Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River delivered “an unsettling brew of growing menace spiked with flashes of genuine terror.”* Now, the World Fantasy Award-nominated author stakes a bloody claim on vampire mythology…
The secret is, vampires are real and I am one.
The secret is, I’m stealing from you what is most truly yours and I’m not sorry...
New York City in 1978 is a dirty, dangerous place to live. And die. Joey Peacock knows this as well as anybody—he has spent the last forty years as an adolescent vampire, perfecting the routine he now enjoys: womanizing in punk clubs and discotheques, feeding by night, and sleeping by day with others of his kind in the macabre labyrinth under the city’s sidewalks.
The subways are his playground and his highway, shuttling him throughout Manhattan to bleed the unsuspecting in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park or in the backseats of Checker cabs, or even those in their own apartments who are too hypnotized by sitcoms to notice him opening their windows. It’s almost too easy.
Until one night he sees them hunting on his beloved subway. The children with the merry eyes. Vampires, like him…or not like him. Whatever they are, whatever their appearance means, the undead in the tunnels of Manhattan are not as safe as they once were.
And neither are the rest of us.
WINNER OF THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S BEST HORROR NOVEL OF THE YEAR
*New York Times bestselling author F. Paul Wilson
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Christopher Buehlman is the author of Those Across the River, The Necromancer’s House, and Between Two Fires. He is the winner of the 2007 Bridport Prize for Poetry and a 2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for best novel.
Read an Excerpt
For Terry White
(That’s my aunt. She was a stewardess and model in the seventies. There’s a reasonable chance she did cocaine at Studio 54.)
(Don’t put that part in the dedication.)
I’m going to tell you about a year. This year. 1978. A lot of shit is happening and I think somebody had better write it down before we all forget.
New York City is the place.
If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.
Still with me?
Too bad for you.
I can’t wait to break your heart.
I’m going to take you someplace dark and damp where good people don’t go. I’m going to introduce you to monsters. Real ones. I’m going to tell you stories about hurting people, and if you like those stories, it means you’re bad.
Shall we go on?
Good. I hate people who pretend they’re something they’re not.
We’re going into the tunnels.
We’ll start up here in Chelsea; there’s a bricked-up ground-level window with half the bricks out, not a big space but big enough, then we’ll go deeper, down where I stay.
Where we stay.
I hope bad smells don’t bother you.
I hope you brought your own light; I don’t need one.
I hope you’re not fat.
Here’s a little taste of what you’re in for, out of sequence, but I told you how unreliable I am. It’s not all this nasty, but this is probably rough if you’re not used to it. If you can get through this, we can hang out.
* * *
We heard them before we saw them. Hunchers. That’s what we called people who hunched in the tunnels. We stayed in the tunnels too of course, the deeper tunnels where no sunlight came at all, but we weren’t Hunchers.
We weren’t even people anymore.
When Margaret saw that her home had been broken into, she didn’t hesitate. She tossed off her flip-flops and marched right for the open trapdoor with me behind her, not caring whether I followed, not caring how many of them there were, and there had to be at least two to pull the chain and get that trapdoor up—it was a big heavy bastard of a door made from part of an old subway car and broken-up seats. She walked with one hand balled on her hip, her stained bathrobe open enough to see her tit if you cared to. She was pissed. It was her place, after all. She was our duly elected mayor.
“Goddamn it,” she whispered, kicking a peeping shower of rats out of her way. She picked up and threw down a shred of a hamburger wrapper in disgust. Whoever they were, they had brought food. You don’t bring food into the loops.
They had tied belts together to lower themselves into the hole. A weak light danced down there, a flashlight, and I heard the sound of a lighter. Somebody sneezed a wet one. Somebody else laughed.
She didn’t bother with the belts. Just dropped down. I stayed up and watched. This was really a job for one vampire. Normally Old Boy or Ruth would have handled this. Old Boy was like her part-time bodyguard, lived in an abandoned train car just down the tracks past Purgatory, but he was a secretive fucker and you never knew where he was. Ruth was out hunting. She was always hungry.
Turns out there were four of them, the intruders, I mean; black guy and three whites, but with Hunchers the race thing gets less important because they’re always dirty and dirt has one color. These guys looked hard, prison tattoos, prison muscles, probably came from the tracks under the Bowery. Guys under the Bowery are mostly wanted men and ex-cons, hunching down there in the piss-smelling dark rather than going back to Attica, which doesn’t say much for Attica. They weren’t from the tracks above our tunnels. We had a few Hunchers above us, but not many and they knew better; our guys would sooner take a whiz on the third rail than walk into our loops.
“Whoa!” the black guy said when the fast-moving woman-thing in the bathrobe landed near where he lay back on the couch, Margaret’s prized antique couch, and he jumped and dropped his flashlight.
One of the white guys said, “Shit!”
Margaret snatched up the flashlight. Shone it at them each in turn. Not that she needed it, just wanted to make sure they were good and night-blind.
Two of them spoke at once.
“Get that out of my face!”
“Bitch, you’d best get out of here if you know what’s good for you.”
“Don’t talk like that to my mom,” I said in my high, little-boy voice. I have a great little-boy voice, but I had barely gotten mom out before she started. She started by breaking the flashlight on the black guy’s head—Margaret’s a little racist, but it’s not her fault, she’s Irish. Or maybe he got it first because he was on her couch. Either way, you know how these things go, everything happens in a hurry. The hurt guy yelled, everybody stood up or tried to, there was a sick thump as somebody’s head got stove in, then another one, but I admit the gunshots surprised me. I saw it all from the trapdoor, but what did it look like for the poor bastard with the gun?
His muzzle flashes, and there were two, lit up a dead woman with shining eyes and big dirty canines that belonged on a panther. He yelled before she even touched him. One bullet hit her, the second ricocheted madly in the vaulted brick room. And then she touched him plenty.
The last guy tripped over the coffee table trying to find the belt to climb up. She was on top of him then, putting her knee in his back and pulling his head by the hair at his temples while he went, “Gah! Gah!” until she rocked back like she meant it, his spine popped, and he yelled. She pulled his snotrag from where it tongued out of his back pocket and stuffed it into his mouth, this to shut him up, but he lost consciousness anyway.
