Monday, May 26, 2014

A Review of "They Thirst" [by Robert McCammon]

Consulting my records, I see that it has been roughly 1.25 years since I wrote the previous post in my Robert McCammon retrospective series.  By any standard, that is an unacceptable gap, and I will make every effort to ensure that the next gap is substantially shorter.

Truth is, I've been feeling the weight of time lately.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I'll be turning 40 in a few weeks, and while I don't have the existential worry about that which I'm expected to have according to most books and movies, I nevertheless feel a bit as if time is decidedly not on my side.  There are things in life which I wish to accomplish, and thus far I have accomplished nary a one of them.

Don't misunderstand me.  This is not the sound of despair you hear; it is instead simply the sound of somebody who realizes that it's time to start focusing a bit better.  I've still got plenty of time to do all -- or at least most -- of those things on my list, but getting them done is going to require that I find a way to eliminate as much time-wastage as I can.

What does that mean, in practical terms?  Well, primarily, it's going to mean a severe pruning of the amount of movies and television shows that I watch.  Not in terms of the raw number of hours spent on those enjoyments, but rather a tighter focusing of which movies and shows I allow myself to watch.  Fewer new movies, fewer new tv shows, fewer new comic books.  A curtailing of watching several current television shows which I enjoy but which do not really fit into my goals.  Example: I've been hearing a lot of friends say that Arrow is awesome.  And I love superhero tales.  However, I feel as if I can live without it.

Anyways, we're not here to listen to me whinge on about how I don't have time for all the books, movies, tv shows, and music that I'd like to consume.  Who does have that much time, anyways?  There's nothing special about my plight, and I only use the word "plight" so that I can immediately point out that as far as plights go, that's a damn sight better than the plights of many.

Nope, we're not here for all that selfish bullshit.  We're here for this:

That's a groovy cover.  Not at all accurate in terms of the novel's depiction of vampires (whose fangs are much more like those of a rattlesnake), but like many a comic-book cover in the history of that medium, this is a cool bit of art on its own merits.  I don't have a copy of this edition of the novel, sadly; they aren't all that easy to come by.  [UPDATE, June 10: Thanks to some crafty eBayin', I now have a copy of that paperback.  Groovy!]
Here's what I've got:

That's a scan of the very copy I bought in 1990 from a little used bookstore called The Book Rack.

I'd not reread this book in a long time, if ever; I think this may have been one of the McCammons I only read once.  I remember liking it a lot when I read it, though, and while I felt like it had some similarities to Stephen King's vampire novel, 'Salem's Lot, I also felt as if it was good enough that I didn't mind the comparison.

Over the years, my memory for the novel's specifics faded away almost entirely.  If you read my blog regularly (and thanks if you do!), then you know that that is by no means unusual for me.  I wish I had a better memory but alas, I don't, so in some instances, I'll have read a book and not be able to remember anything about it apart from a general sense of how much I liked it.  It's a bit like a memory of a smell: I can't grasp the specifics, but I can remember a bit of how it made me feel.  Memory as emotion: like describing music using only colors to do so..

As I've said before, my blogs are to some extent designed as a weapon against the creeping menace of poor memory.  Before I began blogging, I'd have to rely on that emotion-sense memory to "remember" a lot of the books I'd read; now, in some cases, I can go back and read blog posts I've written.  "Oh yeah," I might think to myself; "that's what that was like, and here are several thousands words to prove it."  It's a cool thing, and I kinda wish I'd started doing it sooner.

As regrets go, that's a minor one.  But regret (he said, segueing semi-nimbly) runs deep in They Thirst, and indeed might be what I would characterize as the novel's chief emotion.  Here, the main character, police detective Andy Palatazin, illustrates my point for me:

Now a world away from Fountain Avenue, Palatazin felt a wave of regret pass over him.  He took his coat from the back of a chair and wearily shrugged into it.  Why hadn't things worked out as he'd planned so many years before?  His dream had been to take his wife and son up to a little town north of San Francisco where the climate was cooler and head a small police station where the most serious crime was kids stealing from a pumpkin patch.  He wouldn't even need a car, and he would know and be liked by everyone in town.  Jo could open that florist shop she was always thinking about, and his son would be quarterback on the high school football team.  He buttoned his coat and let the dreams drift away like so much shimmering dust.  After the second stillbirth Jo's doctor had told her it would be dangerous for her, both physically and emotionally, to try again.  He suggested adoption and left it at that.  And Palatazin had been caught, as everyone is, in the huge whirlpool of events that takes you down once, twice, a third and final time.  He knew he would probably remain in this city until he died, though sometimes late at night he thought he could close his eyes and see that little town, full of white picket fences and clean streets and chimneys that puffed white plumes of cherrywood smoke in the long winters.

