Book Review: Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies: Compendium Monstrum

Imagine a beautifully frosted, perfectly decorated cake. Lovely to look at, but under all that carefully-sculpted sugar lay three slabs of Betty Crocker Cherry Chip that should have been mixed better and baked half an hour longer. That, in a nutshell, is Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies: Compendium Monstrum by Suzanne Schwalb and Margaret Rubiano: it looks delicious, but the insides are a little lumpy and uneven.

I pulled this book out to read while at a beach party (yeah, I’m boring) and I had to pass it around to four or five people before cracking the cover myself. Everyone who saw it was immediately intrigued and wanted to see it for themselves: a tiny matte black book with an ornate gold and red design on the cover and a bright red ribbon for marking your place. The pages are yellowed and printed to look textured without looking cheesy, and the interior page layouts are moody yet crisp. And the maps! Each of the major sections begins with a fold-out map marking locations of interest. The overall design work is excellent. All credit to Rubiano, who laid the pages out– the book looks good.

Alas, not all of the visuals stack up. The title page reads “Illustrated by Bruce Waldman”, which seems like a concise way of saying “Illustrated by a handful of Bruce Waldman’s sketchbook doodles and some public domain woodcuts we found”. I think the intent was that Waldman’s drawings should look like field sketches taken by scientific observers 150 years ago, but they really just look like rushed drawings turned in over a weekend, quickly scanned and scaled to fill an empty hole in the layout three days before the book was due at the printer’s.

That rushed, padded impression grew stronger as I read through the book. It’s organized into six sections, the quality of which start strong and then trail off as the page numbers pass. The introduction contains a cute “we found this manuscript in an old locked trunk in London” note from the publisher and two short essays from Sturm and Drang (groan), the spooky-faux-German authors that Schwalb and Rubiano adopt as pseudonyms. The next two chapters are about vampires and the hunting of same in Transylvania. These two topics are handled well, with an engaging mix of humour, actual facts and “facts” created for the sake of the book. Numerous snippets of vampire lore and folktales are followed by a sort of Transylvanian travelogue for vampire hunters. Language, local customs and geographic points of interest are all addressed with a playful sense of humour that never gets too hamfisted. Despite my prejudice against bloodsuckers I enjoyed these two chapters– how could I not like anything that mixes vampire-hunting tips with Terry Pratchett excerpts?

Sadly the next two chapters, “Werewolves” and “Zombies”, don’t get the same treatment. Both follow the same model as the chapter on vampires, but are much shorter– 76 pages combined, whereas vampires get 66 pages to themselves. Readers wishing to learn how best to hunt these two monsters will be disappointed– werewolf- and zombie-hunting tips are merely scattered throughout their respective chapters. The writing contains less detail, enthusiasm and creativity, the jokes are punnier and the facts come across like Wikipedia bullet points intended for readers who didn’t know anything about the monsters to begin with. It’s still interesting, but the sense of playfulness is gone.

It’s a surprising shift, and one that makes me think that the “inclusive” nature of the book was an afterthought, or a stipulation set by the publisher– it’s as though Schwalb and Rubiano set out to write a book about vampires and got focus-grouped into adding pages about werewolves and zombies at the last second. It’s a shame– if they had written about these two monsters with the same zest and cheekiness employed in the earlier chapters, the book would have been a much more enjoyable read. It would also have been long enough to render unnecessary the 22-page block of padding at the end (an overly-detailed index, suggested reading list, fake bios for the sock-puppet authors and way too many “sighting records pages”).

Do I sound harsh? I don’t mean to be. I’m just disappointed. Compendium Monstrum is a pretty little book that could have been much cleverer if its creators had maintained the same level of energy and focus all the way to the end. It was a fun read, to be sure, but the half-baked portions will keep all but the most casual monster fans from coming back for a second helping. If only the cake had been left in the oven just a little bit longer!

Buy, borrow or skip?

Borrow. It’s pretty and perfectly-sized, but werewolf fans won’t find much to chew on.