There are many kinds of vampires. Indeed, it is said that there are as many kinds of vampires as there are types of disease. (Which presumably means that some are virulent and deadly, and others just make you walk in a funny way and avoid fruit.) – Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum
I blame Joss Whedon. Joel Schumacher is not entirely innocent either. I might even suggest that Terence Fisher should be held accountable. I’m not pooh-poohing Lord Byron and Bram Stoker’s contributions but it wasn’t until the advent of the cinema that vampires really became part of our culture. Granted Max Shrek’s rodentine Count Orlok was no picture but once Christopher Lee appeared on the scene everything changed. I’m not discounting Bela Lugosi’s fine performance – “I do not drink . . . wine” – but let’s face it Lee made vampires sexy. Schumacher made them trendy. His Lost Boys introduced many of the staples that writers like Whedon developed and since the gaping hole left following the cancellation of Angel many have stepped up to the plate, the most successful starting their lives as novels: True Blood, Twilight and The Vampire Diaries were all adapted from novels. Now we have a new contender, Matt Haig’s The Radleys which Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is going to film in the not too distant future.
Just what we need, eh, another ruddy vampire flick?
Well it depends. How many westerns did Hollywood churn out? I’m reliably informed that if you watched every cowboy film ever made they’d last longer than the Wild West actually did. Most are riddled with clichés. But all we needed is for a new director to come along, like Sergio Leone in the sixties with his Spaghetti westerns or David Milch in the noughties with Deadwood, to reinvigorate the genre. Think about it, though, after Leone every western for years to come tipped its hat to him. And the same happened after Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Shows like Moonlight, Blood Ties and The Vampire Diaries are clearly heavily influenced by the updated vampire mythology devised by Joss Whedon. One common thread in all of these is that they mixed genres. It’s been a long time since we had a straight vampire story.
So what’s Matt Haig got to offer?
Well, for starters he’s British. That doesn’t mean he’s never seen Buffy et al but I imaged he would also have seen Ultraviolet and Being Human both of which I can see touches of here. At least I would have sworn he had. I dropped him an e-mail asking him about his influences and got a nice (and very prompt) response:
Q: How much would you say The Radleys is a) a reaction against the post-Buffy vampire mythology and b) has been influenced by British shows like Ultraviolet and Being Human?
A: Well, if you are writing about something as culturally prominent as vampires you have to quickly establish what kind of bloodsucker mythology you're going to abide by. For me, my vampire points of reference are primarily movies – Nosferatu, The Hunger, The Lost Boys, Coppola's Dracula, Near Dark – as well as a few literary interpretations from Bram Stoker, Byron, Bret Easton Ellis... But I was I suppose reacting a little bit against the drippy pop video post-Buffy vampires. I mean, if vampires aren't seriously lethal, what is the point? Have never watched Being Human or Ultraviolet.
That’s a broad range of influences. Some I expect he is reacting against, others responding too. And that is how it should be. But I was very surprised to read he’d never watched either of the British shows. As I go through the review I’ll highlight some common ground.
Like Mitchell in Being Human the Radleys are trying to live as human a life as possible but unlike the vampires in the TV shows (and indeed most vampires) they’re not dead. Nor are they immortal but if they take care of themselves – and by that I mean drink blood regularly – then they can hope to live for a good couple of hundred years. There are a number of fictional vampires who refrain from feeding on humans (Angel, Blade – although strictly speaking he’s a dhampir – the Cullen Clan in Twilight) but very few of them can still say they live a normal life. The Radleys, however, are your common-or-garden, married, middle class couple with two teenage children, Rowan and Clara, who live behind the white picket fence of 17 Orchard Lane in the quaint English village of Bishopthorpe where they moved sixteen years earlier. It was at that point they decided to make a conscious break with the past and chose to become abstainers. Peter is the village doctor. His wife, Helen, is content to be a housewife, to do a little painting and raise the kids.
The fact that they’re not dead is a major break with even modern vampire mythology. The only exception I could think of was the Marvel Comics character Morbius: the Living Vampire. In Haig’s version of reality vampirism is a condition that can be passed on in one of two ways, by being inherited from one’s birth parents or by being converted in much the same fashion as described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: a vampire's bite alone is not enough to turn a human into a vampire; the human, when near death, must drink the sire's blood. The only difference is that you don’t need to die afterwards, oh, and the age difference between converter and converted needs to be less than a decade.
Being human and pretending to be human are two different things. In Being Human Mitchell can go out in daylight without bursting into flames and so can the Radleys even if they have to take protection. Rowan, who is especially sensitive, has to wear Factor 60 sun block. That said, Peter Radley still wouldn’t risk anything as drastic as joining the village cricket team, something that rouses the neighbours’ suspicions. Living in the country is not like the city. In the city no one noticed or cared what he did or when he did it; in Bishopthorpe that’s simply not going to happen. The clues are all there – if anyone can put them all together.
