I had a sliiiiiight overreaction to the last vampire novel I was sent to review because I honestly didn't know it was supposed to be funny, and also because it was really bad. I was frankly in no mood to read anything more about bloodsuckers, but Bruce McCandless III set Sour Lake in the Big Thicket of Texas and hinted at some tantalizing looks at obscure folk legends, so I sighed and got reading...
And boy was I glad that I did, because if anybody is likely to equal Joe Hill as the master of modern horror, then McCandless is that man. Sour Lake pulled me in so deep and fast I'm not entirely sure I remember anything about the day I sat reading his incredible book other than the sound of rapidly turned pages.
Set in 1911 Texas, the story follows a set of grisly and bizarre murders in the Big Thicket section of Southeast Texas. Victims are torn limb from limb, with organs and blood removed. Initially packs of wild dogs are blamed, but a local sheriff and a doctor with a dark past slowly come to the conclusion that what is haunting the woods is not a normal animal.
The latest movement in horror novels is desperately trying to capture the gothic classics by setting them in the past and linking them to famous people or events. These are generally little better than fan fiction. McCandless does reference dozens of legends and bizarre bits of trivia from the early 20th century, but his incredible ability to build believable characters without resorting to parody or archetype turns those touches into their intended purpose of artful backdrop instead of cheesy cameo.
On occasion, he does try just a bit too hard to ape the style of Bram Stoker, though he does so with firm tongue in cheek. Indeed, at one point two doctors exchange letters about the happenings, and make it a point to blast Stoker for his poor, unimaginative writing. You have to be a very special kind of book nerd to laugh till you pee over an epistolary exchange bashing Dracula.
In practice, McCandless is more Lovecraft than Stoker. There are few women in the book, and our antagonists include sullen yokels, mysterious foreigners and a creature from beyond our Earthly realm. Yet he never falls into the senseless, hyperbolic style that plagues Lovecraft's prose. Instead, he allows the storyline to smoothly flow along the page, exciting, but not typically in any hurry.
It was also refreshing to have a good old monster tale, something like Jeepers Creepers, that didn't require an endless amount of exploring the mind of the horror itself. The vampire cutting a bloody swath through our heroes doesn't need a monologue. He needs to kill and breed. Isn't that enough? McCandless saves his examinations for the racist paranoia of the town, which believes an outcast black man is the culprit, and the righteous brutality of Texas Ranger Jewel Lightfoot, who joins the team as part of a brotherhood of Christian warriors dedicated to eliminating supernatural evil.
Sour Lake is a sleeper of a book. You start reading it and at first there's nothing special. Then all of a sudden you realize that McCandless has stripped away all the pretentions that have slowly emasculated much of horror fiction since monsters were turned into sex symbols. He's returned us to where we belong, crouching in the dark terrified of something we can't understand. Texas deserves its monsters to be like everything else here, big and badass. McCandless delivers perfectly.
We sat down with McCandless to ask him a bit about Sour Lake. Click on over to page 2 for the interview.
AA: It's pretty safe to say that you have a different take on the vampire than any other author currently out there. Was that a conscious decision to be different, or did you have another reason for choosing the monster you did?
Bruce McCandless: It came out of an earnest attempt to figure out how a monster could really exist on Earth. As much as I love vampires, it's difficult to figure out how they could function. I always come around to the idea that what we've called vampires, werewolves, etc., in the past were imperfect understandings of something sui generis -- something very difficult to categorize or understand. Lovecraft was the master of course at suggesting that even to try to understand one of his monster deities would lead to insanity. My creature is not that abominable, but I did want it to be unexpected.
AA: My absolute favorite part is when Walter and Daris are bashing Dracula while writing in exactly the same style as Seward and Van Helsing. What's your real opinion of Dracula.?
BM: I'm glad you noticed that! I have always loved Dracula. Couldn't resist imitating the epistolary exchanges. I didn't realize till I started doing it how efficient a way it is to move the plot along.
AA: Even though you have two very powerful black characters as protagonists, something that would've been unheard-of in gothic literature, you still make your antagonists foreigners (Turkish, Afghani and extraterrestrial). Isn't the Lovecraftian xenophobic villain just as abhorrent as racism in gothic literature?
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BM: I'm proud of my black characters, but I probably could have done better with my bad guys. It was a matter of timing. The Yazidi really do exist, and I was writing this around the time that cell phone video of the stoning of a young Yazidi girl was being circulated on the Internet. What I learned about the group -- including their disputes with their neighbors, and their conception of the Peacock Angel -- just seemed to make them an interesting "candidate" for bad-guy status. (Though even here, I tried to point out that Solomon was espousing a deviant brand of Yazidi philosophy, and therefore not representative of the group.)
I was trying to avoid using Moslems as the villains. I suppose Naguib could be construed as Moslem, but I was actually going for more of a northern Indian or Afghani type, possibly Hindu or something more exotic. There is a tantalizing reference in Rory Stewart's The Places in Between to a long-lost Kingdom of the Turquoise Mountain, and I was looking to make a sort of connection there.
AA: Could you have told this story someplace outside of Texas? Someplace like the Bridgewater Triangle, for instance? Why here?
BM: I think Sour Lake could be set elsewhere with a similar -- or maybe analogous -- cast of characters. The advantage of using Texas for me was familiarity with the stereotypes, and trying to play off them a little bit. I mean, when you think of Texas, you don't usually think of the swampy, vegetation-choked Big Thicket, and when you picture the Texas Rangers, you don't usually think of a peppery little guy like Jewel Lightfoot who's a little off his rocker. It also helps that in Texas, everyone can plausibly be expected to own at least one firearm! (Mind you, while this helps in fiction, I'm not so sure it helps with everything else.) The other element you probably wouldn't get with a Massachusetts setting is the racial tension. Not that there haven't been racial tensions up north, of course -- but there wouldn't have been the more or less constant threat of physical violence hanging over the characters as there was in East Texas at this particular time.