Time to go home, he thought.
(pages 148-149)
Virtually every human character in the novel has some version of this melancholy; it seems almost to be a part of the human condition.  Which, arguably, it is, at least in current Western culture.

We will maybe delve into that a bit more later on, but first, let me give some more generalized thoughts on the novel.
Such as what it's actually about.  It's a long novel (nearly 600 pages), but in terms of the timeframe, it -- with the exception of a prologue that occurs during Andy Palatazin's childhood -- takes place over the course of eight days.  The setting: as the second cover above indicates, it's Los Angeles.  My memory of the novel was that it was essentially 'Salem's Lot in a big city, which is both unfair and inaccurate, but is a good indication of why my memory cannot always be trusted, hence the need for a blog to serve as a sort of weird external hard-drive for my brain.  There are a few mild parallels with 'Salem's Lot: there is a large cast of characters, there is a kid whose knowledge of monster movies is a big help to him, and there is a priest with some serious issues.
That's pretty much where the specific similarities end.  There is zero evidence that McCammon wrote They Thirst with 'Salems Lot in mind (or even with Dracula in mind), but even so, the two novels would make for an interesting comparison.  Not because they are similar, but because they are really quite dissimilar.  If 'Salem's Lot is about the dissolution of a small town (and I'd say that it is, at least in part), then much of what turns that novel's wheels is the insight King gives us into the psychology of a small town.  When Barlow shows up, it feels as if he is merely the conclusion of a process that was already in the works; in Jersualem's Lot, there was only a veneer of moral fiber, and Barlow's coming sweeps it away permanently.
They Thirst is about the dissolution of a very, very large town.  If it were a mere clone of 'Salem's Lot, it would fail utterly, because applying the psychology of King's novel would be applying a micro approach to a macro problem; it would be like cooking steaks by putting a whole cow on a grill and attempting to roll it over every so often.
McCammon knew better than to try that, and my guess is that the thought never even crossed his mind.  He focuses here on individual characters, but they are characters who are able to provide insights into the larger framework of what a society like Los Angeles is like.  (Bear in mind that I have no idea whether McCammon's take on early-eighties L.A. is accurate; it may not be, but since I can't say one way or the other, I am going to assume it is, and proceed accordingly.)  And the conclusion he draws is that it is not, in fact, a single society, but a collection of smaller ones all living in proximity to, but also in some degree of isolation from, one another.  (McCammon speaks about this to some extent in an afterword to the 1988 paperback edition, which can be read right here.)  The sense I get from the novel is that its Los Angeles is already falling apart, even before the vampires arrive; but that, like King's small town, that was its natural state of being, and that it would have kept hanging by a thread for who knows how much longer if the supernatural beings had not shown up and given it a little nudge.
The argument, then, might be that in They Thirst, entropy is seen to be in a somewhat paradoxical state of permanence; entropy as status quo, if you can permit me to abuse the language enough to make such a claim.

So, the story: Andy Palatazin is a homicide detective who survived a vampire attack in his native Hungary as a child, and now, as a grown man, is trying to find and stop a serial killer called the Roach.  Into this already sordid state of affairs comes the arrival of Prince Conrad Vulkan, an eternally-seventeen vampire lord who has spent that past few decades setting the stage for a vampire takeover of America and then world, beginning with Los Angeles and then spreading outward rapidly.  Along the way we meet a cast of supporting characters that includes:
  • Gayle, a reporter who is investigating the Roach; she is determined to become a top-flight reporter, but is currently working for a tabloid so as to get a following
  • Rico, a drug dealer whose girlfriend has just told him she is pregnant . . . at age 15
  • Wes, a comedian and the star of a new sitcom, whose girlfriend (a dark-skinned mysterious beauty named Solange who may remind you a bit of Solitaire from Live and Let Die) seemingly has some voodoo powers or something
  • Silvera, a priest who is in the early stages of Lou Gehrig's disease and is determined to not allow his remaining life to go to waste
  • Tommy, a precocious high schooler who is prone to getting bullied and whose hot college-age neighbor is a joy to watch when she is mowing the lawn
  • Kobra, an albino biker who murders entire barfuls of people even before getting turned into a vampire
  • Walter, the Roach himself, who once had what we might call a troubled relationship with his mother, and who is now working toward dealing with the resultant issues by murdering lots and lots of women

And so forth.  Those are the main ones, but there are plenty others.

