I’ve cooled on SF critic John Clute over the years, but there are a few elements of his thought with which I am still in concordance. Chief among these is his discussion of the First World War’s impact on fantastic literature, or more precisely the problems sci-fi, fantasy, and horror have had digesting that particular cultural bolus. In one of his book reviews from the ’90s (for a Harry Turtledove novel, no less!), he made the point that, while the first war contains a wealth of imagery for an artist to use, anyone trying to make use of that imagery is ultimately hampered by the fact that you can’t really make anything constructive out of that war. Even if you were among the victors, it was hard not to feel that the whole thing just made the world a worse place. Clute later expanded on this idea, arguing that the First World War had the effect of killing the concept of individual heroism as an attainable virtue. According to him, there’s only two writers who served tried to preserve that heroic ideal: the Englishman J. R. R. Tolkien, who created the realm of Middle Earth as a safe space for heroes, and the German Ernst Jünger, who had his own…complicated personal philosophy that I may talk about one day.
Anyway, these issues have influenced the sorts of stories genre writers write about World War One. These days, it’s not a very hospitable area for science fiction, partly because aside from the airplane, the technology of the war has very little in the way of glamour, and most of the really outlandish machines belong to the imaginary WWIs of the previous decades of future war fiction. Despite signaling the end of the Eurocentric world, the beginning of the Amerocentric one, and creating countless new nations and empires, it’s not particularly well-exploited by alternate history. On the other hand, for people imagining fantasy of a horrific bent, the Western Front, with its churned and blistered earth, its drifts of barbed wire, skeletal trees, rusted machines, and mounds of mutilated bodies, is an endless source of inspiration. This imagery resonates with me, so I’ve collected my share of it over the years. It was because of this that I picked up Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola’s illustrated novel Baltimore, or: The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire back in 2007. I reread it this past Sunday, and while there were some parts I still appreciated, I didn’t have the same ardor for it I had back then.
Baltimore is set in what I call a cosmetic alternate history; while people from Scandinavia are called “Northmen” and the Germans are referred to as “Hessians,” everything is still as it was in our own history. The prologue opens with Captain Henry Baltimore of the BEF leading a squad of his men into the Hessian lines at night, only to be caught in an ambush and gunned down. Returning to consciousness some time later, he discovers great batlike creatures flitting about the emptied Hessian trench, feasting upon the dead and dying. One such creature takes a fancy for the captain, prompting Baltimore to slash its face with a bayonet. Feeling rather put out, the creature breathes some foul gas into Baltimore’s wounded leg, causing him to pass out.
The story proper begins several years later. A great “Red Plague” has swept Europe. The war has ground to a halt, simply because too many men have died and deserted to maintain any unit cohesion. The infected infest the major cities, gray-skinned and red-eyed, harboring a growing thirst for blood. Civilization is rapidly reverting to the conditions of the Middle Ages. There are also stories of even stranger things crawling out of the deepest woods and bubbling up from the ocean floor to vex the world of men for the first time in millennia.
Amid this decay, three men, all acquaintances of Baltimore, are summoned to small inn to attend him. While waiting for their host, they fall into conversation, each telling a story of their last encounter with Baltimore, and of their own experiences with the mystical and wicked. It’s a club story, but one in a state of collapse. Traditionally, club stories are tales told in cozy little confines, where the storytellers can feel themselves comfortable knowing that, whatever wild tales they tell of the world outside the club, they are safe and in control within the club and with each other. In Baltimore the club is a decaying inn with bad food and a dying staff, and the stories each of the three men tell only serve to drain certainty and confidence away. Their stories about Baltimore describe his inability to save his home and loved ones from his vampiric nemesis, and the anecdotes they tell of their own encounters with the supernatural only show the decay of the world was implicit before the coming of the Red Death. The end of the story further disrupts the club narrative, revealing the inn to be the lair of the scarred vampire. Another great cliché of club stories, of the tellers being inducted by their telling into a sacred order, is also stymied, with the final battle revealing that the others cannot hope to fight on the level of either Baltimore or the vampire.
There’s a lot to recommend about Baltimore. You’ve got your disruption of narrative structures, you’ve got your encounters with folklore beasties, and you’ve got your Great War post-apocalyptic aesthetic. If you’re of a more scholarly bent, you can dig through Baltimore and pick out associations with all manner of popular fantastic fiction from the early 20th century. And yet, as I read it again for the first time in years, something chills me.
The problem, I suppose, is Baltimore himself. In a story that liberally quotes from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” it seems strange for Baltimore to forget that in that story, the toy soldier was a pitiful figure. Baltimore suffers much in the course of the story, losing his men, his leg, and his wife and family to the vampire, but everything happens so fast we have no chance to know the man Baltimore was before he is gone. The man Baltimore becomes is one who has iced over, who has lost all of his attributes save for a drive to enact righteous vengeance against the vampire race. There is a sense in which this transformation is tragic, but seeing the new Baltimore, with his nail-studded wooden leg, his Hessian greatcoat, and his collection of armaments big enough to warm the cockles of B. J. Blazkowicz’s heart (and even B. J. Blazkowicz has a softer side softer side these days!), it feels like Baltimore is being positioned as the alternate-history-pulp version of the Punisher. Given how much I hate the Punisher, this is something of a problem for me.
When reading Baltimore, I couldn’t help but compare Henry Baltimore with another, more obscure character: Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Dancy Flammarion. There’s actually a number of similarities between the two. Both started out as characters in books before moving into comics. Both are abandoned loners who wander the backroads and forgotten places of the world to slay monsters, called to action by gods they despise, both longing to rest forevermore. The difference is that, while Baltimore has been rebuilt into an invulnerable engine of war, Dancy wears her weaknesses on her sleeve. She’s an albino girl wandering the Deep South with nothing more than a kitchen knife. The monsters she fights are more powerful and more confident, and she doesn’t always succeed. Even her behavior heavily implies her to be suffering from schizophrenia, making her not even a master in her own house. Now, Baltimore and Dancy were created by different people with wildly different goals and ideas. For myself, though, I find I have little patience for the Baltimores of popular fiction. If Henry Baltimore had kept a little of that tin soldier’s weakness, of his earnest drive to do all he could in spite of his incomplete body, even at the cost of his own life, that might have given Baltimore a hint of pathos, a glimpse of the tragedy of a man and the war that consumed him.