Cellar Dweller Review: Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson

Review by Jess Peacock

F. Paul Wilson’s Midnight Mass is actually three books, or, perhaps more accurately, three genres, in one. The first half of the novel is horror writing at its finest, leaping out of the shadows on page one and relentlessly chasing the reader through the darkened streets of their imagination until it deftly transitions into a metaphysical musing on what it means to be human. From there, Wilson’s storytelling violently downshifts into an action soaked revenge tale couched in the nightmare world of a vampire apocalypse.

Lamenting the absence of truly ghastly vampires in the horror genre, or, as Wilson describes in an author’s note preceding Midnight Mass, “the soulless, merciless, parasitic creatures we all knew and loved,” the author set out to pen a tale that countered “the tortured romantic aesthetes who have been passing lately for vampires.” On all counts, Wilson succeeded at constructing a work that has continued to be underappreciated over the last seven years, finding itself seemingly lost in the shadow of his wildly popular Repairman Jack series.

In all likelihood having influenced David Soznowski’s equally wonderful novel Vamped and the sub-genre busting Spierig Brothers film Daybreakers, Midnight Mass introduces a world where humankind suddenly finds itself teetering on annihilation at the hands of a swift and violent vampiric worldwide assault. Save for a few regions of the United States where the undead have not yet sunk their teeth into, inhabitants of communities around the globe are relegated to camoflaging their existence as best they can, or serving as blood cattle for the new dominant species.

Thankfully, Wilson does not attempt to post-modernize his brand of vampire. Rather, he reclaims the popular mythology associated with the monster, as evidenced when he writes, “My premise going in was that all the legends about the undead were true: they feared crosses, were killed by sunlight, were burned by holy water and crucifixes, cast no reflection, etcetera.” By embracing this traditional approach, the author swings wide open the theological door that one would have to walk through if, in fact, vampires existed. And by setting the bulk of the first half of the novel in a Catholic church under siege by the undead, and populating the pages with intelligent, determined, and tough-as-nails survivors struggling to maintain their faith amidst the gore and insanity, Wilson is able to explore spiritual questions that have every right to manifest in this type of horror novel. “But you’ve got to take the next step,” explains Father Joe, the protagonist of the novel, to his atheist niece who is wearing a crucifix around her neck for protection. “You’ve got to ask why the undead fear it, why it sears their flesh. There’s something there. When you face that reality, you won’t be an atheist or agnostic anymore.”

The pleasure involved in reading a razor sharp novel celebrating the spiritual trappings of the traditional vampire aside, with Midnight Mass one can blindly apply any number of positive adjectives and labels: wickedly smart, thrilling, often horrifying, emotionally draining, devastatingly violent, and surprisingly tender. Because of this, F. Paul Wilson’s addition to the undead bookshelves undoubtedly deserves to sit amidst such classics as Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and John Steakley’s Vampire$, two other important literary works that explore the confluence of faith and vampirism by slamming the door on the unfortunate revisionism that has plagued the undead sub-genre for decades.