DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET by Simon Raven (2008, House of Stratus)
“#11 Doctors Wear Scarlet. Is it vampirism of is it a neurotic obsession? Ask the dead. Superb modern vampire novel was filmed as Incense for the Damned (AKA Bloodsuckers)”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “The Thirteen Best Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
The author of this novel had a colorful life. Simon Raven was a great novelist and essay writer. He was regarded up there with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. He was also a notorious party animal and manged to spend just about every shilling he made. Education at British public school and service in the army gave him plenty of material for Doctors.
The plot of Doctors follows the career of Richard Fountain, a college graduate destined for great things. We are told about his life in first-person via his good friend Anthony Seymour. Seymour has attended both private school and college with Fountain and observed the rise to prominence. Both have had distinguished careers in the field of ancient history.
However, the book opens with the visit of a policeman to Seymour’s office. It appears Fountain has put himself in a spot of trouble while researching religious cults in the Aegean islands. The Greek police want him for questioning. Fountain has been away for months and no one knows how to find him, although it’s assumed he’s living in somewhere in Greece. After telling Fountain’s life story to the policeman, Seymour, and some close friends, decide to travel to Greece to find him.
A lot of the book deals with the Fountain’s back story. He’s from a modest family and rides through school on scholarships. But this success has brought him to the attention of a college professor who wishes to manipulate the younger man’s career. Worse, the professor has a daughter in need of a suitable husband and poor Richard fits the bill.
When Fountain’s friends do find him, the man is a mess and close to death. He’s become involved with a seductress named Chriseis who initiates him into a blood cult. The two form a bizarre relationship and it’s implied Richard may not be her first victim.
The book doesn’t use the word “vampire” until well after the half-way mark. The author never does say wether or not vampirism is the product of a disease, disillusion, or the supernatural. All three possibilities are hinted at. Even the conclusion doesn’t answer this question. However, the last possibility is favored.
Doctors gives the reader a detailed glimpse in the college life of Cambridge and the other established British universities. The title is take from an invitation to a college banquet where those holding a doctorate must wear scarlet robes. The conclusion of the book takes place during the annual Michaelmas dinner, a centuries-old tradition.
This is a well-written and very literate book. Not an easy read, but worth the time.
(First published 5/26/2009)