The novel's major problem is possibly that there are just too many characters, and that not all of them end up being particularly important.  Most of them are well-drawn and interesting, but in skimming back through the novel in preparation for writing this post, I found myself thinking frequently that entire subplots and characters could have been removed without hurting the story at all.  I don't mind that McCammon left these scenes in, though; they do help give the novel a bit more scope than it would otherwise have had, if nothing else.  However, I would argue that a revision could have been done that would have introduced some key characters earlier and therefore helped to focus the novel a bit better.  Some other characters could have had their involvement scaled back.  Rico, for example, ends up being not particularly important, and it feels as if maybe the time spent developing him ought to have instead been spent on Tommy (who doesn't show up until over halfway into the book).
That's just one example.  There is a casket-maker who need not have been in the novel at all; ditto for a real-estate agent.  They both have good scenes, but are essentially worthless in the grand scheme of things.  On the flip side of that coin, it feels a bit as if Solange is given short-shrift; not only by her boyfriend, but also by her creator, McCammon.

I could complain in that manner at length, but the fact is that none of those things really matter to me.  The novel is entertaining as hell, especially once the major gambit of the vampires strikes: a seemingly-magical sandstorm that moves in from the desert at Vulkan's bidding to blanket the city and cause the surviving humans to be isolated from each other and to be almost entirely helpless to move even within the city, much less to escape it.  Planes cannot take off; cars cannot drive; streets can be walked only if you've got some way to not breathe sand into your lungs with every breath.  None of these probalems affect the vampires; they don't need to breathe, and they've got nifty outer eyelids that they can see right through.  This is a bad combination if you don't want to have your blood removed from your body by fang.
The sandstorm lasts essentially for the final third of the novel, and it is a thoroughly satisfying device.  The idea of Los Angeles being assaulted by both an apocalyptic sandstorm AND by a literal army of vampires is, for my money, a wholly successful one; it's a very strong image, and it was literally the only thing I remembered about the novel over the course of the years spanning 1990 and 2014.  The fact that I remembered even that much tells me -- if not you -- that the novel made a strong impression on 1990 Bryant.  My memory -- that memory/emotion thing I referred to earlier -- was that I had liked They Thirst even more than I liked 'Salem's Lot.  The sandstorm appealed to me in a big way, and trumped the puny little fires of 'Salem's Lot.
Considering the two novels from a more grown-up perspective, I would return the advantage to King.  I think his characters work better, and I would also say that his vampires work better.  I say these things not because I am keen to compare and contrast the two novels, or to pit them against each other as if they were in a rap battle; but merely to resolve -- and preserve, for my own sake -- the fact that the two of them occupy something of the same mental space in my memory.  I see them now as being very different novels, but novels that complete each other in some strange way.  And while I give one the edge, I don't do so to detract from the other, because I do feel as if what McCammon accomplished with that sandstorm -- and with the novel's big-finish climax -- is a genuinely impressive achievement.  Nothing in King's novel equals its scope, and if nothing in McCammon's quite equals King's character work or his scenes of horror, that's okay.  All of that is okay.  This is what makes the one book an achievement in micro and the other an achievement in macro.
I've mentioned that I think McCammon's vampires suffer in comparison to King's.  I'm now going to put an end to the presence of 'Salem's Lot in this review; it has served its use for me, but going any farther down that road would be not only pointless, but would also, I think, be a disservice.  I can only assume that McCammon probably enjoys being compared to King in some ways, but that he also resents it in others.  I'd feel very conflicted about it, myself, and in fact feel very conflicted about it even as an amateur blogger.
Anyways, I've said the vampires of They Thirst suffer in comparison to the vampires of 'Salem's Lot, but they don't suffer so much as they simply differ.  These are VERY different vampires from what you would find in that other novel I've just sworn to not mention again, or in I Am Legend, as another example (and in some ways a better one, given its setting).  They are mostly vampires of the traditional variety: they have fangs, they can only come out at night, they are susceptible to sunlight and to holy water and to garlic and to crucifixes.  However, there comes a point in the novel -- a bit before the halfway mark -- where I perceive that things take a sudden turn toward demystification.  As I reread the novel, I was somewhat troubled by it, and remained so until after the novel had ended.  It was, in fact, only McCammon's afterword which put things into the proper context for me, and all at once, my opinion of the novel shot upward.
I'm being somewhat coy, and it's because I typically don't like to reveal too much about the plots of books and movies and comics here when they are non-King works.  When it comes to King (whom I SWEAR to stop mentioning momentarily), I assume anyone reading these posts has read whatever book or story (or seen whatever movie) I'm writing about; if not, then that's on you, sailor.  I have less assurance that you've read, say, McCammon books or Joe Hill comics or whatever else I take detours to discuss.  And so my desire to not be spoilery kicks in.  This is probably a bit needless on my part, but it's a reflex and it seems to not be going away, so I do give it some room to move.
That said, I will now begin divulging a bit more about They Thirst, so if you've been reading along and wish to remain semi-virginal as regards the plot, now's your chance to pull the ripcord.  See ya next time.
What I was (possibly for no good reason) a little reluctant to divulge is that about halfway through the book, the vampires stop being monsters.  That's not to say they stop being evil; they certainly do not.  But I would argue that they do stop being monsters.
I can't really explain why I believe that without launching into a discussion of how to define "monster," and while I would enjoy writing a post like that, it ain't happenin' tonight.  So in terms of They Thirst, I'm merely going to make the assertion and sort of leave it dangling there a bit; you can accept or reject it according to your own inclinations.  The moment comes when we get a scene with Prince Vulkan, self-appointed King of the Vampires, who is meeting with a human subordinate.  The two of them are discussing the plans to begin mass-production of coffins so that all of the soon-to-be-sired vampires will have places to sleep.
That is the beginning point of looking at Vulkan as both a strategist and a businessman of sorts.  This is a man vampire who has to plan things.  He literally has quotas to meet as given to him by his boss.  He has council meetings wherein he adjudicates disputes between his subordinates over allocation of resources.

