August, 1995 Leisure Books
Apparently twenty years passed before anyone noticed the name Pyotyr Kurtinski was Peter McCurtin gone Slavic. -- Lynn Munroe
“I can see you have a great big hard-on. I don’t mind being fucked by a vampire. Lord knows I’ve been fucked by everyone but the Birdman of Alcatraz. Just don’t get too rough.” -- From the book
If it were not for Lynn Munroe I wonder if anyone would have ever known that Thirst was the last published novel of Peter McCurtin, who died in January 1997 at the age of 68. McCurtin was very prolific, but if I’m not mistaken Thirst was his only horror novel…but then, I wonder if it could accurately be described as such. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this novel was intended as a spoof of horror novels; it makes the similarly-goofy The Vampire Tapes seem like a piece of serious horror literature. Of course the other possibility is that McCurtin was just totally out of his area in horror and turned in what he thought was a genuine horror novel.
The reviews for this novel on Goodreads are almost comical in how savage they are. McCurtin – though of course the reviewers have no idea it is McCurtin, and assume “Kurtinski” is a real author – is raked over the coals, particularly for his frequent mistake of stating that a bat has a beak. This fallacy is repeated throughout the novel. But then, the novel is about a vampire who can turn himself into a giant bat, so it’s not like realism is much of a concern. Seriously though, things needed to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to have any impact, so little details like “bats don’t have beaks” should have been a concern for McCurtin…which makes me suspect the book is a spoof.
More evidence comes in how neurotic our 200+ year-old protagonist, William Van Diemen, turns out to be. The guy is like the Woody Allen of vampires, though we’re informed he’s a good-looking Dutch dude who is permanently 23 because that’s when he became a vampire. One would have to wonder how such a goof could have survived – and thrived – for over two centuries. In Thirst he’s constantly second-guessing himself, mulling over really stupid stuff, making frequent mistakes, and he even falls in love. What I found most interesting about this neurotic nature is that Len Levinson told me that, when he was writing his Sharpshooter novels in the ‘70s, Peter McCurtin himself (who was editor of the series) said that Len’s version of “Sharpshooter” Johnny Rock was “too neurotic,” and wouldn’t last long in his mob-busting war if he was constantly second-guessing himself. Len reigned this in and delivered a neurosis-free Rock in Headcrusher.
So McCurtin failed to heed his own advice in this 1995 novel. And that’s another thing. If I’d started reading Thirst without knowing anything about it…I’d probably fire off an email to Len to ask him if he’d written it! Now I’m not saying Len Levinson would think bats have beaks, but Thirst is so “Len Levinson-esque” that I wonder if McCurtin was influenced by Len. Like a Len Levinson novel, there’s no “plot” per se and the characters all seem to exist outside the novel, often obsessing over things both mundane and spiritual. That said, Len would have written a better novel than Peter McCurtin did. Thirst, while it is Len Levinson-esque in the narrative style, lacks the trademark spark of a genuine Len Levinson novel.
The most curious thing is how little Thirst is like the other McCurtin novels I’ve read. I guess the closest comparison would be his strange ‘70s attempt at a bestseller beach read-type book, the similiarly-goofy The Pleasure Principle. The difference is Thirst is longer, coming in at 346 pages. But per the Leisure Books norm those pages fly by thanks to some very big print…and also true to Leisure form the novel is riddled with typos. In many ways Thirst is exactly like the stuff McCurtin was writing (and editing) for the publisher back in the ‘70s, not to mention that the “main” plot (per se) features our villainous protagonist Van Diemen operating less like a vampire and more like a ‘90s Johnny Rock, fighting the Mafia…which is another source of ridicule in those Goodreads reviews, given that this vampire does his fighting with guns and grenades!
