Let’s start with my admission that I do not read horror. While I loved all of the Alien films and I was enthralled by the Blade trilogy, it is typically not a genre I seek out.
Nicholas Powers changed all that with his new novel, Thirst. What attracted me at first was not the content but the author. Nicholas Powers is an exceptionally good writer whose political and cultural commentaries on the contemporary U.S. are matched by few. He brings a level of insight into anything that he examines. As it turns out, this is equally true when it comes to fiction.
Powers’s novel takes place in a strangely compelling alternative timeline of sorts where a Trump-like character rises to power in part through his willingness to join with a vampire conspiracy to dominate the world.
The story begins in a village that, unbeknownst to the reader, is being ravaged by a vampire (or possibly more than one). Every effort to stop the vampire(s) fails and the first chapter ends with the question of who or what is behind the appearance of these ghouls.
In Thirst we see a different sort of vampire. Those of us who grew up on the likes of Bela Lugosi, the Twilight series, or the Blade trilogy think of vampires as human-formed entities that subsist on the blood of victims. Rarely, if ever, do we have a sense of their origins. Vlad the Impaler, a national hero of Rumania, is frequently cited as the origin figure for Dracula and the more contemporary narrative regarding vampires. But vampire stories are often interlaced with sexual inuendo, male supremacy and suggestions of the alleged dangers of lust. Powers provides a novel origin story by postulating that vampires are energy-based entities from another planet that crashed onto Earth in the distant past and could only exist by inhabiting the bodies of humans and feasting off the energy that we possess.
The story, however, is much more about the times in which we live. Powers uses the notion of the vampires as a way of both describing the maniacal features of a Trump-like character and the movement that supports him. Balk — the main antagonist — plays upon public fears of crime, immigration, among other issues, much as the actual Donald Trump repeatedly has done. The main protagonists, what one could view as the anti-fascists, are led by a woman who, for most of her life, was described by mainstream medical professionals as having mental/emotional challenges. In each case, these protagonists who perceived the existence of a force of evil, if not vampires, had faced ridicule, and worse, though the vampires very much were present and had worked their way into major echelons of power. This is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi thriller, They Live, in which aliens take over the Earth, but have a device that makes them appear to be rich human beings. Through this masquerade, along with the use of both human collaborators and subliminal messages, the aliens are able to dominate the planet. In both Thirst and They Live, those who question the reality of the aliens and the peculiarity of various experiences, are subjected to varying degrees of ostracism.
Powers accomplishes an interesting social critique while making it accessible to those who are drawn to fiction generally, and horror in particular. In effect, he offers an alternate-reality examination of the rise of Donald Trump and the right-wing populist movement that has supported him. In this offering, Powers points to the social conditions that encourage — if not produce — the fear which right-wing authoritarians play upon. The story not only contains surprises, but also a sense of dread that one needs in order to make the book work.
The main characters are very believable and far from one-dimensional. For example, Thirst includes a conflict between two Latino brothers over whether to support the fascistic Trump-like candidate, when it would have been far easier, and more predictable, to have situated that conflict among two white men. Put another way, all too often examinations of right-wing populist movements in the USA paint a picture whereby the movement’s participants are exclusively white and the victims of such movements are exclusively people of color, women, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ populations. Powers alters this by highlighting a very real political contradiction that has emerged within segments of racialized, oppressed populations, i.e., between some who believe that they can become part of the dominant white, male bloc (aspiring vampires?) and those who see the totality of the dangers inherent in the right-wing populist movement. In fact, there are many progressives who would rather believe that such contradictions do not all exist.
Ironically, I would have preferred for Balk — the Trump-like character — to be less like Trump. I realize that many of us have felt as if we have lived through four plus years of a horror story and, as such, will identify with those fighting a vampire. But Balk comes at his corruption and submission to the vampires too easily. He was quickly seduced to the cause of the vampires, whereas it might have been more interesting had Balk been more skeptical of all that the vampires offered, only to later accept seduction. Powers may have wanted the readers to appreciate the depth of depravity of the Trump-like character, and perhaps of Trump himself. Yet it is useful to remind the readers that corruption rarely comes about all at once. There is generally a slow progression until there is a tipping point. I have seen such a development up close and as it evolves, there is frequently denial as to the extent of the danger that is upon that person and those around them.
I found joy in reading Thirst knowing that a fellow nonfiction writer had taken the plunge into the realm of fiction. In so doing Powers succeeds in offering a social commentary that may reach many people who might never have read one of Powers’s marvelous essays. Bravo, Nicholas!
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