On a cold autumn night, under a black sky leached of starlight and absent the moon, Captain Henry Baltimore clutches his rifle and stares across the dark abyss of the battlefield, and knows in his heart that these are the torture fields of Hell, and damnation awaits mere steps ahead.
Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire (2008) is a darkly poetic story of supernatural horrors unleashed during World War One. Lord Baltimore is our broken hero, chasing a plague-spreading vampire across the blooded lands of Europe. This is no graphic novel, but author/artist Mike Mignola, who is most known for his work on the HELLBOY series, adds over 100 images to this 300-page novel. Prolific horror/fantasy author Christopher Golden co-wrote this story, which is structured around a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.
Anderson’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier tells the tale of toy tin soldier made in a batch without enough metal to complete both legs. He can see a beautiful paper ballerina across the room, forever posed arabesque. While they never speak, they’re forever bonded in a heart-tugging tale of distant lovers always within sight, but forever apart.
The story of Baltimore (and continuing series of graphic novels) opens on Lord Henry Baltimore, an English Captain who leads his soldiers across a muddy field on the European mainland. With no hills or rocks to hide behind, they rely on only darkness and stealth to protect them from the waiting Germans hidden among the trees on the far side. A flare shoots into the sky; the entire line of Baltimore’s men shine brightly against the dark sky. German bullets whiz through the night, cutting down the English in a slaughter that was all too common across the killing fields in Europe.
A winged creature lights on Baltimore’s injured leg. It breathes its palpable breath into his wound and continues to crawl up his body. He pulls a knife and slashes the beast, ripping its eye from socket. The creature, with a screech, flies into the night.
As a boy he had kept to his room on rainy days and played with his tin soldiers, had cast them as enemies and caused them to kill one another on the battlefield of his blanket. They go back in the box and live to fight another day. Soldiers of flesh and blood also end up in a box, but theirs is of heavy pine.
The dramatically atmospheric prose builds setting, place and tone equal to character and plot. For a fan of literate horror, it was a joy to read the dark and unsettling words; not clichéd nor overwrought as the authors relentlessly filled their story with a pall of dread and gravity.
The opening sequence that I described above, and from which I pulled the two preceding quotes, is one of the relatively few segments of Lord Baltimore’s first-hand experiences. The next two-thirds of the story, following his injury, take place in a seedy rundown pub.
It’s a time of plague in Europe and the war is winding itself down. Rumors swirl around Lord Baltimore that alludes to the former soldier who carries a harpoon, and heavily limps on a jointed wooden leg. Three strangers, all acquaintances of Baltimore, are summoned on a specific night to meet the wounded soldier. One by one they share their personal experiences with Baltimore; and one by one they unravel uniquely bizarre biographies that unwrap the world of the supernatural.
I reviewed Brett Talley‘s Lovecraftian ode, That Which Should Not Be and was reminded of its structure, very similar to Baltimore, in which a single-threaded supernatural story surrounds acquaintances who relay their own adventures from a pub. It’s an effective mechanism that allows a series of tight short stories to live independently while enjoying a spider-web of connectivity with the larger themes and narrative.
Dr. Lemuel Rose was the doctor who treated Baltimore for his leg wounds. While serving in Northern Europe he tells a wonderful story of Nordic soldier who may or may not also be a were-bear:
The soldier’s bound, sleeping form twitched once, twice, a third time … He twitched again, and his mouth opened. It stretched impossibly wide, though his lips did not tear. Dark forms jutted from his throat, pressing those jaws open, forcing them farther apart … I watched as the soldier’s mouth was stretched wider still by huge paws, with claws like knives. In moments, the bear began to emerge.
Thomas Childress grew up in on the same small island off Britain as Baltimore. He was the last to see him — just a few years earlier. He tells the story of a trip in his youth to Peru, where the legend of a cursed murderer continues to haunt a village.
Demetrius Aischros was Captain of the ship that brought Baltimore back to England. He reminisces of his early years as a teen at sea. On his way to a new ship in Genoa he stopped by a village, his curiosity piqued by rumors of ghosts and doom. What he finds is more horrific than even his imagination could conjure.
The three stories build credibility in Mignola and Golden’s larger mythology that surrounds WWI Vampires/plague, and in Lord Baltimore, who’s clearly on a path to become a turn-of-the-century vampire hunter. The three men eventually reconnect with Baltimore and the scene is set for a showdown between the Baltimore and the Red Death, the vampire he unleashed years before.
Mignola’s art dots the pages of Baltimore. Some of the images are quite small and help set mood rather than provide and specific dramatic emphasis. Others are quite stunning and do well to connect story-to-imagery and novel-to-the series of graphic novels.
In Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, Mignola and Golden thread elements of the Anderson story throughout their narrative, connecting the dots between the fairly tale and their own much darker tale. After a lyrically Cimmerian opening chapter the remaining narrative floats as swiftly as a Stygian barge of the dead hurrying on its final passage.