Thursday, July 2, 2015

They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon (1981): When the Night Comes Down

A sprawling vampire epic set in the glittering midnight environs of the City of Angels, Hollywood USA, They Thirst (Avon Books, May 1981) was the fourth paperback original by Robert R. McCammon. Eventually McCammon would disown those first four novels, pulling them from print, saying they didn't represent him at his best. Fair enough, I guess, I don't know many authors that would do that kind of thing. But when I look at reviews of They Thirst on Goodreads and Amazon I see that most readers don't feel the way McCammon does: they fucking love this novel. Love. It. Like "greatest vampire novel" ever love it.

So I feel a bit bad when my reaction to the book is indifference, even impatience, same as to the other McCammon I've read. Lots of telling, telling, tellingover 500 pages of tellingand no showing. On a line-to-line basis McCammon's not a bad writer, he's just bland and pedestrian, with little snap, wit, or insight in his prose. Characters, while plentiful, are stock folks, and the story too thinly reads like 'Salem's Lot transferred to the opposite coast. His main weakness is telling the readers what they already know, and this chokes the story up, slows it to a crawl. Too many characters doubt for too long, or wonder aloud at their life-threatening predicament, or argue a moot point. I skimmed all that junk, looking for nuggets of story, of narrative, of bloodshed, to clear out all that baggage. There are moments, to be sure, that work, but far too few. Like too many '80s horror novels, They Thirst feels overstuffed for no discernible reason.

Pocket Books reprint, Oct 1988, Rowena Morrill cover art

It's not a terrible set-up, but I tire of these broad scenarios with dozens of characters and locales. Fortunately things begin to tighten up once Prince Vulkan—how do people not know a guy with a name like that is a vampire?—appears on the scene. As he explains his nefarious plans to his two fave-rave henchmen his mind wanders back through his past, to his becoming undead 500 years ago. Here McCammon does some solid writing, even though he's doing nothing new really, but Vulkan's drive to become king vampire is well-evoked, and the fact that Vulkan was made nosferatu at a petulant 17 years of age, is unique. Were that there were even more of these kinds of tiny inventive touches! The final third or maybe quarter of They Thirst is made up of four vampire hunters tracking the creatures to their ultimate lair high in the Hollywood Hills. This is Castle Kronsteen, a massive edifice built on a cliff by '40s monster-movie star Orlon Kronsteen, who was found murdered in it, decapitated no less, 15 years prior to the events of the novel. Yes: Kronsteen's function is the same as the Marsten's House in 'Salem's Lot.

Sphere Books UK, 1981

Indeed, King's shadow looms large, too large. They Thirst reads like a combo of The Stand and 'Salem's Lot, a vampire apocalypse loosed upon the world. Young Tommy is basically Mark Petrie, a loner kid with a penchant for Lovecraft and horror movies; rising TV comedian Wes Richter is Larry Underwood; Padre Silvera is Father Callahan (although he's not a drunken coward); homicide detective Andy Palatazin is plagued by his own childhood demons (which comprises the novel's prologue) like Ben Mears. There's even a plucky tabloid reporter as in The Dead Zone. I kinda liked "Ratty," a burned-out grime-encrusted leftover hippy living in the LA sewer system, who helps Tommy and Palatazin navigate the underground tunnels but first he tries to sell them hallucinogenics. Their subterranean journey reminded me of the Lincoln Tunnel chapters in The Stand—surely one of King's greatest sequences of terror—but is nowhere near its heights in execution. The novel's climax, a literal earthshaker, is mighty but reeks of deus ex machina.

Sphere Books UK, 1990

They Thirst is not a bad horror novel, it's not insulting like, say, The Keep or The Cellar, and I guess I can see how so many readers value it; but to me it is an unnecessary horror novel. I ask myself: had I first read this book when I was a teenager, would I have enjoyed it? I'm not sure I would have: too much like King, not sexy at all, nothing new is done with vampire lore, and its violence is standard (although more than once I sensed an interesting John Carpenter movie going on). Probably in 1981 the book made more of an impact; Avon Books certainly went all out in promoting it so could it be I'm being too hard on it? Maybe I am. Will I read one of McCammon's later books, one that he's not embarrassed by? Maybe I will.

12 comments:

Lincoln Brown said...

I can't believe how highly rated McCammon is, among the majority of horror fans. I read 'Swan Song' last year, and apart from a few good scenes, found it very average. I have 'They Thirst' on my shelf, but can't see myself getting to it anytime soon.
Is that really true, about pulling his first four novels? Of all his books, they look to be the most interesting!

Will Errickson said...

Yes, it is true; I got this info from his own website on the FAQ page. And I agree that they do look to be the most interesting! Apparently they only *look* so.

Jonathan Stover said...

THE NIGHT BOAT is crazy: Nazi zombies on a submarine! And short. BAAL is pretty much the same -- a lot tighter and a lot pulpier than his later work. I like him better than you do, but he can be both wordy and a bit bland at times.

thedarkman said...

You NEED to read Boy's Life. Not horror, kinda like King's The Body, only better. Truly amazing writing. Also, Wolf's Hour and Mine are pretty damn good...

