Close Reading 12 of 12: Exploiting Folklore as a Plot Tactic in Martin’s Fevre Dream

Before I jump into it, just a brief note. As part of my MFA, I was required to read at least 50 books and write a craft analysis of twelve of these books. This is the last of such formal written analysis pieces. That said, I closely read and analyzed books before I started the program, and I know I will continue to do so after I’m done. 

And now on to the main show…

Fevre Dream, a historical fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin, follows the story of a steamboat captain in the 1850s, Abner Marsh as he partners with the mysterious and wealthy Joshua York to build the biggest and best steamboat the Mississipp River has ever been. The novel is written from two points of view, that of Abner and also, sometimes, from the perspective of Sour Billy Tipton, the overseer of a defunct plantain outside of New Orleans. Down on his luck after a few incidents that left Abner with only one-run down steamboat, Joshua makes an offer that is too good to be true. He will finance the whole boat, and Abner just has to co-captain it with him and stick to some odd rules that Joshua sets out. The book appears to start out as just a historical recounting of Abner and Joshua’s partnership in the era of steamboats, but when the perspective shifts to Sour Billy, it becomes clear to the reader that this book is also about vampires. George R.R. Martin is not content to fall back on the old folklore surrounding vampires as we know them, but he does use this group knowledge of folklore against the reader just as Joshua uses it against Abner in the book. Joshua is not the only one to manipulate humans using folklore. Damon Julian, the oldest vampire and bloodmaster of all modern vampires, uses folklore to control and make a puppet of Sour Billy as well.

Like vampires in most fiction, the vampires in Fevre Dream can’t spend too much time in the sunlight or it will burn them, they are nearly immortal and heal themselves, and they drink blood. One other key similarity between folk-vampires and the “night people” as they refer to themselves in Fevre Dream is that the night people hide from humanity among humanity. That is where the similarities with the old tales end as far as George R.R. Martin is concerned. That said, the night people, such as Joshua, use these tales to obfuscate themselves and present as humans to Abner and the other humans aboard the Fevre Dream steamboat.

Marsh regarded him blankly. Joshua York sighed.

“How about vampire?”

Abner Marsh knew that one. “What kind of story you tryin’ to tell me?” he said gruffly.

“A vampire story,” said York with a sly smile. “Surely you’ve heard them before. The living dead, immortal, prowlers of the night, creatures without souls, damned to eternal wandering. They sleep in coffins filled with their native earth, shun daylight and the cross, and each night they rise and drink the blood of the living. They are shape-changers as well, able to take the forms of a bat or a wolf. Some, who utilize the wolf form frequently, are called werewolves and thought to be a different species entirely, but that is an error. They are two sides of a single dark coin, Abner. Vampires can also become mist, and their victims become vampires themselves. It is a wonder, multiplying so, that vampires have not displaced living men entirely. Fortunately, they have weaknesses as well as vast power. Though their strength is frightening, they cannot enter a house where they have not been invited, neither as human nor animal nor mist. They wield great animal magnetism, however, the force Mesmer wrote about, and can often compel their victims to ask them in. But a cross will send them fleeing, garlic can bar them, and they cannot cross running water. Though they look much like you and I, they have no souls, and therefore are not reflected in mirrors. Holy water will burn them, silver is anathema to them, daylight can destroy them if dawn catches them away from their coffins. And by severing their heads from their bodies and driving a  wooden stake through their hearts, one can rid the world of them permanently.” Joshua sat back and took up his drink, sipped, smiled. “Those vampires, Abner,” he said. He tapped the book with a long finger. “This is the story of a few of them. They are real. Old, eternal, and real. A sixteenth-century odoroten wrote this book, about those who had gone before him. A vampire.”

Joshua smiled. “You’re a clever man, Abner. You should be able to figure things out by yourself.”

Abner Marsh thought on that for a spell before he replied. He finally said, “I recollect how you wanted mirrors all up and down the grand saloon instead of oil paintings and such. For … protection?”

“Exactly. And silver. Did you ever know a steamer to wear so much silver?”


“And, of course, we have the river. The old devil river. The Mississippi. Running water such as the world has never seen! The Fevre Dream is a sanctuary. I can hunt them, you see, but they cannot come near us.”

Martin, Fevre Dream, pp. 138-140 (Kindle Edition).

