Relentless Realism Infects the Supernatural
In recent years the crime genre has drawn ever closer to the themes and images of horror fiction. As serial killers have become the vogue, thriller writers have walked an increasingly fine line between exploration and exploitation in depicting such atrocities. Latterly the supernatural tale has ventured down mean streets where vampires must solve the crimes of their own kind before they’re all dragged into the light of day. Already Dead, by Charlie Huston, is set squarely at the crossroads where crime and horror meet, drawing on the background and the strengths of both genres.
Joe’s already dead. That gives him an edge when he sees newly infected zombies luring hapless students into a derelict building. He follows, not to save the students, but to deal with the zombies. Not that that’s his job. But if their existence is proved, so could his be. He’s a vampyre, one of many, though their number is ultimately insignificant in the wider population of Manhattan. An abused, homeless kid, he became infected with the vyrus when he was selling himself for sex. There’s nothing paranormal about his fate, any more than there’s anything supernatural about the bacteria in a zombie’s bite that turns their victims into shambling brain eaters. Sunlight kills vampires but only because the vyrus leaves them susceptible to advanced skin cancer after twenty minutes’ exposure or so.
An older vampyre saved Joe from the rapid death that would normally follow infection but only for his own reasons. As soon as Joe realized he was being used yet again, he got out. Now he lives his limited, lonely life trying to stay under everyone’s radar because he doesn’t want to be beholden to any cause or clique.
Only, one of those cliques isn’t pleased with him. The police found the aftermath of the zombie slaughter. The Coalition want Joe to clear up the loose ends and they’re vampyres who aren’t used to being refused. In this world, the undead are drawn from a broad range of the modern under-classes and counter-cultures. Just because they become vampyres, they don’t stop being gangsters, gangstas, bikers, anarchists, communists, or radical feminists. There are even devotees of an unnerving sort of Zen vampirism. Joe’s not interested. He tries to stay on good terms with all these groups if he can. If he can’t, well, he’ll fight back as best he can. He may be a vampyre but he’s not stupid.
It soon becomes apparent he’s going to need all his wits about him when he’s unwillingly forced into a hunt for a missing girl. She’s a ‘camper’, a rich girl from the suburbs who comes slumming with the homeless for kicks. Only, her parents know the truth about the undead and could cause no end of trouble. So if Joe doesn’t find her, the Coalition are going to be very unhappy. As it turns out, an awful lot of people end up unhappy, dead or both. Because Joe isn’t stupid and he soon realizes there’s far more to this than he’s being told.
This is vampire-noir with a vengeance, with echoes of crime fiction from Philip Marlowe to NYPD Blue in the imagery and argot. The vampyre subculture is convincing and compelling, with its own jargon, drawn equally from Dracula novels, horror films and the real-life crimes of deluded wannabes. The cityscape of Manhattan’s underbelly is authentically claustrophobic and menacing, peopled by outcasts and sub-humans, only some of whom are actually dead. In many supernatural thrillers, the outcasts are the misunderstood heroes while the supposedly normal people are the true villains. Here, pretty much everyone’s a monster.
Does this sound like a fun read so far? Well it’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re in a robust frame of mind, the pace is rapid, the dialogue snappy and the puzzles challenging. Characters and scene setting alike are hard-edged and vividly colored. There’s black humour threaded all through the story from the very outset. Need to get rid of a zombie? Fill its pockets with stones and push it off a bridge. Consider the fate of a vegan turned vampyre. How does he find a substitute for blood?
Joe is an increasingly interesting protagonist. He’s amoral and offers no apology for it. But he sits up late at night to watch old movies by Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. He has a girlfriend. She doesn’t know what he is but since she’s HIV-positive and refuses to have sex with anyone, he doesn’t have to worry about infecting her with his own vyrus. However, he does have to live with the knowledge that the vyrus would save her from Aids, at the price of her becoming like him. So he is a kind of hero, albeit a tarnished and tawdry one.
As the pace gets still faster, with questions answered only to throw up new puzzles, it’s impossible not to become involved in Joe’s fate. There’s gore aplenty but Charlie Huston has a fine instinct for that line between exploitation and exploration and doesn’t stumble. Most intriguing of all, in a story where the crass realities of lust and greed drive so much of the action, it may just be that the Zen vampyres are on to something of vital significance for Joe. Oh, and for the girl he’s trying to save.
If you’re feeling you’re in any kind of rut with your vampire-thriller reading, this will shake you right out of it. You may want to go straight back to cozier blood-suckers but if you do, you’ll look at them with fresh eyes and that’s got to be a good thing. I shall keep a look out for Charlie Huston’s next book, and mark it down for reading, when I’m in that suitably robust frame of mind.