‘Does the world need another book about vampires?’, I imagine you asking me. I think about all the derivative, money-for-old-trope vampire fiction that gets turned out each year, glamorising violence with a dab of romance and a hint of compulsion and the illicit joys of willing submission and I know why you ask the question so I pause before I respond with:
‘The world needs a vampire book by Christopher Buehlman. It might even need any book by Christopher Buehlman. He has re-thought the whole vampire thing from the ground up. He doesn’t pull any punches and he isn’t just writing to entertain. He’s writing to talk about how the powerful succeed on preying on the weak, not just because they are powerful but because the weak delude themselves about their own strength and their commitment to survival.’
Yeah, I know, it sounds as exciting a writing a philosophy essay, but Buehlman’s gift is to be able to demonstrate these big ideas in a story that is full of larger-than-life people, violence and enough surprises to keep you turning the pages eagerly right up to the last page.
He also writes rich prose that sticks in the memory. Like this:
Happiness is the province of those who ask few questions.
Buehlman’s book is about deception, especially self-deception, and he illustrates this not only by giving the book a structure designed to deceive but by telling us that he’s doing it, knowing that despite what’s he’s told us, we’re going to fall for the deception anyway.
The deception is announced on the first page. It’s a page that made sense to me the first time I read it. It was stylish and fun and even made me smile. I wonder if fish smile when they bite down on the hook beneath the lure? It’s also a page that meant something entirely different when I re-read it after finishing the novel. The whole novel reminds me of an optical illusion where a single drawing shows either a young woman or an old woman, depending on how your brain interprets what your eyes see. It’s easy to see the young woman but once you see the old woman, it’s hard to unsee her.
So on that first page, our narrator, Joey Peacock, warns us:
If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.
It turns out that Joey Peacock is the most unreliable narrator I’ve ever met and I discounted his warning as a sales pitch.
Then Joey tells me what the book is really about. He continues:
Still with me? Too bad for you. I can’t wait to break your heart. I’m going to take you someplace dark and damp where good people don’t go. I’m going to introduce you to monsters. Real ones. I’m going to tell you stories about hurting people, and if you like those stories, it means you’re bad. Shall we go on? Good. I hate people who pretend they’re something they’re not.
Even with this clear statement of intent, I failed to recognise the monsters and was caught by surprise when very bad things happened to people I’d grown to care about. When I read the page for a second time, the last sentence of that quote read like a taunt. Of course, by then I understood that even the title didn’t mean what I’d thought it meant.
For the first quarter of the book, I watched Joey Peacock, vampire, strut his stuff around the clubs and the subways of 1970s New York City. At first, he seemed to be all appetite and attitude but by the end of Part 1, I knew he was more than that but I didn’t know what.
Shortly after that, Buehlman gave me another signpost to what he was doing, although I read it simply as a clever dialogue. Cvetko, an intellectual vampire from Europe is asking Joey to make up a story and tell it to him. Joey glibly says:
‘“Oh, you want me to lie?”
Cvetko’s reply makes some Literary Fiction look limp by comparison. He says:
“A mundane lie hiding an exotic truth is deception; an exotic lie hiding a mundane truth is storytelling. Deception may be necessary to preserve life, but storytelling makes life worth living. So make my life worth living.
At that point, I should have asked myself, ‘How do I tell the difference between deception and storytelling?’ The answer I’d give now is: ‘You can’t. Not until the lying is over and you see the nature of the truth that’s been hidden.”
Beuhlman warned me he’d break my heart. I should have realised that to do that, I’d have to fall in love first. Yet, I was still surprised by the intimacy in Joey Peacock’s storytelling. I became Joey’s confidante, even if he didn’t always tell the truth. It felt like full disclosure, like an offer of friendship or perhaps just a complete indifference to criticism. It certainly felt like a need to be understood. That was hard to resist.
About halfway through, I thought I had started to understand what Joey had meant when he told me on the first page that he was an unreliable narrator. I could see he was hiding something and it seemed to me that Cvetko nailed it when he told Joey:
‘You do not believe the myth of your own ignorance. But you perpetuate it out of habit, out of a desire to align with the ideals of American pop culture. Charisma, action, dumb luck.’
I thought then that Joey was hiding his own comprehension. I was almost right I was also completely wrong. I moved on, happy at my own insight, and eager for more exchanges between Joey and Cvetko. Here’s one I enjoyed. Joey is complaining about their leader’s reluctance to punish someone who has broken the rules the vampires live by. When Joey says, “It’s not right.”, Cvetko gives a wonderful series of replies:
“Neither was the suppression of Hungary by the Soviets. Or the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese.”
“Yeah, I remember people saying something about Tibet. The Dalai Lama, right?”
“Yet both acts went unpunished. Why?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? I’m talking about our neighborhood.”
“It is only a question of scale. Why did not the brave American army march into Budapest and save the Hungarian resistance who begged Mr. Eisenhower, in the name of democracy and freedom, to take their side? Why did we sit by while the Soviet tanks rolled in and hammered the beautiful old city?”
“You have just written the epitaph of America.”
One of the things I liked most about ‘The Lesser Dead’ was how the monsters kept becoming more monstrous as I got to know them. The worst monsters in this are so bad that I failed to imagine the scale of their badness and so underestimated them throughout the book. The violence kept escalating but what was more frightening was my slowly growing awareness of what the violence meant.
I was very impressed by this book. It was fun. It was scary. It was much deeper than it seemed to be and it never lied to me, it just let me lie to myself.
Christopher Buehlman is now on my must-read list. I’ve already ordered his fantasy novel. ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ that’s due for publication on 13th May.