Thursday, September 22, 2011

Live Girls

Live Girls, by Ray Garton
August, 2006 Leisure Books
(Original publication 1987)

I learned about this novel over on Will Errickson's awesomely-named blog Too Much Horror Fiction. Luckily I found a copy of the 2006 reprint during a recent horror-buying binge at a local used bookstore emporium, and it went to the top of the reading pile. I'm not really into vampire tales, I mean I think we as a people are in vampire overload these days, with a glut of novels, movies, tv series, and etc all focusing on the damn things. Happily though Live Girls is much better than the average vampire dreck we're currently being inundated with.

For one, the vampires here are vampires, not punk teenagers in goth clothing. The novel is also a nice reminder of when horror fiction was for and about adults, with sex and a dangerous vibe -- in other words, before the genre, like everything else in today's miserable world, began to pander to the all-so-important tweener market. Instead of coming off like a teenager-oriented soap opera, Live Girls is about normal adults facing the fact that vampires live among them. It is (intentionally) funny at times and for the most part plays it straight and non-campy. Plus it has vampire strippers!!

The book features a small core of characters, but the main one is a writer named Davey Owen who works as an editor for a line of men's adventure magazines (not the cool '50s-'60s type, but the Soldier of Fortune-'80s type). He's known for letting women walk all over him, much to the dismay of Casey, a coworker who has feelings for him. Also Davey is constantly informed that he has no backbone, something which is drilled into him via dialog and narrative a bit too much for my tastes -- foreshadowing overkill. Depressed over his latest girlfriend leaving him (for her former boyfriend, no less, an abusive drugdealer), Davey heads into Time Square on his lunch break and finds himself outside the many stripclubs.

"Live Girls" is the name of one of the clubs, so unostentatious (not a real word, btw) that even the sign hanging outside of it is broken. The casual flair of the place appeals to Davey so he goes inside, pays for his tokens, and chooses a booth; this is his first time for such shenanigans, and he's shocked to discover that the nude woman dancing behind the glass window inside the booth is actually beautiful. He's further surprised when she reaches through the hole beneath the glass and begins fondling him. Eventually she does a whole bunch more to him, and Davey's mind is blown, among other things (what a comedian).

This visit has two major effects on Davey: he finds himself obsessed with the raven-haired beauty in the booth, and he also finds himself distracted and distanced from the real world. Indeed he finally confronts his disgusting, despicable boss over a raise he believed he was entitled. She insinuates that perhaps if Davey slept with her, he might eventually get that raise. (The sexual harassement is just the tip of the pre-PC working world iceberg, here; I kept laughing at the many scenes where Casey and other coworkers would light up cigarettes in the breakrooms.) Davey quits, leaves happily, and finds himself back at Live Girls.

In another plot Walter Benedek, a New York Times reporter, is himself staking out Live Girls. Benedek's brother-in-law Vernon started frequenting the place shortly before he began acting strange and disappearing for long stretches of time. Benedek's first appearance in the novel is his discovery of his sister's and niece's mauled and mutilated remains, and the signs are quite clear that Vernon was their murderer. Benedek has a gut feeling that something is strange about Live Girls, that it played a factor in Vernon's behavior. He's now watching the place in an attempt to find Vernon, whom even the police can't find. During one such stakeout Benedek notices Davey Own visiting the place twice in one day; Benedek notices him because Davey looks nothing like the establishment's typical clientele.

Davey meanwhile begins to stalk Live Girls himself, so consumed with thoughts over the stripper. He runs into her as she's leaving the cub; her name is Anya and she appears amused with Davey's obsession. She reveals that she also works at another place, a classier establisment called The Midnight Club. On her way their now, she not only offers Davey to ride along in her cab but also gets him in for free. The place is mostly for members and has a long waiting list for nonmembers. People here are nicely dressed and it's several steps above Live Girls, however only members can drink the House Special, a chilled glass of very dark crimson liquid.

Given that this is a horror novel, we readers already understand what's going on. These people, including Anya, are vampires, and Anya has been taking blood from Davey during his visits to Live Girls -- taking his blood in a way you'd never see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that's for sure. Davey however is in "the real world" so doesn't realize what's going on; meaning he's even moreso shocked when, after dancing naughtily with a cross on the Midnight Club stage, Anya takes Davey back to her apartment and proceeds to have sex with him.

The scene is both erotic and graphic and certainly packs a punch. We also realize that Anya is making Davey into a vampire, in a process that involves a lot of return neck-biting and blood-swallowing and such. Why exactly Anya makes Davey a vampire instead of just killing him is something Garton leaves vague. The implication is that Anya, a true vampire, actually likes Davey and wants him to be with her, but Garton doesn't get into this.

Indeed it was here that the novel began to unravel, just a little, for me. Anya is such a developed character, and I expected to find out more about her, who she is, but as soon as Davey becomes a vampire Garton basically drops Anya from the narrative. Davey gradually realizes what has happened to him, why he now hungers for blood. More lurid stuff ensues as Casey visits him. Then funny stuff ensues as Benedek visits Casey, putting him through an "are you a vampire?" test that is humorous for both the reader and the characters. It's to Garton's credit that the word "vampire" isn't even mentioned until 200 pages in.

There's more creepy stuff afoot: besides the "regular" vampires there's the head vampire, an ancient woman who takes a shine to Casey; there's a former pimp who now works as the top henchman for the vampires; there's Vernon, Benedek's brother-in-law and now a full-fledged vampire himself; and finally there is a basement full of vampire rejects, misshapen creatures who fed on drug-riddled prey and suffered the consequences. They feast on human scraps, leading to an eerie scene in which Davey infiltrates their lair beneath Live Girls.

At any rate the novel is for the most part an excellent read, but I felt that it tapered off after the midpoint. After all of the build-up about Anya and the vampires, Garton suddenly changes focus to Davey's vampirehood and his eventual plans for revenge upon those who did this to him. We're left with all sorts of questions about these vampires. And the climax itself is a bit rushed, with hardly any solid answers. And again for me the biggest miss was Anya, a greeter into the unlife that any guy would welcome, but sadly she's given short shrift and basically swept under the narrative carpet. I for one couldn't understand why Davey was so pissed at her -- call me crazy, but if a beautiful vampire stripper wanted to make me her immortal consort, I'd at least hear the lady out.

Garton followed up Live Girls in 2005 with Night Life, a novel which appears to have been received poorly by both critic and fan alike. Nevertheless I'll probably read it one of these days, if only to catch up with the (surviving) characters to see how they've progressed over the years.


Tim Mayer said...

You're not missing much by avoiding the sequel. It starts off with a punch, then fizzles. LIVE GIRLS is the much better book. Yeah that scene with the vampire rejects was chilling.

Will Errickson said...

Glad to hear you liked it! Definitely an old-school vampire novel with lots of extra sleaze piled on top.