The moment I met Sam I knew it would be fatal.
It was just after the third attempt, and three has always been a lucky number for me. Good luck, bad luck, who can say? Sometimes they turn out to be the same thing.
Sam, who had no shadow, would be there forever, like the shape that shadows this page ass I write, no matter which way I turn., Like the blood on Bluebeard's key.
This is my first re-read for this list. It's a gap of eight years in time and a million in growth. The book is Vamp, and the author is Western Australian poet Tracy Ryan.
The novel runs as follows: Tracy finds herself locked in a mental institute after another failed suicide attempt. She's lost custody of her two-year-old daughter and is idly fucking not only her ex-husband but an abusive arsehole named Frank and an overly sensitive vegan. Upon discharge, she's unemployed, chronically depressed and has absolutely nothing left. Enter Sam, who is everything Tracy is not - confident, strong and completely in control. Sam takes control of Tracy's descent and starts pulling her back up towards the surface - helps her get a job, takes her out of her flat to see movies, and listens to her - and in time, the two become lovers. But as the reader drops deeper into Tracy's troubled mind, veins of alien thought begin to emerge, a history that doesn't belong in her mind. Soon she and Sam are tied so tightly to one another that they are almost reflections of one another, and soon the corpses of Tracy's enemies and lovers start appearing. Love stronger than death, and jealousy as cruel as the grave.
Ryan is first and foremost a poet, and you can tell. The book has a stream-of-conciousness feel that I often find irritating, but that here is like entering a vision. The protagonist's life has not been an easy one - her mother and father were at war with one another, and there is a suggestion of sexual abuse that she seems reluctant to name, let alone acknowledge. Her life is a litany, a rich stew of pop-culture references, Catholic prayer, childhood poetry and fable. Each layer nestling comfortingly into the next. Ryan handles her protagonsist's fragile mental state and her ruined childhood with such a delicate grace that when her psychiatrist starts to ask diagnostic questions her disgust is more than just a paranoid response. While the feminist slant of the book is hard to miss, it's handled with a natural aplomb and is far from bombastic. Ryan opens with a quote from Carmilla, the Eve of the lesbian vampire novel, and like Carmilla Ryan clearly frames the novel as a psychiatric record. Everything within it is a hallucination, or a vision, and we are left afloat and without a solid resolution.
I have a hard time articulating exactly why I love this book so much. Sure, it's beautifully written. Sure, Tracy is a complex and painfully human character, and Sam is the perfect stealth vampire. The book is an intertextual feast that can only gain depth the wider a pool of knowledge you have to draw from. This is a very personal book too, and it spoke to me so forcefully the first time I read it that it changed my reading patterns. Tracy Ryan's Vamp is the first vampire novel I ever really read. Sure, there were others before that, but by and large they were accidentally picked up and chewed through with so little regard I can't for the life of me remember any. I spotted Vamp at my local library, and checked it out more or less as an afterthought. At sixteen, I read a lot more than most kids my age, largely so I could lock myself away from the parts of my life I didn't like, and go somewhere else for a little while. When I was sixteen, I was a different person. I was younger, sure, but not ignorant of the way the world worked. I was getting an idea of how little I meant to the greater machinations of life. I learned that no matter how smart, how attentive or how pretty you were, life could still fuck you over so much that you wanted to die. Not from any single great catastrophe, but from the thousand little injuries that are unavoidable if you want to live a life outside a ball of cotton wool. All these wounds were fresh and had not yet scabbed over. At the risk of sounding like Judy Bloom, I was becoming a woman, and I wasn't exactly thrilled at the process. I quite liked that space between adult and child.
But my world turned, as it is wont to do, and Vamp spoke to me in a manner so deep and so earnest that I read and re-read it countless times. If I were in my library, and it was on the shelves, I would read at least a snippet or two before putting it back, and that connection lead me into the richer areas of vampire fiction. There was something so visceral about Sam that I just had to find her again and again, and I gorged myself on Rice, Lee and smorgasbord of lesser works, leading me inexorably to more cerebral adventures, to Rosemary Ellen Guileyand J Gordon Melton. These days a book has to be well written first, and vampiric in content second, for me to pick it up over a work of non-fiction in the same vein (no pun intended), but Vamp opened a whole world of iconography to me that had been missing first time around.
This book was a door opener. And I cannot convey in language* how thrilled I was to find a copy at my book exchange. I'd been looking for a copy since my old library cleared it out. So, it gets Lucky Thirteen here, and my highest possible recommendation.
Verdict: Most Definitely Worth A Read.
* I have a little dance for moments like these. It's very expressive, but not very graceful.