Can a monster worry about things?  We don't see Vulkan having to, like, ask a friend for advice or anything -- or undergo the vampire equivalent of a Catholic confession -- but we do see that he has goals, plans, objectives, and long-term strategies, and we see him putting a lot of care into the maintenance of same.  We also see the implication -- and this is what I missed, only to have McCammon remind me of it in his afterword -- that Vulkan has essentially come to Los Angeles as a means of making the big-time.  Many an actor or musician has gone hoping to metaphorically begin to take over the world; Vulkan has gone there to do it literally.
As the novel progresses, we also see that the vampires are mostly rather similar to what they were like as humans.  Kobra, for example, seems practically to be the same person.  If you take out the element of the fangs and the aversion to sunlight and whatnot, the newly-made vampires seem like they are basically just humans who have had their "BE A SERIAL KILLER Y/N" switch flipped to "Y" on a permanent basis.  Yet even then, they are not immune to feeling momentary pangs of compassion or jealousy; Solange, new vampirized, grows angry enough at her boyfriend's death that she attacks a fellow vampire, and when Tommy meets up with the vampire version of a bully from his school, the bully fights off a group of fellow vampires just so he can have the pleasure of killing Tommy.
This could have all gone very badly.  The novel teeters on the fine line between horror and satire, and occasionally its stance falters and threatens to plunge it toward parody.  What saves McCammon, in the end, is the implication that the vampires in his book are simply not very smart.  Not because that is satisfying in and of itself, but because it opens up an interesting avenue that I think shows what McCammon was trying to do.
After all, what is the end result of Vulkan's big plan?  Vampires are going to take over the world?  You kind of want to say to Vulkan, "Okay, genius, what comes after that?  Wipe out all of the humans and what are you going to eat?"  You almost want to see the movie version where Vulkan's plan works, and we get a cutaway to, like, six months later, and Vulkan is complaining about being hungry; he commands Kobra to bring him a human to drink, and Kobra says, "But boss, we killed 'em all!"  And Vulkan blinks, then blurts out a Homer Simpson style "D'oh!" and there's one of those sad-trumpet sound effects.  Cue the credits, everyone walks out laughing.
I kid.  A bit.
What really saves McCammon in the end is the implication that there was never any real chance for the vampires to win.  As it turns out, this all may have been a sort of chess match between God and Satan, and when God makes his move on his opponent's king, he does so in a grandly Old Testament fashion: he causes an earthquake, and sinks the city into the ocean.  McCammon has done something cool, which is to hypothesize that ocean water, being from the cradle of life, would already carry God's blessing.  Works for me, so if you submerge a city full of vampires beneath the ocean, you have about as epic a vampire cleansing as any of which I know.
McCammon does not foreground any of this God vs. Satan stuff too much, and he leaves it vague enough that you could say I'm reading too specific a meaning into things.  I don't think I am, though.  I think McCammon is making a point: that evil is stupid and doomed to failure, but is capable of making things awfully miserable before it is swept away.
This is a big, rich novel, guys.  I've only feinted at it here, really.  It isn't perfect: it probably needed to be more focused (not necessarily shorter, just cleaner in terms of some of the character choices), and if you take a dimmer view of where McCammon goes with the vampires than I, then you might find yourself disliking the novel intensely.  The resolution is also a bit of a deus ex machina, so that might put you off.
For me, though, it's a big, entertaining, mostly-satisfying romp.  It's scary for the first half or so, and once that element kind of goes away, the characters and the setting are strong enough to keep the momentum going.
McCammon was still developing as a writer at this point in his career, and you could make the argument that he Figured It Out right after finishing They Thirst.  He seems to feel that way, based on at least one interview I've read.  Me?  I'd make the argument that he figured it out while writing They Thirst.  It's a little rough around the edges, but it's got talent which cannot be denied.  I'm looking forward to continuing my trek through his work, and I can guarantee you it won't be a year before you see the next of these reviews.
Speaking of McCammon, by the way, he's got a brand-new novel out: The River of Souls, which is the latest in his Matthew Corbett seriesI got my copy in the mail earlier this week, but I won't be reading it any time soon, because I've read none of McCammon's recent books.  (Excepting the excellent short novel I Travel By Night.)  I'm working my way up to them, though, and rereading They Thirst has made me want to get moving on that goal.
I'd also like to point you toward "White," a very nasty little short story that McCammon published on his website early this year.  It's free to read there, or to download, so go check it out.  It's fucked-up, and kind of terrific.
McCammon is going to be doing a signing at a bookstore in Birmingham this Thursday, and I'm hoping to be able to attend that.  It is not yet clear if work is going to permit it, though.  If it does, I'll probably write a post of some sort about it, but if such a post never materializes you will know that I have once again been foiled by the necessity of earning a paycheck.
But such is life!  
Either way, talk to you again soon.


