A Game of Blood includes a quotation from HP Lovecraft, and themes that would be familiar to any Lovecraft fan. Your protagonist, Detective Grogan, grapples with unspeakable horror, and his very sanity is at risk. Are you influenced by Lovecraft? How has this impacted the writing of this novel?
I have always felt that the thing that made Lovecraft’s work so terrifying was the fact that these insanely powerful entities were not engaging humanity as rivals or adversaries or even useful pawns in some cosmic game, but just didn’t care about us. We humans have this tendency to think we are the center of the cosmos. And yet here was Lovecraft presenting these beings who honestly thought no more about humans than we think about ants. Most of Lovecraft’s work isn’t about some monster going out to cause chaos and destroy humanity. It isn’t some epic struggle between good and evil. No, it is usually about some human accidentally stumbling upon something they should never have seen, and the entity suddenly thinking “Oh, a human” kind of like we would think “Oh, a mosquito.”
There is also the underlying theme in Lovecraft’s work that we are not nearly as smart as we think we are, and that there are all sorts of things going on around us that we are oblivious to. Whether it is actual ignorance of our surroundings or wilful ignorance to shut out unpleasant thoughts, there is the notion that the world we think we know is not what we think it is. That was one of the things I wanted to examine. In the book, Mitch is less horrified by the reality that vampires exist than by the fact that they have been able to function, in complete secret, for so many centuries. And the more he digs, the more he sees, and the more it terrifies him.
Vampires get a lot of different treatments these days. Comedic, romantic, dramatic, we've even seen vampires as private detectives. But you've taken the vampire story back to its roots. A Game of Blood is horror, and your vampire is a monster. How did you choose this portrayal of vampires? I know that Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot was an early influence for you as a writer. What else inspired you in your vision of the vampire Darius Hawthorne?
The novel actually started off as a short story. I call it my “Anti-Twilight” tale. What would a “real” vampire do with a love struck girl with a romantic interest in vampires? I’ve often joked that the whole “vampire as love interest” thing is actually a vampire plot to make it easier to feed. So that was part of the direction of the original short story. When I was finished with the story, however, I realized Darius needed a bigger stage.
What I tried to do is look at the vampire from both a folklore level and a psychological level. People who read the book are going to recognize the vampires are close to a lot of the Eastern European lore. Some can turn into mist form. Some have animalistic features. They don’t cast reflections. In terms of their powers, they very much reflect the type of vampire more often associated with 19th century gothic literature than modern portrayals.
But there is also the psychological aspect of vampirism. What impact would that actually have on a person’s psyche? One day you are human, and then next the only way to survive is to drain the blood from people? Nobody comes out of that mentally unscathed. And I think this is the part a lot of modern vampire authors gloss over, or outright ignore.
Survival instincts take over. Predatory instincts emerge. Empathy for your prey diminishes. You can’t be friends with your food, after all. And other vampires aren’t your friends, either. They are competition for hunting grounds, because a territory can only support so many apex predators.
So you start to do things to secure your territory. You accumulate wealth and resources. You manipulate institutions in order to mask your existence. Darius, for all of his charm and wit and humor, is a sociopath. He has to be in order to survive.
So much has been written about vampires that it's a challenge to make a vampire character who is fresh and original. How did you make Darius stand out from the literary legions of the undead?
I think what makes Darius stand out is not that he is something new on the vampire scene, but rather a very traditional vampire concept. On the vampire family tree, he is much closer to Polidori’s Lord Ruthven than Meyers’ Edward. One reviewer called him “The new Lestat,” but while it’s flattering to be put in the same category as Rice, I don’t think that is accurate. Lestat at least struggled at times with his morality. He lost that struggle more often than not, but at least he was somewhat aware that his behavior was inherently wrong. Darius doesn’t suffer from any moral struggle. He sees nothing wrong with his behavior.
In fact, he considers humanity’s empathy to be out of sync with the natural world and actively rants against it. There is a scene in the book in which Mitch confronts Darius concerning the rivalry between Darius and his sire. At one point, Mitch tries to make Darius feel some sort of guilt for his crimes by mentioning the death of a woman he was engaged to marry when mortal. Instead, it reinforces Darius’ position.
“You can’t even compare the two!” Hawthorne jumped out of his seat and started pacing like a caged beast. “This…this is the problem with this modern age! Political correctness run amok! All humans are not created equal! In your attempts to value all lives equally you devalue those that actually matter! You coddle your weak and invalid at the expense of the strong! You throw resources at deformities that should not even have been born, while allowing the healthy to do without! No other creature wastes so much to protect the worthless among them!”
Tell me a bit about your hero, Mitch Grogan, and how you created him.
Mitch suffers from what can be called a case of chronic empathy. At the beginning of the book, he’s separated from his wife, who is going through her own personal crisis after having a miscarriage and developing breast cancer. He wants to be there to support her, but she keeps pushing him away and it is eating him up inside. Though he’s a bit rough around the edges and curses like a sailor, he has a big heart and wants to do the right thing.
The concept behind Mitch was that he is someone who is Darius’ polar opposite, and yet they are more alike than Mitch would ever want to admit. Both are competitive, and that competitive nature is what drives a lot of the one-upmanship in the story.
Both are also pragmatists. For Darius, that simply means doing what is necessary to protect himself. For Mitch, that means weighing the lesser of two evils and trying to mitigate the damage being done. Mitch knows his hands are tied in a lot of ways. He can’t challenge Darius physically. He can’t compete against him in terms of resources. He can’t even employ the full support of the police department without endangering his partner’s family. And he can’t go public with information about vampires without either being branded insane or causing a panic that could lead to even more deaths. So he is forced to play this game by vampire rules, and he is willing to do that because it is the only way to protect the most people.
What were your goals with this novel? What impact do you want to have on your readers?The first goal was to bring the literary vampire back to its roots and remind people why the motif has remained so alluring for so long. Secondly, I hope readers can form a connection with the characters and feel a bond with them. A story like this only works if the readers can care about the characters and what happens to them. I like to think I’ve given readers characters they can care about. Even the minor characters have their own distinct personalities and you can relate to them.
You have a background in designing role-playing games. How has this affected your writing?
I think what having a background in RPGs does is force you to think through your world building. Even when you are setting stories in the real world, you are presenting your version of the world. That means you have to make sure that all of the pieces fit together. In RPGs, we call it game balance. Game balance doesn’t mean all powers are created equal. It means that no one power is so powerful that it fundamentally changes the world. So if you think of the traditional fantasy world, you have mages that can throw fireballs from a hundred yards away. That is a hugely powerful ability if left unchecked. So it gets balanced out by the fact that there are usually some sort of restrictions on how many spells a mage can cast, either because they can only memorize X number of spells per day or because those spells pull from the mage’s own life force. If you have priests that can cast resurrection on the dead, how does that impact the world? Without something to restrict the use of the spell, death becomes a nuisance and nothing more. So you require expensive components for the spell or say it has to be cast in a certain time period.
So you take those thought processes and you apply them to what you are writing. In the modern world, if vampires existed, how would they keep their existence secret? Why would they need to? What entities or institutions would exist to challenge them? What powers would they need to survive? How would those powers give them an advantage, and how does one mitigate those advantages? What are their weaknesses? Do those weaknesses make sense within the lore you have established for the story? If you put everything together right, you have a world full of supernatural creatures that still feels organic and believable.