She stood up then, a little wobbly, and said something garbled. She spat out a rope of blood.
I leapt down, landed on one of the dead guys, pocketed the dropped Zippo, and sat on the wooden chair. Not the couch.
“What was that?” I said.
She spat again, bloody with a tooth in it.
She put up one wait-a-minute finger and I realized what had happened. She was in pain. He had shot her in the mouth and her busted mouth was forming up again. That didn’t take long. Eyes take longer. You don’t want to get your eye hurt in a fight.
“I said,” she said, slurring just a little on top of her thick-as-bread Conny-whatsis accent, “never call me your mother again.”
A DOOR INTO NIGHT
I like the taste of sweat.
How it runs from the head, through the hair, like water filtering down through earth and tree roots into a spring; only instead of getting purer, sweat gets filthier, picks up grit, maybe tobacco, a hint of shampoo, but under and through all of that is salt. Almost too much salt, like honey was almost too sweet, what I remember of honey. They say the tongue’s cut up into little provinces, salty, sour, bitter, sweet. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that salt is about the only taste I enjoy now. Salt in blood is the best, of course, and blood is a feast: iron-coppery and personal and as good in the stomach as ever was a steak. Sweat can’t satisfy, not by itself, but it does hint at what’s next. Sweat is to blood as dirty talk is to sex. It’s an offer. It’s a tease.
If I can, if I’m not too hungry, if I have time, I lick before I bite, with the flat of the tongue like a dog. Maybe your eyes are half-closed because this is sexual for you, or maybe you’re good and scared and making that ripe, rotten fear sweat I shouldn’t love but do. Maybe my hands are tangled in your hair so you can’t run, or maybe you’re so charmed you’re smiling like an idiot and leaning down to me so if anyone sees, they think I’m telling you a secret. In a way, I am.
The secret is vampires are real and I am one and no cop is coming and no doctor can help you and your own mother won’t believe you if you tell her. The secret is I look like a high school freshman but I’m pushing sixty. And the secret is I’m stealing from you what is most truly yours and I’m not sorry.
* * *
My name is Joey Peacock. I live in the tunnels under the subways. And don’t go thinking the underground is so bad for us. It would be for you, if you’re still warm, but things change when you’re turned. Darkness isn’t so dark anymore. Everything seems candlelit, even the blackest black, so that what looks to you like black dirt and a wall covered with black mold takes on a kind of warm glow for us, full of layer and detail like modern art, not that Guggenheim shit, but the pretty stonework-type stuff. Or like Rothko. You know Rothko? He’s at the Guggenheim, but he’s different. First time I saw one, I thought, What’s the big deal, squares of color, so what? But there was something about it. A foxy European chick with a scarf and high boots was staring at it and I said, “What do you see?” and she said, “Just keep looking,” so I did. I think she was French. But she was right. The edges of the square of color started waving and then the painting glowed, like it was full of radiation. She said, “Did a door open for you?” and I said, “Yeah.”
Night’s like that now. It’s always been there, full of radiation or whatever, and maybe that’s what cats stare at when they look off into nothing but now I see it, too. When I first changed, I used to spend hours under bridges and down under manholes just trying to count the different kinds of black. Only none of it was exactly black anymore. I know I can’t make you see it, but it’s like The Wizard of Oz, only flipped. Above the tunnels in the neon and lightbulbs, that’s like black-and-white, boring-old-uncles Kansas. Down in the tunnels isn’t exactly exploding with Munchkinland colors, but it is . . . incandescent. That’s a pretty word. That’s a five-dollar word, but it works. The tunnels are gently, subtly incandescent. They breathe. They are most certainly not ugly.
Know what’s ugly? Sunlight. Even looking at it indirectly is like staring into the jet of a welder’s torch, all that light bouncing off the sidewalk and off the chrome of cars. Even peeking at it from the shadow of a manhole cover hurts. Overcast days make us queasy, unless we wear sunglasses. We all have sunglasses.
And don’t go thinking that because I live underground I let myself go. I’m a good-looking kid, kind of young Frank Sinatra–ish, and I’m not going to spoil all that by letting myself get ratty-looking. The Hunchers, they don’t care, they’re here because they’re running away or sinking or already sunk. They live on flattened-out pieces of cardboard because they’re too lazy to steal rugs and they camp out in Grand Central or Penn Station where people can see how dirty and sad they are and they beg. They let their hair knot up and their fingernails have quarter moons of muck under them; they run around covered in grease and filth and they crawl under their sleeping bags with rats peeping at them and drink brake fluid or sniff glue or cut themselves with broken glass or whatever, but the point is they’re nasty. They eat rats, call them track-rabbits. Not all of them are so bad, but most of them. There’s one black woman living up above us, mostly on the streets, sometimes at Union Square station, I don’t know how she keeps the weight on, but she’s like an island. Won’t look at any of us directly, I think she knows what we are, everyone calls her Mama. Mama has two shopping carts full of stuff, all organized though, like neat. Shoes in one bag, shirts in another. But filthy.
I don’t have anything to do with Hunchers, except to feed on them sometimes. Just sometimes. They’re mostly full of booze, and booze hurts on the way out, or drugs, which give me a headache. We’re much cleaner. Like cats. That’s it, they’re rats and we’re cats. None of them have nice clothes, but that’s maybe not their fault. They’re poor.
Me, I got money. I charm people out of it all the time, and I use most of it to keep myself looking sharp. I have three mirrors, and don’t go believing that baloney about us not reflecting. We reflect. We just don’t show up so good in photographs. We blur. You know that guy who never takes a good picture? Ask yourself if you only see that guy at night. If the answer is yes, maybe don’t spend any time alone with him, you know what I’m saying? Maybe only hang out in big groups.
