Welcome to Freaky Fridays where paperbacks are still on the racks and they’re full of sexy vampires and the even sexier men in leather trench coats who kill them.
If you thought ‘Salem’s Lot needed more automatic weapons, then T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood is for you. In the Seventies and Eighties the rugged, emotionally repressed tough guy who was equally comfortable with both guns and lovemaking was the leading man of choice. The hottest ticket in male hunkdom was the Vietnam vet because he’d seen such things that he was basically Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner only he didn’t dye his hair. But after Anne Rice’s slim-hipped, glam vampires took over horror in the mid-Eighties they provided horror writers with a template from which all future leading men would be forged, giving rise to a legion of edgy male leads who were conflicted, tormented about their motivations and, when they confronted their nemesis, were subjected to a speech about how they’re both the same underneath the skin.
Martindale saw that trend and said, “Oh, hell no.” He took Anne Rice’s sensitive vampires and machine gunned them into kibble. He set them on fire. He stuck bombs down their pants. His book’s hero? A Vietnam vet dedicated to avenging evil, wearing a trench coat and toting an uzi. A man as reliable as a divorced dad, roaming the country, parking outside lovers lanes and spying on them from his creeper van to, erm, make sure no vampires were about. Or anything. Instead of doubting himself, he was sure of his abilities to kick ass. Instead of worrying about whether gazing into the abyss would turn him into an abyss too, he worried about making pipe bombs. Instead of carrying baggage, he carried an uzi. Ladies, put on your running shoes because this stud is single!
Like most marriage material, Chris Stiles rolls into the town in a van that doubles as his bedroom. The town is Isherwood, IN (pop. 800) and Stiles is there thanks to his ghost brother, Alex. In what might be the most Dagwood sandwich set-up in horror fiction, Alex was torn to pieces by some evil creature in Central Park (“Where’s your body in the park?” Chris shouts to Alex’s ghost. “All over it!” comes the reply), then he appears to Chris in ‘Nam as a ghost buddy who helps him machine gun a dozen VC, then forces him to roam America, hunting whatever EEEVILLL Alex detects, blowing it away with modified shotguns in the hope that eventually, through the law of averages, he’ll wind up murdering whatever killed his brother, thereby freeing his soul. Now Alex has detected EEEVILLL in Isherwood, and Chris is there to shoot it in the face.
Published in 1990, the shadow of ‘Salem’s Lot hangs heavy over this book, right down to the old Marsten, erm, I mean Danner place, an evil old house that squats on the edge of town being all spooky and unpleasant. When Del and Bart (two rambunctious young whippersnappers) break into the house on a dare, they help release Nathan Danner from where he’s been walled up in the basement. The cadaverous vampire attacks them and not even their nunchuks can drive him back until suddenly a little red dot appears on the evil vampire’s face and:
“There was a muffled burping sound from across the yard…The vampire stumbled backward…a large section of its brow and left eye socket were now gone…the machine gun burped again, and the vampire’s face all but ceased to exist. Each round slammed home with deadly efficiency…sending bone shards and tissue spinning into the air like confetti. Its left cheekbone and eye disappeared completely and part of the jaw with them before the red dot strayed to the other side of its face and spread destruction there as well…Another burst tore through its raised right talon and continued the devastation on the face beyond. “Who are you!” it cried again before its lips were torn away and its sharp, yellow teeth scattered across the steps. It wailed and gagged on pieces of itself as it tried to escape.”
Ladies…let me know when you’re back from your cold showers. As a cop says later, observing Chris Stiles in action, he’s “Superior and strong. A born hunter. A killer.”
He’s also “gruff yet vulnerable, like a lost child, searching for something” and the lucky lady who gets to explore this underaged side of him is Billie, mother of Del and Bart, a diner waitress with a heart of gold and a dead husband. She offers the handsome drifter a place to stay, then asks him about his background which prompts him to basically tell her the lyrics of “Born in the USA.” Then he melts her heart when he says, in his soft yet serious voice, that he’s looking for a special woman, “Someone I could talk to.” When they kiss, it sends shock waves coursing through her body, causing her to arch her back, and startling her with its hunger and honesty.
Then there are vampires. “C’mon you fucking pussy. Let’s see what you got,” Stiles snarls at Danner when he finds him in his hotel room later. After they karate each other, Danner squeezes Chris’s nuts until he passes out. As if the pain in his gonads wasn’t bad enough, when he wakes up Danner gives him the whole “You’re just like me” lecture before declaring that Stiles will drink Danner’s blood and turn into a vampire slave and Danner will administer this blood slurpee through his DICK. “He unbuttoned his pants and reached inside. The thing he took in hand was pale and bulbous, like a slug born to darkness.” Before events can get too M4M, Stiles frees himself, grabs his uzi, shoots Danner in the dong, then tries to decapitate him with an entire clip on full auto. Danner runs away, only to reappear later, looking even younger, listening to Bon Jovi, and dressed in a bright red Adidas sweatsuit.
Full of bright yellow T-birds and chicks dressed up in Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie, this book is from 1990 but it’s Eighties to the Max with Stile’s wicked butterfly knife, his pistol-grip Starlite Scope right out of the Sharper Image catalogue, and red dots from laser sights all over the place. It supersizes ‘Salem’s Lot. Where ‘Salem’s Lot has one dead vampire kid floating in mid-air and scratching at his friend’s window, Nightblood has six. And they’re lugging around their elementary school yearbook crossing out pictures as they eat way through their entire class, like a dim sum menu.
Stiles embraces the mayhem a little too hard, cutting the phone lines and putting up DANGER: PLAGUE signs to keep outsiders from coming into town (“We’ve got to contain this disease,” he barks), then inhaling the scent of the burning town deeply and proclaiming “A battlefield…I’ve come home.” I love the scent of burning vampires in the morning, he practically declares as he races into the final section of the book—Shadow War—with a shotgun in each hand. He teaches the locals to make fragmentation grenades out of shotgun shells the way they once crafted charming dolls out of corn husks, and he keeps blowing up Danner with vampires repurposed into suicide bombers. But the vampires are hard to kill and soon Stiles is holed up in an old folk’s home, keeping them out with black velvet paintings of Jesus and copies of the poem “Footprints.”
Stiles and Danner share a telepathic link but Danner learned to shut down his emotions in ‘Nam so that Charlie couldn’t smell his fear, and that gives him the advantage he needs to bring the war to the vampire king and win a final karate battle against a reanimated skeleton that’s on fire. As the book ends, Stiles is given a vampire-killing katana and vows to keep wandering the land because he wants to keep things mysterious and not get tied down—he has to keep killing monsters for his brother. But Billie uses her womanly wiles to trick him into sticking around, and in that there’s a lesson for ladies everywhere. If your heart is made of gold and you don’t take no for an answer, then you, too, can land a leather trench coated vampire hunter of your very own.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.