I don’t write vampire stories, and I probably never will. I could argue at length that the whole vampire thing’s been done to death, only to proved wrong by a magnificent piece of contemporary fiction. I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do, however, write stories of revenants, my Returned, who are darker than most vampires and seriously lacking in capes or erotic dread. As I sold one of these stories, A Stranger Passing Through, to an anthology the other week, here’s a taster from another part of the sequence, purely for fun:
You ask what we are. We are crippled children, vomited from our graves – sick, secretive and self-destructive. This is how it has always been, since long before crosses and crescents, or the pointless spattering of holy water.
They say that Assyria was at its height when the first of us came forth. We are liars, though, and I suspect that the tale was invented to make us sound more grand. Each of us returns to the world alone, in darkness and ignorance, filthy and half-mad. Try making that sound romantic.
This isn’t a fiction of Gothic clans, or fancy societies and ancient blood-lines. I could no more ‘sire’ another one of the Returned than I could give birth to a horse. It’s a doom, a punishment, whatever you want to call it, and we bear it on our own. It’s not a way of starting a new family and settling down with kids.
Are we all as monstrous as the ones I broke that night in Chelsea? Not quite. Some take their minds down other paths, quiet exercises in futility. I know a Catholic priest, Father Michael, who’s been Returned since the seventeenth century. Every thirty or so years he finds a small, godforsaken parish and does the Lord’s work until he’s been there too long, or until he runs out of ways in which to feed without causing serious harm.
Father Michael clings to his theories of redemption. That this is our Purgatory, and we must live with what we are until we find release. I remember sipping a good brandy and watching him across the dining-room table, many years ago. County Sligo, a broken-down parochial house. He’d just taken Evening Mass. I told him that I didn’t believe in Purgatory, the Day of Judgement or the Easter Bunny.
“Then maybe you need belief, of some sort. Maybe that’s what will free you.”
“It hasn’t done much for you,” I said, which was unkind.
“Not yet.” He poured me another brandy, unruffled. “But the Lord is patient.”
Father Michael is still waiting for his God to notice him.
And then there’s Lucas. Lucas was borderline, on the edge of total shut-down, when he found colour. And apparently I had to hear all about it. Spring, 1969, it must have been, because he was still living in the hotel at King’s Cross. One of those hotels where he was the only actual resident, and the other rooms saw ten or more occupants a day, scoring, screwing, stabbing. It was a symphony of curses and banging doors, the sound of flesh on flesh and broken springs.
I had kept up with him because he’d saved me from serious damage towards the end of the Second World War. It’s a long story, for another time, but because of that incident, I called on him whenever I was in London for a while. I was growing more reserved, more distant from my kind. He was travelling inwards in a different way. Obsessive compulsive, they might call it now.
I kicked my way past the prostitutes and the dealers, found the lift broken again, and took the stairs. Lucas was waiting for me, his door already open. He ushered me in without a word. His single room had been converted into a sort of bed-sitter. You could sleep and sit in it, certainly, but not much else. Lucas waited, expectant. His narrow lips were tugged into a smile, wrinkling up his face. He’d not been young when he was Returned.
“Well?” he asked.
The room was blue. Which is to say, everything in it was blue, every single thing. The walls had been painted a pale, morning sky colour, but at the edges they merged into a summer blue, more intense. He had taken a rickety wash-stand and painted that in shades of turquoise, while a desk and chair were indigo and ultramarine. I could identify twenty, maybe thirty shades of blue without even having to squint.
“What is it? You’ve taken up interior decorating?”
“No.” His smile widened. “I’ve found the point of it all, don’t you see? If it’s all blue, then it’s right. That’s how I put it right, see? I take an apple, and it’s all yellow and red and messed up, but if I paint it blue, then it’s OK.”
“Uh-huh.” I nodded. “So, how come you’re not wearing blue clothes, Lucas?”
He looked ashamed. “I’m not ready. I have to start on the outside, then move in towards me. I’m painting the corridor, over the next week, so the room is like a centre-piece for the whole floor. I’ve spoken to the owners.”
The owners. A filthy middle-aged couple who took their cut from the deals that went on up there and only washed the linen when it stood up on its own. They lived in the basement, in conditions worse than the rooms they rented out. What would they care?
“Nice.” I didn’t need to say much, because he filled up the next two hours with a non-stop lecture on the harmony of the colours, and how he couldn’t walk the pavements outside without blue leather shoes which had their soles painted… blue. If he’d been in Santa Monica or somewhere like that, he could have become Professor of Hippy Madness. In London he was just eccentric.
He was obsessional, no doubt about that. We ate fried potatoes, dyed blue before cooking, blue eggs, blue everything. The food dye went everywhere, and not all the paint around the room was properly dry. I watched his stained fingers as we ate. I remembered those fingers tearing open a man’s rib-cage, scattering innards across a field in France. A red day, not a blue one.
“I’m aiming for green next, maybe in a year or two,” he shared with me.
“That might make meals easier.” Nothing had tasted bad, but there was something wrong about a plateful of blue food. At least next time I would be able to enjoy the salad. Lucas nodded, lost in his colours and his dreams.
As far as I know, he’s still there. One day I’ll find out which part of the rainbow he’s up to.
You can feel better now that you know the truth. Or you can feel worse. It doesn’t much matter to me. If there is a Heaven, it doesn’t want us. If there is a Hell, it cannot hold us.
We are Returned.
Coming up next, our mid-week medley. That’ll be mid-week, probably.