Books That Stole My Heart, Part Two: John Steakley’s Vampires

 

john-steakley-vampiresDid you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? Where you finish a chapter, or a paragraph, or even a sentence, and you have to pause for a moment, thinking what the hell, man, what the hell?

It happens more often than I’d like to admit. But as somebody who just finished writing a pulpy action horror novel about a vampire hunter, I got to experience that very special mixture of envy and awe that occurs when somebody else already did what you’re trying to do, but better. It’s like if you’ve been trying to get the lid off a pickle jar for an hour, and somebody just walks along and nonchalantly twists that sucker right off. What the hell, man?

Vampires by John Steakley is the story of Jack Crow, the leader of Vampire$ inc, a team of mercenary bad-asses who kill vampires for a living. The book was adapted into the movie John Carpenter’s Vampires, but as always, the book was better.

The novel begins with Crow and his team plying their trade, clearing out a nest of vampires in a small town in the midwestern United States. Then they get really drunk. In the midst of their celebration, they’re ambushed by a master vampire who slaughters all but Crow and one other member of his team.

To fill the gaps in their roster, they recruit a young priest sent by the Vatican (I prefer to write about secular vampires, but the religious element was very well done in this book. The Pope is a supporting character, and that’s all I’m going to say) and a deadly gunfighter named Felix.

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John Carpenter’s Vampires. A decent flick, but read the book.

Crow, broken and tortured by the loss of his team, continues on a near suicidal pursuit of his mission. Armed with crosses and silver bullets, they go out and get revenge.

Steakley writes like the bastard love-child of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. His writing is Spartan: spare, terse, and punchy. Never a wasted word. He has a knack for pacing, his restrained use of punctuation turning his action scenes into pure stream-of-consciousness bad-assery.

Felix’s first two shots, like the deputy’s, struck Roy. But while Kirk’s hit Roy’s Chest, Felix’s slammed into his forehead. And while Kirk’s were .44 magnum hollowpoints, they were only lead. Felix’s were nine-millimeter silver blessed by the Vicar of Christ on Earth and they tore half-inch-wide holes through the skull. Roy shrieked and smacked his hands over the wounds and fell writhing to the pavement.

What the hell, man.

Steakley’s characters, his tortured, flawed, terrified crew of vampire hunters, go past action hero cliches. He nails their inner conflict, their fatalism, their hopelessness coupled with their sense of duty and righteousness as they carry on with a mission that they know will probably kill them in the end.

John Steakley unfortunately only wrote two novels in his lifetime, Armor and Vampires. I read Armor first, and was utterly blown away. I will put my right hand on a copy of The Forever War and swear that Armor is one of the finest works of military sci-fi I’ve ever read. Despite that, I didn’t even know Vampires existed until the name ‘Steakley’ jumped out at me from the spine of a book at a used bookstore. Imagine my excitement.

 

 

Books that stole my heart, part one: Dune

Frank Herbert’s Dune, fifty years after its first publication, still stands as one of the giants of science fiction, and rightly so. I could go on at length about the social and political import of this book, but others have done it before me, and better. So I’ll share my more personal experience.

duneA long, long, long time ago, when I was in high school, my experience with science fiction was largely limited to Star Trek on TV, Star Wars paperbacks, and Voltron. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Star Wars. Except for the prequels. I digress.

In my sophmore English class, there were the remnants of a class set of Dune books. These four or five identical paperbacks had been coated in contact paper and stamped on the inner cover with the high school’s name. They were falling apart, and had been repaired several times over with tape. Unfortunately, whatever English class they were for, it wasn’t my English class. These books sat unused on the back shelf, very near where I sat.

One day our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whose awesomeness deserves a whole separate blog post) wasn’t there, and we had a substitute. Whatever we were doing that day was horribly boring, so out of desperation I picked up this tattered old paperback with a funky seventies cover. Those first words caught me like a marlin on a gaff hook.

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Maud’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time; born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV…

I’m sorry, Mr. Phillips. I stole that book. I stole it so hard. I still had it until just a year or two ago, when it finally disintegrated. I think I read it in three days, skipping minor annoyances like schoolwork and sleep. Then I went to the library and found the sequel.

sting
Dune the movie was…entertaining… but doesn’t hold a candle to the book.

Dune was my gateway drug into the best of Golden Age sci-fi, the world of Heinlin, Asimov, Clark, and Philip K. Dick. Dune hit me like a brick upside the head. It was so… grown up. The intelligence of the plot, the subtlety of the character’s interactions. (a feint within a feint within a feint) Superheroes whose powers came from nothing more than discipline and training. The massive, coherent, sprawling galaxy, so different from the laser-pistols-and-warp-drives fare I’d known until that point, so intricately layered, so flawlessly executed. Its portrayal of a deep, nuanced interstallar economy, and subtle galactic feudalism that Star Wars could only pretend to. And yet, unlike many other intellectually rich sci-fi novels I’ve come across, it was still a damned page-turner.

I’m realizing that I could go on for far, far longer about how much I love this book, and how it shaped my views of so many things: economics, ecology, politics, power… but I’ll end now, with one of the many gems that have stayed with me through the years.

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’