Lestat Can Suck It
Cass McMain’s second novel, Watch, takes readers by the hand and walks them into a very private world of bloodlust. Not the warmongering sort of bloodlust, but the literal intersection of blood and lust, where there's something sexual about blood and something violent about sex, and it's all very gratifying to the willing participants. The unwilling participants don't get off so easily, if you'll pardon the pun, and things get a bit snuff-film-esque at times. The novel is tightly packed with voyeuristic horrors for the characters and the reader, and picks at a Gordian knot made of familial ties and moral lines in the sand.
Central to the narrative is main character Corky—whose name tells you most of what you need to know about her personality—learning shortly before her uncle's death that he thinks most of the family are vampires, including her own father, but that she is not. This is complicated considerably by the uncle's mental condition.
By way of introduction, we're told, "Moony couldn’t keep his story straight, not even for a moment. In one three-minute period, he had described his own children as angels of protection, and then as vampires themselves, hungry for his blood.” Uncle Moony carries a magical mirror for detecting vampires and a cross pendant to ward them off. Corky accepts the pendant because he says it was her mother's, but nasty cousin Pam paranoiacally accuses her of stealing her inheritance when he tries to give her the pocket mirror, thwarting the hand-off.
These vampires won't die without blood, all the other symbolic furniture of the vampire canon is hopelessly beside the point, and while these vampires are sex-focused they are not sexy per se. This vampirism has much more in common with domestic violence than with supernatural monsters.
The thing Moony most urgently wants Corky to have is his collection of books about vampires. He has all of them, and multiple editions of several. The only one she's really interested in, though, is his journal detailing his experiences with the family vampire. That's Moony's brother, Corky's father, Edgar. The journal may or may not also detail Moony's mental illness, whatever is happening in his brain to convince him that there are wires behind his eyes. “... My children are watching me now. Do they know why? These wires are growing worse every moment. Any moment, my eyes will bleed out, and the truth will be everywhere like a rug.”
Oh, sorry, spoiler alert, that is decidedly the best sentence in the book. It has conceptual tendrils going all over the place and is intensely visual.
Corky's uncle dies before she really even gets to understand how far out there he has gone, and the funeral is anti-climactic. Corky, who did in fact steal that mirror her cousin was freaking out about, returns it to her uncle's body during the viewing. I read that as a sign that she's coming down on the side of thinking him crazy rather than believing he had the right of things, that her father was in fact a vampire. She finishes reading the diary, goes back to her ordinary life and sells off most of the collection of vampire books to a local vamp scenester, who clues her into the existence of blood fetish groups.
Somewhere in that return to normalcy, Corky begins to seriously consider the possibility that her father, who skipped out on the family when she was a child, actually was literally a vampire. If I were going to think of someone that way, it would take a great deal more evidence than the secret diary of a demonstrably demented elderly uncle on his deathbed. Granted, there was a detailed account of her father doing some Jack the Ripper stuff, but even so, it felt to me like a very fast turnaround on Corky's part. When we first met her, she didn't believe in vampires at all; by page 45, she's pretty sure her father is one.
The pacing of Watch gives the reader time and space to explore Corky's worldview with satisfaction; there's never a sense of being dragged through the story or toward a distinct destination.
Dedicated fans of the classical / gothic vampire tropes are likely to be a bit put off by this book. It seems to define a vampire as a sexual deviant who has a strong affinity for other people's blood, someone who bends their energies to extracting some from anyone who can't prevent them. These vampires won't die without blood, all the other symbolic furniture of the vampire canon is hopelessly beside the point, and while these vampires are sex-focused they are not sexy per se. This vampirism has much more in common with domestic violence than with supernatural monsters. Beyond that, the author brings other related behaviors into play: Substance abuse, cutting, and the lifelong psychological warp caused by familial estrangement all are strong themes here.
Author McMain makes a bold move by assigning word as loaded as “vampire” to a collection of unquestionably real and undeniably disconcerting behaviors. This is the kind of literary license that can make critics and genre fans gang up on the author and demand that she's Not Doing It Right. Let's put those torches and pitchforks down for a minute, though. Looked at from another direction, McMain provides a sturdy infrastructure to a notorious trope. She offers readers genuine suspension of belief, and she liberates vampires from centuries of utterly implausible manifestation. Because McMain's vampires do evil things entirely within the grasp of you or I, they are much more frightening than the impossible incarnations of traditional vampires.
In any case, McMain has written a solid book. It is a fast read, so much so that when I finished it, I actually checked the page count, because it seemed to take about half as long to read as I expected of a book this size (237 pages). Although I didn't feel especial kinship with any of the characters, all of them were very real to me. Even minor characters feel like more like real people, and not like the hand puppets of a maneuvering author. The pacing of Watch gives the reader time and space to explore Corky's worldview with satisfaction; there's never a sense of being dragged through the story or toward a distinct destination. In fact, after several different characters have a few of their own POV chapters, the reader is left with a great deal to think about rather than a pat wrap-up.
As in most vampire stories, of course, there's no happily ever after, no riding off into the sunset. Without leaving the reader hanging, there's a distinct absence of closure. Watch concludes, but it does not finish; the characters go on in their lives even as the reader goes on in hers. Yes, that's a contradiction if we are limited to the rules and rituals of literature, but if we're talking about life itself and real people living it, this is completely appropriate. There are beginnings and endings, but there rarely is a situation where we get all the answers.