By Richard Laymon. Baltimore: Cemetery Dance, 2000. 534 pages.
It is summertime in the 60s, and sixteen year olds Dwight, Slim, and Rusty are determined to get a look at Valeria the Vampire, star of the Traveling Vampire Show (“One Show Only”), though since nobody under age 18 is allowed in, they must add an element of secrecy to their endeavor. The novel—narrated by an older and wiser Dwight—documents a single day (filled in with plenty of flashbacks): the teens’ misadventures, struggles, and revelations. Just like the carnivalesque and exploitative Traveling Vampire Show itself, Laymon’s novel attempts to walk the not-fine-enough line between giving the audience what it wants and retaining a few secrets.
At its heart The Traveling Vampire Show is a coming of age story, focused around one of the last summers of adolescence for its three protagonists, and as such it is full of touching as well as awkward moments, some for the characters, and some for the readers. The mixing of “coming of age” story with “horror novel” is nothing new; Stephen King has been doing it for decades, and indeed, for the most part this combination works for Laymon. There is little “horror” present in the novel, but plenty of minor episodes of suspense and misdirection; at the climax the story steps outside its mundane beginnings and relies on a short sequence of action-oriented scenes, some of which barely work in the larger context of the novel. Still, there is something fitting about mixing these two genres, especially insofar as the one usually concerns itself with the search for identity and one’s true friends in a world that no longer seems innocent, whereas the other is often at its peak when the invading horrors from the margins unveil the lurking grotesqueries of everyday life.
Laymon’s novel, however, leaves a bitter and incomplete feeling; too many loose-ends are not tied up, and too many resolutions seem cheap. Promising character development turn into a reliance on types; the mostly all-American nice-guy, a tom-boy with a dark past who out-boys the boys, the horny kid who will do anything to get laid. For example, the most insightful and subtle remark about a character comes half way through the book when Slim comments about Rusty, who has been grounded: “‘But he’s still our friend [...] More appreciated in his absence than his presence’” (266); from that point forward there is no tension between “Rusty the best friend and co-conspirator” and “Rusty the horny teen who says inappropriate things”—he becomes “Rusty the horny plot device.” Similarly, the adolescent sexual and emotional tension felt by Dwight (yet expressed in a non-too-subtle way by our narrator) becomes merely a string of tease-but-not-please moments and dick-jokes after the touching yet cliché kissing scene. Laymon’s breast fixation and clothing (or lack thereof) fetish adds cheap voyeurism thrills, but little else.
We meet Slim as “one of the boys,” previously troubled, but now the smartest, most accomplished, and most decisive of the group; yet her past is described in no great detail, and to the extent it is hinted at, it merely functions to drive the plot forward, not to help us to get to know Slim any better. Whereas Slim and Lee, Dwight’s older sister-in-law, both work as adolescent (and even grown!) male fantasies, Rusty’s sister “Bitsy,” on the other hand, is—as long as one discounts her terribly-written dialogue—potentially interesting and complex; however, she receives far too little “screen time,” so to speak.
The antagonists likewise leave much to be desired. Julian Stryker has a great name, but little else; Valeria has teeth. The mysterious “Cadillac twins” serve no purpose, and why they appear when and where they do makes no sense. Additionally, the way in which dogs keep showing up (the one-eyed one, the one with Dwight’s father, the poodle, and the movie shrews Dwight recalls as probably being dogs) would lead a reader to think of them as thematically linked to the novel or as some sort of symbol, but the most that can be said about them is “It’s been a bad day for dogs” (423). This is not to say that ambiguity is a bad thing, or that every detail must make sense; quite the contrary: a novel that leaves a great deal to the imagination, that plays with the reader’s expectations, and that refuses to return life to normal can be a great read. Unfortunately, this novel does not deliver in those respects, and furthermore, its weaknesses tend to leave it feeling unbalanced.
That having been said, The Traveling Vampire Show is a very quick and amusing coming of age tale. Like cotton candy and nostalgia, it won’t make you a better person, it won’t teach you anything, and it won’t make you full, but it sure is tasty.