So for 346 big-print pages Van Diemen, who has a castle in the Bronx, tries to stop a lawyer who wants to purchase his land, feeds nightly on unsuspecting prey, works on his autobiography, turns a hapless P.I. into a vampire, and also falls in friggin’ love with a jaded photographer who either has a “hard face” or is “attractive” (McCurtin can’t seem to make up his mind). She also has a “hip-flask voice,” one of my favorite random descriptions ever. Oh and there’s also a sort-of Vampira type who shows up in the novel for a handful of pages, but McCurtin does nothing at all with her. Actually, she’s more of a fake vampire than a horror hostess – calling herself “Draculina,” she has her face done up like a “ghoul” and dresses like a hag, but Van Diemen deduces that she has a “nice body” beneath the drab clothes. Van Diemen rapes her, along with another woman earlier in the novel; Van Diemen’s tendency for rape is another source of anger the Goodreads reviews. Yes, Van Diemen rapes (and kills) two women in the course of Thirst, but then again, he also figures that he has killed nearly eighty thousand people in the course of his vampire life – this a quick calculation he does based off his nightly feeds over the course of the past 200+ years.
This I found was the only non-goofy stuff in the novel, because McCurtin clearly understands you can’t have a vampire hero. By nature vampires must drink blood to live. But then the seriousness is robbed by Van Diemen’s frequent bitchery over common misconceptions about vampires, not to mention that he also has a VHS library of every vampire movie ever made. There’s an “I can’t believe Peter McCurtin actually wrote this” part where Van Diemen says that he even has Interview With The Vampire on VHS, and the soon-to-be-a-vampire-himself private eye responds that this particular movie hasn’t even come out on VHS yet, so it would be impossible for Van Diemen to have a copy of it on video…and Van Diemen boasts that he has a pirated copy! It’s stuff like this that again makes me suspect Thirst is a spoof. Just too much of the novel is given over to Van Diemen’s obsessive compulsions about various mundane topics…and also, for an immortal vampire, the dude is constantly getting hassled: by the lawyer who wants to buy his land, by his own lawyer who is representing him in the case, by the sad-sack private eye Van Diemen turns into a vampire, and finally by the photographer with the “hip-flask voice.” All of these characters are constantly questioning Van Diemen, or putting him out of sorts, and he’ll go back to his Bronx castle to sulk.
Those looking for a traditional vampire yarn will be quite diappointed with Thirst. Again, the Goodreads reviews are indication of this. Only in the extended excerpts from Van Diemen’s autobio – written in ugly italics – do we get the traditional stuff, with Van Diemen being turned into a vampire (by some vampire woman who bit him during sex, a recurring theme here) and then going about his “new vampire life” for the next few centuries. As mentioned he has a castle in the Bronx, the construction of which in the 1800s he recounts for us, and now he sticks to himself, only venturing out each night to feed. He turns himself into a giant bat to do this; McCurtin has it that the bat transformation is “an act of faith” and that each night when Van Diemen throws himself off the tower of the castle he could very well plunge to his death if he doesn’t transform. Oh and as a giant bat he can fly “300 miles per hour.” Seriously! Plus we’re informed of the various fallacies on how vampires can be killed, but McCurtin still sticks to the main ones: stakes to the heart and fire.
Van Diemen’s a loser, though, there’s no other way to put it. So the book opens with him in his library working on his bio, and he treats himself to one glass of vodka, after which he’s drunk. Oh, and he also pops a few Ritalin. He flies out to feed, goes over a zoo…and there’s the “hard faced” female photographer out there taking photos who might really be pretty (again, McCurtin can’t figure this out), but she certainly has a nice body (maybe), but also a rough demeanor from being a famous world-traveling photographer and seeing it all. Van Diemen turns human and approaches her in the dark. Her name’s Maggie Connors, and Van Diemen has heard of her, but this night he goes to feed on her…and she takes his photo, and he stumbles in the flashlight and flies away in escape. Our tough bastard of a vampire, folks! And he goes back to his library to sulk over this, working up a rage to get revenge on this woman. Oh, and he obsesses with worry that she might get the photo printed in the papers…but will people even know who he is? Will anyone believe her story? Etc, etc.
