Saturday 14 October 2023

Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi - a Gothic Horror Sci-fi Fantasy


In the distant future, humanity clusters in small villages, reduced to a medieval style of living, while monsters, demons, and vampires roam the outskirts of civilization. It’s a hard life, full of danger, witchcraft, and death – this is the world of Vampire Hunter D.

Written by Hideyuki Kikuchi in 1983, Vampire Hunter D is the first entry into a long-running novel series. To date, there are 40 novels, along with numerous short stories and novellas, spanning an enormous time period, locales, and characters, 30 of which have been translated into English. I, like most Westerners, discovered Vampire Hunter D through the 1985 OVA (Original Video Animation) which aired during the 90s on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Saturday Anime series.

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen at the time – dark, mature, and bloody, the perfect fodder for a teenager in the 90s. It lived rent-free in my head for years, so when I discovered they had, at long last, translated the novels, I picked up the first.

The novel’s plot is very similar to the OVA in that Doris, a tough farmer girl on the frontier, hires D, a dark, laconic, and stoic vampire hunter. She’s been plagued by the vampire lord Count Magnus Lee, who seeks to take her for his latest bride. The world of Vampire Hunter D is fleshed out more in the novel, detailing how after a nuclear war, the vampires, aka the “Nobles”, emerged from their hiding to take over. The Vampire Nobles ruled for hundreds of years, creating mutant monsters and feeding on humans, only to later fall into disrepute.

D accepts Doris’s offer and even storms Count Lee’s castle. No mere human, he’s a Dhampir, a half-human, half-vampire, but despised by both worlds. During his assault on Lee’s castle, he’s captured and tossed to a three-headed female monster, only to turn the table around and suck its blood, after it had become enamored with D’s beauty.  That’s another thing. D is described as absolutely gorgeous in multiple passages, the epitome of dark and brooding gothic beauty. What’s more, it’s rumored D is descended from vampire royalty. Three guesses what the D in his name stands for.

All the other characters from the OVA are there too. Doris’s kid brother, Dan, Grecko, the slimy son of the village mayor eager to make Doris his bride, Larmica, the Count’s villainous daughter, and Rei, a mutant and D’s rival, eager to become a Noble himself and gain immortality.

As mentioned, the story is mostly similar to the OVA, but with some slight differences. Rei is probably the most different, since, in the novel, he leads a gang of mutant bandits called the Fiend Corps. While he ultimately occupies the same role, i.e. being dispatched to kill D, his ultimate fate is much different in the novel.

Vampire Hunter D is what the Japanese call a light novel (raito noberu), that is, a type of novel written for younger readers – but not too young – with more simple prose, accompanied by illustrations. While the prose in Vampire Hunter D is nothing amazing, it’s leagues better than other light novels, which is to the credit of Kikuchi. Born in 1949, Kikuchi was inspired heavily by the 1958 Hammer film – Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Kikuchi already had success as a writer with the popular 1982 novel Demon City Shinjuku (also later adapted into an anime OVA), but when he tried pitching the book as a fantasy horror novel, he found publishers weren’t interested. While there had been some vampire media in Japanese pop culture, they were far and few between. But the Japanese have long had a deep love for science fiction, so Kikuchi tweaked his story to be set in the post-apocalyptic future, filled with futuristic technology alongside a medieval setting. Peasant farmers use laser rifles to beat back mutants and werewolves, people ride in carriages drawn by cybernetic horses, and robot security systems monitor gothic castles. It’s especially interesting to see what is, ostensibly, European culture through the lens of a Japanese writer is, twisted into a dark and ghoulish fantasy.

Kikuchi is one of Japan’s most famous horror novelists, with his Demon City Shinjuku series, his Wicked City series, and his Vampire Hunter D series, arguably his biggest hit. The first novel was a hit and, as mentioned, spawned a massive franchise, still being published to this day. He never forgot the inspiration for the series though, as the villain, Count Lee, is an homage to Christopher Lee’s performance in Horror of Dracula.

If you want a foreboding and dark fantasy novel with sci-fi and adventure elements for spooky season, all told through the lens of Japan, then give Vampire Hunter D a read.