Set aboard an Ohio River steamship in 1857, George R. R. Martin's only horror novel Fevre Dream may have an original setting but it's squarely in the traditional vampire sub-genre. Regal creatures of the night dressed in the finest dark velvet and flowing pirate shirts pontificate upon the nature of master and slave, life and death, good and evil, when not gulping down steaming freshets of blood. Or reading a volume of Byron poetry, natch. Look upon my works, ye Mighty, etc.
Since the period is pre-Civil War America, we see some of the grim literal actuality of the vampires' metaphor of master and slave. It's an interesting dynamic Martin's created. All humans are unwitting slaves to the vampire - a name the creatures reject - and the vampires are slaves to the "red thirst," while privileged whites make other races into subhumans. Horrified to learn that the all-too-real vampires refer to the human race as "cattle," Abner Marsh, the ugly, cantankerous yet still likable owner of the Fevre Dream steamboat, slowly makes the connection with that other plague upon humanity.
Martin's characters are colorfully drawn, from the various men - some former slaves, many seasoned rivermen - who run Marsh's ship to the mysterious Joshua York who enlists Marsh to build Fevre Dream for some unspoken reason, to the mad vampire "bloodmaster" Damon Julian and his cruel and cowardly human dogsbody Sour Billy Tipton; truly an impressive supporting cast. With a gift of pure storytelling and and historic detail, Martin spices his tale with time- and character-appropriate grammar and slang. And in its own gruesome and believable way, this story is ultimately about friendship.
However, it resembles Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles in its New Orleans and Revolutionary-era France portions. I don't know when Martin first conceived of this novel, so perhaps his predates hers; perhaps not. And its rich setting and descriptions of the river-boating working life also seem, after awhile, to bog it down so that about three-quarters of the way through, it rather runs out of, er, steam, despite an impending climax between Marsh and the "night people." I liked Martin's origin myth for his vampires - shades of Clark Ashton Smith, of all writers.
From all lips I had heard a legend of a city we had built, a great city of the night, wrought in iron and black marble in some dark caverns in the heart of Asia, by the shores of an underground river a sea never touched by the sun... we had been expelled from our city for some crime, had wandered forgetful and lost for thousands of years... some day a king would be born to our people, a bloodmaster who would gather our scattered race together and lead us back to the city of the night beside its sunless sea.
Overall Fevre Dream is a good read; if not particularly scary, it is vividly imagined, quite violent, and mostly engaging. Vampire fiction fans should pick it up for its unique setting, but it's not the kind of paperback horror novel I'd tell fans that they must drop everything for so they can scour old stores for a vintage copy. In fact, I somehow missed it on the shelf while browsing a warehouse-sized bookstore here in town; my girlfriend spotted it quickly and snatched it up. I had to promise not to wear it out any more than it already was if I wanted to read it first. I'm not sure what's up with that ketchup-letter font on the 1983 Pocket Books paperback edition; I much prefer that paperback's inner flap (below), which was the original hardcover art.