by Terence Taylor
Octavia Butler wrote, “The only lasting truth is Change.”
More on that momentarily.
I met the late Leslie “L.A.” Banks at Medgar Evers College, in a year my life changed as my first novel was being published. It was one of the college’s famed literary weekends, at the post event reception. I saw Leslie and told her we shared an editor at St. Martin’s. By the time the conversation ran out of steam I felt like I’d known her forever. That was pure Leslie. She later gave me a blurb for my book cover that was as big a thrill as publishing the novel. It was like the queen of black vampire fiction had knighted me.
After a recent fundraiser for M. Asli Dukan’s documentary on the history of black speculative fiction, Invisible Universe, which included clips of Leslie, I spoke to Adrienne King, the president of the Leslie Esdaile Banks Street Team, fans that supported and spread the word of Leslie’s work. She lived a block away from the Harlem venue, and dashed home to generously bring me two gift bags of books from Leslie’s estate I’d never had time to read. Minion, The Awakening, Surrender to the Dark, Cursed to Death, an anthology, The Ancestors, and the comic book adaption of Vampire Huntress. It was like Christmas, in a wonderfully dark way. When I heard this might be my last column, I knew I wanted to review Leslie, after years of neglect. I knew I couldn’t get through them all, but decided to start with Minion, the seminal work in what became an epic twelve novel series, and the Vampire Huntress comic book series, Vol. 1, Dawn and Darkness, which takes place in the aftermath of the book series.
“If you’re afraid of the dark, Stay in The Light” is a series slogan and the theme that runs throughout the series. You need to choose to stay saved, and the struggle not to succumb to the lure of evil is a major struggle for many in an urban world already filled with dubious morality.
Minion introduces us to the two major characters in opposition for most of the epic, Damali Richards, singer, spoken word artist and the Neteru, this world’s chosen, one born every thousand years to battle the forces of evil. Her enemy is Fallon Nuit, sly, sophisticated, and responsible for her parent’s deaths, a powerful and ancient vampire who wants to make her his unholy mate in a world takeover.
No one thinks small in Banks’ novels. The crime and music company politics are as brutal and based on displays of sex, wealth and power as the vampire underworld, and they all overlap. Damali is surrounded by fellow vampire hunters, led by Marlene, the woman responsible for her training; Carlos Rivera, her erstwhile ex-love, has his brothers and gun-toting homies defending his club and drug empire; Nuit has a growing army of demon-vampire hybrids, made possible when Damali’s mother left her infant daughter at home to go summon a revenge demon to punish him for taking away her husband.
There is a breathless pace to the book — its mythology builds, explained in rushed bursts of dialog as characters race to uncover the mystery of the bloodthirsty monsters decimating their community. Nuit’s succubus lover wipes out those around Carlos in inventive ways as he is drawn deeper into a trap to become their means of ensnaring the Neteru. It builds to a dizzying climax as layer after layer of conspiracy is stripped away, taking us from the mean streets of a city in crisis to the depths of Hell itself, until we see the whole landscape Banks will explore in the series.
It became clear in the last quarter as the stakes rose that there was no way she was ending this story in the first volume. I still didn’t expect her to do what she did, which was a shocking reversal of fortune with a major character not only turned into a vampire, but suddenly the most powerful one in their world. Cue part two…
Twelve volumes later we have the comic book epilogue.
As Adam-Troy Castro aptly pointed out in his Jan-Feb column for this publication, The Magic Lantern: The Questions That Linger, even the happiest endings have limited half-lives. Dawn and Darkness take place in a world after the actual Apocalypse, the Devil beaten for now, but the defeated son of their old enemy is literally piecing together a new threat.
As the story begins our world is radically changed, humanity lives in the remains, occupy large defensible buildings that still stand, like hotels and stadiums. The pregnancies and their importance are a standing symbol of a return to life for the human race, light rising from the long darkness. Demonic attacks are now only outbursts, residual activity, no longer the end of the world, but signs that it’s coming back to life. Carlos and Damali are together and she’s pregnant, as are other women in their compound. The Earth has obviously seen better days, and SPOILER ALERT, Fallon Nuit and his mate Lilith have been killed, their son the Anti-Christ overcome and sent to Hell, where he is healing and building a chimera demon from his dead mother and others.
Needless to say, a great deal of the fun is in seeing Banks’ expansive action scenes laid out in images splashed across glossy color pages, evidently the only thing that could convince her to return to write a world she felt she’d pretty much covered in twelve volumes. Set in their first trimester, the women, some with powers beyond the men, argue throughout against being sidelined and Damali often takes command when it happens. She overrules Carlos more than once, reassigning teams based on their strengths with strategies beyond, “let’s keep the pregnant women safe at home.” Amazingly, Banks’ achieves this feminist stance throughout her novels as well without making the men look stupid, partly by having the women offer options each time that just make more sense, ironically based on logic more than emotion.
Fortunately I was given the four-issue trade soft-cover that took the story to its explosively bloody conclusion. Three artists were used to tell the tale over four issues, and there is almost a throw down between in them in how the ambition of the art escalates with the scale of the story. Knowing Leslie, I can believe it when she says in the acknowledgments how much she enjoyed working on layout and sketches with them. I can only imagine her delight if she could have seen the movie made.
The ending panel is Banks’ perpetual reminder that we must be ever vigilant, that good and evil are always locked in an eternal battle for dominance. Her stories will live on in various forms as her writing partner works on a film of the vampire books, but it will also live on in the work of all of the writers like me that she inspired with her generosity, her wit, talent and most of all, her sheer energy. How could so much power be gone from the world? It’s not.
As I began, change is the only constant.
Fantastic Stories of the Imagination was revived on a financial model that inevitably changed, as everything does. With outside subsidy diminished, becoming a self-sustaining publication is a long journey and it’s up to current readers to make sure it survives long enough to do so. If you’re reading these words, yes, that means you. Tell your friends. Why? Why should you care? Why should you do anything?
Because stories are ephemeral and while anything that preserves them for others to enjoy is good this magazine has done that well for decades. Stories are ideas arranged in words, told around a fire in the beginning, and then written down by hand, printed, digitized, captured to live on in publications like this. I enjoy genre movies, but don’t know that today’s inspire storytelling so much as spectacle, and forget what they were about almost as soon as they are over. I think they inspire directors and effects artists more than writers.
Plot development is often given short shrift in favor of sensation. Stories in print are often more satisfying, whether in anthologies or magazine collections, on paper or pads, part of how new authors are groomed as they expose us all to the work of future favorite writers. In its first life Fantastic Stories was one of the pivotal publications that gave life to the genre. Its reincarnation has been part of an online pool of paid markets for writers. Losing it doesn’t just impact them; it deprives you of their work.
I’m not even asking you to give yourself. If you can’t subscribe, just spread the word, post the Patreon campaign link, tell a friend to tell a friend. Spark a flame. Spread the fire. Keep it burning and the dreams told around it alive.
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.