Nice clothes are important to me, even if they’re hard to keep clean down here. There’s a big trough or basin not far from my room; everybody uses that to wash clothes and bathe. Fill it up and you could only just keep your chin above water sitting down, not that we fill it all the way because the spigot’s not hooked up and it takes so long to get water from the busted pipe we use. Somebody sunk a big hook in the roof above the basin, a long time ago; it’s rusty now, and there used to be a pulley and a rotten old rope hanging from it, but it was in the way so Margaret got rid of it. There’s like twenty bars of soap around the tub we use and share, plus a couple of boxes of detergent and an oldey-timey washboard. Me, I hate doing laundry by hand. I keep a jar of quarters for the Laundromat and I use a dry cleaner on 3rd Avenue who doesn’t ask questions. I like the mod look: tight coats, paisley, zipper boots. I know I look a little dated when I walk into the disco, and like a throwback when I hit the punk club. Sometimes I wear a fedora, which looks funny on a young guy, but I remember when you’d sooner leave your house without your nuts than without a good hat. I remember when you used to have to take your hat off in elevators and houses and when you spoke to a woman; some people still do that. I don’t bother.
We get water from a pipe that’s probably been busted fifty years. Just enough water gets out of it to run down the wall and somebody chiseled out a kind of groove near the bottom, like a niche just big enough to fit a bucket into. It takes about a minute and a half to fill a bucket. We have a cheap fold-up table for folding laundry and whatnot, we keep it near that big concrete trough; I think this place, our common place, used to be some kind of a cleaning station. Anyway, there’s mold and dirt all caked on the wall except where the water runs out of its rusty pipe, but the wall is clean where the water washes down in a footlong track. The pipe is really rusty, that’s how you can tell it’s old. Some joker even wrote RUST where the water runs, chiseled it into the wall and there’s still flecks of white paint in the letters, but the water washed most of it away. People must have been using this for a long time. It’s kind of beautiful there, the way we see, though you would probably think it was just a wet wall with crap all around it and a busted pipe. You’d probably rather have a milk shake than a quart of blood, too, so we’ll have to agree to disagree. Anyway, I’m glad I have a way to wash my hair. Having clean hair is maybe the most important part of looking attractive.
I love long hair, if it’s clean. I don’t have long hair myself because it makes it too hard to pass as a kid, and little-lost-soccer-boy is my favorite disguise. Just after sunset I dress out down in the subway, slip my little plastic shin guards under my knee socks, carry cleats in my free hand, and then it’s I got separated from my mom and dad, help me find their hotel across the park. Works like a charm. I could pass as a little girl, but damned if I’m wearing a dress.
I’m open-minded, but not gay.
ROBERT PLANT AND THE MEXICAN CHICK
Except I am a little gay for Robert Plant.
I saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden a year or so ago, maybe four or five years, it goes so quick now. Anyway, I was really close to the stage, and there he was. Robert Plant. Long and lean, golden-curled like a woman but wolfy, his hairy belly snug in his jeans, the bacony smell of marijuana warm and close around me (when I remembered to breathe—I forgot for a good half an hour; I know I didn’t breathe at all during “No Quarter,” and that song went on so long three pearl divers in a row would have died. Plant was right at the peak, as good as he was ever going to get, nowhere to go but gray and fat, and that happens fast. I thought about turning him just to preserve that, the that that was Robert fucking Plant in 1970-whatever, but of course vampirism would kill his career, turn him into a talented bum like Billy Bang. More about him later. The undead don’t care about careers. Vampires are all retirees, happy enough to bend your ear about what they used to do, but their only passion is for a dark, warm liquid, and the only thing that satisfies them to the bones is getting more. It’s worse than heroin, believe me, and I’ve seen plenty of junkies.
But just thinking about sticking my nose in that big, honey-colored shag of hair on Robert Plant made me pop a boner. A really hard, uncomfortable one, and in my tight jeans, too. I tried to pretend it was for the foxy, spaced-out Mexican girl hip-grinding near me in her midriff shirt and turquoise rings, slinky and stinking of patchouli, but no dice. My dead pecker was hard for Robert Plant. I thought about leaving because I don’t think of myself that way, nothing against the gays, but Joseph Hiram Peacock is all about the trim. No way could I leave that concert. It was too good. I love the shit out of Robert Plant.
I wanted to try to get backstage, but even if I did, what was I going to do? Bite him? Wave my boner at him? Get him to sign it? When the music was finally done and everyone heaved for the exits, I saw the Mexican girl shouldering her way through the crowd with her friend, a helplessly ordinary brown-haired waitress type with glow-in-the-dark blue eye shadow. That was where my night was going. I followed them out.
Down into the subway, which I think of as my front porch (yes, the whole thing) and all the way to the East Village via Union Square. Blue eye shadow lived there, above a rock-and-roll bar, and I was afraid my new girlfriend would go up with her, but she didn’t. She kept going, past Tompkins Park, all the way to grimey, crimey Alphabet City, and I followed her, thinking, Don’t take a cab don’t take a cab don’t take a cab, I’ll protect you.
I saw her go into a moldy-looking brownstone with a big bloodshot eye spray-painted on the side along with a jungle of names and letters in all colors. Bottles in paper sacks in the alley, an egg carton, a warped shopping cart turned over and shot through with weeds. Third-floor light came on, backlighting a balconeta with a little garden of potted plants. I skinnied up the brick wall and tapped on the glass. She let me in. They always let me in. It helps that I was turned when I was fourteen, baby face, big blue eyes, thank God I was mostly through puberty. My voice can go either way, which is useful, I’ve trained it. Before all this started, I had only ever met one little-boy vampire with a permanently high voice, and he made me uncomfortable. I have always felt that whoever turns anyone less than thirteen needs to be taken sunbathing.
So there I was on her third-floor iron balcony, the smell of the iron making me horny for blood, smiling at her where she peeped around the curtain and saying, “You need to water your coriander,” through a cracked pane. She understood the third time and smiled back and absolutely should not have opened the French door but did. I mean, there wasn’t a fire escape on that side, how did I get up there?
People don’t think when they see something they like.
And we’re all hypnotists anyway, vampires I mean. We get what we want.
So she cracked the door of her own free will and that was all the invitation I needed. In came my little white hand, pushing the curtain aside, pushing her back, but playfully. Not really, but it seemed like it to her because I was smiling. Her cat was the smartest thing in the room. He didn’t like me. He didn’t scream and shit himself like they do sometimes, but he decided now was a great time to go in the closet, up on the towels. Fine by me, kitty. Stay out of my way.
