Thursday, April 23, 2020

Vampire Junction by S.P. Somtow (1984): The Bloody Days Are Bloody Long

As the kids say, I just can't even when it comes to a pre-teen rock singer who's also an ancient vampire. My brain, ever trying to protect me from the cringeworthy, simply would not conjure up a 12-year-old boy who speaks of philosophy in falsetto and has women twice his age trying to seduce him when he really just wants to play with toy trains. Sorry, gang, I know it's rough out there lately and everybody's looking for a good read to while away these pandemic days, but I did not find it in Vampire Junction, the first novel of the Valentine vampire series by S.P. Somtow. Originally published in a hardcover edition in 1984, the Berkley paperback from August 1985 (above) does not feature a precocious pop star on its cover as so many later editions did...

1991 Tor reprint, cover by Joe DeVito

Somtow is the pseudonym of Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul, a Thai-American author who is also a classical music and opera composer, aspects which feature prominently in the novel. These are the most convincing parts of the story, written with obvious first-hand personal knowledge and insight. The retrograde vision of the rock'n'roll industry is taken right from that scene in Rock 'n' Roll High School where the Ramones manager tells Riff Randell "This is the big-time, girly, this is rock 'n' roll." Except played straight and not for midnight movie madness.

 1985 Future UK edition, cover by Val Lindahn

Like Suzy McKee Charnas's Vampire Tapestry a few years prior, Somtow uses psychiatry to probe the mysteries of his creature of the night. I wasn't too put off by the Jungian psychology, it all seems pretty straightforward to me: Valentine is a living, literal archetype of human fears, not really a human or formerly human person. But too much of it chokes up the narrative, which itself is all over the place.

Structurally the novel is a mess, flitting back and forth in time not just in chapters but oh-so-preciously separated sections with portentous headings like *blood dream* and *night child* and *firebirth* and even *fire:dissolve:labyrinth* (god is there a more pretentious word than labyrinth?). I admire the ambition, somewhat, the desire to elevate pop fiction nightmares, but this back-and-forth within even paragraphs leaves the reader bewildered.

 1990s UK reprint

Vampire Junction isn't a total loss, I suppose, even though my attention meandered as the book dragged on. Moments of surrealism filter in and out—watch out for a Jaws-obsessed teen girl and nightmare visions of a shark outside an apartment window—and plenty of bloodshed and mayhem abound in a proto-splatterpunk vibe. Requisite historic passages hearkening back to Valentine's long life are plentiful, although awkwardly inserted, have some effect, and there's an unexpected visit to the nightmare castle of the dread Gilles de Rais! Unexpected, and deeply unsettling.

But what ultimately drags the book down is its insufferable pretension, especially in the last quarter building to the fiery, ludicrously sexual, er, climax. This high-mindedness is mixed with foul-mouthed vampire hunters, an inexpert mingling of the sacred and the profane that produces a jarring effect. It's exhausting to read. Despite a few cool scenes of vampire grue and black-humored satire of pop music, Vampire Junction is a stop you can skip.