Novels and movies that deal with threats that could wipe us out – disease, war, or the supernatural – seem to be quite popular right now. Back in the nineties I was interested in movies like Patriot Games and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. They are examples of a set of movies – many now forgettable – that seemed to signal a growing paranoia in America; portraying American culture or the American family as under siege from without. This was at a point when America was ending the 20th century as preeminent in its military power and its culture. Patriot Games suggested this pre-eminence in the new technologies that it featured, yet there was an uncertainty to that film that now seems somewhat prescient. It followed swiftly after America’s defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War when smart bombs and the power of the modern American military were showcased. The first Gulf War ended in what appeared to be a swift, decisive victory that somewhat unburdened the nation from the memory of Vietnam, not only for its decisiveness but because of America’s leadership legitimised by resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council. Yet, since then, the Middle East has remained unstable, made more so by the second Gulf War and the War on Terror after 9/11. America’s role in the world appears to be in decline with the rise of China, Russia’s challenge in Syria and its interference in American elections, and questions over America’s leadership concerning climate change and NATO.
There has been a shift in the narrative of popular culture, too. The moral imperative that backed the somewhat uneasy stories of the nineties has devolved into greater uncertainty, in which the very institutions created to protect society may be compromised. The power of fiction to tap into the social and political zeitgeist makes books like Raymond A. Villareal’s A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising appealing. For a start, the title suggests that the book’s interests are beyond conventional vampire stories; an alternate history which potentially provides a stage for social critique. From the title and the short blurb on the back of the novel I had expectations that this book would have strong affiliations with Max Brooks’s World War Z. Brooks’s book reveals the fragility of the modern world and how unprepared we really are for the potential threats that face us from nature. To some extent, this is also what Villareal’s novel does, although I do not think it has the scope or success of Brooks’s.
The similarities between the two novels are most notable in the genesis of the vampire
uprising. Villareal does not settle for the schlock horror movie scenario to characterise an uprising, but draws upon modern fears of diseases that have emerged from the jungle in the last few decades that challenge humanity. Diseases like AIDS and Ebola, both of which are referenced throughout the book, appear to be the model scenario for the Nogales Organic Blood Illness (NOBI):
…Ebola will kill a body in a short period of time, and this is as bad – if not worse – from all appearances. At least, that’s the assessment of Professor Chen at the beginning of the novel. Although, his assessment is not entirely true. Like several statements made throughout the narrative, or foreshadowing in the narrative by characters, this tends to be far more dramatic than the reality. NOBI, in fact, kills about half the people it infects (as a comparison, the Black Death killed about a third) but those who survive NOBI are transformed into what is popularly known as a vampire, or what these new creatures prefer to be called: Gloamings. They have enhanced strength and speed, and physiological tests estimate they will live for three hundred years. They require human blood to survive, but they tend to
recruit from the upper echelons of society (Taylor Swift has re-created; even, it is rumoured, the Pope!), and they quickly seek power, reform and representation in the world that struggles to accommodate their differences. The spin is, Gloamings don’t hurt people. They buy their blood. They also conduct research looking for substitutes. But it does not take much imagination to realise that there will be a dark underbelly to all this.
What is missing from this iteration of vampire lore is the overt mystical and religious associations with the disease that creates Gloamings. While Gloamings, like traditional vampires, cannot exist in sunlight, there are no references to the effects of crosses, garlic or stakes to the heart. They’re tougher than humans but they can be killed and injured, just the same. A uranium bullet will do the job nicely. Yet the entire plot revolves around Father Reilly, an operative of the Order of Bruder Klaus, working out of the Vatican against Gloamings, and former soldier and nurse, Sara Mesley, who supports Reilly as well as waging her own vendetta. Yet this does not mean the Villareal’s book plays to religious sensibilities about good and evil. The Vatican, like the governorship of New Mexico, which is contested and won by a Gloaming candidate, Nick Bindon Claremont, is a seat of power which has huge political influence; influence the Gloamings need to ingratiate themselves and effect laws to their advantage.
In fact, that is what sets this work apart from many other vampire stories. It is predominantly set in the secular world and the sources of conflict between humans and Gloamings are mostly for secular prizes – power, favourable laws and social acceptance. That, and an almost sociopathic mindset that typifies many Gloamings in their attitudes to humans. Dr Lauren Scott and Dr Hector Gomez fight funding battles, threats and a society increasingly unwilling to support their work: a cure for the NOBI virus. Hugo Zumthor, an FBI agent, is in the front line in conflicts with Gloamings and understands the gulf between the public spin and the realities of the Gloamings’ existence. Wade Ashley, a reporter for The Washington Post, discovers how dangerous it is to question the Gloaming-preferred version of the situation.
