Robert McCammon’s 1981 vampire novel, They Thirst, has to be considered one of the best of its kind in horror literature. Most vampire novels take on either the Victorian-era guise with velvet coats and silk fipperies, or they take the more monstrous route with the vampires less a literary analogy for repressed-sexuality and more the undead monsters that they are. In They Thirst, McCammon takes the concept of the vampire as an evil plague that slowly acts like an epidemic, consuming all in its path until none are left and only the primogenitor of its evil left to rule over the wasteland.
McCammon’s vampire tale is a massive one which takes on a grand stage from it’s Eastern European beginning all the way to its urban apocalyptic climax. Similar in tone to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, They Thirst posits the question of how would a place such as Los Angeles do when confronted with one of mankind’s oldest evils. With ‘Salem’s Lot the same premise wass used but in a smaller, intimate setting of a quaint New England town where everyone knows everyone. McCammon does King exponentially better by setting They Thirst in one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world. The vampire lord in question is Prince Vulkan, a Hungarian prince from the 13th-century whose plan to create a vampiric empire molded in his image begins in the City of Angels.
The story begins simple enough with grave-robbings and an inordinate amount of mysterious disappearances even for a place like Los Angeles. They Thirst still follows the so-called vampire rules laid down by Bram Stoker in Dracula which he in turn had taken from Eastern European folklore. There’s even a subplot concerning one rich executive whose business of mass-producing coffins catches the gaze of Vulkan and his minions. The novel is rife with modern re-telling of the folklore of medieval times, but this time around McCammon pulls out all the stops as the epidemic of vampirism slowly works its way from the slums and ghettoes of the poorer sections of LA and into the middle-class neighborhoods and soon even the high and mighty in their manses in Beverly Hills are not left immune. McCammon does a great job of describing the gang-ridden streets of early 1980’s Los Angeles. He makes great use of this colorful aspect of LA to help explain why the rise of vampires in the city became unchecked. Vulkan’s decision to prey on the destitute and down-trodden of such a massive metropolitan area gives him the army he’ll need to take over the rest of the region.
Chosen, as if by fate or by some higher power, are a disparate group of Los Angelinos whose only tie to each other are their own horrific encounters of the true danger plaguing their city. There’s LA detective Andy Palatizin whose own encounter with the demons now in his city goes back to his youth while living in Hungary. It is Palatizin’s own past history with the creatures of the night that helps tie him to Vulkan and whose confrontation in the end makes things all the more personal. There’s also Wes Richer, an up-and-coming comedian whose sudden rise in fortune gets interrupted by Vulkan’s own plans. It is through Richer’s lover, Solange — a medium whose knowledge of the supernatural gives her some insight about the danger at hand — that he becomes involved in the fight for the city. Then there’s Tommy Chandler who becomes the youngest of those chosen to fight the undead menace that soon engulfs the city. Vulkan himself has his own soldiers amongst the mortals and the most interesting being an albino sociopath called Kobra whose amorality causes him to answer Vulkan’s siren call to join him in LA. All in all, the characters in They Thirst were well-written and brought their own complex personalities to the story.
The novel gradually builds up from its simple beginnings. Like a dam just barely keeping the overflow from breaching the top, They Thirst doesn’t let the reader go once it’s gotten its hook into them. The horror of the magnitude of the epidemic shares a similarity to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. McCammon deftly shows how governments and people in general lose focus and common sense when faced with something that shouldn’t exist. He shows how quickly modern man can fall from their perch as the dominant predator due to their science and logic. They Thirst shows that it’s those individuals and small groups who’ve held on to the old traditions and/or willing to believe the impossible who eek out a sense of survival once the region becomes cut-off from the outside world and the undead run rampant in the streets. It was so easy to read the book and substitute zombies in place of vampires and see it work just as well. In fact, I think McCammon could’ve easily written this novel as an epic zombie novel and it would’ve lost none of its horror and punch.
As a horror novel They Thirst must rank up there with classic vampire novels such as the aforementioned ‘Salem’s Lot and Dracula, but also another vampire novel which share similar apocalyptic foundations in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Robert McCammon takes an age-old legend and infuses it with a modern sensibility and a sense of the epic that even horror wirters rarely ever pull off. It’s a shame that the paperback is now out-of-print and the novelist himself have kept further printings from being made and released. But for those still willing to read this great vampire novel, I suggest they search the used and second-hand bookstores for a copy. The book won’t disappoint.