Onyx, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-41224-9
Anne Frasier brings me to the Wisconsin town of Tuonela for her latest suspense novel, Pale Immortal. Tuonela is actually a newer version. Old Tuonela is abandoned – located near the current version of Tuonela, Old Tuonela was infamous for being the home and operation ground for Richard Manchester, the so-called Pale Immortal, a turn of the century serial killer who drained his victims dry of blood. Today, the newer version of Tuonela is the home of Evan Stroud, a man who is stricken with porphyria, a disorder that prevents him from coming in contact with sunlight. Our heroine Rachel Burton is the Dana Scully of Tuonela in that she is the medical practitioner and the autopsy lady. She knows Evan since they were kids (Evan experienced the onset of porphyria only in his late teens) and she even had a crush on him back then.
Then Evan’s son that he never knew he had until now shows up. Graham is just in time for the most happening party in Tuonela in decades: someone is murdering young women in the same manner of Richard Manchester and fingers are pointing at the local town “vampire” Evan. Rachel as the coroner is naturally involved in the case. So who is the killer? Could it be the Pale Immortals, a bunch of weirdos worshipping vampires? Or could it be someone else that is more… earthly?
Don’t go “Oh no, she’s jumped onto the vampire bandwagon too?” people – Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal doesn’t feature vampires. At least, not the vampires more typical of popular fiction nowadays – the only vampire here is a man suffering from a disease that prevents him from being in the sun for too long (his skin will blister and even develop cancer under sunlight) although his porphyria, as someone in this story noted, is more severe compared to other people with the affliction – Evan’s condition seems to affect him to an extent rarely seen in other people with porphyria. However, even Evan starts to doubt his humanity as he, like Rachel and Graham, gets swept up in this dark and creepy story.
However, I am dismayed to realize that while this one may have all the ingredients for a very dark and creepy story featuring a more scientific version of vampirism, this book is clichéd beyond belief. From the heroine experiencing a premonition where the corpse she is working on suddenly turns its head and tries to say something to her, to the scenes leading up Evan’s implication in the murders – everything feels tired in a “been there, done that” manner. Rachel claims to be able to see ghosts, but that aspect of her is never developed fully enough and remains an underbaked issue. Graham is annoying, I find, as he is created to be that kid who will attract all kinds of danger to himself in this story, from pedophiles to crazy vampire cult members. Therefore, every time that idiot misbehaves and gets into trouble, I find it hard to sympathize even if he is a troubled kid because he’s nothing more than a one-dimensional dingbat-in-distress at the end of the day. Every thing he does has one purpose only: to get into serious danger so that Daddy can run to his rescue.
Evan is also not well-written enough and there are many things about him that seem to be inserted just for suspense and nothing else. For example, Evan keeps going out at night, which makes me wonder whether he’s involved in something funny, but Ms Frasier never fully explains why he is wandering around and getting his clothes all dirty even after the killer is found. He’s just one of the many things about this book that are underdeveloped. He, his relationship with Rachel, Rachel’s past, and the link between Richard Manchester and Evan are pivotal point plots but by the last page these matters remain murky with plenty of missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle.
The plot is also problematic in that Ms Frasier doesn’t even bother to hide the villain. The moment this person is introduced, I find myself thinking, “How come nobody suspects this fellow? Even the psychological profile fits! It can’t be that easy, right? This fellow must be a red herring.” Imagine my surprise when much later I realize that the fellow is not a red herring but the actual villain. Evan and Rachel cannot do much in this story other than to react to situations and the second half of this book is one long and melodramatic, even lurid, rescue as Graham really does it this time and hit the jackpot when it comes to being that Plot Device That Should Have Just Died and Spare Us All the Trouble. There are many events that are not well-explained. Graham’s mother, especially, shows up, goes away, and shows up again with no good reason given to explain her actions. She, like Graham, is a cardboard-thin plot device created solely to move the story along.
I really like what Ms Frasier is trying to do with the vampirism and if he is more well-developed as a main character, Evan would have been a beautifully tormented hero. However, the main characters remain genre clichés, the story has too many clichéd scenes, and the fact that the story ends in a manner to pave way for sequels all come together to make Pale Immortal come off like the novelization of the pilot of a horror/science-fiction TV series that will be canceled after three episodes. I can only hope that the sequel will be more well-developed than this one.