Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum

cover, carpe jugulumIt was inevitable that Terry Pratchett sooner or later would take on vampires. After all, he’s tackled (or more accurately, blindsided) sword and sorcery, Fritz Leiber, wuxia and practically any other subgenre of the fantastic one can think of. Eventually, the fanged folks’ number was bound to come up. One gets the suspicion that Pratchett’s been looking forward to this one, though, as Carpe Jugulum isn’t just a book about vampires on Discworld. It’s also a meditation on tradition, knowing your place, modernity, Goths, Highlander, parenthood, faith, religious crises, identity and most important of all, keeping your Igor happy. Got all that? No? Then read the book.

The tale starts off with a typical bit of Pratchettian drollery, namely, that the forward-thinking king of the tiny mountain kingdom Lancre has gotten a bit too forward-thinking for his own good. Trying to come up with a national anthem is one thing, but inviting vampires from the nearby Uberwald to his first child’s naming ceremony (in the hopes of advancing the cause of inter-species communication) is entirely another. And failing to ensure that Granny Weatherwax, Lancre’s senior witch and resident crone, gets her invitation to that very same ceremony is just opening the door to disaster. Because the vampires have been invited, you see, and that means they don’t ever, ever have to go away.

Even worse, they’re thoroughly modern vampires (a whole family’s worth, with moonstruck son, rebellious daughter and bluff yet occasionally oblivious father) who don’t hold with any of the traditional vampiric weaknesses. They’re not bothered by garlic, sunlight, holy symbols or running water, and they’ve got some disturbingly modern methods of dealing with their human prey. (Think Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and put a cape on it. You’ve got the idea.)

Normally, dealing with this sort of pest is Granny Weatherwax’s specialty. But since she’s been mortally insulted by the royals’ failure to invite her to the naming, she’s taken off for parts unknown. This forces some unwelcome changes on the remaining witches of Lancre: Nanny Ogg is forced into the crone role, Queen Magrat finds herself needing to pick up Nanny Ogg’s vacated role of mother (though not without her baby and approximately nine tons worth of child rearing accessories) and the maiden role is filled (overflowed, really) by Agnes Nitt, who comes with her own Inner Disgruntled Goth, Perdita.

Needless to say, things get rather odd from there, as they are always wont to do in Discworld. The action of the story, however, is almost incidental to what Pratchett is really driving at. Get beneath the disgruntled Igors and dwarven highwaymen and you find something very interesting: Everyone in Carpe Jugulum is trying to figure out who they are, as opposed to who the world wants them to be. Witches define and are defined by their place in the local triat. Vampires do their best to be other than what they are, and that includes a teenaged daughter who rebels by renaming herself something frumpy and daring her friends to drink real wine. And where should our sympathies lie: with these friendly, civilized vampires or with poor old Igor, reprimanded for tuning the squealing hinges and farming cobwebs. On the surface, the choice seems simple. But when you dig deeper (and Pratchett insists that you do) things get a little more complicated. What about the old ways is worth saving? What’s not so savory about the new ones? And in the rush to modernity, have the characters perhaps lost a few things that they should have kept a closer eye on?

Pratchett’s not a Luddite, not by any stretch of the imagination. By the same token, however, he has a definite love for tradition and the pastoral, and it comes through clearly in Carpe Jugulum. He’s not exactly disdainful of his modern vampires (one actually comes across as vaguely sympathetic, in his mooning after the delectably mundane Agnes (but he’s ruthless in examining their desire to modernize and the costs thereof. Lancre and its hapless king don’t get off much more easily. After all, it’s his desperate desire to drag his country kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat (whether it wants to go or not) that starts the whole calamity in motion. Change isn’t the villain here; change for the sake of change is.

Carpe Jugulum isn’t the best Discworld book. It assumes a bit too much prior knowledge of the Lancre witches, drags a few jokes out too long and suffers from one moderately confused action scene. But these are minor quibbles. On the whole, the book works, and works exceedingly well. It’s funny, it’s fast, and it makes you think.

And it also tells you about the care and feeding of your Igor. What more can you ask for than that?

[Richard Dansky]

(HarperPrism, 1998)

Richard Dansky

The Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, Richard Dansky has worked in video games for 17 years. His credits include over 40 titles, most recently Tom Clancy's The Division. Richard has also contributed extensively to the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs, and is the developer of the 20th anniversary edition of seminal horror game Wraith: The Oblivion. The author of six novels, including the Wellman Award-nominated VAPORWARE, he lives in North Carolina.

More Posts