“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” – Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang
Ben Tripp‘s The Fifth House of the Heart is an intelligent new twist on the old vampire myth. It’s common knowledge that vampires are blood-feasting undead repelled by garlic who, while they can be staked to death through the heart and harmed by fire, are basically otherwise immortal. But in this tale, the science behind the supernatural creatures’ existence and vulnerabilities is revealed, while new characteristics are introduced.
Asmodeus Saxon-Tang, better known as “Sax,” is a highly sophisticated, wealthy antiques dealer. The septuagenarian has traveled the globe to acquire his rare treasures, and while it’s apparent that he’s a master in his field, what’s lesser-known is how he came upon some of his rarer acquisitions — by raiding vampire lairs. Because vampires must hide their immortality from the world, it can be difficult for them to maintain ownership of their possessions century after century, leaving these heirlooms free for the taking by a person like Sax. Since vampires typically hoard their valuable possessions — items whose value increases over time — anyone who manages to kill one, would also be able to take the hoard for themselves. Though burglarizing vampire domiciles is not Sax’s specialty, he has done it enough to be set financially for life. But, the undead don’t take too kindly to these trespasses, and with nothing but time on their hands, they can be very patient and wait to take their revenge upon thieves.
Most of the novel is set in present day, spending a lot of time introducing Sax, now an elderly homosexual man who never settled down and had a family, though he’s very close to his niece, Emily. There’s detailed descriptions on various artworks and other collectibles that Sax has obtained over the years, as well as those he’s recently come into contact with. One particular item — an ormolu clock up for auction — plays an important role in the turn of events for the entire novel. And if you’re wondering what an ormolu clock even is, you’re not alone. From the book, here’s just a tiny part of the description of the clock in question:
The ormolu clock, in excellent condition, was shaped like a footed funerary urn, in blue enamel with wheat, laurel, acanthus, and fruit mountings, wreathed and beribboned, all gilt; its eight-day movement was by Hazard and the face was from a much older piece, signed by Antide Janvier. It was created in Paris in the year 1895. All of this made it a worthwhile object.
It turns out, Sax foolishly and knowingly bid on the clock against — you guessed it — a vampire, putting him right on the radar of the monster, which is looking to rebuild its collection and have its revenge.
Going into The Fifth House of the Heart, I feared it would be yet another typical vampire story that’s been there and done that. Thankfully, this book was anything but that. Sax is highly intelligent, and so is the writing, so much so that you’ll likely need to have a dictionary handy for when you come across obscure words like “hawsehole” (a hole in the deck of a ship for the anchor cable), “sapropelic” (a type of mud), and “wergild” (money paid to the relatives of a murder victim in compensation for loss and to prevent a blood feud). There’s also a lot of French, Italian, and German words and phrases, as the adventure goes from New York City to France, Italy, and Germany. Included are two revealing flashbacks from Sax’s life: one from 1965 for his first surprise run-in with a vampire, and the other in 1989 for a deliberate encounter.
Sax is not a hero in the traditional sense — he’s vain, pretentious, greedy, and a flat-out coward. Picture TV’s Frasier as an older, sexually promiscuous, semi-flamboyant antiques dealer who’s come face to face with vampires and lived to tell about it. But, Sax does have his pride, so when he becomes a target, he assembles a small group of mercenaries and scholars to go on a perilous vampire hunt sanctioned by the Catholic Church, which apparently knows their stuff when it comes to the supernatural. Surprisingly, Tripp creates a character in Sax that technically should be loathed, yet you can’t help but root for him every step of the way.
The descriptive vibe throughout the narrative was reminiscent of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (minus the sex; sorry, there’s no sex at all in this one), with the journey to the mountains of Germany to the vampire’s castle reeking of Dracula and Sax’s decades’ worth of globetrotting bringing the story into Indiana Jones territory. But unlike Indy, who thinks every discovery belongs in a museum, Sax would rather keep it all for himself, but donates a lot instead simply because he’s run out of room! Sax always seems to come out smelling like roses, not because of the strength of his moral convictions, but because when circumstances present themselves, he manages to make decisions that are beneficial to him, yet seemly self-sacrificing. For instance, there’s a scenario (one of many) where Sax believes that he and Emily have no chance of survival, so he does something seemingly heroic solely because he wants to be killed first so that he won’t have to suffer through witnessing Emily’s death first!
The Fifth House of the Heart is a page-turner that keeps the reader invested, alert, and captivated. Once I learned all the auction and antiquing jargon in the beginning, I found I couldn’t put the book down. I had to know more about Sax and the importance of the clock, as well as what these vampires were capable of and if Sax’s hastily assembled vampire-hunting retinue could possibly complete their near-impossible mission. Oh, and I really wanted to know what “The Fifth House of the Heart” meant (yes, we do find out). If you’re looking for a smart adventure tale with a new take on vampire lore with great storytelling and a perfect mix of action, adventure, blood, and gore, then pick up The Fifth House of the Heart.
Filled with characters as menacing as they are memorable, this chilling twist on vampire fiction packs a punch in the bestselling tradition of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.
Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, a vainglorious and well-established antiques dealer, has made a fortune over many years by globetrotting for the finest lost objects in the world. Only Sax knows the true secret to his success: at certain points of his life, he’s killed vampires for their priceless hoards of treasure.
But now Sax’s past actions are quite literally coming back to haunt him, and the lives of those he holds most dear are in mortal danger. To counter this unnatural threat, and with the blessing of the Holy Roman Church, a cowardly but cunning Sax must travel across Europe in pursuit of incalculable evil—and immeasurable wealth—with a ragtag team of mercenaries and vampire killers to hunt a terrifying, ageless monster…one who is hunting Sax in turn.
From author Ben Tripp, whose first horror novel Rise Again “raises the stakes so high that the book becomes nearly impossible to put down” (Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother), The Fifth House of the Heart is a powerful story that will haunt you long after its final pages.