Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Hunger by Whitley Strieber (1981): Bela Lugosi's Not Dead

Not all that nature wants from its children is innocent.

After the success of his debut horror novel The Wolfen, in which he provided a convincing naturalistic explanation for intelligent werewolf-like predators who've lived side-by-side with humanity throughout the ages, Whitley Strieber reappraised the vampire in the same manner in The Hunger. A mainstream, bestselling thriller with plenty of audience-pleasing sex and violence, The Hunger is also richly veined with concerns about love, relationships, aging and the waning of desire. It follows the arc of history as humanity and its secret vampiric brethren have risen up from the glory of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire to the mud and muck of the Middle Ages to the brightly-lit but still so dangerous modern era. But for whom is this modern era more dangerous?

 Stepback cover, Pocket Books Jan 1982

For whatever reason this novel was made into a glitzy, Gothy, soft-porn movie in 1983, but there is no glitz or Goth here (soft porn, yes). And, smartly I think, the word vampire is never used. Still: there is copious blood-drinking, blood-sharing, blood-shedding, like any self-respecting horror/vampire novel. Then there were moments I felt like Strieber veered into Michael Crichton territory, with renegade scientists researching at the cutting edge of human physiology, making discoveries that will change the world - making the discovery that will change the world. Since Strieber is a powerful and intelligent writer, this concession to bestseller-dom doesn't irritate, since it's presented with the dispassion of a field observer. I rather like a clinical approach to the this kind of material; it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the hot, unyielding desire for blood.

Don't let his goofball smile fool you...

Miriam Blaylock is an eons old "vampire," a vivid but contradictory character, bold and fearless but endlessly careful in her choosing of victims, terrified of exposing herself to accident and injury which would make her vulnerable to a fate that is, yes, worse than death. The fires of the villagers hundreds of years ago taught her that her kind is not invincible. Her Manhattan home is a veritable fortress battened down with numerous security devices, albeit one that provides beauty and respite, with its luxurious rose garden and old-world furnishings. But Miriam has no relationship with her kith and kin; for centuries she has "enlisted" various specimens of excellent "human stock" to be her companions. And now, she and her current "partner," John Blaylock - 200 years earlier a young British nobleman whose father procured Miriam's illicit services  - are growing irrevocably apart.

After epigrams from Keats and Tennyson, the novel opens with a dramatic violent sequence and then reveals that John is unable to "Sleep" (the rejuvenating rest which resembles death) and is aging considerably, woefully, his face in the mirror showing the rack and ruin of years and years, which can only mean he is now facing the end of his unnatural life. Gripped with panic and maddening hunger, his feedings grow more and more careless and desperate as they become less and less satisfying. His rage towards Miriam is growing as he learns there is no escape from a nightmare doom... one for which she alone is responsible.

1981 hardcover

Also introduced in early chapters is Sarah Roberts, a doctor studying sleep and aging and who, after a harrowing tragedy involving her rhesus monkey research subject, seems to have found the link between the two. Her controversial book on the topic has greatly interested Miriam Blaylock. Was it possible for humans to stave off aging utilizing Sarah's discoveries? If so, Miriam could use this knowledge for her own selfish ends when "transitioning" humans via blood transfusion to be her immortal consorts. However, for humans this state of actual immortality is unachievable, as John is so bitterly learning. Sarah's research will indeed mean immortality for humankind. Miriam, longing for eternal companionship, will do anything, even give herself up to scientific research and risk exposure, to convince Sarah to share with her what's she's discovered. And perhaps Sarah - brilliant, lusty, ambitious Sarah - will make the greatest companion of all.

Strieber sketches in Miriam's background with terrific historical passages - ancient Rome, the Dark Ages of Middle Europe, 18th century London - which are economically presented for emotional resonance, adding shades to her and not simply ornamenting the story. It is a life that stretches back to before the Roman Empire; her lineage extends all the way to Lamia herself. These are some of the most enjoyable sequences in The Hunger, so well-conceived and presented as they are. As in The Wolfen, he provides a plausible, ingenious source for the vampire legend. We learn of Miriam's past lovers, that one of her most beloved partners was Eumenes, a youth she rescues after torture by the Roman authorities. 

She invented a goddess, Thera, and called herself a priestess. She spun a web of faith and beguiling ritual. They slit the throat of a child and drank the salty wine of sacrifice. She showed him the priceless mosaic of her mother Lamia, and taught him the legends and truths of her people.

Cliched contemporary cover

I've really only touched on what makes The Hunger such a gripping, exciting, illuminating read. Strieber strikes out on a successful path through the psychological intricacies and intimacies that grow between between Miriam and John, between Miriam and Sarah, between Sarah and her fellow scientist and lover Tom Haver, between predator and prey, the seduced and the seducer. There is real darkness here, human darkness and human pain, loss and despair. But also there is the pain of being inhuman, of being, by one's very  nature, condemned to exist with a restless intelligence, an insurmountable will to survive, an utterly endless appetite.

 Avon Books reprint 1988. No Goth chicks inside however.

And I'm happy to say that as the novel concludes, Strieber ratchets up the stakes with a professional's skill and timing, drawing together the threads of all his characters' disparate stories, till they collide in one ferociously fatal sex scene you gotta read to believe. I mean, that's what we're all waiting for anyway, right? And you get that, and you get much more. This Hunger is one that truly satisfies.

He thought of Sarah and cried aloud. She was in the hands of a monster. It was a simple as that. Perhaps science would never explain such things, perhaps it couldn't.

And yet Miriam was real, living in the real world, right now. Her life mocked the laws of nature, at least as Tom understood them. 

Slowly, the first shaft of sunlight spread across the wall. Tom imagined the earth, a little green mote of dust sailing around the sun, lost in the enormous darkness. The universe seemed a cold place indeed, malignant and secret. 

Was that the truth of it?


Anonymous said...

You have to stop writing such great reviews. My reading list is already too long.

ErinPaperbackstash said...

Great review. I remember reading this one, found it average. I think you liked it a bit more than me.