Welcome to Ravenloft, boils and ghouls! Where it’s always a dark and stormy night, where monsters are always under your bed, and your blood always curdles in horror—right before a vampire sucks it out. So what the hell is a gold elf from the Forgotten Realms doing here? Short answer: Not having a particularly fun time.
Vampire of the Mists is the very first novel set in Ravenloft, D&D’s gothic horror realm. First debuting in 1983, Ravenloft began as merely an adventure module (by eventual Dragonlance authors Tracy and Laura Hickman) where players attempted to destroy the evil vampire lord Count Strahd in his big scary castle, also called Ravenloft. It only became a full campaign setting in 1990, after AD&D had exploded in popularity with 2nd Edition, which is likely why publisher TSR was ready to capitalize on its new horror setting with a novel the very next year.
Written by Christie Golden—who has done a ton of novel tie-ins to properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, and World of Warcraft—Vampire of the Mists is about Jander Sunstar, a gold elf and self-loathing vampire who finds himself transported to the land of Barovia in the Demiplane of Dread after having a particularly bad day—er, night. He’s taken in by Barovia’s ruler and fellow vampire Count Strahd, who’s basically Dracula with a semi-tragic backstory and the ability to cast spells.
As you might expect from a D&D vampire novel published in 1991, it’s a lot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a healthy dose of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire ennui, courtesy of Jander. It’s a simpler, more basic version of both classics, of course, but I absolutely do not hold that against the book. In fact, Vampire of the Mists is the best D&D novel I’ve read so far—the best written, the best plotted, and easily the most complex. That’s not saying a ton, but the book reads less like a game taking place and much more like an authentic story, with help, no doubt, from the vampire fiction it draws from.
Mists is primarily about Jander and Strahd and their uneasy camaraderie, since Jander doesn’t really have anywhere else in Barovia to go, yet Strahd is also immensely evil on occasion. However, it’s also a mystery story as Jander searches for the person who magically destroyed the mind of Anna, a woman he falls in love with at the beginning of the book. Does her tragic tale have anything to do with the single locked room Strahd demands Jander never enter or ask about when the gold elf first arrives at Castle Ravenloft? I’m not telling, but also, yes, obviously.
There’s something genuinely compelling about Strahd, possibly because he is, again, a Dracula. He’s got the driverless carriage and castle doors that open on his own. His castle is completely decrepit other than his library and study, because he’s classy like that. He plays a giant organ. He delights in Jander’s company, but he also delights in performing horrific acts of cruelty in front of Jander, because Strahd knows the gold elf hates it. He’s quick to anger, but quick to calm down again. Strahd also invents an insane board game called Hawks & Hares, which includes gameplay that somehow leads Jander to say, “The Doe has reached the warren. According to the rules, that gives me five more Kittens to introduce into play.” He’s technically a complex character, it’s just that the complexities themselves aren’t complex.
Although Mists spends most of its time with the two vampires (perhaps a little too much time), a handful of interesting human characters weave in and out of the story, evolving over time, literally, as the book primarily takes place over 25 years. Jander’s actions and inactions affect multiple generations, and Golden does an excellent job bringing them together, leading to a natural progression where Jander, the priest cum vampire hunter Sasha, and the thief Liesl attempt to take out Strahd and his coven. Mists isn’t scary, per se, but Strahd wreaks enough horror and carnage to drive home that Ravenloft is much, much more sinister than the Forgotten Realms. It all comes together into a solid narrative.
That’s not to say Vampire of the Mists doesn’t have its problems—of course!—it is, after all, a D&D novel. Jander’s tragedy is quite overwrought; his last name is Sunstar because his family was just so into the sun; Jander loved the sun so much he worshipped the sun/rebirth/etc. god Lathander Morninglord, but now he can never see it; and for some reason Jander also really loved places of worship in general, which he now cannot enter. There are some really bad plot devices at the end, the most egregious of which is how Jander enters the magically locked room, which is by tricking Strahd’s easily manipulated werewolf girlfriend into learning and then casting “A Spell to Unlock Magically Sealed Doors” one evening. (That spell name is verbatim, by the way.) Also, the timeline of the book is…let’s just say “loosey-goosey” and somehow, no one in Barovia realizes Count Strahd is a vampire, despite the fact he’s been ruling for 250 or so years.
Alas, Vampire of the Mists is also a D&D novel published in the early ‘90s, which means hunks of it have, as usual, aged rather poorly. There’s the Vistani, a race of Romani analogues repeatedly called by the old slur, which isn’t great. Strahd is exclusively interested in creating a coven of sexy vampire ladies, which means a lot of female characters exist solely to be victims. Specifically, Anna is very much a woman in a gothic horror refrigerator who dies solely to set Jander on his quest for revenge, although that’s not the worst part. Jander finds her in a mental asylum, where he goes to feed when he can’t stand drinking animals, which means he falls in love with an effectively trapped woman with severe mental health issues. Nothing physical happens, thank the Morninglord, but it still seems like this should have been flagged as extremely icky even in 1991, and of all the problematic things that have popped up in the D&D&N series so far, I’m pretty sure it’s the worst.
