Tuesday, August 4, 2015

When Vampires Blog

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is Holly Black's (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tithe, Doll Bones) first vampire novel, based on her short story of the same name from the collection The Poison Eaters and Other Stories.

After passing out in a bathtub at a party the night before, seventeen year-old Tana wakes up prepared to be embarrassed about whatever kind of fool she's made of herself. But she's not prepared to find nearly everyone else from the party dead, attacked by vampires and drained of blood. It's horrifying, it's shocking, but it's the scale of the killings that's notable, not the attackers.

In Tana's world--like our own reality in every other respect--vampires are common. When Tana was six vampires were "Muppets, endlessly counting, or cartoon villains in black cloaks with red polyester linings." Sometime after that, a vampire from Springfield, MA, named Caspar Morales set about spreading vampirism as widely as he fancied. And now, the world has "gone cold." In some parts of the world, streets "teem with vampires," held in check only by vampire hunters who take out the undead in the usual ways: beheadings, wooden stakes to hearts, fire.

In the US, the problem is handled differently. Vampires, and anyone who is infected, can hole up indefinitely in quarantined areas called "Coldtowns." Anyone else, usually naïve and/or nihilistic youth, can also enter the Coldtowns and donate their blood, through shunts, to allow them to live peaceably with the undead. Tana calls Coldtown "a prison for the damned and those who want to party with them." Of course, many are hoping to be "taken" themselves and to die in order to achieve immortality.

Here's how it works in this novel: if a vampire bites you, he or she might possibly just drain you so completely you die. But if you're left alive, you're "infected" or "cold." You're not a vampire yet, but you'll start feeling intense cravings for human blood. If you can manage to resist those cravings (or if someone locks you away in a room) for around 88 days, your body will ward off the infection and you'll remain human. If you taste human blood while cold, though, you'll trigger the process that leads to your death and your eventually rising, transformed into a vampire.

When she was a child, Tana's mother went cold and her father locked her mother in the basement where she screamed and howled and pleaded for blood for so long that Tana eventually opened the door. So finding her friends and fellow party-goers dead, carries an even greater trauma for Tana than it would otherwise.

Plus, she soon realizes, there are vampires still in the house and one of them is tied to a bed with her ex-boyfriend.

Vampires are composed of contradictions: they are both young and ancient, both dead and immortal, both loathsome and sexy. Vampires allow us to hold two opposite extremes in our heads long enough to see that they are, in fact, the same thing. In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black exploits vampires to explore another oxymoron perfect for our time: one between extreme secrecy and overexposure.

Nineteenth century vampires--Dracula for instance--live in the dark, in secret, hiding so completely that sensible people relegate them to the world of myth. They exist in the corners. If they meet at all it is in small groups and for brief times, obeying strict rules that will help them remain invisible. They "recruit" new members only very rarely and very carefully.

For the twenty-first century vampires of Coldtown, that's all gone. Vampires are YouTube and reality show stars, recording and broadcasting their exploits over the Internet, spreading the infection of their disease widely and often indiscriminately. The most famous of these, Lucien Moreau, broadcasts footage of all-night parties from his Coldtown mansion where vampires gather to drink blood from shunts in the arms of human donors. He carefully tends the vampire image as only playing at being dangerous, drawing fascinated, lonely and outcast kids into his circle.

But the ancient, powerful, secretive vampires are still out there, and they're not happy that their world has been so radically altered.

What Black understands, though, and illustrates beautifully in this novel is that the secrecy and the overexposure are both forms of the same thing. While the vampires in Coldtown are sexy and scary and powerful, like nearly all vampires since Bram Stoker's Dracula, they are also comically full of themselves, as dramatic and self-indulgent as the kids they appeal to. As they're secrecy once heightened their sense of self importance, their endless selfies do now.

The world of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is our world, full of cameras streaming everything, a personal panopticon constantly YouTubed and Instagrammed. Black gets that the real danger for kids isn't that they'll see everything. It's that when they think they're seeing everything, it's easy to miss the truth. Tana is a great character for navigating this world. She's tough and strong and endlessly resilient and can see the bullshit hidden in plain sight.

This review is based on a library-owned copy of the published book. Nobody gave me a thing for it.

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