Villareal’s approach somewhat follows the style of Max Brooks’s World War Z. The book is written from multiple first-person perspectives, covering a variety of issues associated with the Gloamings: the science of it, social adjustments to Gloamings, Gloaming crime, political activism and legislative conundrums caused by a group within society who claim social benefits for a
disability that, in most cases, they sought. However, the book failed, for me, to give that sense of a seismic event that affects all levels of society. Villareal’s account of the attempts to legislate for Gloamings, for instance, succeeds as an exercise in verisimilitude, but I suspect would be a little trying for most readers. The narrative bogs down here and is then further burdened by footnotes and appendixes which add little to an understanding of what has already been said. Past this point the novel becomes more conventional, anyway. While the multiple perspectives remain, Villareal is basically telling a traditional linear narrative (for the most part) with shifting perspectives, whereas Brooks used the technique not to switch between character focus but to give a greater sense of the scope of his Zombie disaster and the multitude of practical issues society would face.
Which brings me back to how this book addresses modern culture, particularly America, right now. The book begins with a foreword by someone whose name is redacted. We are told,
These pages are compiled for everyone: those who lived through this time, and those who did not survive. The foreword gives a sense that the rise of the Gloamings is an historical glitch, something overcome and now to be looked back upon and assessed. And yet, Villareal’s unnamed writer also contextualises modern America by referencing the French playwright, Pierre Corneille:
It is ironic that the Gloamings’ emergence occurred during what was generally considered our empire’s finest days – [a great destiny begins a great destiny comes to an end]. It seems a little contradictory, and it is certainly not accidental. Sara Mesley later recalls the opening of Edward Gibbons’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, the complete first paragraph is quoted, characterising second century Rome much as the modern America ideal might generously be regarded. This is an extract:
Un grand destin commence, un grand destin s’acheve, as Corneille stated of the Roman Empire.
Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.
Villareal contextualises America’s historical trajectory with that of Rome’s; two great civilisations, one of which fell. Modern America, by this logic, faces the same threats to its constitution and advantages that plagued Rome. The Vampire uprising, while not the horror schlock of many B-grade thrillers, represents that challenge to American hegemony and its unity. The fact that the threat emerges in New Mexico, an American state with a name and location akin to America’s southern neighbour, suggests to me a lot about the perceived threat of liberal political concessions; fears about immigration and the erosion of white America. I wasn’t sure whether to read the novel as a reaction from the political right. Villareal’s website gives little away. He is a Texan attorney and has sold the film rights.
Villareal attempts to paint a wide canvas, but he is not entirely successful. He may tap anxieties in the American psyche but unlike Brooks, he is not consistent in his message or purpose. Too often he is tempted to throw things into the narrative, presumably to keep his readers reading, like click bait in fiction. An example is Dr Lauren Scott’s concerns over a new drug she has developed, Glomudine:
Looking back on it now, I should have known the stakes of my research and the true costs of extensive Glomudine use … I should have urged greater caution. I should have been more vocal, more firm that we needed to get closer to 95 percent efficacy before moving to manufacturing the Glomudine.
This foreshadowing may be motivating for a reader, but it leaves the book many loose ends. This is one of them. What happens as a result of Scott’s research? Also, what comes of the Gloamings’ plans to gain nuclear materials. Who is the Seeker? The novel ends focussed more on a character but does not offer the sense of resolution that an alternate history implies.
Not only this, but the focus of the novel is unclear. It’s a novel about social change, the potential violence in society and the vulnerabilities of the political system, not to mention the ruthlessness of those who seek power. But if this is not enough, Villareal finally tries to imbue the story with a semi-mystical philosophy that is never properly integrated into the narrative accounts: the idea of Anoesis, the state of pure sensation or emotion without the attendant organisation by the intellect. It seems like a rallying word or code for the Gloamings, suggested here and there in the novel, but only clumsily integrated into the story and unclear as to what it means for a race of people who are described as solipsistic and unfeeling. It is suggested as a pathway to spiritualism and a conception of God, but it might just as easily have described political apathy. As with any poorly conceived idea, the whole thing is given a fig-leaf of credibility through backstory: it had something to do with the Knights Hospitaller, the usual suspects from the Crusades. The narrative seed is planted early in the story, but its explanation is jarring. It left me wondering about the characterisation of the Gloamings throughout the novel, suggesting a higher purpose to the Vampire uprising that is not supported by anything else.
A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is a nice idea – what would happen if Vampires were to integrate into society? – but the book is patchy. It is not always well-paced and its different narrative voices have a sameness about them. Added to that is the problem that Villareal does not seem to have a clear understanding of the point he wishes to make. It seems he has a grab-bag of ideas and he couldn’t bear to part with any of them. Much of this book is entertaining, but it needed a clearer focus, clearer resolutions and some editing.
NOBI became something desirable. A cultural earthquake hit the Internet and soon everyone wanted to become
re-created - a term I sincerely dislike. Why should we be rec-created? They were no different from all of us – they sought the gratification of two- or three-hundred-year lives. They became the top of the social status. Every hedge fund manager and tech billionaire wanted to become re-created and join that status and secret society where you could live for over two hundred to three hundred years.