Charlee Jacob’s vampire novel Vestal was published in 2005, the same year that Stephenie Meyer gave vampires a newfound popularity with Twilight. Jacob had tackled vampires before, of course: her debut novel This Symbiotic Fascination was in part a vampire tale, and she also wrote enough vampire short stories to fill an entire anthology, The Indigo People. All the while she showed restlessness and a dissatisfaction with convention, a refusal to write the same sort of vampires that everyone else was writing. It should come as no surprise, then, that Vestal contrasts with its contemporary Twilight in the same way that a twisted nightmare contrasts with a mellow daydream.
In Vestal, vampires are depicted as creatures of the light. When they come out at night they are attracted by the glows of lamps, or the illuminations of household windows. The idea that vampires favour darkness, we are told, is mere disinformation: “Literature re-enforced the propaganda that light was right and dark was evil.”
Such unusual vampires demand similarly unorthodox vampire slayers, and so we are introduced to heroines Jett and Nival. Despite having the bodies of adolescents, Jett is a child of the 1920s while Nival has been alive for more than a century; their eternal youth was granted by their mistress, the Goddess. But unlike the protagonists of a typical vampire novel, their longevity is not accompanied by flawless beauty. Nival has a pronounced hair-lip that causes a speech impediment, while Jett has a baby’s head and fingers protruding from her bare midriff, the only visible parts of her conjoined twin.
Jett and Nival are just two of the numerous vestals serving the Goddess. Over time, this strange deity has taken various deformed and disfigured youngsters under her wing, granting them new names that honour the darkness – Noir, Noctee, Osiris, Stydge, Sloe, Sette and so forth – and grooming them to fight in her battle against vampires.
The vestals spend their time smashing the lights that give shelter to evil beings of illumination. They are aided in their war by mortals who, like them, are deemed imperfect by vampire-kind: in one scene, a disfigured child helps Jett and Nival by colouring a window in black crayon, preventing its light from healing a nearby vampire. The “normal” people, on the other hand, resent this. “There are too many mutants in the world”, complains one woman. “I see them all the time now. They swarm through this neighbourhood at night… They creep through alleys, peek through your windows, throw rocks at the lights.”
The Goddess acts as a constant presence to her vestals, sheltering and teaching them. “I’m the mistress of all who hide because light mocks their symmetry”, she says to her flock. “But the evil ones create their fires and keep pushing Me back. They lie, tell you light is good and cleansing. That it makes beauty shine. Yet it sucks you old.” The Goddess’ teachings include an inversion of Genesis, pitting her own dark divinity against a dread demon of light:
“Once there was an abyss—total and perfect, a fraction smaller than the sand pearl in an aggravated oyster—and became restless an d had a nightmare.
“A demon in this nightmare spoke four words.
“LET THERE BE LIGHT.
“And there was light. Out of it spilled horrors that lit up and multiplied in fire. Beasts came out that made worlds so they could eat them. Then came substance, came intrinsic and corruptible bodies, came the consanguinity of suffering. These were things I never intended. Before light came, there was no evil.
“But the dark will shield you if you shield Me…”
The Goddess is an ambiguous figure. At times she is protective, her nocturnal cloak extinguishing the hated light. But she also has a predatory aspect. The scenes in which she chooses a new vestal are explicitly sexual; given the young ages of her wards, along with the drug—based ritual communion in which she forces the vestals to partake, it is hard to escape the thought that she may have ulterior motives.
Here, we see the novel at its most brutally honest. Fantasy narratives that aim to celebrate the misfits, the outcasts and the oppressed – from vampire romances to X-Men comics – often do so by making their subjects into superhuman idols, the stuff of wish-fulfilment daydreams. Vestal is more sober-minded. It portrays disadvantaged youth as they are pushed beyond the margins of mainstream society, into an underworld where abusers masquerade as mentors. The subject matter may be fantasy, but the subtext is cold reality.
Even as they pursue the vampires, the vestals are themselves tailed by Sam Pressure, a detective who is faced with sifting through the perplexing forensic evidence left by the city’s supernatural war. But while Sam represents the world of mundane reality, the novel avoids equating this with Hollywood perfection and the lack of minority identity. Sam is a dwarf, while his police colleague Helen Gabor was born without legs or forearms; these are people who, had they been in a different time and place, could easily have ended up in the ranks of the vampire-hunting vestals. As it is, they must instead put up with prejudice from able-bodied humanity:
People still enjoyed their mutant shows, no matter how civilized they liked to believe they were. It was why they indulged violent movies and television, why they read horror stories, why they consciously or unconsciously ostracized others who were somehow altered from the perception of normalcy. Didn’t Sam know this from personal experience? Being a man in a 3’1” body, he’d experienced all the stares, subtle discriminations and outright bashings. Hippies and fags and freaks, oh my!
“You’re a cop?” people would ask when he’d started out in uniform and would have to give them a moving violation ticket. Then they would chuckle. “For what? The clown police?”