“Do you want tea?” she said. Did I want tea! “It’s chamomile. I just put the water on.” Trace of an accent, like she came to America when she was eleven or twelve. “Or I’ve got beer.” The thought of beer in my empty, black stomach made my empty, black stomach turn. I hadn’t fed in days and it was getting urgent. So I charmed her hard.
“My earlobe tastes like cinnamon.”
“Mentiroso,” she said, glass-eyed, her lips staying open after the final o. I always remembered that word. I asked Cvetko about it years later and he said, “That means ‘liar,’” which is about what I guessed. Cvetko was Slovenian, spoke like eight languages and read even more, but I’ll get to him in a minute.
“You don’t have to take my word for it,” I said, so she leaned in, openmouthed, and I saw her teeth. Dark fillings in the back ones. And she never had braces; her bottom teeth formed a kind of slack W and she had tiny crooked canines sharper than normal. Not sharp like mine, and certainly not as long, but she couldn’t see mine because I was charming her not to. You can’t see a vampire’s fangs unless he wants you to, or unless something startles him good, but it’s got to be something big. Terrifying. Then all those unconscious charms go right out the window and you see him just as he is, which isn’t so pretty, especially as we get older. But you know what we don’t do unconsciously? Blink. When we’re around you guys, we have to remember to blink, another reason we like sunglasses.
The Mexican fox leaned close, first sucking then sharply nibbling my earlobe. She giggled and said, “Canela,” licking her lips, and now it was my turn. I tasted her earlobes and she shivered. Then she wrinkled her nose. Goddamn it, I had forgotten to breathe on the way here so now my breath smelled like a dead dog in a Dumpster. I poured on the charm.
“My breath smells like cinnamon, too.”
She unwrinkled her nose and smiled, nodding in agreement, a little bit of drool falling from the corner of her mouth. I was drooling, too, but not because I’d been charmed slack-jawed. I was getting ravenous. I licked her neck. Just once. It was rank with psilocybin, bitter with patchouli, but the salt shone through it all like a nickel in a mud puddle. I got hard again, glad Robert Plant had nothing to do with it. Her jugular vein pulsed delicately, but I was feeling naughtier than that.
“Take your jeans down,” I said.
She raised one eyebrow. I like people who can do that; I taught myself how when I was a kid, before all this.
“Take your jeans and panties down,” I commanded. She drooled and complied.
She was hairy, but had shaved her thighs at least. Not that I minded hair. Cvetko hated hair. I’ll get to Cvetko.
Now I put my nose in the corner where her leg met her hip, Christ-awfully aware of the mother lode of dark, soupy blood coursing in her femoral artery. I licked there, just at the juncture. She moaned a little, then tried to maneuver my head so I could lick her slit. Normally I might have, but I was too hungry. I scratched her thigh with the pricks of my fangs, noticed her cat looking at me from its perch on the towels. Keeping eye contact with the cat, I jammed my fangs into the femoral. The blood jetted around my teeth, flooded my mouth, hot and ambrosial, and now I moaned. My hand was spidered flat on her belly, the tip of my ring finger in her navel. She squealed and squirmed while I drank. She came, I think. I made myself stop at what felt like a pint, took care not to backwash in her. Not that I thought she was going to die—death plus backwash equals new vampire. A pint isn’t going to kill anybody, just ask the Red Cross.
I pulled out. Her body jerked. Her teakettle sang. I pulled off my shoe and sock, stuck the sock on her bite wound, put her hand on top of the bite, then closed her legs around that. She was sleeping already, which was normal. Tomorrow there wouldn’t even be any holes, they close up fast if you’re healthy, but there would be bruising.
I went into the kitchen, turned the stove off, and moved the kettle. Damn it, I was still hungry. In a spasm of poor timing, the cat hissed at me. Fine. I grabbed the little beast, flipped it over (ignoring its flurry of claws—the scratches were shallow, healed almost as fast as kitty made them), and sank my teeth into its belly, stabbing for the big vein there. Cat blood isn’t great, but it does the job. I only meant to take a swallow, but I took more and the cat shuddered and became an ex-cat. “Oh, hell,” I said. The girl didn’t deserve to wake up to a sore crotch, a hangover, and a dead cat. I kissed her temple, holding the cat behind my back, and was just about to make my way out the French doors. I remembered my shoe, put that on sockless, and jumped down all three floors to the dirty street. Left the doors open to support the runaway cat theory.
I walked all the way to Murray Hill with the cat under my jacket before I broke the window of a Buick Centurion and flung it in the passenger seat. Funny that I remember the car but not her name. Was it Yasmina? Did I fuck her around the hand holding the sock to her bite wound, leaving her full of my lukewarm, dead seed?
You would have sex with me if I weren’t charming you, right? You saw me and thought I was sexy, I might have said.
I thought you were sexy, she might have slurred back. Or maybe I’m remembering other girls, other nights. I’m not sure. Probably did get with Yasmina, Violeta, Rosa, whatever her name was. Feeding makes you a little drunk and you forget things.
God, she was pretty. I think of her when I hear Led Zeppelin, her face, yes, but mostly the blood in her thigh. And the high-in-the-nose tang of her sweat.
And the teakettle.
Whatever year the Zeppelin concert was, forget that.
This is about what happened in 1978.
It started on Valentine’s Day, a couple of weeks after the blizzard.
It was cold enough to make a polar bear put on wool underwear and Cvetko had red envelopes for his letters. I’ll get to the letters in a minute, but now it’s time for me to try to describe the charmless but endearing calamity that was Cvetko.
Imagine a friend of your parents, someone you knew as a kid, that person from before you were born who came over sometimes and sat around with your dad and mom drinking a little, not too much, talking about the most boring shit in the world and there’s no such thing as a radio or TV yet but you have to sit there and not fidget while he goes on and on laughing at his own lame jokes, pushing his glasses up with the wrong finger, not exactly “old” yet but already has that old-man smell like socks and wood and some shaving cream they don’t make anymore. And everybody listens to him because he’s actually very nice, would loan you money or help you move before you asked him to, one of those guys, but he just doesn’t understand that nobody cares about a picnic he took on a mountain in Yugoslavia in 1925 or whether Father Jumping-Jesus sounded nasal after Mass and we all hope he doesn’t catch a cold.
