I have been into vampires for a very long time. I started reading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles
in eighth grade, which is way
too young to be reading anything other than the first book in that series and I think it may have screwed me up for several years. I read horror vampire novels and paranormal romance vampire novels and ~classic~ vampire novels like Dracula
, and I watched old terrible old vampire movies and terrible new vampire movies and parodies of vampire movies and this Eddie Izzard clip:
And then I read books on vampire folklore and the science and history behind vampire legends, from Father Montague Summers
’ dense, old-world demonologies to Paul Barber’s gross but eminently readable Vampires, Burial, and Death
In tenth grade I wrote a research paper on the development of the vampire in stories, noting their periodic booms in mainstream popularity, and I wondered if the next vampire revival would happen in my lifetime. It happened just a few years later, kicking into high gear sometime around my sophomore year in college.
(Overall this has made me as happy as a vampire in a Red Cross donation facility, although I would like to rant for a moment: it is tiresome as shit when people insist on comparing every single fucking vampire story ever directly to Twilight
, immediately, as if there are only two, monolithic kinds of vampire story, Twilight
s and anti-Twilights
. The two fastest ways to turn me off a vampire story are to promise me it’s just like Twilight
, and to promise me it’s nothing like Twilight
. If you’re too stupid to even tell me about the story you are supposedly telling me about, I’m not taking your book recommendations. And if Twilight
is your only fucking reference point for vampire stories, you don’t know enough about vampire stories to be telling me anything about vampire stories.)
The point here is, I have read A LOT of vampire stories. So I was very, very excited to learn that Holly Black
, fabulous modern Gothic YA writer extraordinaire, was writing a vampire story, because if there’s anyone I would trust to write an absolutely awesome one, it would be Holly Black. I got a gorgeous little “teaser” of it last year at her book signing with Libba Bray
and Sarah Rees Brennan
, when she read to us from the first chapter of what was at the time her work-in-progress, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
. In this snippet, a girl named Tana wakes up in a bathtub after a party, and finds out that everyone else in the house is dead.
Then I spent a year anxiously keeping an eye on all the news for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
—release dates, cover art, etc. And the book signing tour. The book signing tour included an event at the Cambridge Public Library, two days after the book’s release. I went with a bunch of people from my writing group, and we listened to Holly Black talk to us about how she almost didn’t write the book because she wondered if it was really a good time for another vampire story (thankfully, she concluded that it is ALWAYS a good time for another vampire story), and how she used to pretend her Barbies were good vampire Barbies who could defend her from the evil non-Barbie vampires outside, and all the different vampire stories in varying degrees of melodramatic trashiness that she read when she was younger—Anne Rice
, Poppy Z. Brite
, Les Daniels
. (I had somehow never heard of Les Daniels but it sounds like I ought to go check him out IMMEDIATELY.) I also got a shiny signed book! The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
is every bit as awesome as I would expect from Holly Black. Like her other YA books, it draws heavily on old stories—and you can tell she really knows her stuff—but it’s also thoroughly contemporary.
The thing that really intrigued me about the worldbuilding in this book was that the development of vampires in society is basically backwards
from the way the idea of the vampire has developed through time. In old vampire legends, vampirism was usually a plague—a vampire would be created in a town or village, and it would come back at night and feed off of other townspeople and turn them into vampires, and if you didn’t dig up and kill all the vampires quickly, the next thing you knew, the whole town would be dead. As the vampire moved from a folklore monster into a literary one, and the world moved forward, getting smaller and smaller so it became harder to explain how a creature could hide if it caused mass death like that, and as our fear of plagues dwindled and newer, more modern fears took its place—fear of venereal disease, fear of loneliness and alienation, fear of the world changing too fast, and, in the case of heterosexual women living in a patriarchal society, fear of being attracted to predatory beings with power over you—the vampire became a figure that hid, that went to great lengths to space out the deaths it caused, or make them unsuspicious or unmemorable; in the most modern incarnations, even to feed without killing.
In Holly Black's world, the vampires used
to be like that—hidden, nearly unknown. They kept their numbers carefully low so that they wouldn’t come into public view. They had a tightly controlled hierarchical secret governance thing. The process for making new vampires involved the progeny drinking its maker’s blood. It was all very twentieth-century-vampire-novel-y.
Then, about ten years before the book opens… vampirism went viral. A baby vamp with no idea what he was doing went around biting people without killing them. These people would then go Cold—basically, they had an infection that made them crave human blood. It took almost three months for the infection to wear off. If they actually drink human blood in that time, when they’re infected, they turn into vampires. (Weaker vampires than ones that had been fed a vampire’s blood before their full transformation, but still vampires.) In this way, vampirism came into public knowledge, and became a widespread, deadly plague—like in the old vampire folk legends.
The areas with the worst outbreaks were quarantined and walled up. These quarantine cities were called Coldtowns, and the first, biggest, and most famous of them was in what used to be Springfield, Massachusetts. Outside of the Coldtowns, vampires were hunted, and if they were caught, were either killed or sent to Coldtown. Infected humans would be sent to Coldtown if they were found out by law enforcement. Inside the Coldtowns, vampires hunted freely, preying on the population of humans walled in with them, and the seemingly endless supply of humans who voluntarily migrated to the Coldtowns, hoping to get turned into vampires. They also threw ridiculously decadent parties, and filmed them, and put them online. Some vampires basically became reality TV stars.
