EDTIME reading while I was away was Daylight by Elizabeth Knox. My mum fell in love with The Vintner’s Luck (along with a fair few other people, it would seem) a few years ago, and bought Daylight in a fit of ‘oughta’s a while ago, then passed it on to me when she decided that other, more official and work-related reading came first. This post is going to contain spoilers galore, so if you’re thinking you might read it, consider this fair warning!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but an off-kilter vampire story bound up with hagiography (the study of saint’s lives) and Catholicism in the south of France, border-crossing into Italy wasn’t it. Yes, Knox certainly isn’t ashamed of playing up to the invested and seductive—I mean, c’mon, the South of France?—but her writing sets her work apart from trashier takes that appear to share themes: it is quite lovely, and she has an eye for careful description and metaphor so specific it cajoles imagination along vividly.
I’ve been intrigued by vampire stories for a while now. Actually, I think it was Sue-Ellen Case who drew me most forcefully—or perhaps just less guiltily—into an appreciation of the vampiric, with her seminal (or so it seemed to me at the time, anyway!) essay, “Tracking the Vampire,” differences 1991. She drew out the queerness of the figure of the vampire, demonstrating their otherness, their life/death border-breaching, their genderfuck logics. (I can’t help it: I’m going to have to write a belated response to Joe Kugelmass’ post on BtVS and sexuality. No kink? Truly? I mean, I know da Buff is a strait-laced young miss, but I don’t think when she says “How can I let him [Spike] do that to me?” to Tara she’s angsting about letting him bring her tea and dumplings! More later.)
Daylight‘s vampires are Lou Ila (translates as the Island), Grazide, Dawn, Tom and Martine. Brian ‘Bad’ Phelan (there’s an Emerson-like relevance to the names, methinks) swiftly takes centre-stage. An Aussie (I think—p’raps a Kiwi), his life has been shaped by risk, from the moment when he stepped off the viewing platform his classmates were trampolining on, just in time to see almost all of them plunge to their deaths in a chasm, through his love of caving, and his being blown up while trying to disarm a bomb (his ‘work’). He’s fascinated when he helps retrieve a corpose of a woman whose hair darkens from blonde at the roots to brown at the tips, a ‘dye job’ (he thinks) he’s only seen on one other woman, a woman whose very existence he doubts, who surreally rescued him from a cave in flood, and bit him.
But the bites are one of the most intriguing images of the book. Rather than your usual elongated eye-teeth, these vampires have spines in the roofs of their mouths; when about to feed (and there’s more than a little of the sense of the erotic to this, as we’ll see), the spines rise up from flat like a porcupine’s. Vampires lisp before they bite, and a kiss tends to hook the prey in more ways than one, and leads to a swollen, perforated tongue of the beloved. When they’re playing, they graze these spines against flesh. Almost like mosquitoes injecting anti-coagulant, they inject… well, straight-up physical pleasure, basically, making their bitten languid, aroused, and pliable. Their tongues then act as little more than a channel, directing the blood straight down their throats. One of the most vivid scenes in the book in when Dawn returns to Bad engorged (she likes to give men found on park benches, in clubs and on doorsteps blow jobs, then bite their thighs as they come), she is rosy and fat with blood, so that even the sweat that slips from her pores is pink with blood, and when Bad pinches her chubby earlobe, he can feel her pulse.
But there’s another beginning. Father Daniel Octave is one of the researchers used for assessing the suitability of a particular holy person for beatification. His research led to the beatification of ‘Blessed Martine Raimondi,’ who when her people were being persecuted, led them through a cave to safety; Daniel himself had doubts, because Martine Dardo is the spitting image of the saint, who was meant to be a celibate nun. Nonetheless, she was beatified. When Martine Dardo calls him at dawn one day on a mobile she has given him with strict instructions to keep it charged, sounding angst-ridden and guilty and like she’s about to drown herself, he is caught back into the web.
Much of the book plays out like a detective story: who is Martine? Who is the corpse Bad helped to retrieve? Why did she die? Who is Eve? Dawn? Why did Jacques Palombo, whose survival was the second miracle of the Blessed Martine, wind up decapitated? What’s Tom up to? Will Bad stick with Dawn? But it’s far more complicated than just that; and part of the reason for this is the nature of the virus.
Because that’s how Knox plays it. The Virus. It is, of course, one of the reasons for the vivacity of vampire myth (and especially currently). Intriguingly, this virus multiplies slowly, replacing and mimicking the ‘natural’ cells of the body but in an immortalised form, until eventually, one is all virus. (Indeed, they may not need to feed on blood once this immortalisation has occurred.) The virus, however, is slow; consequently, history is made accordian-like and stretchy: it is only old vampires that can ‘turn’ a human. This means that vampires cannot (by themselves) turn someone that they already knew as a human, and creates a kind of nest of older and younger vampires, dependent upon each other. After he turned Dawn, for example, Lou Ila took her away to Corsica because he knew that she would be unable to resist attempting to turn her twin Eve, and that that blood-letting would exhaust and eventually kill Eve. And Ila feeds off Dawn to avoid infecting anyone else, while she borrows his knowledge about how to survive in the world (boltholes and cave systems and such).
Lou Ila himself was turned by Grazide as part of her affair with Chambord (the author of the Provencal story ‘Daylight’ that Eve translated from sometime in the 1700s (I think!)). While deep in the sensuality of their love, he (Chambord) would not allow her to bite him, knowing that he would then become a vampire. So she sought out young Lou Ila, and turned him, knowing that Ila could bite Chambord without infecting him, and Ila is made to play the part of a… well, I could be crude and say strap-on… but he’s her tool for sharing the headiness of her venom with her lover. And of course the line between tool and threesome fuzzes out in the ecstasy of Ila’s biting and being bitten.
I think, in the end, that this is where the seductiveness of the story lies: thick with imagery—the fierce bodiliness of the relationships between the vampires and the humans, combined with an dense, intense sense of the locatedness, the history and life, of each character and the ways they tangle. Lou Ila, for example, silent and pale, seeks to turn Eve because he fears forgetting Provencal, his mother tongue, and wants her to help him remember. Dawn, already carelessly sensual as a human, is not old enough to turn whoever she desires; she tries to manipulate Ila into turning her new lover, Bad, by forcing him to watch her draining him in ways that Bad finds it hard to mind. Tom Hilxen, a charming, detached biographical researcher, becomes a creepy vampire who drugs his prey, then inserts a cannula for the easy, distant quenching of a thirst—and so he can watch them die. Martine Dardo—the Blessed Martine, of course, turned by Ila in a complex relationship begun with him leading her and her peoples to safety: ‘I prayed and God sent me a devil’—fantasizes that her soul has risen out of the cells of her body slowly, bit by bit, as the virus consumes her; and she brings her religious mortification of the flesh to bear, starving until she kills herself in the sunrise in horror at becoming old enough to infect. Daniel Octave’s difficult childhood and empty control born of his religiosity lead him both to play detective and to fail to recognise his own trauma when Tom makes him his prey. Bad Phelan’s continual replay of his lunge off the collapsing viewing platform and into life make him throw himself into Dawn’s arms, even as his skin goes pale and loose, his eyes develop purple-blue pouches and he cannot walk for an hour without feeling exhausted.
The richness of the writing, the richness of the sensuality evoked, the richness of the setting and its history all lend themselves to a seductive book. I’m still seduced, so it’s no use trying to get disinterest out of me; the only question now is, am I old enough to infect you…?