Christopher Buehlman’s The Suicide Motor Club bares its fangs

With a single, gritty novel, the Pinellas author reinvigorates a tired horror subgenre.

Vampires. Ugh. So tired, so overdone. So sparkly or friendly or stilted or cleanly sexed-up for the CW. You never want to read another vampire novel as long as you live, amirite?

Well, you’re gonna want to read this one.

With his fifth novel, The Suicide Motor Club, St. Pete’s own Christopher Buehlman — a World Fantasy Award-nominated wordsmith whose first foray into vampire territory, 2014’s The Lesser Dead, earned a Shirley Jackson Award nom — breathes new, er, undeath into one of horror’s oldest bogeys. It’s a book as thrilling and dangerous as the classic muscle cars that form the central motif of its story, their amoral power and potential for mayhem an apt reflection of Buehlman’s monsters.

While on a road-trip vacation across the wide open spaces of the mid-’60s American West, Judith Lamb loses both her young son and her marriage to a horrifying random encounter. In its aftermath — and as her attackers continue their chaotic spree along the highways and backroads — Judith, whose life has always included tenuous relationships with both religion and the paranormal, attempts to find meaning in her circumstances by joining a convent. A stranger soon visits, however, to offer her not only that meaning and a chance at closure for her own personal tragedy, but also an opportunity to do God’s work by helping to rid the world of a secret evil.

And so Judith throws in with a unique yet nicely Stoker-esque band of Fearless Vampire Hunters, setting herself on a collision course with the forces that ripped her life apart and wondering if what she truly seeks is righteousness or revenge.

click to enlarge Author Christopher Buehlman, a St. Pete native. - Becca McCoy
Becca McCoy
Author Christopher Buehlman, a St. Pete native.

Following the initial clash, Buehlman tells Judith’s story and the vampires’ in separate, parallel and often nonlinear passages, a structure that ratchets up the tension for a harrowing climax while also juxtaposing concepts of fate, free will and existential randomness. Was Judith always meant to take this course? Are the vampires more than just a blindly destructive force of nature? It’s heady stuff, but the author handles it deftly, never letting it get in the way of The Suicide Motor Club’s most winning attribute:

It’s a gritty, gripping, brutal hellride, one of the best in years.

Buehlman’s vamps are philosophical siblings to those in Kathryn Bigelow’s unimpeachable 1987 flick Near Dark: they love to hear the sound of their own voices, but when the moon rises, all they’re concerned with is ripping flesh (even their own — some of the book’s most gruesome scenes involve the vampires’ bodies knitting themselves back together after gleefully causing a high-speed fatality) and having a good time doing it. Ringleader Luther is singularly memorable and unnerving, an amiable, even charming psychopath of cinematic presence and no conscience whatsoever, the kind of villain that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.

Part road novel, part splatter movie, and part treatise on the nature of evil, The Suicide Motor Club is entirely satisfying, and another mind-blower from an author who deserves a much wider audience, among literary horror fans and mainstream readers alike.

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