Cvetko was Yugoslavian, but he would point a finger up at the ceiling and tilt his head and insist that he was Slovenian. Not much of an accent; to give the guy credit, he had a gift for languages. Once, when God still rode a tricycle, he taught linguistics in that Yugoslavian city that sounds like “lube job.”
He came to the loops only two years before, and Margaret didn’t want him at first; Margaret didn’t want anybody at first, she was not the trusting type. But this poor schmuck. He’d seen some nasty stuff in World War II, lost his family, two boys and a girl. Fucking Nazis. He wasn’t a Jew or anything, he was as Catholic as they came, but he didn’t sign on with their program. And he says it wasn’t actually the Germans that killed his family, it was the Italians, who were allied with Germany then. Except it wasn’t actually the Italians who destroyed his house, though it was their fault. Because it was the guys who fought the Germans but got their ass kicked and came south to fight the Italians instead because Italians were pussies, at least next to the Germans, but these partisan guys had bad information and blew up Cvetko’s house because they confused him with another professor who had ratted them out, and they didn’t like him anyway because he wasn’t a commie like half of them were, though he says he is kind of a socialist.
Who can follow all that shit, right?
Anyway, he ended up coming to America after the war, right here to New York City, but couldn’t get a job in a university because, and this is the ironic part, they thought he was a commie. Not commie enough for the freedom fighters of Lube Job, too commie for Columbia University. So he ended up teaching in a Catholic high school in Park Slope, living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, riding his bicycle back and forth like a schmuck. The vampire who got him knocked him off his bike, got him under an el. Never taught him anything, he had to figure it out. He’s smart like that, though.
Figured out he should move away somewhere his nocturnal hours wouldn’t raise eyebrows, hole up in a place that had a basement. He picked Bushwick because it was quiet and he could afford it, told people he was working at the navy yard. Then the navy yard closed and it wasn’t quiet anymore. Twenty years go by fast when you’re dead. Now it was 1975. The neighborhood fell apart around his ears; all the blacks and Puerto Ricans were setting fires, burning down buildings. The white people who owned the buildings were playing with matches, too. No shit. Arson to collect insurance, arson to evict deadbeat tenants and collect insurance. Arson as pure mischief when you’re a ghetto kid. Low water pressure in the summer because the kids are out opening hydrants to cool off, plus Ford told us to drop dead so we fired half the cops and firemen. In short, lots and lots of arson. One thing vampires don’t like is fire. So here came Cvetko, into Manhattan, got himself a shithole in the Bowery, but he was already thinking about moving underground when he saw one of us. Ruth, to be specific. Followed her. Asked about her situation, was told he should talk to Margaret. He did. It went okay. He moved in temporarily at the 18th Street station, which is abandoned. That’s where vampires on probation go.
He didn’t stay on probation long. Margaret had a soft spot for another former Catholic, plus she rapidly figured out that he was smart, if bland. Really bland. Human oatmeal. I took him on as my neighbor half out of pity. You’d pity him, too.
Here’s Cvetko in a Polaroid:
Picture a guy about sixty, wearing a suit. He’s one of those squares that’s always wearing a suit. A sad little potbelly on him, not a big one, but you feel bad for him carrying that around forever—you’re pretty much stuck with what you’ve got when your clock stops. Mostly gray hair going white at the temples, horn-rimmed glasses on crooked, smiling nervously at you even though you just said something mean to him. Familiar but forgettable face, like you’d seen him before, but then, not five minutes after talking to him, all you remember is that he had boring glasses and he was boring.
“You know what it is, writing letters to people you’re going to bite, asking them if it’s okay? Retarded, that’s what. It’s retarded, Cvetko.”
In this imaginary Polaroid, he’s hunched over a letter he’s writing with one of those pens you push down different buttons to make different colors. He’s writing in blue. On a tablet with that guide paper behind it so you don’t curl up with your sentences at the end, which is what I do. But I write on lined paper when I write, which is never, because typewriters are much more my style.
The tablet’s on his lap where he sits Indian-legged, hunched like I said as if he’s doing something bad. Which I guess he is. Biting people is bad, right? Even if they’re lonely or crazy enough to give you permission, which, believe it or not, some are. He’s got three or four letters already in their envelopes, red because it’s Valentine’s Day, stamped with identical thirteen-cent Washingtons praying at Valley Forge like holy little old men in miniature. Normally he’d only send about four letters out, but he likes Valentine’s Day so he’ll probably do like ten. Yep, look at all those stamps. He’s not fucking around.
Polaroid’s over. You get it.
“You speak differently than you used to. This word, retarded, I think you say it too much.”
“Just write your retarded letters.”
“You’re always picking up new words and using them too much. I think it is the effect of television.”
“What do you know about television?”
“I know that between the ages of five and fifteen—or perhaps it was sixteen—the average American child will witness, on this television you love so much, the killing of thirteen thousand persons.”
“Where did you get that BS?”
He put his may-I-bite-you love letter carefully aside, walked on his knees in front of his bowed-in-the-middle bookshelf full of egghead books over to one of his stacks of papers, and shuffled in them until he pulled out a mimeographed copy of something. He held it up for me to squint at.
HEALTH POLICY 1976:
“Oooo, that’s fun. What are you doing reading stuff like that?”
“I read about such things because I am concerned about your habits.”
“What, are you afraid I’ll turn violent? Guess what? I already am violent. And so are you.”
“You’re going to have your brain for a long, long time. I do not think you should rot it with unhealthy habits.”
I looked out the door to his room: a big metal door on a wheeled track. I wanted to go get dressed up for the hunt. Actually, I wanted to shut his door real hard and stomp off to show him how boring he was. But I wasn’t quite that crappy. And he wasn’t done yet.
“You are addicted to the television.”
“You watch it every night.”
“So don’t watch it tonight.”
“I’ll watch if I want to. And I want to.”
“It controls you.”
“No, I just want to.”