The most famous reality TV star Coldtown vampires is Lucien Morales, who fits into the fine tradition of batshit crazy, spotlight-hugging blond vampires who revel in being vampires, like Eric from the Sookie Stackhouse books
and Lestat in the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles (alright, so Lestat goes through phases of reveling and being broody/guilty, but he’s introduced as a reveler), and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
—that is the Blond vampire archetype, and Lucien is a Blond. Holly Black describes him as “slick” and having “a face like a pre-Raphaelite painting,” although I’m not sure what that second part means, as I tried Googling “pre-Raphaelite paintings” and they are 99.9% pictures of ladies, but at any rate, there is a fine old tradition of describing vampires by what school of art they look like they belong to, so I’m going to go with it. Lucien throws the bangin’est parties in Coldtown, and he’s batshit nuts, but very charming.
In an interesting break with tradition, the Dark vampire character is even more
batshit crazy than Lucien! The Dark vampire is the brunet male vampire who is the love interest and has more of the broody/guilty/missing-his-humanity thing going on. Bill Compton, Louis du Point du Lac, Angel, and Matthew Clairmont
are all Darks. The Dark and the Blond are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies, but usually it’s more complicated than that; they are invariable foils for each other. In this book, they are actually described as “frenemies.” Our Dark is named Gavriel, there are about five different plot twists involving reveals of various aspects of his identity throughout the story, and he is actually mad
, as in, he’s been tortured so badly that his mind is sort of fragmented, and he says and does a lot of really weird stuff, because staying coherent is very taxing for him. He is an amazing character.
Our main human girl is a high school student named Tana. When Tana was little, her mother went Cold and attacked her, and her father had to kill her mother. Tana now lives with her little sister Pearl and her extremely depressed father. As mentioned earlier, one day, she goes to a party, and wakes up in the bathtub, and everybody is dead—except for her amazingly obnoxious attention-whoring jerkface ex-boyfriend, Aiden, who is infected and quickly going Cold, and the vampire Gavriel, who is chained up and apparently being hunted by other vampires. Tana is almost-maybe-bitten by one of the other vampires in the process of getting them all out of the house, and doesn’t know if she’s infected or not. The three of the head towards Coldtown, where they pick up a brother-and-sister pair of blue-haired teenagers who go by the names Midnight and Winter, and are seeking to get turned into vampires. When they get into Coldtown, things start to get even more out of control.
The pacing in this story is a little odd in terms of page count—they don’t even get to Coldtown until nearly halfway through the book; what the real plotline is going to be—who is the bad guy and why, what is the evil plan they have to stop, etc.—doesn’t become clear until pretty late in the book—but it doesn’t feel weirdly paced when reading it. The story is deeply rooted in the idea of decadence
that permeates so many of the older Gothic novels: much of Coldtown is falling apart, post-apocalyptic, insufficiently maintained since the walls went up ten years ago and with a death rate much higher than that of anywhere in the civilized outside world. It’s also bloody as all get-out: although this is a teen book, I think if they made it into a movie, it would be so far into an R rating that it couldn’t be marketed as a teen movie.
The major moral theme in this story is, as Gavriel puts it, the sin of mercy
. I found this both fascinating and unexpected, because one of the more frequently-used endeepening subjects of the modern vampire novel is that killing is always inherently bad, and therefore the good vampires feel guilty about this, and they can take steps to try and mitigate it (only killing bad people like murderers and child molestors, etc.), but it’s still bad. Wrestling with whether acting as a vigilante rather than just giving in and eating babies is enough to make one good
or if that’s all just rationalization is a classic way to give vampires, and particularly Darks, moral depth. Even Twilight
sort of gets into this, with Edward having a broody confessional fit about how he ate a serial killer once in the twenties and that’s why he’s a monster and Bella shouldn’t be with him, and Bella is like “Who cares, you probably saved lives actually” and Edward’s like “It’s nice of you to say that but NO I AM TERRIBLE” and there’s really no follow-up to that, it’s just part of their eternal difference of opinion about which one of them sucks and which one of them is perfection incarnate.
In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
, the idea is that doing the right thing can be hard, and sometimes this is because you are not a sociopath who enjoys killing people, therefore killing someone might be hard, but sometimes killing is the right thing to do. Holly Black takes the old Catholic idea that infects so much of Western culture about worrying about the purity of your own soul over paying attention to the actual consequences of your actions, and throws it out the window, then jumps out the window after it and stomps it into the dirt. There some science talk about accumulated toxins, but mostly, there are a lot of cases in which some entity or other is goddamn dangerous to others
and is better off removed from the picture. Tana’s big moral quandaries tend to be variants on: Can she kill without hesitation if she has to? Can she resist the temptation to take pity on the concrete, begging entity immediately in front of her, and save the lives of the nebulous, faceless, not-present, other people that will die if the danger isn’t removed? When is saving somebody a good idea, and when is it stupid? The trouble at the core of the plot all started with one act of badly judged mercy. I found this line of thought particularly interesting because there are a number of really manipulative characters here, most obviously Aidan and Lucien, and it reminded me of discussions over at Captain Awkward about how manipulative people are able to get smart, nice, good people into bad situations by playing directly on their good qualities—loyalty, sympathy, empathy, niceness, sense of fairness, desire to help, desire for inclusiveness, etc.—and the only way to get out of or defend yourself from these kinds of people is to develop the ability to put your good impulses on hold
There is also a bunch of stuff about reality TV and the romanticization of vampires and death and violence and all that. Particularly involving Midnight the blue-haired runaway, and twelve-year-old Pearl, who likes watching both Coldtown feeds and vampire-hunting shows.
If any of this makes it sound like this book is a deep philosophical meditation on moral quandaries… don’t worry, it mostly isn’t. There some thought-provoking themes there
, at least if you find the same stuff thought-provoking that I do, but mostly the book is a fast-paced, decadent, bloody adventure. A lot of authors have been trying to modernize the vampire story lately, the way Anne Rice did in the eighties, but Holly Black has officially succeeded
in reinventing the vampire story for the early twenty-first century. I mean, there are gifs. Gifs!