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THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW
By
RICHARD LAYMON (Leisure; 2000)


There was never a writer quite like the late Richard Laymon, and THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW is among the finest of his 30-plus novels. It’s at once a nostalgic coming-of-age fantasy in the mode of Ray Bradbury’s classic SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and a splatterific horrorfest of the type Laymon specialized in.

     Richard Laymon had one of the oddest careers of any American horror writer, starting out in the late seventies-early eighties with a succession of unassumingly packaged paperbacks like THE CELLAR, THE WOODS ARE DARK and TREAD SOFTLY. Success was elusive, at least until Laymon began publishing in the UK and Australia, where his work became a phenomenon. Laymon’s novels did eventually achieve a similar level of success in his native country, but not until after his untimely death in 2000.

     Like many of Laymon’s novels, THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW is an expansive yet impressively contained account that takes place over the course of a single day. 391 pages may seem excessively lengthy for such a tale, but the novel never feels padded or overwritten in the slightest. Lean, pared-down prose was one of Laymon’s trademarks, and is very much a feature of this compulsive page-turner.

     The set-up is simplicity itself: one day in August of 1963, sixteen-year-old Dwight and his buddies Slim, a girl, and Rusty, a horny guy, learn of The Traveling Vampire Show, a spectacle said to feature the world’s only captive vampire. That vamp is billed as a beautiful woman named Valeria, set to appear at midnight in a field bordering the rural town of Grandville, where Dwight and company reside.

     The problem facing our pubescent heroes is the fact that nobody under eighteen is allowed to see the show. They’re captivated, however, and not about to be deterred. What follows is an odyssey of apprehension, disillusionment, capture, escape, disappearance, sacrifice and, finally, balls-out horror. Along the way we’re introduced to several memorable characters, including Dwight’s alluring stepsister Lee, Rusty’s neurotic sibling Bitsy, the Vampire Show’s ultra-creepy proprietor Julian, and of course the aforementioned Valeria, who doesn’t actually appear until the final chapters but makes quite an impression once she does.

     The novel contains some false notes here and there. There are an unconvincing number of beautiful women in this small town (apparently a breeding ground for supermodels), and an overabundance of elaborate flashbacks that compromise Laymon’s otherwise impeccably constructed narrative. But those are minor quibbles, as this is a sterling example of hard-driving, good-time horror topped off with a sharp, satisfying and totally unexpected jolt in the final pages.

     

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