Alexander Mee reviews Stephen McGeagh’s debut novel, Habit.
In penance for disliking one vampire novel I have been sent another to review. Vampire books are sown from dragon teeth; there is no end to them, no possible victory against them. I see that now, and will cease to fight.
The former was a blend of fetish sex and roid-rage shamanism, this is another beast altogether. By which I mean it’s just stultifying, though by design, I’d charitably assert.
Habit reads like a social metaphor. Vampires (though they are never explicitly called this, I rush to point out, they may not even be, but they’ve got all the hallmarks) might be born or created amongst those we ostracize from our quotidian society. That they form a safety net for the prostitutes, damaged, drunken and imbalanced that we sweep aside to keep the streets clean. It makes the consumption of blood and flesh into a communion between and amongst the lost and lonely. Not power, but precarious balance is sought by these vampires’ feasting. Not dominance but a petty vengeance on their tormentors.
It is, genuinely, an interesting and thoughtful take on the mythos. For all of the gothic power fantasies of vampire lovers, it’s impossible to see how they could possibly exist but on the margins. Stephen McGeagh has recognised their futility in a world where profiting from the pain, addiction and suffering of others is unavoidable fact. We shouldn’t fear vampires, we should fear each other, our capacity for evil is greater and often unconscious and implacable. The vampires in this book are hopeless bottom feeders, a far cry from the apex predators of other works. They care for each other, and spread their sacrament to those who need help and a form of grisly self expression.
The protagonist encounters them and is given a way to escape his role as a passive factotum of inertia. A literal, and literary, blank slate. He lives in a Manchester that is grey and half remembered and floats from one event to another without asking questions or really taking action. He lacks distinguishing features, physically or emotionally, which in turn means that little personality comes through.
It’s a condition anyone with a hangover can appreciate, but it makes for a wearisome read that is so intent on being nihilistic that it drains the writing of texture and beauty. This golem protagonist could have been set down in a cloud of fog for all it would have mattered. His thin personality also means that we learn nothing about the supporting cast. A shame because the interaction feels natural, and is reasonably paced.
Sometimes a book is judged for its strengths, more often for its weaknesses. Habit is a book that needs must be judged by its absence. It lacks texture or teeth and thus I found it somewhat dispiriting to read a book with promise muddied by stylistic choices.
Stephen McGeagh is a horror writer from Liverpool by way of Manchester.
Habit is out now and is published by Salt