Warning to the reader: It is impossible for this review to proceed without a number of spoilers. In case anyone still holds the charming belief (as I do) that the mechanics of plot have a bearing on our enjoyment of a novel, the reviewer feels obliged to perform his task up front. I shall do it The Quick (pardon the pun) way: If you are a fan of literary Gothic—think Susanna Clarke or John Harwood—buy this book. You won’t regret it.
Now to details. Debut author Lauren Owen possesses the delightful knack of devising the bleakest possible permutations of the vampire myth. It is as if she made a checklist of the most abysmal variations on Bram Stoker’s blood-pounding themes in Dracula. Owen is explicit about the connection. The Quick is set in the same decade as Stoker’s masterpiece, and in a number of the same places, right down to the London-Yorkshire axis. There’s even a reprise of the sweet-cowboy-turned-vampire-hunter (duly embittered, thank goodness).
These connections with Dracula only enhance the originality of Owen’s much darker vision. On every score, this brilliant young novelist (now pursuing her Ph.D. in English Literature at Durham University) trumps Stoker in nightmarish excess. As a late-Victorian author, Stoker could barely touch upon the grisly anatomical facts and sexual overtones of vampirism. Owen wallows in all these unsavories. What is most disturbing about the novel—and thus most satisfying for dedicated fans of horror—is the fragility, astonishing painfulness and absolute contingency of every human and creaturely emotion.
Yes, that’s right: The creatures have feelings, too. The ordeals of the quick (“human”) can have all the more purchase on the reader’s imagination in contradistinction to the acute sufferings of the undead (or “undid”).
A long gallery of beautifully drawn characters makes the many pages of The Quick turn as swiftly as those of a Wilkie Collins novel (Collins is Owen’s obvious and acknowledged stylistic model). The loving ties that bind the quick and the undead—like the heroic Charlotte and her brother, James—are all clotted in blood. The final image of the novel promises a sequel. Let it come quick.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read an interview with Owen for this book.