I mean honestly, the book is a spoof. It has to have been intended as a spoof. Because soon after this, Van Diemen’s getting hassled by his loser lawyer, Bradford Wilcox, who keeps pestering Van Diemen that another lawyer, Landau (who likely represents a mobster), is trying to get Van Diemen’s castle. But now they’re leaning hard on Wilcox himself…with the threat that Wilcox’s mistress, Tracy, is going to come out with photos and a fake claim that Wilcox had her get an abortion…and Van Diemen is winging off to burn down the lawyer’s house and then rape and murder Tracy. Here we get a bit of that old ‘70s-style sleazy sadism:
Actually the sleaze is goofy, too. The quoted dialog at the top of the review is courtesy Maggie Connors, the photographer who snaps Van Diemen’s photo before he can kill her. He obsesses over her, finally locates her…and when he gets the spring on her (staying in a “special guest house” in the zoo…under heavy guard, even though she hasn’t told anyone she was attacked by a vampire?), she promptly offers herself to him:
Even Live Girls didn’t feature the line “I’m being screwed by a vampire.” Van Diemen, ever second-guessing and doubting himself, wants to bite Maggie’s neck and kill her, but doesn’t…then flies back to his castle and keeps thinking about her! There are even parts where he calls her on the phone to chat! I kid you not, friends! McCurtin tries to go somewhere with this; Van Diemen’s property soon becomes the target of the mob, with guys tossing trash and stuff on the grounds and later assassins sent onto the property, and Van Diemen will kill them off and call Maggie so she’s in such and such a place to take a photo of it. But the plotting is just so random that McCurtin, if he was serious about the whole thing, had no idea what he was doing.
Like the shady private eye, Victor Mara, who is apparently hired by Landau to get the goods on Van Diemen. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, Van Diemen turns Mara into a vampire, perhaps to use him as his inside agent. But man, this develops into yet another goofy subplot, where Mara keeps trying to convince Van Diemen to let him move into Van Diemen’s castle! I mean complete with Mara, now a vampire, worried about the rent at his place and just persistently nagging Van Diemen about letting him have “just a little corner” of the castle to call his own! And this just keeps going on, perhaps further evidence that Thirst is a parody of serious horror fiction. It’s hard to believe Peter McCurtin could have intended this novel to be on the level.
More Sharpshooter or Marksman (which McCurtin also edited and wrote for in the ‘70s) similarities are evident in the finale; anyone who has read those books, particularly ones actually written by McCurtin, will know that a favored “climax” featured all the villains conveniently assembling in one place so Rock or Magellan could blow them all to hell at once. Well guess how Thirst climaxes! Van Diemen even handles the job with some un-vampiric dynamite. We even get banal details like the note that he lodges the dynamite sticks on the roof (carrying them up there in his giant bat beak, naturally), so the wind won’t blow them away. I mean folks that is how Thirst climaxes – our vampire protagonist turns into a giant bat and carries dynamite in his “beak” and places it on a roof, ensuring that the friggin’ wind won’t blow the dynamite away. It’s not exactly Bram Stoker, is it?
Speaking of whom, the last lines of the novel should be the final proof that Peter McCurtin was laughing to himself throughout Thirst; Van Diemen decides that maybe he does love Maggie Connors, and wonders what “Prince Dracul” (aka Dracula) would think! And Maggie wants Van Diemen to take a bubble bath with her...and this will be his first bath since the 18th Century! The end! Oh and another goofy thing, Van Diemen is always coming up with stupid inversions of the usual oaths, ie “by the Antichrist” and “only Satan knows” and other dumbass stuff.
So all of which is to say, Thirst is a complete and total failure as a horror novel. But as a goofy-toned horror novel parody, it is a roaring success. It’s also fun to see that McCurtin was able to publish a quick and dirty (and sleazy) ‘70s-style novel in the mid-1990s. But still it was a sad way for such a prolific author to go out; as mentioned, this was Peter McCurtin’s final novel.