Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire (Advance Reading Copy) – Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola

3 out of 5

The Red Death – families wiped out; cities turned in to ghost towns. A gray pallor settles across the population, and it’s not wise to wander at night; strange tales of curses and creatures are whispered regarding certain areas, fallen to ruin.

And during the war, soldier Henry Baltimore, while thoughts of the tin soldiers filter he used to play with as a child filter through his memories – snippets from Hans Christian Andersen’s poem of the same name preceding sections of the book – is witness to the beginning of this plague: bat-like entities that swoop down upon corpse-strewn fields to feast on the nearly dead. Vampires. He’s awoken from his dying breaths by revulsion to these things, and slices at a particular one with his sword while it breathes its poison into a wound on his leg. A vendetta is started here – the vampire with the slash across his face will now target Baltimore’s loved ones, and Baltimore will target them all.

Yeah, it’s a pretty solid origin story for our vampire hunter, but it’s all prelude. The actual bulk of Baltimore, the book, is taken up by the told tales of three men – unknown to one another – summoned to a dusty inn at one such plague-affected town by Henry, also for reasons unknown. Introductions are made and then the three men wait, and wait for the soldier to arrive. Night happens, and the trio take to talking, wondering how it is each of them came to know Baltimore…

The structure for the book becomes clear: each man will tell a story about meeting Henry, and becoming aware, in some fashion, of his vampire-hunting mission; then a pause, and another story from each about some previous supernatural occurrence in their lives that allowed them to immediately believe in the cause. Each of these tales is well told, and Golden and Mignola do a good job of ante-upping from one to the next, starting in the realm of creepy but standard, to weird and nightmarish, to horrifying. It’s impressive: I was somewhat humdrum after the first, then entranced by the second, figuring that the duo had jumped the shark and the third couldn’t do much to top it. But it does. Unfortunately, given how much space each of these tales take up in the 280-ish page book, one the aforementioned structure is clear, it’s also apparent that this is going to be the majority of the The Steadfast Tin Soldier – all exterior stories before, inevitably, some final reveal or appearance of Baltimore. And knowing that can’t help but suck much of the tension out of the room.

When we do get to a climax, Golden’s / Mignola’s skills at crafting mood and environment quite supersede their ability at communicating of-the-moment action. Once you’ve read some books by some writers who know how to define space and dynamic fisticuffs within it (Greg Rucka has always been excellent at this, but of course, there are plenty others), it’s all too clear when others are lacking in that department, and that’s the case here: The Steadfast Tim Soldier’s final section quite lacks impact, and also feels somewhat rushed in comparison to the patient swirl of tale-telling we’d previously stepped through. Some good twists and imagery are enacted, but just as that initial scene with Baltimore is prelude, this concluding scene feels more like a coda than a conclusion.

The spot illustrations from Mignola are a mixed bag. In comic form, Mike often mixes cutaway shots with images that depict the actual narrative. That’s incredibly effective at setting mood, but in text form, it feels somewhat arbitrary. Initially, his additions feel relevant and important to what we’re reading, but as it goes on, the images feel more and more separated from the text, thus adding less to the experience at the same time. I like the idea, and certainly having Mignola be co-author suggests he’s close to the material, it just ends up feeling more experimental in application than desired.

It’s to be noted that this Advance Reading Copy has some odd repeated lines in the text that I wonder whether or not were cleaned up in the final, but they weren’t a major detraction.