Now that David Wellington has concluded his series of vampire novels, the Laura Caxton series, with a bang in 32 Fangs, I think we should take a moment to look back over them and say eff yeah! That was a rollicking, spooky ride. In his acknowledgements, he as much as admits that the series was written as a reaction to the Twilight series, saying that after reading it he “sat down to write…the nastiest, most brutal vampire [he] could think of.” If you ask me, he succeeded. I think you can look at contemporary vampire stories on a continuum between “sparklevamp” and “sharkpire,” with Twilight and Anne Rice on the sparkle end and things like 30 Days of Night and David Wellington on the other. The vampires of the Laura Caxton series are horrifying bloodsuckers of pure evil…but even they don’t steal the show from the eponymous hero.
I first became aware of David Wellington with the publication of his zombie novel, Monster Island. The zombie craze was climbing to a zenith at that point; the genre market was getting oversaturated but mainstream entertainment was really just starting to notice. Wellington’s zombie book carved out a niche in a couple of different ways; first, by being set in actual Manhattan, not Hollywood Manhattan. The landmarks the novel referenced are things like the Union Square Virgin Megastore—remember that? A whole chunk of the novel is set inside of there—instead of boring tourist landmarks.
Another interesting practical complication was the frame story—the main character is a former UN employee who is sent by a Sudanese warlord to break into the UN building and steal AIDS medication from the UN’s medical center, and is sent with a gang of schoolgirl child soldiers to help him. Not a pretty picture. The supernatural tweaks to the story are also very clever—not to give anything away, but two questions: how could you become king of the zombies, and two, what happens to all the mummies in the museum when the zombie apocalypse happens?
Wellington also has a werewolf series—Frostbite and Overwinter— that please the Carlo Ginzburg fan in me, and the Werewolf: the Apocalypse (or …the Forsaken) fans out there. An interesting muddling of the modern day tropes with the shamanic history of the myth. Not to mention a werewolf hunter with argyria, the silver poisoning that turns your skin blue. That combination of big gonzo ideas that are backed up with real world plausibility is sort of Wellington’s trademark, and a big part of why I like him so much.
From there, I was an easy sell on his vampire series; after all, years of playing Vampire: the Masquerade has conditioned me to respond well to the vampire genre. The first book in the series, 13 Bullets, has a clever twist built into the premise. The usual trope of the “cops find a dead body, horribly murdered but mysteriously empty of any blood” scene starts out the series, but with a subtle change; when the cops do their incredulous “I’d say it was a vampire, ha ha, but we all know that is impossible” speech, they end it with “…because vampires have been extinct since the 80s!”
The reason vampires are extinct—well, technically, “all but extinct,” but I’ll leave the why for the reader to discover for themselves—is because of Jameson Arkeley, Special Deputy of the U.S. Marshals and vampire hunter extraordinaire. The sort of “carved out of wood” old cowboy, who put killing vampires first, ahead of everything. The grizzled old badass who long ago severed any ties to the world that could make him vulnerable. Along the way, he picks up State Trooper Laura Caxton, the affable sidekick in way over her head.
Don’t be tricked into thinking Caxton is a damsel, however, because as the series unfolds she quickly moves to the front. It is a story about her character arc, from patrolling highways to becoming the sort of character who could happily rub shoulders with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner. That journey takes little bit of luck, a lot of grit, and most importantly, the ability to learn from your mistakes. You know how when you are watching The Walking Dead you find yourself yelling at the television “why are you doing that! You know that is a bad idea, why are you doing it again?!” Well, that doesn’t fly in Wellington’s stories. If you act like a fool, you die. Heck, sometimes even if you make the smart choice, you die…which is why it is always good to have a backup plan to your backup plan.
As with his zombies, Wellington isn’t content to go with the popular clichés of the vampire genre. His vampires lose their hair, even their eyebrows, for the same reasons vultures have bare heads; to keep clean when they’ve got their face in a puddle of gore. Fangs? Well, not the two oversized canines or incisors of various other vampire portrayals; no, Wellington’s vampires have a full set of shark teeth. They do have undead servants: the “half-dead,” beings killed by the vampire and then called back from death. So full of self-loathing that they invariably claw their face to ribbons. Too clumsy for guns, they arm themselves with something sharp, like kitchen knives. Vampires and sunlight? Sort of a moot point; during the day the vampire reverts to the state its corpse really should be in, typically a jumble of bones with putrefied liquid flesh pooled at the bottom of their coffin, with a black heart right in the middle.
The Laura Caxton series is one of escalation. Without giving too much away, I think I can give a fairly rough gloss over some of the pertinent “fist thrust in the air in jubilant excitement” moments. The eponymous 99 Coffins of the second book, for instance, are actually the coffins of nearly a hundred civil war soldiers, found in an archeological dig at Gettysburg…all turned into vampires as a last ditch weapon, buried unused when the Union won the war. The climactic battle of Vampire Zero is set in the mines of Centralia Pennsylvania, a real world location where a coal seam fire is going to burn…well, pretty much forever. 23 Hours is one big bottle episode, set in a prison with a vampire on the loose inside. The showdown at the end of 32 Fangs…well, I won’t say anything about it, but it takes up practically the entire last quarter of the book…and it is bloody fantastic.