Review: THE LESSER DEAD by Christopher Buehlman (Berkley)

BuehlmanC-TheLesserDeadAn interesting, engaging twist on vampire mythology

The secret is, vampires are real and I am one.

The secret is, I’m stealing from you what is most truly yours and I’m not sorry… 

New York City in 1978 is a dirty, dangerous place to live. And die. Joey Peacock knows this as well as anybody—he has spent the last forty years as an adolescent vampire, perfecting the routine he now enjoys: womanizing in punk clubs and discotheques, feeding by night, and sleeping by day with others of his kind in the macabre labyrinth under the city’s sidewalks.

The subways are his playground and his highway, shuttling him throughout Manhattan to bleed the unsuspecting in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park or in the backseats of Checker cabs, or even those in their own apartments who are too hypnotized by sitcoms to notice him opening their windows. It’s almost too easy.

Until one night he sees them hunting on his beloved subway. The children with the merry eyes. Vampires, like him… or not like him. Whatever they are, whatever their appearance means, the undead in the tunnels of Manhattan are not as safe as they once were.

And neither are the rest of us.

The Lesser Dead is a pretty cool, grim and bloody take on vampires. Other have said it “reclaims” the sub-genre from the likes of Twilight, although I don’t believe horror-vampire fiction ever went away. If you like your vampire fiction bloody and populated by unpleasant, but excellently-drawn characters, then this is for you. It’s a very good read.At the very beginning, we are informed that our narrator is unreliable (and it’s only in the Coda that we learn just how unreliable). The story follows Joey’s experiences over a few days in 1978, and what happens when he and his undead family come into contact with a different type of vampire: outwardly pre-pubescent children, more brazen and seemingly untutored in the appropriate ways to live and survive as vampires in the bustling metropolis. The main storyline is interspersed with some backstory — for Joey, his maker Margaret — but this disappears around the halfway mark.

We’re quickly introduced to our narrator and get a sense of his predatory nature. There’s an early scene with the Baker family that is truly horrific and creepy, and Joey’s narration gives the reader a perfect understanding of the vampire mindset and survival methodology. Buehlman’s created an interesting take on the vampire: more horrific than romantic, but still able to pass as human thanks to unconscious glamours or charm. They are manipulative and sociopathic — but, at least Joey’s group, not psychopathic. I was surprised that they do not kill their victims (at least, not always and only occasionally). Rather than through any Anne Rice-inspired love for humankind, this wariness about killing is far more pragmatic: strange deaths, exsanguinate bodies… they draw a lot of attention from the police. Which just makes life difficult.

Buehlman’s style is brisk and spare. I was reminded of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series (but only in prose style), but minus the more punk-ethic. The characters are engaging, if often repulsive. There are a few twists (especially at the end), plenty of action and suspense. And lots of blood, naturally. The child vampires are utterly creepy, extrapolating the creative visciousness of children with the removal of morals, addition of power and long undeaths. I really liked the way Buehlman drips details to the reader about these eternally-hungry psychopaths. (To refer again to Anne Rice again, Buehlman turns some of the tropes Rice introduced into the genre on their head, reversing them, twisting them or throwing them out completely).

This is a very good horror/vampire novel. Recommended for all fans of the genre, and certainly people who like their vampire fiction with more bite and of a less romanticized, more gritty feel.

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