Friday, March 3, 2023

Buffy By The Book

For Christmas, among many other things, I got half a dozen Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels. Before the end of January I'd read them all. I enjoyed myself so much, I bought another three and last week I finished those, too. They took just as long to read because they were each twice the length of most of the first batch.

Having now read nine Buffy novels, an uncommitted observer might assume I'd have read most of them. They would be very wrong. According to the Buffyverse wiki, there are well over a hundred, including the short story anthologies and the titles focusing on individual characters like Angel, Willow, Xander, Cordelia and even Spike and Drusilla.

Even though the TV show ended its seven season run with a genuine and satisfying conclusion twenty years ago, novels have continued to appear ever since. The next, The Bewitching Hour, featuring Willow's ill-fated girlfriend Tara, is scheduled for publication in August.

The never-ending stream of Buffy novels may be exceptional but movie and TV novelizations that set out to retell the plots in prose form are a long-established, if little respected commercial phenomenon; one that mostly flies under the radar. It would be an exaggeration to say the sub-genre has a poor reputation in literary circles; I don't believe it has any reputation at all. 

I haven't read all that many but based on the few I have, I'd say that was shortsighted. William Kotzwinkle's adaptation of E.T., for example, is about as demented as any of his other novels. He appears to have taken the money and then written whatever he felt like and no-one cared enough to stop him. Indeed, the publishers liked either his approach or his sales well enough to commission a sequel, E.T. and the Green Planet.

Even when the writing is barely more than functional, it's often fun to replay the storylines in your mind. I read the novelization of Pretty in Pink a couple of years ago and while it certainly didn't qualify as great literature, it not only brought the characters to life but showed them from a sufficiently different angle as to make me re-examine some of my feelings about them.

Spin-off novels from successful TV series that go on to develop original storylines are marginally more respectable than those that just follow someone else's script but even then they sit at the very foot of the genre table, itself generally positioned somewhere close to the literary establishment's back door. The low reputation is scarcely surprising, given the way quality tends to vary wildly as the IP moves from publisher to publisher and writer to writer across the years.

Bearing all of that in mind, and for no better reason than I felt like it, I thought I'd post some very short reviews of the nine Buffy books I've read so far. I'll be reading plenty more, as soon as I get my hands on some, but I don't propose to make a habit of reviewing them here. Then again...


Halloween Rain - 1997 - Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder

The second-ever novel based on the TV show. There was a novelization of the original movie published five years earlier and an adaptation of the first season's storyline, entitled The Harvest, came out a couple of months before this original story but no-one gave me either of those.

Halloween Rain was the first of the Buffy novels I received that I read, naturally, since I wanted to read them in chronological order. In this, I was not following my own advice. At work, I sometimes suggest new readers not start with the first book in a long-running series because there's a significant risk the writer won't have gotten to grips with the characters or the setting right at the start. It can be off-putting. Better to begin with one of the good ones and then, if sufficient interest develops, fill in the gaps later.

Halloween Rain isn't bad enough to put you off reading any more Buffy books but I suspect that someone who hadn't already bought in to the Buffyverse wouldn't be converted on this evidence. It definitely feels like a book aimed at young readers - significantly younger than the audience the TV show attracted later in its run but probably around the age the producers expected to get when it began. The main characters don't really sound like the TV versions and the plot, featuring an evil scarecrow, is a bit labored. I got through it but not comfortably.

Coyote Moon - 1998 - John Vornholt

A significant improvement. By no means a good novel but it lopes along nicely enough. The plot revolves around a bunch of were-coyotes (It's a thing, apparently.) and a Ray Bradburyesque carnival. Characterisation is a little better but still feels off, somehow. I enjoyed it considerably more than the last one, though.

Night of the Living Rerun - 1998 - Arthur Byron Cover

The author's name was very familiar to me so I looked him up. He did the novelization of the Flash Gordon movie but I think I remember him from his association with with Harlan Ellison. The two of them even co-wrote an issue of Daredevil, although I don't believe I've read it.

The trend in quality continues upwards. This feels more like an actual novel. The non-core characters feel more solid, better defined; the plot has more nuance; the language is richer. It's still a genre potboiler but it's a decent one. 

The problem for me remains the characterization of the familiar characters from the show itself, none of whom sound quite right still. Buffy (Both the character and the show.) does rely very heavily on wisecracks and quick-fire repartee, not the easiest of styles to replicate in prose. 

Blooded - 1998 - Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder

This is where things really begin to pick up. The authors, who seemed a little adrift in Halloween Rain, appear to have come firmly to grips with both the Scooby Gang and Sunnydale. Everything seems a lot more convincing although the dialog still struggles somewhat with the cut and thrust of teenage banter. 

