Literacy 2008: Book 4: Baltimore

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

On a battlefield late in World War I, allied soldier Lord Baltimore is attacked by a strange bat-like creature. Now, the war is over, but a mysterious plague has spread through all of Europe. Three of Baltimore’s friends are summoned to a tavern in a dying city, swapping stories of their own encounters with the supernatural while they wait for his arrival and an explanation of what’s causing the plague (spoiler: it’s vampires).

Inspired combination of Lovecraftian apocalyptic dread, old folk tales, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and even Blade, which feels like it’s creating a new mythology from its disparate sources. Mignola’s illustrations are perfectly chosen and placed throughout the book, conveying a sense of portent and doom as well in prose as they do in his Hellboy comics. Uses the antiquated story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure to set the time period and mood, but still manages to incorporate a killer fight scene. Makes vampires scary again: tells a vampire story without gimmicks or attempts to make them unnecessarily contemporary.

Because it’s literally humorless, it feels like a Hellboy story arc with a layer stripped away; there’s the action, and the sense of dread, and the exhaustively-researched set of source material, but nothing to ground it or make it feel “real.” Some passages suffer from overly affected writing. Despite being short and full of illustrations, it still feels ponderous and self-important.

A deliberately old-school vampire story that manages to be genuinely scary (and gave me several nights of weird nightmares). But I doubt I would’ve been interested were I not already a fan of Hellboy — it’s got all the same components as a Hellboy story arc told in prose, but without that spark of humor that makes it come alive.