Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Traveling Vampire Show

Richard Laymon, author of THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW (limited edition 2000, mass-market paperback 2001), prolific creator of many horror novels and short stories over his two-decade career, published at least one other vampire novel, BITE (1996). THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW received a posthumous Bram Stoker Award in 2001.

On the outskirts of a small town in the summer of 1963, the Traveling Vampire Show prepares for a midnight performance featuring Valeria, "the only living vampire in captivity." First-person narrator Dwight and his two best friends, Rusty and Slim (a girl who changes her nickname in accordance with her favorite reading material of the moment), all sixteen years old, can't resist the allure of the show's advertisements, even though the venue is an ill-omened plot of land where multiple corpses of murder victims were unearthed, and nobody under eighteen is supposed be allowed anyway. Things begin to go wrong from the moment they arrive at Janks Field, the afternoon before the performance, in hopes of catching a glimpse of Valeria. A vicious dog traps them on top of a shed, and in the process of trying to escape, they become separated. The rest of the day unfolds with practically nonstop suspense, yet still allowing room for atmosphere, character development, and the deepening relationship between Dwight and Slim. Are members of the Traveling Vampire Show following and threatening the three teenagers? Are those strangers dangerous or merely creepy? What, if anything, do they have to do with the sinister Cadillac Twins, two men by whom Slim was almost abducted a month earlier? Most important, is Valeria a "real" vampire? The heroes' better judgment tells them otherwise, but they can't suppress a twinge of fear that vampires may really exist.

With the help of Dwight's sister-in-law, Lee, they gain admission to the performance. From that point, events rush toward a breathtaking climax. Through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Dwight, we do not learn the truth about Valeria until almost the end. In fact, we don't even get a glimpse of her until well past the 300-page mark in the 391-page paperback. The author shows admirable skill in maintaining narrative tension throughout while keeping the "monster" offstage that long. In a denouement no reader is likely to anticipate, the heroes uncover the secret of the Traveling Vampire Show. Slim, facing the villains with her bow and arrow, and Dwight, prepared to risk his life for his equally brave sister-in-law, prove to be true heroes. Their brash, mostly unlikable friend Rusty doesn't merit that label, but he, too, is a vivid and memorable character. The 1963 small-town setting lends a special dimension to the story. For Boomers, the imaginary return to the summer before Kennedy's assassination will provide a pleasurable exercise in nostalgia (at least, it did for me). Dwight tells the story from the perspective of an adult looking back at his youth, although for most of the book his adult persona is submerged in his vivid memories of the horrific past events. For younger readers, this book reveals a vanished world of rotary telephones and only three channels on TV, when suburban households didn't lock their doors in the daytime, when teenagers had easy access to weapons but wouldn't dare be caught upstairs in the home of a friend of the opposite sex. In a small way, though, Dwight and his friends do not ring completely true for me in at least one respect. As a teenage girl in the year of this story, I had never even seen in print a couple of the words that drop casually from these kids' lips when no adults are present, much less heard them spoken aloud. (I can believe Dwight and Rusty might use the F-word and other obscenities between themselves, but not in front of Slim.)

While actually reading the book, however, I noticed this factor only as a minor niggle in the back of my mind. THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW is a sometimes heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about characters who spring to life from the first page. The comparison in a cover quote on the paperback to Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, a classic adventure-fantasy of two boys menaced by a sinister carnival in a small town, has some justification. A closer analogy, however, would be with Stephen King's IT. Laymon's novel, featuring the shadow of past tragedies (the serial killer's victims in Janks Field), explicit language, occasional scenes of graphic violence, and adolescent male preoccupation with the mysteries of sex brings to mind King more than Bradbury.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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