The plot, which involves an ancient Chinese vampire trapped in a sword, who manages to possess Willow on a school trip to a museum, holds together very well. There's a notable shift into genre horror that will sustain and increase through the rest of the novels on this list. and the sixth Buffy novel is also consideraby longer than the rest, marking a willingness to expect more of the readership and a desire to go deeper.

Child of the Hunt - 1998 - Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder

The first Buffy novel I can say I unequivocally enjoyed throughout. There's a major step-change at this point, although it was heralded in the previous novel. Everything now feels directed at the upper end of the YA range, rather than the lower and the focus is squarely on actual horror, not the fairground ride version. 

This book also marks what seems to be the beginning of a consistent drive by these two writers to stake out (Oh dear...) their own interpretation of the Buffyverse. Characters are introduced who will reappear in later titles and there's the beginning of an integration into the milieu of myths and legends that have little or nothing to do with vampires and demons , something that will escalate in subsequent novels by the same writing team. 

I liked this one a lot. Enough to make me want to read more by Golden and Holder. But first I had to finish the next, penned by another familiar name.

Return to Chaos - 1998 - Craig Shaw Gardner

According to Wikipedia "Craig Shaw Gardner is an American author, best known for producing fantasy parodies similar to those of Terry Pratchett". I wouldn't normally take that as a recommendation and although I've seen his name on many a public library bookshelf, until I read this, I'd never even picked up a book he'd written.

On the basis of this, I definitely wouldn't shy away from his name on a spine in future. Return to Chaos is a fast-paced, funny horror novel that comes closest so far in capturing the spirit of the early Buffy seasons. I particularly appreciated Gardner's take on Cordelia, the popular-girl frenemy just now integrating - not entirely willingly - into the gang. There's a moment late on in the book when Cordelia appears at precisely the right moment, doing precisely the right thing, when I did actually cheer out loud.

The main thing I didn't like about this one was the shoehorned-in romance between Buffy and a new character, which felt both awkward and unconvincing. Then again, the same thing happened a few times in the show, so I can hardly single out Gardner for blame there.

The Gatekeeper Trilogy - 1999 - Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder

Although these three titles were published separately, I'm taking them together for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I bought them as a slipcased set and secondly it's very much a single, thousand-page story chopped up into three volumes.

This is the point at which, for me, all the main characters really begin to sound and act like their TV originals. Except for Cordelia, perhaps, who I thought Craig Shaw Gardner gave a fairer shout, everyone has sharper, funnier things to say and interaction between the gang feels organic and natural. Several members of the extended cast make welcome appearances in cameo or supporting roles and Sunnydale feels better represented than at any time in the preceding half dozen books.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about the trilogy, though, is that all vestiges of any genre other than horror have been jettisoned. This isn't a high school novel in any meaningful sense, even though there's possibly more talk about being in high school than ever before. The action moves from back and forth from California to Boston to Europe to alternate planes of existence, leading the cast to spend much time discussing ways to avoid being expelled for continued absence from school but the upshot is always that the world needs saving so school can just damn well wait. Added to that, at least half the main characters now seem to be adults.

As well as being the most focused and coherent storyline so far, I also found parts of it to be the most challenging. As the geographical and social landscape shifts, so to does the moral ground beneath the Scoobies' philosophical feet. There are some very uncomfortable and morally repugnant scenes involving torture and murder, during which characters make choices I was and am not comfortable with them having made. It's just as well these novels are considered non-canonical. I'm not sure there's anything comparably amoral in the show itself.

The plot of the trilogy is absolutely relentless. There's a lot of action, a lot of fighting, a lot of puzzling and detective work and endless death, dismemberment and destruction. It feels like a war novel in places and gets so dark that Spike and Drusilla's scenes feel like light relief, which is disturbing as hell when you stop to think about who they are and what they're doing.

Even though it's by the same authorial team, The Gatekeeper Triology feels like Helter Skelter compared to Halloween Rain's Yellow Submarine. Where things go after this I can't begin to guess but then the show went places surely no-one could have predicted when it began. I'm keen to find out if the novels follow.


  1. I had no idea there were Buffy novels and had I known I probably would've dismissed them without a thought. Tho now more than anything I feel like it might be time for a re-watch of the show, since it has been years and years since I last watched it. THEN the novels, perhaps!

    1. I also got the box set of all seven seasons on DVD for Christmas, having become fed up with the way the show hops about on streaming channels. Of course, now I own it, I'm less likely to (re)watch it than ever.

      The novels are supposedly not canon but most of the comics - specifically Seasons 8 through 12 - are and having read them all I'd highly recommend them. The thing that really surprised me, even as a long-time comics reader, was the way my mind failed to differentiate between the moving and static images. Reading the comics felt like a very cinematic (Or televisual) experience.


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