The local kids think that the Radleys’ children are freaks. Needless to say the Radleys’ children think of themselves as freaks. They don’t actually realise that they are freaks. Nope. They haven’t a scooby. Mum and Dad simply never told them. Lucky for Mum and Dad they have reflections – that might have been a hard one to explain – but they think they’re freaks mainly because the kids tell them they are on a regular basis. Kids can be cruel. Okay they know they’re different but sensitive skin is just a family trait, right? That can easily be explained away. The same goes for Rowan’s insomnia – he just finds it hard to sleep at night and then wants to sleep all day.
Clara has her own problems. She’s just “upped her game from vegetarian to full-time, committed vegan in an attempt to get animals to like her a bit more.” Seriously whoever’s heard of a vegan vampire? (I don’t think Count Duckula counts.) She’s an advocate of several 'against animal cruelty' societies and covers her bedroom walls with their posters. But still no joy. Animals still won’t take to her.
Like the ducks who wouldn’t take her bread, the cat who didn’t want to be stroked, the horses in the field by Thirsk Road who went crazy every time she walked past. She couldn’t shake the school visit to Flamingo Land where every flamingo panicked and fled before she reached the lake. Or her short-lived goldfish, Rhett and Scarlett – the only pets she had ever been allowed. The total horror that first morning when she found them floating upside down on the water’s surface, with the colour drained from their scales.
Her diet is a worry though. The Radleys may be abstainers but they’re still blood addicts; there’s no cure. To stay healthy a decent diet of meat is recommended. Rowan sees nothing wrong tucking into “a smörgåsbord of deli meats” for breakfast as long as there’s no garlic involved. Another family trait is an aversion to garlic; even the smell from the local deli can upset his delicate constitution. Clara’s diet is making her sick and weak though. Her dad tells her it’s probably just a virus but secretly hopes this phase passes quickly.
In most vampire stories abstainers are usually rare and even then they still drink the blood of animals or, in the case of True Blood, a synthetic substitute. Feeding off each other is not normally considered an option. In Haig’s vampire world the blood of vampires is actually preferred to human blood and so there’s no real reason why Peter and his wife could not drink from each other. They choose not to but it seems that Helen is the driving force behind that decision. So it’s no wonder that Peter is eyeing up the necks of his neighbour’s wife and sniffing his patients’ blood samples. It was she that also insisted they rid themselves of vampire literature, films and music. Somehow Byron manages to escape the cull. The only book about vampires they now own is The Abstainer’s Handbook which Matt quotes from often. It is a clever and effective way of explaining many of the rules of his version of vampire society. There’s also a handy glossary not that it’s really needed but if you forget abbreviations like OBT (Overwhelming Blood Thirst) or OVA (Orphaned Vampire Unit) it’s there. Here are a couple of quotes from the Handbook:
Your instincts are wrong. Animals rely on instincts for their daily survival, but we are not beasts. We are not lions or sharks of vultures. We are civilised and civilisation only works if instincts are suppressed. So, do your bit for society and ignore those dark desires inside you.
The Abstainer’s Handbook (second edition), p.54
Confine your imagination. Do not lose yourself to dangerous daydreams. Do not sit and ponder and dwell on a life you are not living. Do something active. Exercise. Work harder. Answer your emails. Fill your diary with harmless social activities. By doing, we stop ourselves imagining. And imagining for us is a fast-moving car headed towards a cliff.
The Abstainer’s Handbook (second edition), p.83
If blood is the answer, you are asking the wrong question.
The Abstainer’s Handbook (second edition), p.101
The events described in The Radleys take place over a long weekend with a postscript a few days after. The chapters are short, often no more than two or three pages, so it feels like you’re racing through it. It’s also hard not to read ‘just another chapter’ which turns out to be three of four chapters by the time you’re done. The book is 337 pages long but there’s a fair amount of white space.
I had forgotten everything I’d read about the book by the time I came to pick it up. At first you’ve no idea what the Radleys’ secret is but it only takes two or three chapters to have a pretty good idea. When the big reveal arrived it was no surprise, put it that way. All you have to do is turn the cover upside down and it should be pretty obvious what the book’s about. Unless you have the German edition which has a teacup on the cover and that’s no help at all.
The premise to this book is a simple one and an old one: two brothers have gone their separate ways; one is bad and the other good. The good one gets in a spot of bother and calls upon the services of the bad one to get him out of trouble. Think Crimes and Misdemeanours with fangs and you’re there. Only it’s not the dad who makes the mess here; it’s his daughter whose true nature reveals itself when she thinks she’s going to be raped. Dad makes the call and brother Will fires up the ol’ camper van and heads towards Yorkshire.
In the meantime Dad gets his act together so Helen tries to dissuade Will from coming. But it’s too late. Will, it has to be said, is not unlike the rakish Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries and the reason for their animosity is much the same too: a woman. In the case of Peter and Will the woman is Helen who both brothers fell for but Peter married. Helen was not a vampire when they met. She was what they call an ‘unblood’ but agreed to be ‘converted’ on their honeymoon. And that’s what Peter believes happened but it looks like she faked it. As is the case in True Blood the bond between a vampire and his or her maker is a strong one. Another reason Helen would want to keep a good distance between her and Will. She never imagined at the time she would have such conflicted feelings.
