If you like spooky Victorian fiction, you’re going to love Lauren Owen’s “The Quick,” a literary gothic novel set in 1890s England. The book opens in wuthering, withered Aiskew Hall, a deteriorating manor house on the moors of Yorkshire.
James and Charlotte, two young siblings, live here without their parents. Their nursery’s owl wallpaper seems sinister, the library has a “priest hole,” or hidden cabinet, and most of the other rooms are closed up, although the children sometimes visit them.
They have only a few people looking after them — a housekeeper, a governess and a gruff gardener who’s trying to keep the roses from being choked by the weeds — but otherwise it’s a lonely place. Something’s not right, and you sense these children have reasons to be fearful.
For one, their mother is dead, and they almost never see their father. Sensitive and creative children, they are like two of the Bronte siblings. Charlotte reads her little brother a scary book and “… he had bad dreams afterwards for three nights running. Already she knew that an idea could pain him like a bruise. He had grey eyes that showed every thought, and Charlotte worried that he might be hurt in some way that she would not be able to prevent.”
Charlotte senses danger ahead, and seeks to increase their bravery with “ordeals,” such as going into dark places in the house alone. Suddenly their father comes home — to die, as it happens — and something occurs to alienate James from his sister. Years flip by as they grow up; he graduates from Oxford while Charlotte falls into a lonely life caring for their sickly aunt.
James fears London — its hugeness, its loneliness, its dark corners where violence occurs — and yet he’s certain he must live there in order to succeed as a writer. In his memorandum book, he has written “Life with a capital must be lived in the Capital.”
The city seems to summon him, and because he’s inherited enough money to do so, he moves to London, where “one’s past was not safe, the roads were overwritten by a thousand histories, trodden by millions of feet.” Friendless and lonely, James spends his days scribbling mediocre poetry in cheap lodgings. And what about poor Charlotte? Why doesn’t he think more about her lonely life? Just as you’re starting to dislike this repressed loner, you begin to realize Ms. Owen’s cleverness. James is trying to keep a secret from himself.
Cue the catalyst: Christopher, a dissolute Dorian Gray whom James met once at university. The handsome Christopher, who is from a wealthy family, is a bon vivant who stays out all night attending parties or drinking with his posse. Of course his family disapproves, and he’s so low on funds that he urges James to become his roommate. James agrees, and they become real friends.
The novel speeds up dramatically; anti-social, shy James agrees to accompany Christopher to a family dinner. Among these rich society people, James feels out of place, tongue-tied and gauche:
“He had an odd sensation, watching the other guests eat — so civilized, and at the same time so barbarous when one really thought of it. How much they consumed, and so politely, teeth and hands so busy, knives slicing.”
He sees blood on plates and on the collar of Christopher’s older brother, a strange and angry man. Suddenly a phrase comes to you: “the quick and the dead.”
Yes, you’re reading a vampire novel, a very good one. Ms. Owen invents the Aegolius, an elite gentleman’s club made up of the undead. She gives us the notebook of Augustus Mould, their human scholar, who clues us in on vampire lore and his own worries about becoming a meal before he can complete his research. This being England, there’s a class struggle, too: the clubmen despise the Alia, the slum-dwelling “undid.”
Meanwhile, James has ceased to answer Charlotte’s letters. She comes to London to find him and barely escapes being murdered by an Aegolius member. Shadwell and Adeline (yes, vampire hunters exist) save her and another man who managed to escape a club dinner before his hosts could recruit him.
The story gallops among narratorsand features some thrilling action scenes. Ms. Owen captures Dickens’ London with glee and produces a number of characters Dickens would be happy to call his own: look for Dr. Knife, Burke and the dark angel Edmund.
Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for this book’s sequel, presaged on its very first page and confirmed on its last. Ms. Owen’s only 28, but she has prodigious gifts.
Susan Balee’s illustrated memoir of a long trip to Italy will appear in the autumn issue of The Hudson Review.