Back in September, I wrote a review of the film version of, The Hunger a movie best remembered for a love scene between a vampy Catherine Deneuve, and a fetching Susan Sarandon. Good times!
As I said then, the movie, which I first saw years ago, may have influenced the sensual and sensuous vampires I created in Blood Diva. But the movie is a mess. The ending made no sense whatsoever and was tacked on at the studio’s insistence in case there was a sequel. But taking that second look at it, made me curious about the book. There happened to be a cheap used hardcover over on the Amazon so I went for it. (Just checked today, and you probably won’t have such luck. The KINDLE VERSION IS $15.99!)
First off, the changes from book to film aren’t just about telling a story visually. They are substantial to the point where it’s not even a question of which was better. Each can be judged on its own terms. The film has much greater style, but in terms of substance and coherence, the book wins. Second, if you came here looking for a quick thumbs up or down, you might have come to the wrong place. I read this as someone who has written a vampire novel, and that colored everything. I was interested in how Strieber dealt with some of the inherent storytelling “issues” that may arise in vampire-world building. So if you are planning to build your own vampires someday, what I have to say may be of interest, but if you’re looking for quick answer to “worth reading or not?” look on Amazon or skip to the last line of this post.
What do I mean by “issues” or “vampire world building”? I’m working from a theory here. In 1976, Anne Rice’s Interview With TheVampire was published and everything changed. Prior to that, most people still thought of vampires in the Dracula mode. Scary men in capes and funny accents – though the females of the species could be hot in a Goth-Vampira way. Sure, Salem’s Lot had been published the year before, which brought new life to the undead, but Interview was something different – a novel from the vampire’s point of view, one that didn’t present them simply as predators or demons, but as sentient, in some ways more human than human, immortal and with powers beyond those of ordinary humans. Though restricted to the darkness, and killers by nature, they didn’t all consider themselves damned. Rice got rid some of the tropes – garlic, crosses, no reflection – that would make vampires very easy to detect. She kept others like the immediate fatality of sunlight. But she opened up a world of possibilities – vampires as distinct and full characters.
The Hunger is very much a post-Interview book, which is not to say that Strieber copies from Rice, but rather that Rice freed writers from the previous conventions of vampire fiction.
There are multiple narrators, but most of the story is story told though the eyes of Miriam Blaylock, and while I can’t recall if the “v” word is even used, there is no mistaking what she is, but Strieber’s version of vampires and their origin is completely original. There’s no magic here. There’s only blood – science and evolution. (And unlike say the Eternal Night Trilogy which begins by treating vampirism as a virus – a public health crisis, this one doesn’t devolve into biblical prophecy by the end.) Miriam Blaylock is not human. She is perhaps the last of her kind. With make up to cover her pallor, a wig on her almost hairless head, and contacts to hide her golden eyes, she can pass for human, but her kind is another species, a branch split off a long time ago. Her kind has evolved to feed off human blood. She’s stronger and smarter than we are. She can’t age, and while she doesn’t seem to like sunlight a whole lot, she can go outside during the day. However, at some point she’ll need to sleep for a solid six hours, and when the need to sleep comes, she’s pretty powerless to stop it. She only needs to eat about once a week.
Vampires are mythical creatures. Fiction writers can do what they want with them, but every writer writing vampires needs to figure some stuff out. Strieber gives a great origin story. It doesn’t involve ancient curses or other nonsense. His vampires have reflections so they won’t be easily discovered. Miriam can even pass for human in a superficial physical exam. A blood test, however, is something else. The once a week feeding will still leave a lot of corpses, but if the modern vampire settles in a large crime ridden city, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Even the development of some of the myths is explained. Miriam’s species was of course chased and “persecuted” from her point of view. They learned to hide in graveyards since humans had fears and taboos about entering them. Unlike vampires of the Buffyverse, Vampire Diaries, True Blood and many other franchises, they certainly do not need an invitation to enter a home, nor are they scared off by religious symbols or garlic. Nor do they suddenly spout fangs by the way.
Does everyone writing a vampire book need to know how they came to be? Not necessarily, but many writers have explored origins. Anne Rice did in her later chronicles. Stoker’s monster seemed to have been born that way, one of a dying race, but we don’t know much about them. In Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse, the demon worlds predate our own. Vampires are more or less demon parasites inhabiting de-souled corpses. We get a one-line explanation in the second episode, “That’s not your friend. That’s the thing that killed your friend.” Others vampires have imagined humans – mortal witches – as the originators of vampires through some spells (Vampire Diaries/The Originals) or curses (Dark Shadows). The idea of human agency – even by use of magicks – having the power to create vampires seems far-fetched.
In The Hunger, the separate species origin is important to the plot. Miriam can’t breed with humans, nor can she turn them into her kind exactly. What she can do is transfuse them with her blood. If they live through that – if their hearts are strong enough – then her blood will feed on theirs and replace it with similar blood, and they too will need to feed off of human blood. They also will develop strength, enhanced senses and all that good stuff, and they won’t age. But here’s the problem: Eventually, there will be some kind of resistance and when that happens they’ll age and weaken very rapidly and no matter how often they feed, it won’t be enough.
So The Hunger is really something different. It’s part vampire story and part medical thriller. There’s no magic involved or even hinted at. As in the film version, Miriam’s lover, John, is aging. Unlike the film version, she doesn’t go to Dr. Sarah Roberts to help him. She doesn’t realize the importance of Roberts’ work until it’s too late for him. But she does discover that Roberts’ work may hold the key to making human transformation permanent. Roberts’ may have accidentally created the mutation – the origin of her species – through her primate research on sleep and aging.
It’s well-plotted and works as page-turning fiction. It’s also very much character driven, without having any of the trappings one usually associates with “literary” fiction. It’s accessible. We get inside Miriam’s head and while it’s clear she doesn’t think like us, she’s not a demon.
Those are some of the accomplishments of the novel, yet it’s far from perfect. While Miriam is well-developed, the other major characters are a bit less so. Sarah’s significant other, Tom in particular, is clunky characterization although their relationship and love for each other is more sharply drawn than in the movie, and more significant.
The writing veers from sometimes very good to occasionally awkward and near cringe-worthy – especially with some of the erotica. Interestingly, there’s no explicit sex scene between Sarah and Miriam as in the film, though there is a very charged and inappropriate physical examination, which was a highlight. While I did find The Hunger to be a page turner, sometimes I skimmed pages to get to get to the good stuff – and by good stuff I don’t necessarily mean the hot stuff. I skipped the parts that readers don’t like.
Plot holes? Sure, a few, but they go by fast.
However, one major plus in the book’s favor, as compared to the film, is the ending, which I won’t spoil here, except to say it made more sense much than the movie ending although it left a major hole in terms of the possible exposure of Miriam’s species. Strieber, by the way wrote his own sequel many years later, which per the Amazon reviews appears to have been a disappointment.
As for the original, is it worth reading? If you like vampire novels and/or medical thrillers, then the answer is yes.
(In case you don’t know where you landed here unawares, you are at the web home of Blood Diva, the hot new vampire novel inspired by the life of Marie Duplessis. Please take a look around.)