They Thirst (1981) is a vampire novel with a vicious bite; an epic, go-for-broke account of how an ancient vampire king brought down the City of Angels. It’s a big story, with big stakes (pun intended), but it all works: Robert R. McCammon‘s fourth novel is an action-packed story with small moments of humanity against an apocalyptic backdrop.
The vampire king is Prince Vulkan, a thousand-years-old Hungarian who sets up court in Castle Kronsteen, a gothic house built by an old movie star. Vulkan uses his powers to assemble the worst of humanity: Kobra, a psychopath becomes his right-hand-man, while Roach, a serial killer, is used as a renfield to deliver “lunch” up to the castle. Vulkan’s mission is simple: conquer Los Angeles. All of it. As the vampire populace grows night after night, coffins are dug up in cemeteries for use as daytime cribs for the vampires.
This attracts the attention of a police detective on the hunt for Roach; Andy Palatazin, also originally from Hungary, who happens to have some personal experience with vampires. He recognizes the signs, and realizes what’s happening, but of course nobody believes him.
And here the novel bares its fangs, and smiles gleefully; the oncoming apocalypse is just another day in LA. McCammon roots the action in believable, realistic scenery, with everyday problems and latino gangs and police on the trail of a killer. All things supernatural therefore have a firm basis on which to stand, and boy, they truly do stand tall.
A wonderful example is the chapter where Father Silvera, a local priest and one of the central figures in the novel, enters an apartment block with mostly poor latino immigrants. Silvera doesn’t know it, but the house has been attacked by vampires. The discovery of newly turned vampires cowering under beds and in the closets is horrific; it’s supernatural horror, brought down to a realistic level. And equally realistically, the society goes through the motions and takes the vampires to hospital, since vampires aren’t real, after all. This denialism against all evidence is emblematic of the novel, and it’s executed very effectively.
The residents of LA do wake up to their new reality soon enough, and here McCammon holds nothing back. The normality shatters almost overnight. A sandstorm of supernatural origins strikes LA, turning daytime into a constant barrage of sand and wind. When the characters, led by Palatazin and Father Silvera, finally round up their resources and start their counterattack, it’s almost too late. The odds are overwhelmingly against them, and their mission to the vampire den is a suicide mission. But even as the world comes down all around them, the human spirit grits its teeth and survives, with some deus ex machina (about 9.5 on the Richter scale) help.
McCammon’s writing and pacing are excellent throughout; the realism is palpable, the apocalyptic consequences fantastically vivid. The characters are likeable and their survival rate is low; but their deaths always count for something. The action is constant and pleasantly over the top, but McCammon always remembers to keep his feet on the ground. And the story never loses its focus, it’s very controlled storytelling that apportions action and plot and just generally kick-ass moments of great eighties horror in equal measure.
They Thirst may be one of those rare novels that can be summed up in one word, and that word is awesome.