Charlie Huston,
Already Dead
(Ballantine/Random House, 2005)

With Already Dead, author Charlie Huston breaks away from Henry Thompson and the other characters he created for his first two books, Caught Stealing and Six Bad Things. But Peter Straub's Six Bad Things review blurb, "This is one mean, cold, slit-eyed mother of a book," still holds true for Huston's third novel.

Striking out in a new direction, Huston marries the detective novel to the vampire story for a gritty, fast-paced exploration of the darker side of New York City. The island of Manhattan is divvied up among a handful of powerful vampire clans. But Joe Pitt has chosen not to belong to any of them. Instead he treads a delicate line between The Coalition and The Society, running errands and handling dirty jobs for each, in exchange for a modicum of independence.

There are strict rules governing vampire behavior in each territory. None of the clans wants to attract the attention of the police or media and so expose their existence. So feeding is always a challenge for a rogue like Joe. He keeps a stash hidden in rooms beneath his apartment and stays hungry, drinking only enough blood to keep himself in top form.

The story launches, already in high gear, with Joe running across a killing in progress and taking out three murderous zombies. But as a result of his failure to properly clean up the scene, later discovered by the cops, he quickly finds himself in Coalition and Society crosshairs. The story then spirals into ever more complexly interwoven patterns and the reader is catapulted along by Huston's staccato style. But it's tough to believe in the long-term invisibility of the under-society of vampires given the mayhem their activities unleash in Already Dead....

"The good thing about guns is that when you shoot someone, nobody looks twice at the corpse. As opposed to a dead body with, say, half of its brain gone and its head chopped off."

The inclusion of zombies -- or "victims of zombification," as one politically correct lesbian vampire insists on calling them -- struck me as both unnecessary and an over-stretching of the novel's requisite suspension of disbelief. I'm convinced the killing that triggers the story could have been reconceived to fit within Huston's vampire mythos; and the result would have been a tighter, tauter, more plausible novel. As it stands, every time the zombies shambled onto the stage, I found myself chuckling at their complete silliness. Their presence undermined any sense of horror the story was meant to convey. And yet, in a perverse sort of way, they fit perfectly with Huston's seeming desire to cram absolutely everything into this book. There's a mad scientist, Goth punks, Internet porn, bikers, booze, incest, a midget hustler, runaway teenagers, sex, drugs and ... bluegrass. One almost wants to scream, enough already, slow down!

Already Dead could have been a killer novel. Huston's exploration of Pitt's starvation, after his blood stash is stolen, is compelling stuff. And Pitt's relationship with his HIV-positive girlfriend is nicely handled. But the author's relentlessly breakneck pace and his impulse to keep upping the shock-ante result in some over-the-top violence and some truly gratuitous sexual violence. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Some restraint, some breathing room, would have strengthened the novel's impact rather than simply battering the reader. Already Dead is a case in which less could definitely have been more.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
25 March 2006

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