When Abner confronts Joshua about his unusual behavior, Joshua takes great pains to recount every single bit of folklore about vampires that he can muster. He outlines every limitation and advantage in great detail for Abner and then asks his partner to draw his own conclusions. Abner naturally arrives at the conclusion that Joshua was hoping for. Because their hallways are lined with mirrors, there are no coffins in the staterooms, they are crossing running water, and a number of other inconsistencies, Joshua is hunting for vampires and the boat is his protection. Naturally, Joshua leaves out the part where he’s actually a vampire and lets Abner believe that because Joshua himself reflects in a mirror, wears silver, and eats food, including garlic, he must not be a vampire. Joshua’s motive for hunting vampires and his own state as one are deliberate fabrications by Joshua to keep Abner from knowing the truth about his race.

Despite Joshua’s elaborate deception, Abner suspects that Joshua isn’t who he says he is, and this supposition bears out eventually. Abner gives Joshua holy water to drink, which he seems to take just fine, and Joshua even comes out to eat lunch with the crew after there are some rumblings among them that he is in fact a vampire. Abner finally confronts Joshua, however, after he recalls that Joshua knew Lord Byron, who had been dead some 40 years by that time.

Abner Marsh shut his eyes, opened them. It made no difference. The darkness was as full either way, and he could still see the pale blue after-image of the match hanging before him, and the awful specter of Joshua’s ravaged face. “Then it don’t matter about the holy water, and the mirrors,” he said. “It don’t matter. You can’t go out by day, not really. What you said— those goddamned vampires of yours. They’re real. Only you lied to me. You lied to me, Joshua! You ain’t no vampire hunter, you’re one of them. You and her and all the rest of them. You’re vampires your-goddamned-selves!”

Martin, Fevre Dream, p. 180 (Kindle Edition).

Joshua takes elaborate steps to make Abner think that he’s not a vampire and that they exist as in the old folktales, but this is not the case. When pressed, Joshua claims that there are no vampires, but eventually he explains his people as “not human, yet neither are we vampires. We are … another race. When we call ourselves anything, it is usually one of your words, in one of your languages, to which we have given a secret meaning. We are the people of the night, the people of the blood.” (Martin, Fevre Dream, pp. 183-184, Kindle Edition.) And thus, to Joshua at least, vampires do not exist, but he is more than happy to pretend they do to divert attention away from himself as a person of the night. Through the interaction of two of the primary characters, Martin uses folklore as a plot device to attempt to keep the reader on his or her toes with respect to the true nature of Joshua for much of the novel.

Joshua primarily uses the folklore to hide among humans, but Damon Julian, the bloodmaster, uses the folklore of vampires to control humans and make them do his bidding, promising them an immortality he can’t actually give them. Julian promises to make Sour Billy a vampire, and Sour Billy believes him, even when Joshua points out the facts.

 “The promise Julian has made you is a lie,” York was saying. “You will never be one of us, Billy. We are different races. Our anatomy is different, our flesh, our very blood. He cannot make you over, no matter what he says.”

“You must think I’m pretty damn stupid,” Billy said. “I don’t got to lissen to Julian. I heard the stories. I know how vampires can make other vampires. You were like me once, York, no matter what you say. Only you’re weak, and I ain’t. Are you afraid?” That was it, Billy thought. York wanted him to betray Julian so Julian wouldn’t make him over, because once he was one of them, he’d be stronger than York, maybe as strong as Julian. “I scare you, Josh, don’t I? You think you’re so damn fine, but you wait till Julian makes me over, and I make you come crawlin’ to me. Wonder what it tastes like, that blood of yours? Julian knows, don’t he?”

Martin, Fevre Dream, pp. 326-327 (Kindle Edition).

Even when confronted with the truth from the mouth of night person, Billy refuses to believe that what Julian has promised him is a lie. His beliefs are shaped by the folklore surrounding vampires, and Julian is able to solidify his control over Billy which is reinforced with the common knowledge that everyone has about vampires.

“Ah,” said Julian. “I’m afraid I have sad news for you, Billy. I can’t change you. Did you really think a creature like you could become one of us?”

“… promised,” Billy whispered shrilly. “You promised. I’m dyin’!”

Damon Julian smiled. “Whatever will I do without you?” he said. He laughed lightly, and that was when Marsh knew for a fact that it was Julian, that the beast had let him surface again.

Martin, Fevre Dream, p. 453 (Kindle Edition).

Julian turns Billy into a cannibal for years on this promise that he will change him, but in the end, his lies are revealed at the time of Billy’s death. The folklore was strong enough to make Billy spend his entire life trying to enact the change, and in the end, as he was dying, he still believed Julian would give him immortality.

Fevre Dream is a story of vampires, but more than that, it is a story of how human perception can be influenced by humanity’s own legends and folklores. Martin twists the generic understanding of what a vampire is, plays on all of the legends the reader has heard of in myriad variations over time, and uses these tales against us as a plot device to discuss the very basis of humanity, of what makes a human versus what makes an animal (or a vampire).

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