Will is not an abstainer. Far from it. He likes blood and he’s irresponsible. He’s becoming so reckless in fact that his fellow vampires are becoming concerned. In Being Human and Ultraviolet the police are well aware of the existence of vampires. This is also the case in The Radleys. The Manchester Unnamed Predator Unit knows all about Will Radley. The problem is that he’s a protected vampire. At least he thinks he is. The Sheridan Society, a group of vampires who oversee vampiric behaviour, have made the call to the police and it’s open season on Will Radley. Killing a vampire in Matt’s vampireverse is done much the same as in most traditional stories: a stake through the heart kills; it doesn’t paralyse, it doesn’t need to be hawthorn or white ash or anything like that, nor does it require a silver tip. Beheading will work nicely as will immolation even if the sun isn’t strong enough itself. They can also be drowned although it takes a very long time. Killing them isn’t that simple, though, because as with most vampires they’re fast and strong. Haig’s vampires, like The Lost Boys, can fly without needing to transform into a bat; they can’t actually turn into anything.
They can exercise mind control. In True Blood they call it ‘glamouring’ but Haig opts for ‘blood-minding’. Like all their abilities it needs to be fuelled by blood, the higher quality the better. Will even carries around a bottle of blood dating back to 1992, the blood of the newly converted Helen, which is exceptionally potent and just watch what happens when that falls into the wrong hands:
Of course, most practising vampires drain the life from an unblood once in a while, but most make sure they have a careful balance between kills and the safer consumption of vampire blood. After all, in terms of quality the taste of vampire blood is generally more satisfying, more complex and bolder in its flavour than that of a normal, unconverted human being. And the most delicious blood of all, the Pinot Rouge every blood lover knows is the best on offer, is the blood taken from someone’s veins the moment after conversion.
You’ll notice that the police unit uses the term ‘unnamed predator’ or simply ‘UP’ to describe the vampires. In general conversation they prefer the more derogatory expression ‘leeches’. This is another way in which I felt The Radleys had something in common with Ultraviolet because they never used the term ‘vampire’ preferring the epithet ‘Code Five’ which is a bit like the fact that in Buffy the Initiative talked about ‘hostiles’ rather than demons. In The Radleys Peter and his wife refer to practicing vampires as “blood-addicts.”
In my researches I discovered that The Radleys is being repackaged by Canongate Walker and is marketed as a young adult novel. As I said when I reviewed The Moonstone Legacy a while back the age limit for YA is not very clear. Whereas I would be happy with a ten-year-old reading The Moonstone Legacy I’m not sure what minimum age I would slap on this one. I know it all depends on the kid. The press release says that it's a "story about growing up, first and foremost" but I think I’d like my kid to have done a bit of growing up before passing this on. There’s swearing as well as, as the TV announcers like to say, “scenes of a sexual nature” which although not exactly graphic are still there.
I asked Matt if he’d thought about writing a sequel.
Yes. Even have a couple of title ideas. The Night of the Radleys or The Magnificent Radleys (am a big fan of the Orson Welles movie, The Magnificent Ambersons). There's also the possibility of a prequel – The Confessions of Will Radley. Or a Byron-as-vampire spin-off. I definitely have more petrol in the Radley tank.
Considering where the books leaves all the characters, a sequel would be a definite possibility. That doesn’t mean that he’s deliberately set up the book with loose ends because he actually does the very opposite. All i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. In fact my main criticism of the book is that it is too neat and ‘happy’. I thought we Brits had a natural aversion to the ‘happy ending’. Plotwise the book is well-constructed. If you’re looking for it then the workings show through a little but just because the blinkin’ obvious happens doesn’t mean the writing’s bad because sometime the blinkin’ obvious is exactly what does happen. There aren’t too many characters and apart from the bin man they’re all pretty believable. The bin man’s believable, don’t get me wrong, he’s just convenient. Of all the quaint little English villages how come the ex-cop-whose-wife-happens-to-have-been-swept-away-by-a-vampire-in-front-of-his-eyes ended up in the one with the vampires in it? That’s all I’m saying.
There are examples of “different” families out there (Coneheads, Meet the Applegates, The Addams Family) and there was always the danger that Haig could have taken the book in that direction. It’s not without its funny bits, some very funny like where Clara learns about Neckbook, but it’s closer in tone to Running on Empty. It’s not a horror novel. It’s a book about being different. And the vampire has become the poster child for that. If you’re looking for something a bit different then it’s worth a look-see.
His novels are often dark and quirky takes on family life. The Last Family in England tells the story of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 with the protagonists as dogs. It was a bestseller in the UK and the film rights have been sold to Brad Pitt's Plan B production company. His second novel Dead Fathers Club is based on Hamlet, telling the story of an introspective eleven-year old dealing with the recent death of his father and the subsequent appearance of his father's ghost. His third adult novel, The Possession of Mr Cave, deals with an obsessive father desperately trying to keep his teenage daughter safe. His children's novel, Shadow Forest, is a fantasy that begins with the horrific death of the protagonists' parents. It won the Nestlé Smarties Children's Book Prize in 2007.
The Radleys is currently set to be released in over twenty countries.