This week the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing tackled a Nathan Ballingrud story.
Review: “Sunbleached”, Nathan Ballingrud, 2011.
I wasn’t pleased when, six words into this story, I found out it was a vampire tale.
Fortunately, Ballingrud gives us a real old school vampire.
Sometimes, Ballingrud reminds us, the other really is dangerous, lethally dangerous, and a menace to humanity.
The vampire stalks through today’s fiction trailing behind it centuries worth of symbolism and reeking of both the blood of the slaughterhouse and the musk of a lover’s bed.
Having a vampire show up in a story long ago stopped meaning anything consistent about what to expect. Love bites to ripped out throats, seducers to ambushers, princes to proles – the modern vampire exists not on a spectrum but in a multi-dimensional space. Even taking blood is not strictly required to be assigned to the category.
Ballingrud’s vampire claims, with the very first words of the story, its kind are “God’s beautiful creatures”.
And it proceeds to sell fifteen year old Joshua on that notion. The vampire, it’s never given a name, waxes on about the glories of the vampire night and on how vampires’ power of seduction means the world loves them.
Well, actually, Joshua has already bought into the notion of vampire glamor already since, four days before the story starts, the vampire ran screaming out of the dawn and under the porch of Joshua’s house.
Joshua asks to be made a vampire. It’s a chance to flee a crappy life where he hates his schoolmates, his father has left, his mom has taken up with a new boyfriend, and the house he lives in had its second floor taken off in a hurricane.
The dilapidated state of the house isn’t all bad. The lattice work and cracks in the aluminum siding around the porch let the sunlight into the crawlspace and keep the vampire confined.
The vampire begins to change Joshua.
Joshua begins to think of his new life to be. Leaving home. Maybe dispatching his schoolmates in a blood bath. He tells the vampire he’s welcome to take Tyler, his mom’s boyfriend. But he won’t let the vampire in the house despite his pleadings.
The vampire reveals its origin story when one of its fellow farmworkers disappeared and came back nights later to kill most of its former co-workers but left a few, their feet spiked to the floor, to feed on and be transformed.
The vampire’s life is a lonely one. It never again saw his former fellows after they were changed too.
Joshua hopes his family will understand after his transformation when he leaves.
“You won’t feel so sentimental, afterwards,” warns the vampire.
Joshua wonders if he really loves his brother and mother. Or is he just protective of them? Perhaps, after the change, he can keep them as pets.
Things come to a head one night. Joshua’s change is almost complete. He is weak, sick, and feverish. His mom even stays home, concerned, and then leaves to get some something from the drugstore for Joshua.
And then Joshua finds out why five-year old Michael has claimed he’s talking to their father lately, that their father is returning.
He’s been talking to the vampire through the floorboards.
Enraged, Joshua takes a hammer to the house, stripping the crawl space of its shade. And, when his mother returns, he tells her he loves her before he goes to bed to be woke by screams and to fall asleep again and find his mother and brother murdered and the vampire in his house.
“’Thank you for your family,’ it said. … ‘This is my house now … I’d appreciate it if you stayed out.”
And, in despair, Joshua exposes himself, fatally, to the sun.
Here the vampire destroys a family, seduces, seemingly, Michael into letting him in the house. It takes the shambles of the house “for a few more days” and leaves the carcasses of its inhabitants too. Here the vampire is the evil that offers transcendence and escape, is fairly honest about its price, and still prevails because of Michael’s gullibility and Joshua’s youthful arrogance in thinking he and others won’t pay that price.
In another sense, it’s like an inhuman force of nature with needs and drives like the hurricane that destroyed some of Joshua’s home already, both the house and his ties to his father. But there is one difference. The hurricane destroyed with a gust of wind, the vampire with the air of speech.
Ballingrud always refers to the vampire as “it” because it is human only in shape.
Sometimes the other really is trying to kill you and is not misunderstood only misbelieved when it voices its menace.