By Tony Jones
“Robert McCammon’s vampire epic ‘They Thirst’ reappraised, 36 years on"
There was a lot of interest in our recent review of Robert McCammon’s The Border (2015) a fantastic mix of science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction which is sadly currently out of print, but keep an eye out for the e-book hopefully later in the year. In light of this we are revisiting the author’s vampire classic They Thirst which was published way back in 1981 and has recently been republished in trade paperback by Subterranean Press, along with a few of his other novels. So 36 years on how does They Thirst hold up? Picking up novels from your childhood and teen years, can often be a disappointing experience as often they’re best left as memories….
Not with They Thirst though, which is damned great, better than that actually, it is utterly superb. The chunky trade paperback hefts in at a meaty 616 pages but rarely has a dull moment, with expertly interwoven multiple characters, believably sketched story lines, atmosphere and some great villains. And who really is the elusive ‘Headmaster’? It is in many ways a classical vampire story. Lesser writers would fail miserably with a story of this scope falling into repetitive vampire clichés, however, in the hands of McCammon who is one of the great’s of the horror genre. The tired and familiar horror topic of vampires is tackled with great verve, originality and style. He plays it 100% straight also, with his vampires obeying the classical rules: fear of sunlight, crucifixes, holy water and cast no reflection. Maybe you think you’ve read this sort of stuff before? You probably have, but not ramped to the bombastic level McCammon cranks it up to in They Thirst .
Stephen King’s legendary Salem’s Lot” deals with a vampire infestation which effectively wipes out the small town of Salem’s Lot and in this yarn McCammon multiplies this by 10,0000 and over the course of 600 pages Los Angeles is brought to its knees by a vampire infestation so intense death is on a huge and unimaginable scale. Incredibly page 1 takes place on Friday October 25th and the novel concludes on Friday 1st November. One week sees the near total destruction of the city as the, regimented, almost army like, swarms of the dead, multiply and kill off a swathe of major characters along the way.
When I read a novel from this period I often count the frequency a character seeks out a telephone box, or cannot find a telephone box, or curses because the telephone box is busted, but I think it only happened twice in this novel. Apart from the telephones, it was very hard to pinpoint when it was written, apart from the odd “can you dig it” phrase the writing was as stylish as anything on the go today. A couple of other funny things dated it, the “heart-throb” wedding of John Travolta and OJ Simpson still being in the springs of his first illustrious career! Disco music booms away in the sweaty Los Angeles streets, as the vampires begin their silent takeover, house by house, flat by flat, district by district and as the police do not really care what is going down in the Latino areas, where much of the novel is set, before you know it there are a lot of vampires.
If you’ve never got round to reading this novel in the past, or tried McCammon at all, this is a terrific place to take the plunge. 1981 saw this, his fourth horror novel in four years, published and McCammon was beginning to sell alot of books in a period where horror dominated the bestseller charts. His legacy lasts a long shadow over today’s generation of horror writers, many of which owe him a great debt. I couldn’t help seeing lots of similarities, for instance, in Chuck Hogan’s and Guillermo del Toro’s “Strain” trilogy or even some of the ideas used in Netflix’s fun (but trashy) “Van Helsing” television series. Of course, McCammon is famous for doing his own literary thing and his wide range of other novels have featured vampires sparingly, with the exception of his “I Travel By Night” and sequel “Last Train From Perdition” only published last year. Both novels featuring a vampire adventurer in the times of the American Civil War, but in this case the vampire is the good guy.
So on the simplest terms They Thirst is about vampires taking over Los Angeles, but the expansive plot really sucks the reader in and the city of Los Angeles almost becomes a character itself. In the prologue we are taken back to the mid 20th century, Hungary, where a young boy witnesses his mother killing his father, not realising he is a vampire. Flip forward fifty years and this little boy is a now a Senior Los Angeles Detective investigating a serial killer nicknamed “The Roach” whose story eventually connects to the vampires. Detective Palatazin is a terrific character, troubled, ground down, tired, dedicated and willing to give up his life to fight the shadow which has always loomed over him. There is a terrific array of support characters, ranging from teenage horror film fan Tommy to spunky, but trashy journalist Gayle. And lets nor forget the charismatic Solange, who names the book “They Thirst” in a creepy séance when speaking to the dead and her TV star boyfriend who is destined for a nasty end. McCammon has a real knack of expertly creating believable backstories for all his characters, and I was particularly sorry for some of these get the chop. You could argue it was slow in places, however, the characters are so well developed I barely noticed. And if I was being hyper critical (and I mean HYPER) you could argue that the ending came together too neatly. Not me though, I loved it.
If you’ve never read They Thirst I would highly recommend it. This terrific novel surely deserves to be much better known in the grand scheme of vampire novels. Out of interest, a large poll on the review website ‘Good Reads’ does not even rate They Thirst in its top 200, with King’s Salem’s Lot inevitably at number one. I recently also reread the King novel and in my opinion They Thirst has aged the better of the two books. It might be controversial to say this but the SK novel seems dull and overlong and cowers at the feet of They Thirst . It ranks as one of the definitive vampire novels and whether you believe in Acts of God you’re going to shake in your shoes when the ending rolls in.
When an army of vampires descends on Los Angeles, a lone detective is the only man who can stop them
An abandoned castle looms over Hollywood. Built in Hollywood’s golden age for a horror actor with Gothic taste, it has taken on a sinister appearance ever since the owner’s brutal murder eleven years ago. No living thing dwells there, but an undead tenant has recently taken up residence. A bloodsucker with ambition, Prince Vulkan dreams of a world populated by vampires alone.
A spike in disappearances and grave robbing arouse the suspicion of a local detective, who cannot imagine what someone would want with dozens of stolen coffins. As he works to unravel the mystery, time is running out to save the city—and the planet—from undead domination.
Purchase a copy from Subterranean Press