Did 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.
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.