TAUT AND COMPELLING, Motherless Child, Glen Hirshberg’s excellent new novel, begins with a pair of young, single mothers out for a night of music at a local club. Aficionados of classic American pop musical as embodied by Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Kitty Wells, Natalie and Sophie appear to have lucked into the perfect evening for their excursion when they learn that a musician known as the Whistler is about to take the stage. The inheritor of the bluegrass-rockabilly tradition, the Whistler is a scarecrow of a figure, dressed in work clothes and a sombrero that obscures his face. Natalie, in particular, cannot believe her good fortune. Then the Whistler steps to the microphone, his lips pursed to deliver his trademark sound…
And the narrative jumps, to Natalie and Sophie climbing out of unconsciousness. It is dawn, and the two women are in the backseat of Sophie’s car, half-naked and covered in blood. Neither can remember what transpired in the depths of the night. That the Whistler was part of it, and that there was pain involved, is all either can say for sure.
It rapidly becomes clear, however, that the musician has done more than engage the friends in an especially unsavory ménage a trois. In the short second chapter, Hirshberg shows us the Whistler, and it is obvious that he is some kind of supernatural creature, most likely a vampire. In a memorable scene in the following chapter, Natalie reports for her shift waiting tables at the local Waffle House and finds herself the center of attention, stupefyingly irresistible to the late-night customers and staff. When Sophie stops in to visit her, she manifests the same mysterious glamour. And when the Whistler and the woman who accompanies him appear in the parking lot, Natalie learns the full extent of what has happened to her and Sophie.
Here, Hirshberg does something unusual: he withdraws slightly, informing us that the Whistler and then the woman he calls Mother tell Natalie something but offering no specifics. Of course, such a move heightens narrative tension by stoking the reader’s curiosity. In the context of a novel concerned with vampires, however, it has additional implications. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula, through works as varied as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry, Dan Simmons’s Children of the Night, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, vampire novels have tended to take as one of their main subjects the history, taxonomy, proclivities, and weaknesses of these supernatural beings. In some ways, each of these books’ writers is doing no more than Stoker did when he ransacked Central and Eastern European folk traditions for the elements that would compose Count Dracula. Yet, just as Dracula is susceptible to study and, therefore, ultimately to defeat by Professor Van Helsing, most vampire narratives re-enact that process of analyzing the undead in order to bring them within an epistemological framework that makes them at once comprehensible and vanquishable.
Hirshberg, though, is not interested in constructing any such framework. Instead, he shows us the effect that the mysterious information the Whistler and Mother impart to Natalie has on her. After they (surprisingly) depart the parking lot, she returns inside the restaurant, announces she’s quitting, effective immediately, and leaves, taking Sophie with her. The women make a brief stop at the trailer of Natalie’s mother’s, into whose charge they convey the care of their children, commanding her to leave immediately with the babies and disappear while forbidding her to contact them under any circumstances. The safety of their children seen to, Natalie and Sophie set out on the road, their only plan to evade if not escape the Whistler.
The Whistler, however, has problems of his own. He has fixated on Natalie as what he calls his Destiny, the true love who flits through so much of the popular music he represents. Indeed, it is because she seems to fit this role that he has started her and Sophie on the path to vampirism — an act, the narrative makes clear, whose precise mechanics he does not fully comprehend himself. This does not sit well with the woman known as Mother, whose name derives from the fact that she brought the Whistler to his undeath some eight decades earlier. There is something of the Freudian family drama in the situation that unfolds, the mother threatened by her son’s new romantic interest. (There is also an echo of Elvis’s relationship with his mother.) It is as if, even in the case of these supernatural creatures, the basic patterns of human affection and eroticism hold sway. When Mother is unable to dissuade the Whistler from his plans for Natalie, the two part ways, each now in competition with the other to find the pair, the Whistler to fulfill his desires, Mother to thwart them.
In the meantime, Natalie and Sophie drive the back roads of the American southeast, with no clear destination in mind. Both miss the children they have been forced to flee; both struggle with the urge to kill that is steadily growing in them. Succumbing to that desire will complete their transformation into vampires, which will destroy their hope of finding some way out of this situation, some route back to their former lives. It is here, in his evocation of a pair of young women trying to work out the moral calculus that will allow them to make an unconscionable decision, that Hirshberg’s novel shines. It is common enough for novels that feature vampires to have a considerable body count. Even when the vampire is presented as the protagonist, it is necessary for them to kill; any qualms of conscience they might suffer are assuaged by their feeding only on the villainous. While Natalie and Sophie contemplate such a course of action, they find it considerably more difficult to arrive at a comfortable differentiation of the villainous from the innocent. Further complicating matters for them, the Whistler and Mother have told them that, if they do not feed voluntarily, in short order, the urge will become so strong it will overpower them, causing them to kill whoever is closest, regardless of their character. Confronted with no good options, Natalie, in particular, struggles under the weight of the choice forced on her, and the consequences it will bring.
In Hirshberg’s portrayal of Natalie’s efforts to resist the desires of her undead paramour, it is possible to find an updating of one of the most important plot threads in the latter half of Dracula — namely, Mina Harker’s attempt to fight the similar change Dracula has begun in her. In fact, it is easy to read responsible, sober Natalie as an updated Mina, and impulsive, sensual Sophie as Hirshberg’s version of Lucy Westenra. Unlike in Stoker’s novel, however, here there is no Van Helsing to arrive from Amsterdam with his explanations and schemes for defeating the vampire. In the end, there is only Natalie’s mother, Jess, who cannot escape Mother and so is brought unwillingly into the novel’s climax. Hirshberg gambles big with his ending, and his wager pays off, resulting in a conclusion that is every bit as surprising as it is unsettling.
Despite a conventional wisdom that has ruled the vampire no longer a fit subject for novels of supernatural horror, its threat and majesty leeched from it by the domesticization it has undergone in Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight books, the past few years have brought a number of works that have demonstrated the figure’s continuing power. 2010 saw publication of Justin Cronin’s The Passage and the reinvigoration of the apocalyptic vampire narrative pioneered by Matheson’s I Am Legend. Last year saw Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night, which returned to the small-town vampire narrative of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, using it to great effect to explore small-town life in the Canada of the 1970’s. With Motherless Child, Glen Hirshberg has also demonstrated that, in the hands of a sufficiently talented writer, there is no figure that is past its prime. Always one of his generation’s finest stylists, its most able students of character, he has written one of the best books of the year.