“You have no choice.”
I really hated it when he started dad-talking me. He was a little older than me—he was born in like 1890-something, turned when Ike was in office, when he was as old as I should have been this particular Valentine’s Day. But I had been a vampire longer. Doesn’t that count for something?
“Fine. I won’t watch television tonight.”
“Do you promise?”
“Sure. If you let me read one of these.”
I snatched his letter off the floor.
It made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t try to stop me.
I held it up and read from it like a beatnik poet.
“‘Dear Mrs. Greengrass.’”
“‘Although you do not know me, I hope that you will forgive me for saying that I have for some time now been impressed from afar by your charm and bearing. It is evident to me that you emigrated here from the British Isles; I gather this less from your accent (Buckinghamshire?) than from the old-world discipline you show in taking your nightly walks and the grace with which you . . .’”
He just blinked at me, smiling nervously. I could see the tip of one fang.
“So when do you get to the ‘would it bother you ever so much, Mrs. Greengrass, if I poked holes in your jugular vein and sucked black heart’s blood out?’ part? And what is she, like ninety?”
“Eighty-five. And I will not admit to vampirism in the letter; I will only hint at it. I will tell her that if she wants an early-morning visitor, she need only close a handkerchief in her window so it is visible from the sidewalk. We will talk about the world outside her neighborhood, and about times others are too young to remember. The specific language in the letter will make her understand on a subconscious level that this is a supernatural opportunity.”
“This is really creepy stuff, Cvets. Like heavy-breather-on-the-telephone stuff. I don’t see why any of them do it.”
“There comes a time when loneliness is stronger than fear.”
“Well, that’s depressing.”
“Which is why sometimes they let me finish it.”
“Even more depressing.”
“They ask me to.”
Now I nodded. I had had that happen, too.
A kid. Just a sick Greek girl in Astoria whose parents were going to the poorhouse taking care of her. Polio. Wouldn’t let me pull my face away from her neck. Held her weak hands on the back of my head, saying, “Take me away, take me out of here.”
I took the part of her I could.
Joseph Hiram Peacock, angel of Passover.
We don’t kill often. Vampires that do kill we call “peelers.” If you peel somebody and it gets in the paper, you get a talking-to. If you do it again, Margaret gets some of us together and comes for your head, or farms it out to the Latin Hearts under Alphabet City. They’re all pretty new; Margaret turned one like ten years ago, then he turned his friends and family. The Hearts were a gang before and they stayed a gang. Smart of Margaret; you weren’t supposed to go turning more than one every ten years or so, but her one multiplied. Now their leader, Mapache, was loyal to Margaret and they were all loyal to him. Instant muscle. There were less of them than us, like five, but they were good at offing vampires, they had machetes just for that. I think they liked it. But even they didn’t fuck with Margaret. She used a shovel. And she had Old Boy. More about him soon.
Peeling was stupid anyway, though. It was better for everybody if we just took what we needed and made them forget. They were cattle, but you took milk, not meat, or the herd might stampede.
Cvetko hated when we did a peeler, which had only been twice for us, and once for the Latins. No, twice for them, too. Killing bothered Cvetko in general, though.
“Promise me you won’t watch television tonight.”
“Fine,” I said, “I promise.”
I meant it when I said it, but not an hour later I broke my word.
“Took my time? I’m standing on a ledge in a rainstorm and I took my time. What was I supposed to do? Jump down thirty-eight floors on a messenger to stop him?”
That was Eunice.
Eunice was indeed standing on a ledge, Eunice and ledge contained in the frame of the luxurious console television that dominated this modern and well-appointed living room.
“My luck, you’d miss,” Walter said.
This was on Soap, which I love. Nine thirty P.M. every Tuesday, A and the B and the C. If I was really going to break myself from the tube, and I wasn’t, it would have to be on some weekday other than a Tuesday.
I was lying back on the couch, holding Mrs. Baker’s arm in my lap, a sort of ugly orange-and-brown knitted couch cover under her arm because her wrist was bleeding and I didn’t want to get it on my faded bell-bottoms. I held the wrist up every once in a while to drink from it, wiping my lips with a paper towel. I’d had quite a bit from her already; she was looking a little peaked, although everybody looks peaked with that blue television light washing over them. Her head was lolling a bit and she had the drool-strand you always saw on the chins of the heavily charmed. All three of the Bakers were in la-la land, hardly aware of my presence, completely unaware of the context, ready to forget me the second I slipped out their window. At the commercial I’d change seats and start working on Mr. Baker, and when he was good and sponged, I’d bite the fat, surly preteen boy with all the football posters in his room. Even charmed, he was a pain in the ass.
“I wanna go to bed, this show is dumb,” he said, even though Soap was off and a Fixodent commercial had taken its place.
“Bullshit,” I said. “Soap is the smartest thing on television right now; soap operas have been begging for satire since they were invented, and Soap knocks it out of the park. But that’s not good enough for Michael Kiss-My-Fat-Ass Baker, is it? You love, what, Happy Days?”
“Yeah,” he said thickly, staring at the white paste pouring out of the larger-than-life Fixodent tube on the screen.
“Did you watch it tonight? Happy Days?”
“Well, what happened? Did Fonzie and Richie jerk each other off yet?”
“No. They were singin’ love songs. The Cunninghams.”
“Right. Valentine’s Day. But you love Fonzie, don’t you?”
“Heeeyyyyyy,” he said.
The hypnotized little dumpling actually said Heeeyyyy! I laughed so hard a little of his mom’s blood bubbled out of my nose.
“You know he’s a Jew, right?”
He wrinkled his brow; he didn’t like this. Oh, this was fun. I stuck a fresh paper towel on his mom’s wrist and went over to the kid, plucking his half-eaten Pringles can off his lap and tossing it across the room, then sitting on his lap where he lay poured on the recliner, crossing my legs, feeling like a big, naughty ventriloquist’s dummy. I was the same height as him, five foot five, but, he was a chunk and I’m like ninety pounds wet—we’re lighter than we look; I’d been slowly losing weight since I turned. Anyway, I know I wasn’t crushing his little nuts for him.
