About two weeks ago I finally finished a novel I’ve had in my possession for a while. It was, of course, borrowed from Miss R’s wonderful library and I was actually with her when it was originally purchased (good ol' Pitt street Borders, you are missed). For me, it was one of those cases of superficiality – you know what I mean, one of those “hey this cover looks kinda cool, get that”. That was just me though, R had actually heard of it before and was interested before my extremely helpful contribution.
The novel in question here is Thirteen Bullets by David Wellington (please note the cover R’s copy is completely different to that.) It’s the first in a supernatural series following State Trooper Laura Caxton. Interestingly enough, it was originally posted in serial form on Wellington’s blog before being picked up for publication by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Random House.
Now, this is not a review. I’m not blogging about it because I want to put forth the books qualities. I’m blogging about it simply because I have no idea what to do with it. The premise is simply that Laura Caxton, small town State Trooper, discovers a ‘half dead’ (ie not fully turned vampire) while doing RBTs so bringing vampire expert Special Deputy Arkeley to town. Everyone assumed vampires to be extinct, but one still remains in the US in a medical facility under strict guard. This vampire, Malvern, is ancient and emancipated and Arkeley really wants her dead, but a court had ruled her to be “alive” and therefore anyone who harmed her would be up for murder. So follows a convoluted story involving murderous vampires and hordes of half-deads, and Arkeley and Caxton as the only ones who can stop the onslaught.
Right, firstly, I really wished I hadn’t read this because I was writing a vampire short story where my vampires slowly decomposed the older they got – exactly what happens in this novel. Foiled! Secondly, there is something about it that really doesn’t sit well with me. It’s quite all-out in its horror elements, so it has the uncanny vibe you’d expect from it, but that’s not what I mean.
I think it comes down to Laura Caxton’s character. As the protagonist she is meant to be our ‘in’ into this world and, as she is new to the supernatural world and is educated so to speak by Arkeley, we are initiated into the mythology of the novel right along with her. The thing is thought, her character is rather one-dimensional which greatly impacts on my ability to engage with her or the challenges she faces. I feel like Wellington created this female protagonist without any real thought to what a female protagonist would actually be like and instead just went for melodrama stereotypes. Cue the daddy issues, and the overwhelming whiff that a strong male influence would be all to sort her out.
That might not have given me such an apprehensive view of things, if not for the fact that Caxton also happens to be a lesbian, and is in a committed relationship with her partner Deana. There are so many possibilities for a move like that to push a novel into new territory, to explore something different through merely presenting a protagonist who is not ‘conventional.’ Sadly, this is not explored. It’s superficial and clumsily handled, and in the end when it turns out that one vampire had taken a particular shine to Caxton because he was turned on by the girl-on-girl element, I couldn’t help but feel that it was similarly Wellington’s entire motivation for making Caxton gay. Deana’s character is also not given any depth or agency really, and the whole thing feels farcical at best.
It wouldn’t bother me if not for the stabs at depth taken at times where Caxton is contemplating the nature of their relationship (she also of course thinks about cheating on Deana, I’m sure that’s a trope all in its own really) – moments that all seem to come after Deana is severely injured and Caxton can’t see her because she isn’t family, or Deana’s family’s disapproval and so on. Stuff that seem to be only thrown in there because of the idea that, when dealing with this sort of thing, that’s just what one does.
Granted I’ve never done queer studies, but I’ve certainly had a lot of exposure to it thanks to my TW fandom, and I just can’t help but feel that there’s no sincerity, no depth – just superficial gloss. It’s not that I want it to be about the relationship, it is after all a horror novel, and that’s partly the problem. For most of the novel, I just thought it was really unnecessary to weave in all this relationship nonsense anyway, but the final plot twist kind of hinges on it and I think essentially that is why it should carry more depth so I can buy into that final twist, so I can actually feel something about it. It’s like these issues are shoe-horned in there to provide a convenient plot twist – it’s only there when it needs to be, and the rest of the time it’s forgotten. Surely if something is an issue, that’s it, it’s an issue. There’s just no consistency.
I don’t know. I just think if you’re going to make your protagonist’s sexuality and relationship central, you can at least put in some effort to make it believable. I don’t want to feel like I’m just witnessing something someone else thinks is hot. The whole thing just smacks of melodrama, and while a gay female protagonist in the horror world is both a risk in appealing to the market and a good ploy to differentiate your character from the masses, I feel Wellington did it meekly and, by pandering to borderline stereotypical representations, missed the opportunity to actually have an interesting take on an old tale.
Music: Here comes the sun - The Beatles