Whenever I find a book that manages to infuse new life into an old trope, and does so brilliantly, I’m always delighted: this is the case of The Fifth House of the Heart, a story about vampires that feels fresh, compelling and even entertaining, since the horror in its core theme is skillfully tempered with humor.
Most of the latter is due to the main character, Asmodeus Saxon-Tang – or just Sax – an elderly antiques dealer with a rather adventurous past, even though the use of that adjective might be something of a stretch, since he’s not exactly hero material. Sax is an interesting mix of greed and aesthetic sense, of cunning business skills and unabashed cowardice: he possesses all the facets that would make him an unsavory figure and yet he manages to insinuate himself into your sympathies, and take root there forever, mostly because he’s quite candid about his own shortcomings. His drive for acquisition could make a Ferengi run away in shamed tears, but at the same time it’s possible to feel his deep love for precious things, a love coming both from his appreciation of their beauty and his extensive knowledge of their origins and history: there are many instances in which we are informed about a given object’s appearance and past, and those details never feel like exposition, because Sax’s loving point of view makes them stand out in sharp relief and teaches us fascinating facts about them, or the historical period in which they were created.
One of those successful purchases is the reason Sax finds himself enmeshed with the vampire community – again. Yes, because in the Sixties our greedy friend stumbled for the first time on a vampire hoard, making a name for himself in the antique dealers’ circles and painting a target on his back at the same time. The vampires in this novel are not the fascinating but dangerous individuals portrayed by older movies (nor, thankfully, are they the moodily sparkling kind of latter representations…) but rather vicious creatures that take the shape of the victims they feed on: a vampire subsisting on human blood will take a human shape, and also the gender of its preferred victims – with the possibility of switching between male and female as whim strikes it – while one that feeds on toads, for example, will morph into a far more nightmarish form. The flashback to Sax’s highly rewarding expedition to a French chateau where he stumbles on his first vampire hoard of riches is one of the best-paced tales of terror and discovery I can remember, detailing a place with built-in hidden traps to catch the unwary and the greedy, where dread takes an exquisitely claustrophobic flavor.
This first encounter with a vampire leads to the present events described in the book with a delightfully organic progression, instigating an older Sax to mount a new expedition and gather a band of time-tested companions who will accompany him into the mouth (or rather fangs…) of danger once more. The heist thread in The Fifth House of the Heart is one of the best components in this story, alternating well-calibrated humor with the inevitable drama one can expect when facing blood-sucking, ancient and cunning creatures. These extremely unlikely companions include Brother Paolo, one of the monks who actively fight vampires (and whose order is always quoted with its full name, the Ordine dei Cavalieri Sacri dei Teutonici e dei Fiamminghi, Special Branch – making it one of the in-jokes peppered throughout the book): Paolo is both an innocent and a valiant vampire-hunter, seemingly oblivious to Sax’s plans of wooing him, even though said plans mostly remain in our hero’s head. Rock is the proverbial Big Guy, the one endowed with an abundance of muscle and courage and a charming penchant for gallows-oriented witticisms. Then there’s Min, the Korean vampire hunter driven by tragedy and a burning desire for revenge, who has steeled herself into a killing machine who forsook all emotions in the pursuit of her prey. And again, Gheorghe the thief and Abingdon the steel-working irrepressible womanizer. I was surprised at the speed with which I grew fond of them, and cared about what happened to them, but this is one of Ben Tripp’s obvious skills, to create great characters with just a few brush strokes, and make them real, with the same ease with which he mixes moods and themes and comes up with an engrossing tale.
From the gathering of this band of treasure- and thrill-seekers onward, the action takes speed like a rolling avalanche and never lets go until the very end, moving from the USA to Europe, where Sax – somewhat belying his insistence on old age and creaking joints – takes them from Italy to France to Germany, where an epic battle is waged inside an old castle housing the vampire’s stronghold. It’s here that the author most successfully blends adventure, horror and humor in a seamless whole, building an unrelenting climax that ends in a very satisfying way, even though it leaves the reader quite shaken with all its accumulated tension.
This is such a surprising book in so many ways, and a proverbial page-turner: do yourselves a favor and read it, because it’s more than worth the time.