Does the world really need another vampire novel? Or, to quote the cover copy from Glen Hirshberg‘s new novel, Motherless Child, “”Another vampire novel? Really?” Well, my initial thought was, “no, probably not.” But if there were any authors out there who could change my mind, it’s likely that Hirshberg — frequent occupant of Year’s Best compilations and a long-time favorite of mine — would be near the top of the list.
Motherless Child, Earthling Publications’ Halloween title for 2012, is indeed a fresh take, mixing road novel with buddy story (and female buddies, at that) and adding a healthy dollop of good old-fashioned horror.
Natalie and Sophie are small-town, low-income, twenty-something single moms who mostly manage to maintain smiles as they roll with the punches. One night at a club, they encounter the Whistler, whose much-rumored underground performances had previously seemed purely mythical. Once the Whistler has the club’s patrons under his sway, his true vampiric nature comes out to play. And even hough he has been trolling humans for a very long time, the Whistler falls for Natalie like a starstruck teenager, quickly becoming intent on making her his personal possession.
“God, but he loved her already. Would show her the wonders of the nightworld as they fled forever down its face, leaving their ghostprints for the water of the world to swallow. Leaving no trace but melody.”
After the Whistler has started the gradual process of converting Natalie and Sophie to the vampire life, Natalie realizes that the hunger pangs they’re feeling, and the dark nature of what they’re becoming, will force them to leave their babies behind for good, for the children’s own safety. It’s an awareness that brings with it infinite sadness, as expressed in one of the novel’s many well-crafted passages:
“What was she crying about? So many things: the trailer; her son’s bassinet wedged between the fold-down table and the sink; her mother the lawn gnome; these people moored in this nowhere place on the outskirts of this 200-year-old void of a city like lost boats at a buoy in the middle of the ocean; that sawing in her ears; her best and oldest friend’s face, so bright, so familiar, hovering over her son, smiling and aggravating and beautiful as ever. She let the tears come, put a hand to her heart.”
When Sophie and Natalie hit the road, it’s hard not to think of Thelma and Louise — but it’s to the author’s credit that no sooner did I draw the parallel in my head than he pointed out and made light of the similarities himself.
The Whistler’s plan to make Natalie his undead mate (or, as he calls her, “his Destiny”) necessitates driving a wedge between her and Sophie, a manipulation that he expects will bring him satisfaction, but ultimately disappoints, as related in the following, another of Hirshberg’s finer exercises in phrasing:
“What stunned him most of all…was the lack of pleasure he felt, as his Destiny twitched on her feet and her mouth opened and real loneliness, the kind people dread and dream of all their sorry, scrabbling lives, rushed into her for the first time.”
The two friends’ attempts to leave their old life, and the Whistler, behind are foiled when their children are threatened, pulling them back into conflict with the Whistler, as well as a former cohort of his. The resulting finale is carefully-orchestrated yet unquestionably moving. This is largely a story about a mother’s love — but quite likely not the particular mother that you were expecting.
For the most part, Hirshberg hews to traditional vampire mythology, although there are a few exceptions, most notably a scene of Sophie serenely skinnydipping with obsequious alligators that is both unique and creepy. Minor quibbles? Only a couple. The Whistler’s obsession with Sophie is never really explained in any satisfactory way. And the book almost feels too brief, wrapping up too quickly, a rare complaint in these days of doorstop-sized treekillers, but a feeling that’s nonetheless hard to shake.
As implied, Motherless Child is a brisk novel, clocking in at just 236 pages, and moving at a crackling pace. From its striking cover art to its somber last page, it’s a vampire novel that deserves your attention. Really.