Sam’s investigations put him up against the single weirdest character in the novel’s entire ensemble: Baby. A performer at a nightclub that dubs her the “owl girl”, Baby is an armless contortionist with a swivelling neck and feather-like hair. But people do not attend Baby’s performances merely to see her exterior. Instead, they queue up to peer through a tube that leads directly into her vagina, at which point they are confronted with weird, dreamlike visions.
“She’s the owl girl and there’s time up her cunt,” remarks the nightclub proprietor. “But it’s not just any time: it’s the sort associated with death and spirits and dreams.” Sam is one of those who sees inside her, and is confronted with a dark revelation relating to his own family history.
Directly referred to as a Neolithic archetype by the novel’s narrative voice, Baby is a manifestation of a motif that turns up repeatedly in Jacob’s fiction: that of the so-called Venus of Willendorf, a stone age carving of a faceless and oddly-proportioned woman popularly interpreted as a fertility goddess. This image appears in a variety of forms throughout Vestal, with one character wearing a pendant of such a goddess (“Crown, swollen belly, faceless, limbless”) and passage referring to visionaries who “see Neolithic goddesses everywhere on the streets, glimpse Jesus weeping in the mirror”.
Sam’s colleague Helen speaks of the Willendorf Venus, describing it as “the abbreviated goddess of life” and claiming that it hails from a time in which women had their limbs ritually removed so that they could act as representatives of fertility deities. She goes on to theorise that the priests responsible were reincarnated as serial killers who mutilate women: “Ed Gein, William Heirens, Hermann Webster Mudgett, Ed Kemper, obsessed with this need to remake women into some fashion they can’t even quite recognize because it was part of another existence for them.”
This symbolic analysis of deformity and disfigurement permeates the novel. Characters discuss the role of deformed people throughout history as courtly curiosities or representatives of the divine, while the story touches upon the Nazis’ mass-murder of the disabled, the thalidomide scandal and newscasts showing children mutilated by the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks turns up, with Jacob even inventing an entire fictitious sequel. We are shown a subcultural embrace of the freakish, as an Ozzy Osbourne-esque musician bites the head off a chicken while watched by “a fierce crowd, self-designed to appear as mutated as possible: the gargoyle nexus of punk and heavy metal.”
Significantly, Vestal portrays its vampire antagonists not as freaks, but as exploiters of the freakish. The vampires are shown forcing those with deformities and abnormalities to perform in porn films, where the only available role is as “an object of Light’s derision, a pornographic slave.”
As is typical of Charlee Jacob’s novels, Vestal is a loosely-structured story. The two main plot threads – the vestals’ war against vampires, and Sam’s investigation of Baby – only seldom cross over in terms of narrative. Instead, they are linked symbolically, each dealing with the themes of deformity and divinity. The novel revels in its fractured and fragmented nature, repeatedly confronting the reader with clashes and contrasts.
At times Vestal conjures up a feeling of paranoia and intangibility. The flashback to Jett’s pre-vestal existence – when she was Evie, daughter of an abusive mother named Polly – reads like an account of a tragic psychological delusion, the girl fearing “demon watts” emanating from lamps and hearing the voice of the Goddess telling her to smash household lights:
Evie took a broomstick and put their eyes out. Steaming shards littered the floors. The noises of their murders didn’t wake the old lady even though they cried out for her. Evie heard them plainly. polly!…polly! She’d never heard them before, never would have believed that lights had voices.
Yet the novel is able to shift freely from this kind of hallucinatory dementia to a tone of knowing humour. Vestal is in part a commentary on vampire literature, with Charlee Jacob delivering playfully backhanded compliments to some of her fellow authors in the genre, while also thumbing her nose at conservative fears about the perceived evil of horror literature.
This can be seen in the subplot in which the vestal Charon finds copy of Poppy Z Brite’s novel Lost Souls, and subsequently becoming hooked on vampire fiction. The Goddess is displeased, claiming that such stories are mere propaganda designed to tempt darkness-loving youth towards the side of the hated vampires. Charon gets imprisoned in a box for his transgression, while the more faithful vestals contemplate an endeavour to purge the world of these blasphemous vampire stories. But Charon is hooked, and once released, he begins sampling the works of Anne Rice, Nancy Collins, Ray Garton, John Skipp and Craig Spector. Sure enough, these novels lure him towards the vampires, just as the Turkish delight eaten by Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lured him towards the White Witch.
Despite its copious innovations, Vestal appears to have had little if any influence on the wider field of vampire fiction. It scarcely needs mentioning that the novel could never have had the phenomenal impact as that other novel of the same year, Twilight. But it serves as the perfect counterpoint to Stephenie Meyer’s sanitisation and commodification of the vampire. Vestal shows us the cracks within the cleanness, the shadows cast by the light. It demonstrates that vampires can still be scary – if that, is you are the sort of person they like to exploit. The sort of person who society dismisses as a freak…