A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

The cover of Eleanor Bourg Nicholson’s vampire novel led me to expect some kind of late-Victorian Harry-Dresden-meets-Father-Brown mash-up. The truth is considerably less goofy, and far more interesting.

The cover depicts a cheerfully rotund Dominican friar, be-spectacled and be-hatted, carrying a bloody stake and wearing the bloody habit of the cover. This is one Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., D.C.L. It seems that in response to an alarming rise in preternatural events, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned his various religious orders to attend to the disposal of the forces of evil. The Order of Preachers was particularly tasked with dealing with the vampiric undead. Why he chose the Dominicans for this particular task, I can’t say; but I’ll note that the Franciscans were given responsibility for werewolves. (I foresee a sequel: The Werewolf of Gubbio.) (Apologies to Ms. Nicholson if I gave the game away.)

However, Fr. Gilroy isn’t the main character. That honor goes to a young man named John Kemp: respectable, agnostic, a plain English solicitor of the old school. As the book begins, early in 1900, Kemp is returning home from handling a piece of legal business in Romania; to pass the time on the train he is reading that recently published novel, Dracula, by one Bram Stoker. Traveling in same compartment with him is Fr. Gilroy, who seems to know far more than he should.

Mr. Kemp is a skeptical man who has mostly rejected his father’s Calvinism and found nothing much with which to replace it. He has a young lady in London with whom he almost has an understanding, and whom he no longer really wishes to wed, but is resigned to the inevitable. (It is the young lady, Adele, who pressed Stoker’s novel upon him.) In proper English fashion he regards Papistry as foolish, superstitious, and genuinely weird, and he has no desire to continue his acquaintance with Fr. Gilroy.

And then things start happening. His sleeping compartment on the train is invaded that night, and his beloved’s favor, a handkerchief, is stolen. And were those fangs he saw? And was the creature truly driven off by Fr. Gilroy’s business card?

He returns to London and things do not improve. His no-longer-so beloved develops anemia. He begins to have a nightmares. His clientele grows increasingly creepy. Violently mauled bodies are found in Hyde Park. And he keeps running into Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy.

This is not a Harry Dresden novel; nor is it a Fr. Brown pastiche, though Fathers Gilroy and Brown would certainly get on well. Rather, it’s an understated and slyly comic tale of late Victorian horror that nicely replicates the feel of Stoker’s Dracula while subverting as many of our expectations (and John Kemp’s!) as possible. The late Victorian prose and dialog is spot on. The horror is in the tale itself; the comedy is mostly in the reader’s head as one responds to things that do not work out as one had expected (or, again, when they do), but it’s there all the same.

A Bloody Habit is a deeply Catholic book; its theory of vampires pays decent lip service to Catholic theology and metaphysics, and its Dominican friars are as cheerfully Dominican as Dominican can be. (I suppose there exist morose Dominican friars, but I’ve not yet met one.) But it isn’t in any way preachy, and though there are many interesting tidbits said in passing, there are no lurking treatises on the theological implications of vampirism. Catholics will get a few chuckles, but I don’t see anything here to put off non-Catholic readers.

In short, I enjoyed reading it; and this despite not having much taste for vampire novels in general. I’d love to see a book in which Fr. Gilroy has to collaborate with his Franciscan opposite numbers. And I confess that I’m extremely curious to know what kinds of supernatural bogeymen the Jesuits and the Carmelites got assigned to deal with. Or the Carthusians. (Yetis, perhaps?) Recommended.

Fair disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of this book from Ignatius Press. That said, I asked for a review copy because I thought I’d like it…and I did. It will be available for sale next month.

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