  1. Interesting. It reminds me a bit of "40 Days of Night" and even a bit of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm not saying that either Gaiman or Steve Niles got their inspiration from Mccammon, it's just interesting to see how some elements tie into other books, albeit unintentionally. It's also interesting to wonder how much Mccammon's vampires helped push the genre to were it is now (post-Anne Rice, Twilight).

    The one thing that bothers me, just from the review, is I wish Mccammon had a better name for his villain. I'm no suggesting or anything, I just wonder if it isn't a little stilted. It still sounds like he's progressed more towards the Mccammon I know and enjoy. I'll have to find some time to pick up a copy (work and schedule permitting, fingers crossed).


    1. Chris, you're not alone; "Vulkan" bothered me too, for some reason I couldn't quite define. Not to a huge extent, though.

  2. I can't comment on this too intelligently, unfortunately, as I'm unfamiliar with the story or the man's work. But I read "White" from that link, there, and thought it was mostly terrific. I badly want to tidy up the last paragraph, which is overall too on the nose for my tastes, but its recall of the title/ endpoint is precise and spot-on.

    1. I spent most of "White" feeling that it was kind of just gross for the sake of being gross. Then when it turned out that it WAS that, but in a somewhat unexpected way, I got the chills. Great story.

  3. I don't think I read this one. I had my wife read Swan Song this year and I figured out that the only thing I remembered was the beginning and the kid got goggles glued to his face. I don't remember many particulars of his books so that might not be just you Bryant.
    It's a shame his audio books are only sold on audible except for Swan Song. I'd love to listen to an updated unabridged Boy's Life.
    His short story "Pin" was one of my favorites. NIghtcrawlers was also a great 80s Twilight Zone.

    1. I've never actually seen "Nightcrawlers." I need to correct that.

    2. Mike, I don't know if you'll get this update, but if so, you are in luck:

      Audible seems to have massively beefed up their McCammon lately.

  4. This is still one of my all time favorite vampire novels. I was overjoyed to find out it had been reprinted a few times. It needs to go to print more often. I want to pick up a signed copy some day. This was a fantastic write up.

    1. Thanks! It's a good novel, and I wish more people were familiar with it.