TSR, $4.95, ISBN 1-56076-852-5
Fantasy Horror, 1994
The setting and the main players of Mordenheim are a pretty blatant reinterpretation of those of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We have a Dr Victor Mordenheim, who creates a “son” using parts of cadavers he has obtained through not-so-legal means, and how Adam, this creature, ends up causing an irreparable rift being him and his creator. After all, it’s rather hard for Mordenheim to overlook the fact that Adam murdered his adopted daughter Eva and almost murdered his wife Elise as well. At least, that’s what Mordenheim believes. Adam has his own interpretation of events that took place that fateful day.
Set in the Ravenloft fantasy campaign world, Mordenheim takes place when Adam is already the darklord of a domain called Lamordia, a place where he and his creator Mordenheim engage in a war of attrition with each other. The thing is, they can’t kill each other – each lives as long as the other person lives – and any pain experienced by one of them is also intensely experienced by the other person. You can only imagine how much they despise each other, therefore, to keep doing what they do.
Mordenheim spends his entire waking hour keeping Elise alive in a ghastly device as he comes up with plans after plans to revive her and restore her into the perfect body so that he can spend forever with his beloved again. So far, he has yet to succeed. Adam sees to it that he sabotages Mordenheim’s plan as much as he could when he’s not terrorizing the folks of Lamordia.
Two potential walking collateral damage will become caught in the deadly game played between these two as they respond to Mordenheim’s request for aid in return for a generous amount of money. Newlyweds Friedrich and Hilda Von Karlsfeld met under unusual circumstances in a graveyard that saw them briefly apprenticed to a necromancer with revolutionary theories and techniques before that man died. Worse, these two young folks are soon fired by their employers for meddling in dark arts. Now, they have nowhere to go and nothing to lose by responding to Mordenheim’s summon.
Actually, Mordenheim wants the services of their late mentor because that man has heard of that necromancer’s ability to transfer the soul of the dead into a living body, and he is very interested in that technique for obvious reasons. Hilda and Friedrich reassure Mordenheim that they can replicate their late mentor’s rituals, but they will soon learn that their employer may be, well, tad insane and even psychopathic. Adam is no better, naturally. Add in a hunter-for-hire infected with lycanthropy and our two young people are going to have a honeymoon to remember.
Initially I was resistant to the charms of this story because… well, the whole thing is a rip-off of Frankenstein with liberal addition of steroids, werewolves, undead monsters, and some mild gore. But alas, I am only human. Mr Williamson has a very engaging narrative here. Even when Mordenheim and Adam are telling their stories to their (literally) captive visitors, the pace never sags.
The whole evil-on-steroids premise works in this story, much to my surprise and delight. I don’t know why Adam is the darklord when it’s pretty clear here that Mordenheim surpasses him by leaps and bounds when it comes to having a capacity for perverse violence and inhuman cruelty in the name of mad science. Adam is just a silly brute with homicidal tendencies – Mordenheim on the other may be a mad scientist but there is nothing amusing or campy about his inhuman capacity for cruelty and violence. He’s the biggest surprise in this story: I was expecting a campy and over-the-top mad scientist cliché, but instead I get a creepy and menacing villain who could fit right in in any concentration camp devoted to mass genocide and experimentation on humans.
Mordenheim as a villain may not be campy, but the scenes of battle can be, however, too campy for their own good. Not that I mind these scenes too much, as I know I’m reading a book from TSR, after all. Camp is these guys’ middle name. All in all, Mordenheim is a pleasant surprise. I was initially determined to dislike this book, but I soon find myself immersed in its simultaneously campy, creepy, thrilling, and ridiculous fast-paced plot. I have to say, therefore, that this one is really not bad at all.