THE MYTHOLOGY OF VAMPIRES invaded the English-speaking world by way of Germany and Eastern European countries — folklore and beliefs, put into writing and paintings. Heinrich August Ossenfelder wrote the poem Der Vampir in 1748, widely credited as the first appearance of vampires in literature; the English, like Lord Bryon and John William Polidori, harnessed their erotic undertones, and vampires have been with us ever since. Today vampires are everywhere, embedded in comic book series, appearing as romantic heroes in Twilight and villains in George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. They are ripe for deadpan satire, via Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows. Vampires are alluring, fascinating, and inescapable.
Raymond A. Villareal tackles vampires and their lore in the strikingly original A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising. As the debut author says in his Kirkus interview, “I wanted to do something that wasn’t so supernatural or romantic. So I thought I’d stick with what could have been the reality […] It had to be real, medical based, and, since I’m a lawyer, I needed to put legal elements in as well.”
A People’s History is presented as a collection of documents from a near-future world, detailing how vampires become a part of contemporary, global society. Multiple narrators give alternate perspectives of the vampires’ growing influence, while at the same time news clips interrupt the narration with tidbits of current events, robberies, or uplifting vampire-interest stories.
The unidentified historian writes in the foreword, “This book is also for the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to the cause — no matter what side. […] I pass no judgments on those responsible.” This is part of what makes the novel daring, exciting, and frustrating as the story unfolds: Villareal’s decision as the author to remain morally neutral in the face of the story he is crafting.
The novel opens with an excellent sense of tension as our first narrator, Dr. Lauren Scott, recounts the discovery of the Nogales organic blood illness, NOBI, and the first sighting of the very elusive, enigmatic Liza Sole, NOBI’s patient zero. She introduces us to the sickly sweet scent that signals the presence of these altered humans, and lingers once they’ve gone. Scott is the face of evidence-based science that throughout the novel endures personal attacks and undermined research, whose meticulous assertions of fact are doubted and sabotaged. As her research begins, she and her fellow doctor scrub the Southwest in search of Liza. When they find her:
She wore a pair of faded and torn Levi’s 501 jeans that hugged her hips and legs — and a black turtleneck. It was as if she didn’t care that no one wore turtlenecks like that in Texas. An old beat-up tan Stetson cowboy hat was perched on her skull like she had grabbed it off of her lover’s head as he lay in bed. Scuffed old black punk rock boots completed the image. She looked like a young Patti Smith busking in front of the Chelsea Hotel in seventy-three, screaming mad at society for not conforming to her vision. The hat tilted down about to her nose so it covered her face. My eyes were automatically drawn to her and I saw others in the gallery staring in the same manner. […]
There was a magnetism I couldn’t put into words.
Temptation in human form.
Once captured, Liza “snapped her handcuffs off like wet paper,” and escapes. Her elusive presence haunts the researchers and impacts other narrators in the story, particularly one deeply committed priest.
The initial discovery of the virus and its first victims comes at a rapid, breathtaking pace; we soon realize that we as readers have to piece the narrations together, sift for clues that may appear in the other monologues or transcripts, scrutinize the news clippings for hints, then make assumptions, make inferences.
For a better understanding of the temptation Dr. Scott references, as well as the complications organized religion — specifically Catholicism — faces with these creatures, we have the transcripts of FBI interviews with Father John Reilly, a Jesuit ordained priest. Along with his life story we get the background on his obsession with the newly minted vampires, or “Gloamings” who have been “recreated,” their term for turning a human into a vampire, as well as detailed narration of his break-in at the Vatican, and the attacks he coordinated with the secret brotherhood he has joined.
It is Father Reilly, in the transcripts, who describes the Gloamings in this way:
Anecdotally it quickly became clear that the Gloamings, both men and women, shared certain traits: high IQ, contempt of others, cruelty to others, amoral, secretive, grandiose, and authoritarian. Unlike humans with similar traits, Gloaming did not have significant feelings.
Allegations of authoritarianism are frequent today, and we wonder if the author is pointedly showing his hand. We are unsure. We also begin to wonder: Why is Reilly, this deeply religious man, under FBI custody? Whose side are the FBI truly on?
There are multiple additional narrators, each adding their own layer of intrigue or twist, including Hugo Zumthor, FBI agent, and Joseph Barrera, political operator, who, like many a real-world insider, is pursued by a Washington Post reporter.
While Dr. Lauren Scott’s narration spans the NOBI discovery to 55 months after the discovery, we have to make our own sense of the timeline of others. Some of the narrations are time-stamped, others are not. What are we to make of that in the linear scheme of things?
Villareal delights in the ambiguity, and plays against reader expectations in uncomfortable ways. Very quickly in the novel we are aware of a few things: the cultural jabs, the political shards, the technological incursions. There are touchstones, like Taylor Swift, Elena Kagan, YouTube videos, news interruptions, making this read as if it’s all transpiring right now, right outside the pages of the book. With their superhuman strength and stamina, their life spans of 250 years, Gloamings become such envied cultural icons, that billionaire hedge fund managers, politicians, and groupies clamor to become “recreated.”
Tapping his background in law, Villareal explores the legal implications of these newly formed beings: what of these vampires’ civil rights? These newly minted Gloamings throw themselves into civil disobedience, protesting crimes against themselves: police brutality and wrongful deaths. They sue for equal protection under the Fair Housing Act and the American Disability Act. The ACLU takes on their cause; young people accuse their elders of prejudice and discrimination. Gloamings enter the national political stage, and are accused of “playing the vampire card.”
But, don’t Gloamings need actual human blood to survive? “[T]he Gloamings considered such questions offensive.”
And yet, and yet, there are mass graves. Bloodless bodies. Decapitated bodies. Failed recreations, alongside a slender social justice thread of accusations that “people chose to ignore the fact that most of their membership was increasingly restricted to the top 1 percent — wealth, looks, and talent seemed to be the main criteria.” Is Villareal calling the actual one percent bloodsuckers?
The subtext is opaque, but what is clear is that it’s a wild ride in this world Villareal has created. He gives us atmosphere, suspense, and international settings. We get hints of the inner workings and divisions of the Vatican; a retelling of the Miracle of Fatima. We visit secret passages under Rome and tunnels underneath Chicago. There’s a dive bar in New Mexico with an elevator to a subterranean luxurious office. There’s a white-haired 10-year-old Icelandic Gloaming who recreates only the very best; there are factions of Gloamings intent on anarchy.
As with many globe-trotting thrillers with multiple cast members, there is a tendency to skimp on depth of characterization. Most of the time, the fast pace of the story distracts us (there is a bombing that was so obliquely referenced, that I am still wondering about its actual repercussions) from the fact that the characters we meet, except for one dramatic exception, tend to remain exactly as we meet them. I also wanted so much more from inside a Gloaming’s mind. I am curious as to why the author didn’t spend much more time inside other Gloamings’ points of view; that would have also been a wonderful addition to this history.
These quibbles aside, true to his original approach, and stated purpose in the foreword, this is history told from boots-on-the-ground people. No one point of view is in control of the narrative or the framing. Nor is there any neat and tidy wrapping up for persistent and troublesome loose threads. It is clear the author respects the reader far too much.
In 1976 with Interview with the Vampire Anne Rice smashed and recreated vampire mythology and lore — beginning a new era of vampire literature. Now perhaps it is A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising’s time to reinvent the genre.