In the past decade, fortunate fans of the supernatural have marveled at an epidemic of first-rate novels in the field by women writers. Susanna Clarke, Wendy Webb, G. Willow Wilson, Helene Wecker, Mary Rickert—together, these latter-day mistresses of the macabre might well be dubbed a New School of the Gothic, a grand recrudescence of the genre two centuries after its first flowering in the hands of Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë.
Just like those early 19th-century innovators, each of the 21st-century purveyors of the supernatural tale takes special pleasure in an almost excessively sophisticated style: a narrative persona whose tremendous store of curious knowledge and bookish information (all the more layered now, 200 years on) works in dissonant harmony with the gruesome horrors unleashed upon the reader.
Is it “incorrect” to group women authors together in this way? Well, of course it is. But might there not be, even so, something finely tuned, some particular “feminine” insight involved, in these writers’ consistent wedding of uncanny knowledge and horrific experience? It is certainly not for this writer to answer with any authority. Still, I’m glad—if properly nervous—to have raised the question.
With The Quick, Lauren Owen has created a brilliant addition to this list. A native of Yorkshire, England, Owen is currently completing her doctorate in English Literature at Durham University. BookPage spoke with her by phone and discovered that the author’s gift for choosing words—never too many, and just the right ones—is a function of her conversation as surely as it is the signal achievement of her literary debut.
Because the supernatural element of The Quick does not make its initial (and altogether shocking) appearance until five superb and completely realistic chapters have gone by, BookPage felt ethically bound to ask Owen if it was all right to let the awful black cat out of the bag in the interview, and mention the novel’s decisive turn towards undead territory. The author sweetly conceded, “I’m very happy to talk about vampires. I think it is out there now.”
To call The Quick a “vampire novel” would be a misleading understatement of what is (ahem) at stake in the book, and would not account for the variety of pleasures it affords. To begin with, there is a special thrill for any lover of late-Victorian fiction in the way Owen sets her novel in that period and then sensitively addresses certain thematic elements which would have exceeded the moral limits of that era. In certain early scenes of her novel, for example, Owen explicitly shows us Oscar Wilde’s love that cannot be named—soiled bed sheets and all. “I have a real love for this period, the very end of the 19th century. It was my hope to have a kind of realism, an element of going behind the veil, beyond closed doors.”
There is a special thrill for any lover of late-Victorian fiction in the way Owen sensitively addresses thematic elements which would have exceeded the moral limits of that era.
One of the beautiful things—among so many—in the experience of reading The Quick is the fabulous sum of debts Owen pays to the great and uncanny works of the time. The ghosts of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wilkie Collins are smiling with demonic pleasure and recognition on every page. BookPage asked the author if it pleases her or bothers her when an interviewer suggests that her light shines all the more brightly in the terrific shadows of those writers. “Oh, that’s absolutely wonderful to hear. These were people I grew up reading and I’m hoping there’s an element of homage going on there, because I learned a lot and had so much enjoyment reading them. It’s kind of a ‘Thank you,’ I guess. But I do think I’m kinder than Bram Stoker in Dracula, ‘cause my American makes it out OK.”
"I do think I’m kinder than Bram Stoker in Dracula, ‘cause my American makes it out OK.”
It’s a special delight to read the novel’s Aegolius Club—the house in London where the undead convene in order to spin their diabolical plans—as a commentary on the British class system, on aristocratic privilege and on the arrogance of imperial ideals. Here, Owen seems to be spoofing the “white man’s burden” by turning it into the utterly white-faced man’s burden.
“In the U.K. at the moment, we are thinking, what should we be proud of, what should we be less proud of, in our imperial past? The vampire is a thing that is repellent but intriguing at the same time. I was thinking of the establishment in this way, as a set of values not very attractive to me personally, but at the same time, you wonder, what does go on in that kind of place? What are they up to in there? What do you do if you have these gifts? Maybe you do try to make the world a better place, but your power is based on exploiting those weaker than you, which is a corrupting force. For a writer, it’s a temptation to upend all that and let chaos reign.”
"What do you do if you have these gifts? Maybe you do try to make the world a better place, but your power is based on exploiting those weaker than you, which is a corrupting force."
Owen’s gallery of characters is vast in emotional range and psychological depth. She draws her female protagonists with special vividness and power. Was there a particular pleasure in imagining those brave women and redoubtable undead females? “Definitely. I wanted to show the human characters Charlotte and Adeline as two women who are strong in different ways but who relate to one another and have this friendship and mutual respect. That was a lot of fun.” So why the hell do such awful things happen to them? “That’s the paradox of writing. You make something that has so much meaning and then there’s a necessary way for it to go.”
The cruel realism in the opening chapter of The Quick vies in dreadfulness with anything supernatural that occurs later in the book—suggesting that the vampire serves as just an especially sharp instrument with which to open up a further universe of dreadful emotion, already at work. “I hope that the Gothic elements of the book, though not real—not literal—are ways of helping us to see our lives writ large,” says Owen. “I go back to the dream metaphor: the dream is not real, but it contains stuff which does relate in a very vital sense to your real life. That’s so clear in the very earliest Gothic novels, which are very close in time and spirit to the birth of Romantic poetry.”
The tectonic shift of the book into Gothic territory—the ruinous collapse of values wrought by the undead upon the quick (an antique designation for “living human beings”)—marks Owen’s breakthrough as a novelist. “The vampire must go and attack somebody and they will die so that the vampire can live. I wanted to make the vampire victim a person who has grown up, who has a life and people who will miss him—to have the vampire as an abrupt insurgence into a normal life which is rich in many concerns, quite apart from the supernatural. The idea of a genre shift coming out of nowhere is something that can happen in the real world at any time.”
In short, Lauren Owen is a writer of a vampire novel who is so damn good, she doesn’t need the vampires. When told this, Owen quipped, “I think a lot of the characters in the book wish I hadn’t needed the vampires!” More seriously, she continued, “The title, The Quick, points to the living people as important and interesting and dangerous without the need for supernatural gifts.” It was tempting at this moment for the interviewer to observe that it takes supernatural gifts for an author to achieve this goal. Readers have many canny and uncanny pleasures in store from Lauren Owen.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.