Book: Already Dead
Author: Charlie Huston
Why Did I Read This Book: I had put this book on my Amazon Wishlist at some point, probably because it is about vampires, which are always relevant to my interests, and my very good friend Arafat sent it to me. I wanted to read it because the Washington Post had this to say in its review: “(t)his book’s core audience is among the young, the cool, the hip, and the unshockable.” And this folks, is why I review books myself and seldom pay attention to anything any established reviewer says anymore because as a middle-aged, uncool, really unhip woman I can tell you that this book ain’t all that shocking, in a pearl-clutching sort of way. Unless you have spent your life reading Jane Austen with a little Nicholas Sparks thrown in for modern relevance, this book is simply a well-told, nicely updated vampire/detective riff.
Availability: Published by Del Ray in 2005, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This is a book that should have annoyed me but it didn’t because Huston incorporates infuriating writing habits, cliched characters and plot devices in a such a way that they seem fresh and interesting. Moreover, he blends and recreates genre in a way that others have tried and mostly failed to pull off.
For example, I loathe hard boiled detective novels. I find the old school Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane novels to be emotionally flat, unengaging and tiresome but Huston takes this genre and makes it work in a manner I could not have expected before reading this book. Joe Pitt, a vampire private detective, is the main character in this novel and he embodies the sort of emotionally flat, badass, private detective who has a soft spot in his heart for the sweet but damaged Everygirl but gets sucked into a web by a gorgeous, icy, double-crossing dame. Except we understand why Joe is remote and somewhat tortured – he’s a vampire and as demonstrated in the book, one break-in to his refrigerator can cause his death. The sweet but damaged Everygirl has AIDS, and his vampirism makes a relationship hard, all the harder because he can give her eternal life if he wants but has no idea, in the way these sorts of emotionally stunted men can be, of going about it. And the icy dame is icy, to be sure, but also has a Chinatown-style problem that telegraphs to the reader that this is going to be bad news and will not end well, but forces us to want Joe to help her anyway.
I also loathe novels that refuse to use proper quotation punctuation, mainly because it has been my miserable experience that when authors do this, it is the only “innovation” in the novel because they are trying to show their indie cred by eschewing rules instead of relying on good writing. Not gonna lie, this book irritated me in sections because in passages filled with large chunks of dialogue, using em-dashes solely to indicate speech got tiresome and I lost the thread of back and forth. But it was not as intrusive as I initially feared. I would have infinitely preferred traditional dialogue markers not because I am a norm helplessly clinging to the old ways, but because it’s easier to read.
So in a sense, this book had a lot stacked against it from the beginning. But I read it quickly, enjoying it more than the parts of its sum should have allowed.
This is what I think I was looking for when I picked up the Ellen Datlow-edited modern vampire story collection that I panned. This is a modern take on the vampire tale, and zombies are handled in a way that makes sense to me (I am not a big zombie fan either – zombies themselves are seldom interesting to me, though certainly that is not always the case). In the novel, a virus causes vampirism, a need to drink blood to feed the “vyrus” that both holds the victims in thrall to their need for blood, but keeps them stronger and healthier when they do drink. The “Vampyres” in this novel have set up their own society in New York, each clan having inviolable perimeters and Joe refuses to join any clan, remaining a free agent who bumps around in the world of upper class Vampyres, radical rogues and absolute criminals.
When he is hired by a clan called the Coalition to find a missing girl who is attracted to gothic and Vampyre culture, Joe is forced to deal with “shamblers,” people who become zombies due to a bacterial infection that is transmitted a number of ways, including sexually. He also finds himself in a world of intrigue, where he is, of course, double crossed on a dime, and has to make uneasy alliances with humans and Vampyres if he wants to find the girl, deliver her to real safety and get out alive.
I think one of the things that won me over is that Huston gets goth culture right, or at least what I recognize as goth culture from my own experiences. Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box was not a bad novel, but his characterization of goth and death metal culture were way off (yo, they are two totally different things and really don’t cross over as much as one might think – the culture that gave us Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus is far different from the culture that lead us to Death and Cannibal Corpse). Writers mischaracterize these subcultures more often than they hit the nail on the head.
Amanda, the goth-kiddie runaway Joe Pitt is tasked with finding has the gothic emotional-nihilism-as-a-mask-for-vulnerability-down. The street kids Pitt deals with are more gutter punk, and have the wardrobes and musical references (Skinny Puppy for the win) to prove it. Having once spent years living in gutter punk or drag rat enclaves, I immediately recognized some of the kids in this book. It was a very good thing indeed to see subcultures represented so accurately.
While I have seen this book described as edgy or like a Tarantino film, I didn’t see that myself. While this is definitely not a typical pulp horror story or a sparkling take on vampires, the edginess in this novel does not come from hip pop culture references or hard core violence. I realize my take here may be rendered somewhat questionable because I am steeped in transgressive literature in a way that casual horror readers may not be, but the real edginess comes into play because Huston manages to weave a Spillane-type detective into a new version of the vampire (and zombie) mythos, creating a wholly new and well-conceived merging of genre. Perhaps the true edginess is that Huston made me like a protagonist I knew I wanted to hate, uses dialogue punctuation in a way that would ordinarily make me snert, yet gets so much right in this intricately plotted book that I loved it in spite of the ways I suspected it should annoy me. His characterization, plot management and eye to renewing the old in horror left me with much to commend and with so many writers attempting to recreate genre and failing, perhaps any sense of edginess in this book comes simply from doing it right. I will definitely read more of Huston’s work in the future. His novel Six Bad Things sounds particularly good. It is always fun to come across a novelist I know I am going to like and realizing he or she has a body of work already waiting for me.