The Overlook Press is releasing Lee Markham’s debut horror novel, The Truants, on July 25th; and the author is in the process of a blog tour in support of the book. When Dread Central was included in the virtual tour, we asked him to expand a bit on why he chose vampires and how he makes them unique in this novel… read on for Lee’s response!
The Truants was an accident. That’s the brutal truth of it. It’s also probably why it’s so dripping with brutal truth that it’s catching readers off guard. I’d say that for every four or five readers that come out the other side of The Truants with a profound kind of traumatised love for the experience, there’s a reader that comes out angry – genuinely upset, offended, hurt even for having been put through it. No-one escapes with indifference. And as its author, I’m pleased by that. Because, I guess, when I wrote it, what was more important to me wasn’t that I entertained you, it was that I hurt you. And maybe even myself. But hurt was at its core. As is the case with most prayers.
And The Truants is a prayer. (Don’t believe me? Read the last couple of lines of the book. Don’t worry – no spoilers there – but see? Told you. It’s a prayer.) Desperate, futile, hopeless… hopeful. All of these things. But it is also a witness to monstrosity. To the beast that devours our children. And that beast isn’t a vampire.
The beast is us.
But while we’re here, let’s deal briefly with those pesky vampires. Another all-too-common response to The Truants is this reassurance that ”it’s not really about vampires; it’s about [insert topic here].” And lots of people are inserting lots of different topics in there: social neglect, child abuse, drug addiction… the death of romantic love in long-term relationships… flamboyant fatalism! (And, just for the record, I really rather like that one). But it’s never just about vampires, doing their vampire thing. Which is fine, because it’s true; it’s not – but there is sometimes a hint of sniffiness about that reassurance that I’m not entirely comfortable with. That if it were just a vampire story, it would be low art. That they’re only in there as a device. A metaphor. That’s not really true. The Truants is a vampire story. It’s stuffed to the gills with them. They’re nasty, ruthless, bloodthirsty, dangerous, vicious, predatory bastards.
But they’re different too. Not like all the other vampires. There’s a twist. It’s one that worked out really well, and looking ahead could go to all sorts of fascinating places. But like pretty much everything else in The Truants, it roared out of the tale that appeared before me more than I could lay claim to some genius light bulb moment.
The light bulb moment I did have, way back at the beginning, was the knife. The knife with vampire blood on it. Knife crime in the UK, particularly youth-related knife crime, was, and still is, a hot button topic. I think at the time I was probably chugging through the tail end of “True Blood” (surely the finest form of fast-food TV there is: delicious, moreish, precision-engineered, dirty, and probably not all that good for you) when I just thought, “What if someone stabbed a vampire, and then stabbed someone else? Would that someone else become a vampire? And what would that be like for them, turning into a vampire, but not knowing what was happening to them? That confusion and horror of something being very wrong with you. Of change. Probably accompanied by a degree of rage. Especially if you’d been stabbed. Murdered even?” It was an interesting train of thought.
The twist only actually came in the telling of the first chapter. Of that vampire being stabbed as he burns in the dawn light on a bench. Of a young child subsequently cutting his finger on the knife. The only way I could truthfully articulate that very young child’s fear and confusion was to have a mature observer experience it with him – the child simply wouldn’t have had the vocabulary to express it. And the only candidate for that job was the old vampire himself. We needed that old bastard to wake up trapped in the poor child. Didn’t seem like a huge leap at the time, but it quickly unlocked a whole world of new possibilities for the story. First and foremost, this old-one’s own confusion and horror of change provided a perfect counterbalance to the human one – it provided a shadow that gave the whole thing substance. And with that substance it meant the story could indeed go to all those [insert topic here] places. And by fuck, when I realised that, there was no way I wouldn’t go to as many of them as I could.
And from there, it all just exploded out from where it came. Pretty much fully formed. The first draft took maybe six weeks. The sequencing was all over the place, but the chapters, and the little sub-sections, pretty much all in one take. To my mind it’s actually closer to a work of journalism – documentary horror, if you will – than fiction.
The Truants is, to all intents and purposes, a live punk album. It doesn’t want to be your friend. It doesn’t want you to like it. It wants you to love it. Or hate it. It wants to attack you, to make you feel its rage, and maybe, for some of you, to feel dangerously alive. To paraphrase J.G Ballard, it wants to rub your face in it. To see it and feel it. It is not escapism – it’s the opposite of that – it’s barely even fiction, and I make no apologies for that.
One analogy for the experience of reading The Truants that has always sat well with me is that of receiving CPR. No-one enjoys, or even wants, to receive CPR… it probably feels like being mugged whilst someone smashes the living shit out of your chest and forces you to breathe, but at the end of it you get to keep on living. It’s bruising. Punishing. And whilst for some it can be a kind of epiphanic experience, for other it’s simply horrible. Unforgivable. But it might just save your life.
But that’s all cool too. The Truants is what it is. I just found it and dug the fucker up – told the story as it played out before me – that was my only job, and I reckon I did okay. I know at least that I didn’t look away where plenty of folk would (and seem even to think I should) have – but that would have been dishonest reporting. It would have let us all off the hook, and fuck that. This shit is for real. This our world. This is the truth. If it’s make-believe you’re after, there’s plenty of other stuff out there that does that – off you trot.
So there you have it. The Truants isn’t about vampires. What it’s really about is simply us. What we have become. About how young and lost we all are, how alone, no matter how old and sure, how together, we think we might be. If there is a monster in The Truants, it’s probably actually fear, but not of death – god no, death is actually an aspiration in the book (“Riiiiiise!!!”) – but the fear of purposelessness, the big old what’s-it-all-for?
And that’s a fear that’s common to us all, however many millennia we may have lived. But yes, it does have vampires too. A new breed. A whole hive of them.
And we’re coming to get you.
The Truants tells the story of the last of the old-ones―creatures afflicted with a condition not unlike vampirism: ancient, bloodthirsty, and unable to withstand sunlight. The last old-one has decided to end his life, but before he can act, he is held up at knifepoint. His assailant disappears, the knife in his pocket, the blood of the old-one seared into its sharpened edge. The knife trades hands, drawing blood again, and the old-one is resurrected through his victims’ consciousness and divided, spreading through the infected. With his horde of infected youth, the old-one must reclaim the knife to regain control of his soul. But someone is out to stop him…
Lee Markham is the founder of the children’s publishing house Chestnut Tree Tales and No Man, an independent publishing house. He has previously worked as a brand content developer, and he has written articles for magazines including Admap and Brand Strategy. The Truants is his debut novel and will be published by The Overlook Press on July 25, 2017.