In this early novel Robert McCammon accomplished something he'd repeat six years later in SWAN SONG: he outdid Stephen King. Just as SWAN SONG owed more than a little something to yet (in my opinion) still outdid Stephen King's THE STAND, THEY THIRST borrows from (unintentionally, McCammon claims) yet betters King's SALEM'S LOT. The subject of that novel, you'll recall, was vampires taking over a small town. THEY THIRST also deals with a vampire takeover, only here the setting is the entire city of Los Angeles. Thatís a mighty ambitious premise to be sure, and McCammon pulls it off with a great deal of macabre gusto and only a smidge of the type of clumsiness you might expect from a writer who back in 1981 was still finding his footing.
With around a dozen protagonists, it's inevitable that some characters are more interesting than others. I could have done without Tommy, the plucky kid character who's wiser and better behaved than most adults, and who McCammon would have us believe fights off vampires with aplomb even though he can't stand up to the school bullies (in his defense, McCammon seems to recognize that Tommy isn't his strongest character, waiting until page 258 to introduce him). Far more compelling are an ass-kicking priest who takes charge as the vamps tighten their grip on L.A., a young Chicano man who spends most of the novel searching for his vampirized girlfriend, and Vulkan, the centuries-old leader of the bloodsuckers who was vampirized as a teenager and retains his youthful appearance.
McCammon's presentation of the gradual vampirization of L.A. is appropriately panoramic and convincing, with the vamps, who conform to all the standard vampire tropes (they recoil from crucifixes, can't stand sunlight and don't cast shadows), using peoples' disbelief in the supernatural to cloak their onslaught. Eventually Vulkan, from his post in a Hollywood Hills castle, uses his powers to summon the sands of the Mojave Desert, which sweep the L.A. basin and turn the entire area into a literal ghost town.
McCammon crafts some terrifically shivery set pieces, including an early glimpse of a Hollywood cemetery whose graves have been dug up and their dead inhabitants strewn all over the ground, with the coffins nowhere to be found; an ambulance chase that concludes with the vampirized drivers of the offending ambulance getting splattered with blue paint; and a human chain through a sandstorm interrupted by barely glimpsed vampires that dart in an out to make off with members of the chain.
The ending could admittedly have used some work. It involves a hard-won confrontation in Vulcan's castle between Vulcan and a handful of surviving humans, and culminates in a literal act of God. That's in contrast to the abovementioned SWAN SONG, whose denouement came about due to human perseverance and determination, and which I think worked far better.