'Meet the Radleys: An Entire Family in Identity Crisis'
*Some bloody spoilers may follow - get your teeth into the book first before reading!*
*Some bloody spoilers may follow - get your teeth into the book first before reading!*
'The Radleys', by Matt Haig, broke my record for fastest page turning halfway through - and broke it again when two thirds of the way through. It starts and ends like a sinful boulder rolling down a steep and bloody slope. Imagine a book where the cast of Salem's Lot: scary Mr Barlow, scarier James Mason and the pant-wettingly scary vampire kids tapping at the window - become a suburban family trying to live a normal life, with the constant distraction of the fact they are all vampires to ruin their suburban, middle-class lifestyle.
Mum worries too. Not only about Clara, but about why she no longer loves or desires her husband and only has fangs for her husband's brother - big, bad Uncle Will. If her husband finds out what happened between her and Will, so long ago, then blood will flow. Possibly into the kind of finest claret glass the Radleys have dotted around their house. Or straight from the neck itself.
And then there's Rowan. He's a real 'freak'. He wears sunblock in winter and never seems to sleep. Trouble is, he's in love. With a 'normal' girl. Ever heard of a love bite from a vampire on a first date? It's positively gushing!
The Radleys is a lot of fun, and only a little bit ghoulish - the horror isn't too central to the story. Which isn't to say there isn't plenty of blood and death and flying in the air and other crazy stuff going on. There is. But it seems so real - so suburban and 'next door neighbourly', that you believe as much in the people and the plot, and not just in the vampire lore (in much the same way Stephen King plays the horror against the mundane).
Transport the Dracula story to suburban England, swap the Count for a blood-lusting uncle, add a touch of TV show Skins - and that's The Radleys. It's a book that will appeal to a youthful readership (as it's the teenage angst that works best) but it's for everyone really. Clara, though, isn't too far away (as a character and with similar motivations) to Marceline - the girl who eats red, from the 'Adventure Time' cartoons on Cartoon Network. Or girl/ boy vampire Eli from the book and film of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 'Let The Right One In'.
Most revealing of all, The Radleys starts off with short sharp chapters and ends with long, lovingly elongated ones, that seem to read even faster than the earlier, shorter ones. The book has constant but easily-inserted (like a set of fake fangs!) references to classic works of vampire fiction; books and films. From the less well known Les Vampires to the film lover's calling card of Black Narcissus, to the more obvious bite of Bela Lugosi.
Chapter titles reflect modern day obsessions and quirks; 'Lazy Garlic'; 'CSI: Transylvania', 'A Bit Like Christian Bale' and 'Deli Ham'. My favourite chapter heading has to be 'A Bloodless Excuse for a Marriage' - it pretty much sums up what a lot of the book's really about. Less blood, more banality of existence, and a search for long-forgotten, forbidden, lust - the middle-aged man's imaginary weapon of choice. Perhaps a hot quick encounter with a next door neighbour? A mutual friend of the married couple... Maybe. If she'll have me, thinks Peter Radley, who wants to sink his bits into something soft and fleshy before he cracks up. So flirts. He could get lucky. She's the one. But if she isn't . . oh God - how about anyone?
There are references to poets and other creative people becoming vampires (and keeping it quiet) throughout the novel; even Jimi Hendrix gets a nod, as well as the slightly more expected, but no less welcome, Lord Byron.
And then, central to the plot - there's The Abstainer's Handbook (second edition). It's the bible that all decent vampires feed from, instead of aiming for random necks. The rules, if followed correctly, keep the vampires among us free from addiction and craving (for blood). It can be done. Unlike Uncle Will, who doesn't care and keeps the blood of his victims bottled at source and labelled as vintage.
An 'abstainer' in the Handbook is described as: 'A hereditary or converted vampire who has managed to overcome their blood-addiction'. There are many ways to do this. On 'looking after your skin during the day', vamps are told: '1. Stick to the shade . . 2. Wear sunblock . . 3. Eat carrots . . 4. Ration outside exposure . . 5. Never Sunbathe . . ' and: '6. Act fast. If you feel dizzy, or are developing an angry rash, it is important to go indoors'.
But the blood craving is strong and unpredictable. The Handbook suggests: 'Stay positive. Stress has been proven to aggravate the skin complaints abstainers suffer from' (and Matt Haig, as an author who has spoken about his own battles with depression, may well be speaking from experience). Now pass me another bottle of blood . .
The Abstainer's Guide reminds of writer Douglas Adams's inspired - and still relevant for those of continually living in fear of alien superhighways decimating the planet while protesting quietly in our dressing gowns - 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Or a Channel 4 'Sex Tips for Girls' style late night show about the first stirrings of blood-lust; how to drink blood and swallow - and what position to hold a boy in when you bite.
The Radleys is a novel bursting with satirical humour. It exists in a cultural sea of pop culture references, so much so that you could well imagine one of the Radley clan in a very red but initially bloodless episode of 'Vampires Come Dine With Me' - starting off with the Ribena and beetroot but ending with the vampire host for 'Day 2' at the dinner table biting into the necks of all the other oddball, fame-hungry guests as he finally snaps. A voiceover telling us, sardonically, that: "Well it's better than beetroot"- as a fountain of fresh blood spurts over the camera.
The Radleys is also, at its most pierced heart - a love story (or, sometimes, a lack of love story). As story themes, it could be you identify most with the 'middle-aged and still lusty but not getting any' or 'adolescent sex isn't a good idea if you are dating a hormonal vegan vampire' concerns - but there's something for everyone here. Towards the end, it all becomes something of a crime scene and less a back garden: there's a race against time, some unexpected random violence, teeth-baring bloody revenge, deadbeat coppers in clapped-out police cars eating chips in curry sauce - all very hardboiled and heartbreaking in equal measure. And, as one character's life ebbed slowly away, almost too much to bear.
The finale is set in a cinema that makes the blood drain from your face - it's effortlessly tense and unbearably exciting. My fingers nearly caught fire from the friction of flicking pages over to find out what happened next. There's a lot of horror on show at the end, but it's more like 'Ken Loach does Hammer House of Horror' than an out-and-out gore fest.
I hope there will be a follow-up to The Radleys, because there's a still a lot of life in this jugular being drained to the very last page.
A novel about the nature of vampire and family, about the beauty and fear of isolation - about being 'a freak' with a need to escape (or even just be happy with who you are). Clearly, the ideas being explored aren't limited to the vampire community alone. Like most of Matt Haig's work; the themes symbolise 'outsider syndrome' and coping with what's inside (your head) in equal measure.
The opening lines of the chapter entitled 'There is a Rapture on the Lonely Shore' pretty much sums up the whole tone of the novel for me - probably better than any lurid scene description of blood flow: 'There are few things more beautiful than a deserted motorway at four in the morning. The white lines and illuminated signs shine their instructions, as indifferent to whether humans are there to follow them as the Stonehenge standing stones are to the fates of the pathetic ancient abstainers who carried them across Salisbury Plain'.
The vampires may have always been with us, they may even be among us now, just like there are so many other ancient wonders or wondrous things that may look mundane out there to behold right now (like deserted motorways at four in the morning), but more often than not - never even noticed. And even I was a vampire myself, wishing to come out and be friends, I wouldn't. Because you just know they'll be a human out there, ready to make a right proper fuss, waiting for me to draw first blood.
words: mark gordon palmer
The Radleys is published by: Canongate (Adult Ed.)/ Walker (Young Adult Ed.)
Adventure Time is the copyright of Cartoon Network.
A film of The Radleys is in development at time of writing.