Ahoy! Ahead there be SPOILERS....
Edward Lee's novel Brides of the Impaler is an example of very effective cover design. The fact is, a friend of mine was reading it at work and I asked to read it when she was done. Mission accomplished! Title and cover combined to attract a fan of vampire novels.
Fortunately, this is indeed a vampire novel. With that title and this cover one would feel disappointed upon reading an inspirational tale of Peace Corps workers in El Salvador.
And vampire novel it is! More, as implied, it deals with none other than the most famous undead of all time (so far), namely Vlad The Impaler aka Vlad Tepes aka Dracula! (say it with me, rolling the 'r' we go along -- DRRRRRAAAACUUUUULAAAAA! Wasn't that fun?)
Not all vampire novels are the same of course. For one thing, not all fall really under the same genre, not really. Some aim for eroticism, and others for humor while still others are essentially gothic versions of Harry Potter or Romeo and Juliet. This one aims at horror, at a sense of malignant evil which has a real chance of triumph, of ruthlessly destroying/corrupting the innocent and good. It doesn't try to define evil very much, going after the relatively straightforward stuff of cruelty and wanton destruction. Nor is this a novel that particularly focuses on character -- the hardest thing in the book is to keep the two lawyers apart in the mind. Ditto the two cops. The insane homeless women? Good luck. They wear different clothes and one of 'em has the least teeth, but that is about it.
Which is not meant as a severe criticism. This novel isn't really so much about the nuances of what makes people tick, but about the stuff that happens to them. Along the way, the author actually accomplishes some interesting effects.
For example, the title and cover hints in some subtle way about lesbian vampires. Maybe it is the reminder of a Dracula's harem in the book and movies, with the indelible image of all three practically gang-raping Jonathan Harker. Such elements do exist in Brides of the Impaler. A successful artist (of grotesque little dolls) finds herself haunted by dreams and then hallucinations about an almost-nude vampire nun offering sensual pleasures. Eventually these dreams start to intrude upon reality, including a moment when she "wakes" to find herself mid-coitus with her foster sister! Yet this is ultimately not erotic at all. It isn't intended to be, save in the most fleeting of ways. In fact, by then we realize that both young women had had vicious foster parents who used them in child pornography, forcing them to do things to each other. That drains pretty much all the titillation out of that scene, as is intended. The erotic becomes ugly, threatening, even sadistic. Likewise, fantasies about lesbian vampires licking you all over really get spoiled when said vampires are filthy, covered in scabs, missing teeth, their nails uncut and grimy, etc. Instead of sexy, this is pretty nauseating. Again, as evidently intended.
Mind you, I will say the horror of books like this would be even more powerful if we really felt these characters were in any sense real. Hardly a one comes "alive" on these pages, and the few who almost approach it are minor characters at best -- a security guard, an archeology student, a certain priest horrified by what he sees as a dark prophecy coming to fruition.
I'll also nitpick about the history intrinsic to the story. While far from an expert on medieval Wallachia, the stories about Vlad the Impaler bear very little resemblance to all that I've read. On the other hand, how much of a valid criticism is that really, when you get down to it? This is a novel, not a history tome. Its avowed purpose to make you feel creepy, not to leave the reader with a greater understanding of Eastern Europe during the 15th century.
Some cool ideas, some chills and thrills, some moments when your skin crawls. That is the promise of this novel and that is the promise it keeps.