And yet, it’s still the best D&D novel I’ve revisited so far. I do think part of this might be because I remembered practically nothing about Ravenloft going into the book other than that it was gothic horror and Strahd was its evil poster boy, which I think is because I never knew anything about Ravenloft as a D&D-obsessed teen. A horror campaign setting just seemed a lot more restrictive to me than a traditional Forgotten Realms fantasy campaign, which still had vampires and werewolves, but also a million other things.
I’m not going to insult either of us by using the io9 Spoiler Bar for a 30-year-old novel you absolutely aren’t going to read, but spoiler: Obviously, Strahd is the one who messed everything up. The Count, bitter that he was forced to waste his mortal life protecting Barovia from goblin armies, desired immortality. He lusted even more for the good-hearted Anna (real name Tatyana) and hated his effortlessly charming younger brother Sergei for being betrothed to her. So Strahd made a dark pact with some unknown entity to become Ravenloft’s first vampire and murdered his brother; Anna went insane and tried to kill herself but was secretly transported into the Forgotten Realms for Jander to find. In the present, learning the truth finally propels Jander to kill his host, but the gold elf can only wound Strahd grievously, forcing the Count to go into hiding for a few years, before Jasper decides to watch the sunrise one last time.
It sounds like pretty standard stuff, but what’s interesting is Strahd isn’t the main villain in Ravenloft. Jander figures out he, Strahd, and Anna have all been manipulated by the Demiplane of Dread itself. It feeds off misery and hatred, so it used Anna to create Strahd, it sent Anna to Jander to bring him to Ravenloft, and it encouraged Strahd’s cruelty and Jander’s desire for revenge. It even reincarnates Anna every so often and then kills her to keep Strahd miserable. It also metafictionally explains the Count’s plot armor; the forces of the plane will never allow Strahd to be truly destroyed because he’s their instrument in making Ravenloft a place of fear and pain. It’s a perfect way to justify a dozen novels starring Strahd, where the protagonists still need to defeat him to tell a satisfying story but allows the count to always return to sell more Ravenloft products.
It turns out the malevolent sentience of Ravenloft is all part of the campaign setting. Golden is drawing this straight from the source material, so maybe I shouldn’t be so praiseworthy of Vampires of the Mists and more praiseworthy of the game. But I can’t help but feel even though the novel got a major assist from the game, it still made for a neat end to a very readable novel. As such, Vampire of the Mists rolls a 10 on a 1d20… but with an unfortunate -1 modifier for the Anna badness, which just can’t be handwaved away.
I feel good about putting Vampire of the Mists around the middle. It is neither genius nor garbage. It’s got some flubs but is still written by someone who clearly knew what they were doing, which cannot be said of many of the previous entrants in this series. If you’re looking for a good vampire story, you could do significantly better than Vampire of the Mists, but if you’re someone rereading a bunch of 30-year-old Dungeons & Dragons novels, you could do much, much worse.
- Ravenloft (and I guess Forgotten Realms) vampires have all the tropes: They can turn into bats, wolves, and mists, and they don’t cast reflections. They can control animals and enthrall people, to a degree. They can’t cross running water, and they have to be invited into a home to enter. Unless they’re an extremely powerful vampire like Strahd, natch.
- If you’re curious about Jander’s bad night, it’s when Anna is dying of a fever in the mental asylum. In desperation, he tries to turn her into a vampire, but Anna declines and dies peacefully. Jander goes berserk and kills most of the utterly innocent people in the asylum, patients and guards alike. When he comes out of it, he has to set it on fire to keep everyone in the place from becoming vampires themselves. This, suffice it to say, really bums Jasper out.
- If you’re curious about why Jander has endured miserable centuries instead of just killing himself, it’s because he’s scared he’ll turn into an even deadlier Crimson Death—a red, blood-sucking mist that ranks among D&D’s scariest and more powerful monsters. It’s a valid concern for dead vampires, but it obviously doesn’t stop Jasper from trying to kill Strahd or committing sun-icide at the book’s end.
- In the locked room is a giant, rotting wedding cake from Sergei and Anna/Tatyana’s wedding from two and a half centuries ago, shattering the record once held by Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham.
- Jander says the Forgotten Realms has weredolphins, which blew my mind. It turns out this is a supremely goofy idea that only existed during 2nd Edition, when TSR was churning out new Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks far faster than Quality Control could take a look at them.
- We’re meant to think Jander dies at the end of the book, but I checked him out on the ol’ Forgotten Realms Wiki to see if he managed to pop up anywhere later. He does! And his story does not end well.
- Next up: Well, I’m extending my vacation from the Forgotten Realms for a while. I’d love to read some of the Greyhawk novels, especially the ones by Gary Gygax, but they seem to be uniformly unavailable in ebook form. If you have them and wouldn’t mind lending me a few, email me at rob dot bricken at the ol’ gmail place. For now, I’ve chosen The Legend of Huma, the first Dragonlance novel not written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
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