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

I've tried some of McCammon's shorter fiction, like his stories in Silver Scream and Razored Saddles, but neither of them did anything for me. I remember beginning to read The Night Boat at some point during college, but then getting distracted by another book. Maybe I'll rustle up another copy and dig in. I had the Pocket Books reprint, but must've lost or sold it in the interim. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to find a copy of the Avon printing (http://www.robertmccammon.com/images/tnb_10_pb.jpg) instead. After all, I remember loving Shock Waves when I saw it on DVD in high school...

Ron Clinton said...

I readily admit to rating McCammon pretty high, though can see some validity to some of the criticisms lodged against him (and some of his early work -- NIGHT BOAT and BETHANY'S SIN foremost among them is deservedly out-of-print). But when he is at his best -- WOLF'S HOUR, THEY THIRST, SWAN SONG, BOY'S LIFE (!!), STINGER, and even GONE SOUTH and MINE to a slightly lesser degree -- I don't think there are many authors writing in our genre who can touch him. BLUE WORLD, his short-story collection, is a seminal work in the field. I'm frankly a bit puzzled by those who don't see the skill and talent I see, but it'd be a pretty boring world if we all loved the same authors...example: Tanith Lee, the subject of a recent TMHF essay...not my cup of tea. At all.

Lincoln Brown said...

Those, like me, who don't really like him are definitely in the minority.
My problem is more with his overall plots, not his writing. Same reason I drifted away from King - but, having said that, I am going to try some later King soon. King has 'runs on the board', with me, McCammon hasn't.
Like you wrote, Ron, would be damn boring if we all had the same taste, and I love seeing people passionate about authors in 'our' genre, even if I personally don't like them.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Nice review. I'm one of those who enjoyed this novel. I read it when it first came out in paperback long ago and remember appreciating it for what it was, a tawdry paperback horror novel on the level of a late night movie. Sort of like enjoying a pizza, it tastes good while eating it but its nutritional value is limited. Years later I found a copy at a library sale and re-read it. I still liked it. I'm also a big fan of Swan Song which gets my vote over The Stand for "epic" horror. If it's any insight, my favorite King novel is Christine, which may explain my taste in horror novels in general. Still, your criticisms of They Thirst are valid and points regarding its weaknesses are well taken.

AndyDecker said...

I like some of his books. Novels like USHER'S PASSING or MYSTERY WALK I thought original concepts back then. I guess BETHANY' SIN is a good laugh today with its plot about amazons. The PC crowd would love it.

But it is hard to deny that he was firmly entrenched in the King style, with all its weaknesses. I kind of like THEY THIRST, even if it was a riff on SALEM'S LOT. When I read it first at the start of the 80s it was kind of a popcorn movie with vampires. Which made it fun. Hard to believe, but there were not so many of its kind on the market back then.

35 years later I fear it has aged badly. Like so many of its contemporaries.

R T said...

NIGHT BOAT is a great Nazi/zombie book. I tried to read STINGER, but it came across as a bloated, mainstream King-style epic. Couldn't get halfway through.

Zwolf said...

I loved They Thirst when it first came out. Haven't read it since, though. I was in high school when it came out and my family was on our way to Florida for summer vacation, and we stopped at the local convenience store for gas. I went in to check out the comics and paperbacks (this was back in the days of those beautiful spinner-racks, god I miss those), and this cover stared out at me... and it was so stupid and trashy looking that I definitely had to have it. I started reading it immediately and was well into it by the time we got to Florida. It made a big impression on me at the time, especially that weirdo Kobra guy with his broom-handle Mauser.

I haven't read any of McCammon's newer stuff. I've picked some up, but he looks like he's veered into more "fantasy" stuff with "series" characters and I haven't much stomach for that. But I have fond memories of a lot of his older stuff, and he was right up there with King for me for a while. For a long time he was a derivative of King, though -- They Thirst is his Salem's Lot, Swan Song is The Stand. Back-tracking didn't do a lot of good -- I've never even managed to finish Baal, and Bethany's Sin wasn't very impressive. I recently re-read The Night Boat and, while I like the idea, the execution is a mess.

I liked Mystery Walk and Usher's Passing a lot, though. Those were the "McCammon's a genius" days. Then came Wolf's Hour and Stinger and I thought those were really blah. Still well-written, but there's honestly not a lot you can do with a werewolf story, and Stinger was totally unmemorable - other than it being in a desert town I can't even recall what it was about. Mine, Gone South, and Boy's Life are all good. For a while I thought Boy's Life was one of the best books ever, but now in my memory some of it seems a bit too fanciful, like Bradbury would turn out when he got drippy (I love Bradbury, overall, but some of his stuff gets so sentimental I wanna ralph - I pretty much hate Something Wicked This Way Comes for the maudlin saccharine in that thing). But, it may be due for a re-read.

Erin @ Paperback Stash said...

Great covers.

This is one of many on my wishlist.

I have a lot of McCammon left to read that I do own. I loved Swan Song and A Boy's Life.