With the dewy-eyed Twilight film series now mercifully fading into cinematic history, it’s time for the rehabilitation of the vampire as one of the great monsters of horror fiction to begin. Blood Cruise, from Swedish author Mats Strandberg (crisply translated into English), does a decent job of turning our favourite blood-suckers back into vile, ruthless killing machines.
The cruise ferry Baltic Charisma has seen better days. It chugs back and forth between Sweden and Finland on a twenty-four-hour ‘booze cruise’, its pissed-up passengers revelling in its fading grandeur as they gorge themselves on sumptuous buffets, dance at tacky nightclubs and drown in a sea of tax-free booze. Some twelve hundred eager passengers are aboard the creaking ship for its latest voyage; no-one pays much attention to the oddly old-fashioned looking woman and her pasty-faced, precocious blond-haired child as they disappear into the pulsating, heaving throng. But during a long and hedonistic night, the ferry becomes cut off from the outside world with no way to contact the mainland, a strange and deadly contagion spreading like wildfire throughout the ship. But exactly what sort of contagion is it? How is it spreading and how can the few survivors who have escaped its ravages make their way to safety in the face of a rising tide of terrifying blood-gorging monsters?
Strandberg’s book is a rip-roaring, redraw horror thriller which zips along without pausing for breath. Blood Cruise takes its time introducing its key characters - most of the clichés of disaster fiction are here from the dysfunctional family on the verge of splitting up, the sassy teenager, the failed pop singer eking out a living in the karaoke bar, a middle-aged woman easing her way reluctantly out of her comfort zone, a handful of good-time girls looking for a cheap thrill or two, various members of the ship’s bar staff and security crew - before pitching them into the mouth of madness as creeping horror spreads across the ship. We’re well over a hundred pages into the book before the nightmare begins and by now we’ve spent enough time with each of the characters to really become invested in them and to genuinely care about what happens to them as, inevitably, the death toll rises.
Strandberg’s text is greasy, grimy and sweaty. We’re constantly reminded that the Baltic Charisma (and her crew) have seen better days and the body horror factor is high as the vampire contagion spreads and the carnage begins. The pages fly by in a blur as the vampires surge across the ship, decimating and tearing apart everyone in their wake, devouring many and ‘turning’ many other who slowly mutate into the undead in unpleasantly-graphic detail. Interestingly, Strandberg’s vampires are, at first, little more than zombies as he postulates the theory that these vampires are basically blood-crazed shells until their ‘old’ personalities are slowly realigned although there are a couple of instances where he sidesteps this requirement in the service of keeping the story clipping along.
Grim, gripping and claustrophobic and populated by nicely-drawn, well-realised characters who you’ll genuinely care about and find yourself rooting for, Blood Cruise is a real blast of fetid air in vampire fiction, viscerally enjoyable, deftly plotted and throbbing with a real sense of mounting horror and urgency. It’s a rousing, vibrant and fabulously bloodthirsty read, which reminds us why we’re supposed to be scared of vampires rather than simply finding them mysteriously attractive and alluring.
BLOOD CRUISE / AUTHOR: MATS STRANDBERG / PUBLISHER: JO FLETCHER BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: JULY 12TH