, … There’s no need to be cruel,’” and assumes her pedantic duties (she is an ethics instructor).

“I know you are hungry, and I’ve put the cruelty issues on hold, but there’s an ethical question needs to be discussed before you eat – how do three vampires fairly divide up the blood of two humans?”
A muffled cry came from the gagged camper.

On the whole Ethics of the Undead will fulfill the promise of this first chapter. Schechter maintains the pace he has established and the ethical problems created by the demands of loyalty and love will be more complex than this cartoon question of dividing blood.

The book has a dramatic structure with eight Parts, which are roughly equivalent to a TV episode and each episode has 6-10 chapters or scenes. All of the scenes have a emotional tension, and no superfluous exposition slows the pace.   The three teenage vampire hunters of this first scene are students at the Sawtooth Wilderness Academy in Idaho. The Academy is in financial distress and it recruits four “gifted out of state students” so that it can be “diversified” enough to qualify for a federal charter school grant to relieve that distress.

After we meet the vampires, Part I introduces the “normal” recruits beginning with the book’s heroine Kathy Campion-Swink, a 16 year old from the Connecticut shore who keeps dropping out of the boarding schools where her parents store her while they are out do-gooding. She is a library rat reading Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley and Martin Luther. When she hitchhikes “Drivers who were tempted to put a hand in the wrong place were discouraged by an icy stare from her cold blue eyes and the display of a Marine Corps survival knife borrowed from the military academy.”

Kathy has a supporting cast of three other “normals”. Hector Julian Campos is from a barrio in Los Angeles. He tells his sister he has not chosen to go to Idaho, “What I chose is not to go to juvie. There are some very bad dudes in there.” He is travelling in a kaki muscle shirt and faded because “‘It’s a wilderness school. I don’t have to impress the bears.’ but no harm in showing the farm boys that a city kid had the muscles to take care of himself.”

Lionel Worthington is an asthmatic black kid from Chicago who wants to play classical violin. He has a single mom and four siblings and is despondent because he did not get into the Chicago High School for the arts. He is going to Idaho on a scholarship because he has been promised “an individual study program with a world-class violinist who’s been with us a very long time.”  In Part 2 Lionel will discover that “a very long time” means centuries. His world-class violinist is Mr. Vendetta couldn't get enough work as a violinist after he’d been turned into a vampire and “Sucking blood in pre-unification Italy didn’t give him the life style he’d known as a violin virtuoso in Padua. So he retooled in Sicily for the Costa Nostra.”

The last “normal” is Jung Soo, a Korean. We learn less about her in Part I than any of the others but that does not mean that she is less important. Her Tae Kwon Do training will give her an endurance, a strength and a will that is important for the group’s survival.

The diminishing amount I learned about each character through Part 1 actually accelerated me into the book. By the end of Part 1 I was so at ease with Schechter’s technique of presenting details, that I was ready to get on with it, secure in my aroused curiosity that Schechter’s characters would gradually be revealed as they faced each threat that confronted them.

Schechter throws the quartet into a perilous situation that provides plenty of opportunity for action. Will these four be bled to death as the campers in the first chapter, be “Turned” i.e. become vampires themselves (several ”normals” in the book are turned, including Soo’s mother) or escape? That is the question that drives the plot. They are trapped underground because the school is located in an abandoned mine high in the mountains and it’s winter and their boots and other winter gear have been taken and vampires, who are prevented from feasting upon them by the tenuous need to secure the federal grant, surround them.

The vampire community is not uniformly evil in fact it is roughly divided into three groups: the morally indifferent, the amoral Satanists and the morally and ethically troubled. The later group is made up of those vampires who know they have a fate worse than death, i.e. they will not die (unless a stake is driven through their heart or, as it turns out in this book, they are torn apart by wolves) nor will they age.

Schechter writes with wit; these exchanges with the school guidance counselor, Isadore Finkelstein, who laments being turned into a vampire because “blood is never kosher,” are fair examples from early in the book:
“Why did they put your office so far away from Admissions? asked Kathy.
“Why? Because administrators do what administrators do — they suck your blood and piss contempt. In this case whether the contempt is for guidance or for Jews, I’ve never been sure. Probably a little of both.”
“Vampires are prejudiced?” asked Lionel.
“You know anyone that’s not?” said Finkelstein.

“I’ll take Vampires in Art and Literature and Theology.” Kathy said. “Do the Satanists have a formal religion?”
“No. They’re more of a fundamentalist antisocial club.” Finkelstein sighed heavily. “They call it the Satanic Legion and want a new world order based on absolute freedom. How you can have a Legion organized to promote anarchy is beyond my understanding, darlings, but why should faith ever be subject to reason?”

Schechter’s plot does have its romantic twists. A hunk, who is a “nuvie,” someone recently turned into a vampire, (by the school’s English teacher who seduced him) does fall into a doomed love of Kathy. And while his love makes him her protector (a protection that saves her life) it must remain unrequited, because she would have to agree to be “turned” herself which would betray her loyalty to her three fellow normals and dedication to their escape. Our quartet survives with the help of three members of the vampire faculty who are outsiders and have some principles: the Shoshone ethics teacher; the Jewish guidance counselor; and the temperamental artist, Lionel’s violin teacher. However, even as we are aware of a literary convention that should ensure the quartet would survive, they are always in enough peril so to keep us  flipping the page to see what happens next.

However, by the end, our assumption that our four “normals” will escape turns out to be another of the book’s misdirections. Kathy and Soo do get out but to do so they must leave Lionel and Hector behind in an ambiguous ending that hints at more to follow. Soo will return to her Korean family to deal with her mother who has been turned into a vampire. And, because Hector’s self-sacrifice has made their escape possible, Kathy will need to return to The Sawtooth Wilderness Academy. So, even if you are, as I am, 4-5 times the age of the intended audience for Ethics of the Undead, you’ll probably get the next installment know the how and why of her continuing adventure.

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