I had been about to drain his daddy, but then he had to go and badmouth Soap; besides, that doughy white neck looked like it needed biting. As soon as I was done fucking with him.
“That’s right. Arthur Fonzarelli likes matzoh balls and bagels.”
“Thought he was ’Talian. Like Rocky. The ’Talian Stallion.”
“Nope. Sorry to hurt your feelings, but Fonzie’s a big fat Jew, just like me. Well, half Jew on my mom’s side.”
“Are you gonna bite my neck now?”
“You’re a smart kid.”
I mussed his hair.
“Are you a vampire?”
Still staring at the tube, didn’t know what he was saying.
“What? Don’t talk crazy. I’m Cupid.”
“Oh. That’s okay, I guess. But . . . you still gonna bite me?”
“Oh, you know it.”
He made an I’m-gonna-cry face and squirmed.
“What’sa matter, Mikey? Does it hurt when I bite you?”
He nodded and made a little whimpering sound, which triggered something in his semisleeping dad. Mr. Baker got up, looking all Korea-vet tough in his tobaccoey Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, turned the corners of his mouth down, started to make a beefy fist.
“Sit down, Victor,” I said to him, pointing my index finger at him like a gun and letting a little menace into my voice.
He nodded, smoothed his pants, and sat down in a hurry, looking grateful I had reminded him he was supposed to be sitting down now. He even tilted his head so I could get at his neck when it was his turn. But now I spoke to Mikey.
“When I bite you, it only hurts a little, right?”
“I guess. Like a shot. Then it feels kinda good, but I don’t like it that it feels good. Makes me feel like a queer.”
“It’s like a shot,” I said. “Let’s go with that.”
“Shots are good for you,” his mother slurred. She reached for her wine without looking at it, spilled it all over the carpet. Luckily it was white wine, so it wouldn’t stain, but her spastic movement started her wrist bleeding again, and she got a smear about the size of a garden slug on the arm of the couch.
The father nodded, agreeing about the virtues of getting a shot. They were all watching the Magnavox, which now showed a rust-bearded Burger King with a rust-colored semi-Afro appearing from behind a magic door. Twin rusty caterpillars over his eyes. They had some dumb little bathtub toy with a rubber-band propeller making a pair of little kids squeal. It was so easy to charm people who had been watching the television—maybe Cvetko was right. Maybe it does rot your brain.
So I poked the chubby kid’s sweet, chubby neck and drank and then I stuck my fangs into the hot, flushed neck of the ham-handed dad who smelled (and tasted) like Hai Karate aftershave, and then we all watched the rest of Soap together. I cleaned up before I left—picked up the Pringles, scrubbed the blood with Joy so it mostly came off the ivory-colored couch’s arm, put the wadded-up, bloody paper towels in my pocket. I even wiped the dad’s upper lip, which was coated with nasty little white wings of snot. I hate snot. And it wouldn’t do to have them start to figure out something was wrong. I came here maybe twice, three times a month.
Of course I visited other places, I had a kind of routine, but the Bakers had the biggest veins, the weakest minds, and the most comfortable furniture on the East Side. But mainly I picked them for the huge, glorious console television I saw lighting up their window lo these many months ago as I walked on the sidewalk below. Think about that the next time you shop for TVs.
THE GIRL ON THE SUBWAY
I skittered down the fire escape doing my best impression of a monkey, but moving so fast and light anybody who saw me wouldn’t know what they saw. The Bakers had good, fatty beef-fed blood, singing with iron, and I felt like a million dollars. I wanted a mirror even though I had already used one in the Bakers’ bathroom to tidy up before I left (I helped myself to Dad’s cologne, too), but I never got tired of the way I looked after I fed: healthy, strong, just as much color in my face as yours (if you’re a Caucasian, that is; I shouldn’t make assumptions). My hair always looked dynamite after a good feed, too, like a dog’s coat when you feed him an egg every day, although I never tried that even when I had a dog. I think I heard it on TV.
The point is, I had a real spring in my step, which is quite a spring when you’re a vampire. I wished it were warmer, I felt like running, but it wasn’t running weather. Big heaps of unmelted snow from the blizzard stood packed here and there, forcing what people there were on the streets to bunch up, the long-legged ones in a hurry making grumpy faces behind the old and slow, trying to pass but here comes a dad with tiny kids in parkas, jumping in front of them won’t look too cool. Between the packed snow you got an ugly slurry of ice-mush and dirt that a lesser fellow would be prone to slip in and fall. No, really, if you grew up somewhere south and you think all sweetly about snow, or if you only ever saw it on the tops of mountains for Heidi to yodel over or melting down into streams for Bambi to lap up, come to Manhattan in February. New York’ll bust your snow cherry fast. You show me a postcard from Lapland with mountains and a reindeer and I’ll show you a man-high, snow-capped heap of trash bags and cardboard piled around a tree that probably has tuberculosis, little yellow pockmarks of dog piss at the foot of it, all of it sprinkled with soot, real evenly like it came out of a shaker, and garnished with soda cans, cigarette butts, and, for no good reason, a brand-new left shoe, but just the left one and there’s dried blood on it, so who’s going to take it?
I was in the mood to hear music and meet a girl or two, so I decided to train my way to the Village. Down I went into the mouth of the subway, hopped the turnstile fast as a squirrel, then just for a laugh I walked in the blind spot of a briefcase-carrying guy who smelled like hooker, real close to him, my toes almost on his heels like something Charlie Chaplin would do. He didn’t see me at all, even when he turned around once. There was a girlie in a denim jacket getting on the car past the closest one, so I ditched my first playmate and popped the collar of my shirt over my leather jacket. I had already checked myself postfeeding, but I spat on the back of my hand and wiped my lips and chin just in case; I guess you’d call it a nervous habit. She was dirty blond, taller than me, but that’s not unusual; she would have been taller than me even without her platform shoes. Very sexual vibe from that one, automatic, broadcast to mankind in general like Radio Free Europe. Nice hips, and I liked how shaggy her hair was; she looked tough and pretty at the same time.
