Vampires, and an endorsement by that delightful horror fiend and novelist, Jack Ketchum, is enough to sell me on a book. I don’t care that it’s 2022: I will never tire of reading about vampires. At their core, they are fun to read about, and there still is much to do with them, as Lee Markham’s 2017 novel, The Truants, proves. At least, I can’t recall vampire mythology that involves the vampires possessing each body that gets the “gift” of being bitten and having their blood sucked, and then each body is held in the vampire’s command as their consciousness hops around, albeit, that diminishes the vampire. (Interestingly, I don’t think Markham once used the word “vampire”, just “the Old-One”).
The premise of the novel is that the Old-One is ready to kill himself on a park bench in London because his fellow vampire, the one who turned him probably back when humans were still hunters and gathers, apparently killed herself. However, just before he can, Cal, a drug addict, accosts him, and then stabs him with a knife. That act transfers the Old-One’s blood to the knife, which then spreads like a virus to other “rats,” as the Old-One calls humans, in the area, including a two-year-infant named Peter, a dog, and a 10-year-old who just wants to watch werewolves on Harry Potter.
But as it turns out, the Old-One’s love didn’t really kill herself, but instead, she orchestrated a scheme to escape his abusive, controlling ways. She’s trying to stop him. To end the nihilism he engenders and spreads like a plague: That the rats — humans — have poisoned the Earth. Her plan to stop him doesn’t manifest before mayhem, though, like Peter, again, a two-year-old through the power of the Old-One, gnawing on the family dog, his mother, his father, and then Cal, who thereafter has his hands cut off and his teeth ripped out to send to his poor, also drug-addicted, mother. The Old-One is trying to gather a flock of sorts so he can get the knife back, and cause the aforementioned mayhem along the way. In so doing, Markham also gives a nice passage on the dangers of cults and cult leaders, especially preying on the desperate, the destitute, and the lost, as the children of this book are. At one point, the Old-One remarks, “The wonder of radicalisation [British spelling!] is its capacity for delayed gratification on the promise of prophesized glory. Not a permanent solution, but a decent enough holding pattern.” That is everything. I’ve never heard extremism, conspiracy theorizing, and cultish behavior explained so clearly and succinctly. Because that’s part of Markham’s thematic point: Some of these kids, thanks to the regular human society, were already predisposed to being vampiric; that is, it didn’t take much nudging to turn them into blood-sucking mayhem monsters. However, as was later shown in the book, that doesn’t make them irredeemable, either.
Along the way, detectives Tom and Anna are investigating the unexplainable. Anna is like the Old-One in terms of being stubbornly cynical, but Tom is our respite; he’s hopeful, and believes the arc of the world bends toward progress.
The ting is, because of the Old-One, and Anna, and the dour characters, largely abused and neglected children, Markham’s novel could come across as espousing a nihilistic viewpoint, being deeply cynical, and just plain sad to read. After all, through those characters, Markham tells us repeatedly that nothing matters; the vampiric version of, “Eat at Arby’s,” but instead of roast beef, it’s blood. The Old-One early-on even makes the observation, “Habit. Sometimes living just becomes a habit, and the longer you do it, the harder it is to kick …” However, the book bends in conjunction with Tom’s preferred worldview and arc. Even the Old-One changes, or at least, comes to realize his mistake. The message isn’t that the world is going to hell; it’s that the older one gets, the more one thinks the children aren’t capable of being handed the ball — the ball being Earth and the future — and steering Earth away from hell, even though, when they were younger, they, too, were doubted by the “old-ones” of their time.
As it happens, the children of today are capable, and will be capable, just as we are capable and were capable. Heck, the story even ends on a decidedly positive note, with Tom and his family, and Anna, and her unorthodox family being … happy. Anna disappeared mid-way through the book because she became part of the Old-One’s flock. After being saved by the original vampire, Anna, Peter, and the vampire, who is a fun play on gender roles, given she’s a woman occupying a human man’s body, form a family. That family passes Tom in a garden, but Tom doesn’t realize it’s Anna, but they wave to each other all the same. Anna is even pregnant, and Tom suggests to his wife that they should have another child. Hope. Future. Promise. It matters!
In other words, the moral of the message is that Arby’s is pretty delicious. Embrace it. Sauce it up. In all seriousness, I thoroughly enjoyed this oddball take on the vampire story, and if you are into vampires as well, I’m sure you would, too.