They Thirst by Robert McCammon (1981; this edition 1988): McCammon may have been the most Kingian (Kingesque?) horror novelist of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, probably because of sensibilities shared with Stephen King and not out of simple imitation. He was good at creating sympathetic characters and then running them through the grinder, and most of his 1970’s and 1980’s output seems to echo one Stephen King novel or another, and sometimes two or three at the same time. They Thirst seems to have been bounced off both Salem’s Lot and The Stand as well as Dracula. Certainly the Vampire King — Conrad Vulkan, a Hungarian prince who ‘died’ in the 14th century — recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula more than he does any of King’s vampires. But this vampire has specific, on-stage help from Satan, or at least an adequate stand-in, as a powerful supernatural being referred to as the Headmaster (a name that doesn’t really work in the ‘Inspires Dread’ category) is backing the Vampire King’s play for earthly dominion with some heavy magical mojo.
McCammon’s cleverest idea here lies in his choice of location for the Vampire King’s D-Day: Los Angeles. McCammon’s vampires can’t tolerate sunlight, but Los Angeles appeals to the Vampire King because he/it, having been ‘turned’ at the age of 17, is forever obsessed with youthfulness. Los Angeles, home to both gleaming, artificial youth and a sordid, violent underbelly, is a perfect match for this vampire. No old people need apply for admission to this army of vampires. I’d guess no fat chicks either.
The vampires herein exist within a supernatural framework: they are most definitely not viral in origin. Set against the vampires are a ragtag but plucky mismatched group of heroes (is there any other kind of group in popular culture?) who must work together to save the planet from becoming a scrumptious, bloodsoaked buffet: a terminally ill Roman Catholic priest; an 11-year-old boy who loves monster movies; a successful but troubled young comedian; a middle-aged cop who escaped from vampires in his childhood home in Hungary; a mystical young woman; and a handful of other supporting characters. The last third of the book sails straight into the epic, recalling King’s The Stand in its elevation of the stakes of the battle. The climax is apocalyptic: McCammon doesn’t back down.
I can see why McCammon withdrew this, his fourth novel, from publication for nearly 20 years, citing the idea that his early novels, while good, marked a writer who was still learning. There’s much that’s derivative in They Thirst, and a bit that’s silly, but McCammon’s strength at propulsive plotting and at sympathetically drawn characters makes this well worth seeking out. Recommended.