She was just about to look at me; I can always tell when you’re about to look at me. There came the eyes. Brown eyes. I would have thought blue. I smiled, she smiled. Quick shy looking-away game, but one of us would peek again in ten seconds or so. The only other person on our car was an older Chinese woman reading Danielle Steel, Passion’s Promise, don’t make me laugh.
The third time girlie peeked at me I leaned back and swung around gracefully on the pole, sort of an ironic comment on the awkwardness of flirtation, right up her alley. She laughed. Also, I was charming her a bit so I looked twenty-two-ish, like she was. Maybe more like twenty-five. She looked like she knew what she was doing, and she fit nicely in her jeans.
I remember her down to the button, not because I fed on her or slept with her—I swear, Your Honor, I never touched the lady—but because of what I saw next. You know how that is? Like you remember the book you were reading when somebody told you Elvis Presley died (Exodus by Leon Uris, don’t be impressed, I never finished it) or what you were wearing the night you lost your virginity (a tweed coat and suspenders, but don’t think “how cute”—I was already a vampire so it was weird).
The point is, I remember this girl because I stood with her on the ledge of great and permanent change, though neither one of us knew it, and she would never know it. The ledge was mine only.
I was about to see one of them.
But not just yet.
Not until Lexington.
And we were just coming up on 68th.
Excerpted from "The Lesser Dead"
Copyright © 2015 Christopher Buehlman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Lesser Dead
“This book is what we invented the word bloodbath for: it’s surprising, scary, and, ultimately, heartbreaking. It dangles false hope in front of readers only to snatch them away. It tells a story where any idea of cuddly vampires becomes a sick, dark, and not terribly funny joke.”—Tor.com
Praise for The Necromancer’s House
“[An] eruption of characters who evoke Dickensian whimsy and range from the merely unusual to the bizarrely imaginative...an explosion of enthralling fantasy. [A] vibrant, bracing atmosphere.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“You find yourself believing the unbelievable and fearing what you thought belonged only in those Old World, pre-sanitized fairytales."—Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist
Praise for Between Two Fires
"Cormac McCarthy's The Road meets Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in this frightful medieval epic...Buehlman...doesn't scrimp on earthy horror and lyrical writing in the face of unspeakable horrors...an author to watch."—Kirkus Reviews
“I was spellbound from the moment I opened the front cover…Intense and chilling…The ultimate good-versus-evil battle.”—Night Owl Reviews
“Fans of historical fantasy and horror will find this epic darkly rewarding.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Those Across the River
One of Publishers Weekly’s Top-Ten SF, Fantasy & Horror Novels
A World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel
“One of the best first novels I’ve ever read.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“What a treat. As much F. Scott Fitzgerald as Dean Koontz. A graceful, horrific read.”—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Beautifully written…with a cast of Southern characters so real you can almost see the sweat roll down the page. The ending is exceedingly clever.”—Boston Herald
“Wonderfully eerie from start to finish—a novel sure to enthrall readers of all stripes.”—Grant Blackwood, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“An unsettling brew of growing menace spiked with flashes of genuine terror—do not miss this chilling debut. Christopher Buehlman is a writer to watch. I look forward to hearing from him again. And soon.”—F. Paul Wilson, New York Times bestselling author
“Seduces you with eloquent prose and sensual period details, then clamps down on your jugular…An outstanding debut.”—Hank Schwaeble, Bram Stoker Award–winning author of Diabolical
“Buehlman’s lyrical prose vividly captures a landscape made familiar by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. A delightfully genre-bending juxtaposition of supernatural horror and gothic drama.”—California Literary Review
“A horror story that manages just the right balance between building dread and suspense and delivering action.”—The A.V. Club
“Sublimely crafted...It is clear that Mr. Buehlman brings his poetic background to bear in creating the rhythm and meter of the story…A well-crafted novel that is a pleasure to read.”—The New York Journal of Books
“Masterful debut novel…moody and lush…[a] spellbinding tale of terror…filled with cowardice and bravery, foolishness and wisdom, grief and grace, and, alas, helplessness and beauty. Buehlman has written one of the best books of the year.”—Shelf Awareness
“Creepy, suspenseful...Recommended for horror fans and those willing to be scared enough to want to stay out of the woods.”—Library Journal
“In its unnerving depiction of small-town creepiness and heathen savagery, this surefooted debut resembles nothing more than Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home…Viscerally upsetting…This is lusty, snappy writing, and horror fans will eat it up (or vice versa).”—Booklist
“Buehlman packs suspense and secrets into his debut novel…keep[s] readers on their toes right up until the big reveal.”—Publishers Weekly
“Fans of novels like Salems’ Lot or classic radio dramas will find this story impossible to put down…[It] feels completely fantastical by our rational minds but believable by our deepest fears.”—Suspense Magazine
Reading Group Guide
1. How does the setting of New York City in 1978 affect the story? Why did the author choose this particular time and place?
2. Joey portrays his birth mother as self-absorbed: “She didn’t know if I was in the house, in the garden, in the park, or at the bottom of the East River.” How does Margaret compare as a maternal figure? Does Joey have any other parental stand-ins?
3. Why does Margaret tell Joey, “There was just a little part of me that admired what you did to me”? What does it say about her character?
4. Sandy is described as a “short-timer,” unable to adjust to the lifestyle or even the very idea of being a vampire. In the world of the novel, do you think people must possess certain personality traits in life to be “good” vampires? What qualities are they?
5. Cvetko says the recipient of one of his “may-I-bite-you” letters will “understand on a subconscious level that this is a supernatural opportunity.” Why might someone voluntarily rendezvous with a vampire? Do you think the Bakers are on some level aware of Joey’s true nature?
6. What does Chloë represent to Joey for most of the book? Why does he say she might have made him a better person? How does that differ from his relationship with Emma Wilson?
7. What do the children mean by “the god of small places”? How do they “make a little god” of Joey?
8. Are the children more dangerous precisely because they look like children? Is that how they have survived for so long?
9. Why do you think there are so many variations on the vampire mythos? Why does it continue to fascinate us?
10. Cvetko tells Joey, “A mundane lie hiding an exotic truth is deception; an exotic lie hiding a mundane truth is storytelling.” Would you classify the book’s structure as deception or storytelling? Both? Neither?