Splatterpunk Award for Best Collection finalist Rhapsody in Red consists of two novellas by Peter Molnar. Because they’re each quite long and substantial, I’ve decided to review them separately.
The first, “The Remainders: A Revenge-Fantasy”, introduces us to protagonist Natalie Kincaid as she prepares to follow in the footsteps of Amanda Fielding by drilling a hole in her head. This is a last, desperate measure to regain a psychic ability that she once had, and needs again to earn money: her occult shop is facing tough times and her landlord has already sent a heavy around to issue a threat of violence if she does not pay up soon. Her desire is to obtain communion with the spirit of Danica, her deceased wife and sometime fellow proprietor of the shop.
Natlalie does end up encountering a spirit, but it is not that of Danica. Instead, her head becomes occupied by the ghost of Gregory Gaither, a young black man who was murdered decades beforehand. He reveals that his killers were a pair of racist vampire twins who are still at large in the world: he wants to hunt them down and destroy them, but he will need Natalie’s psychic gifts to do so.
The story’s antagonists John and Henry Tarvill are not garden-variety vampires but rather Remainders, psychic vampires who feed upon human cruelty. Born in 1840, the twins absorbed the racism and sadism of their abusive slave-owning father (“The Twin Brothers came to associate good times and pleasant memories with that of a captured or executed slave. Likewise, the connection to pain at the end of their father’s belt with that of a runaway slave given safe harbour in a free state”). They became Remainders at the age of eighteen following an encounter with a supernatural entity, and from then on, haunted the country:
They needed only to raise themselves up onto tiptoes as a stiff wind kicked up around them. It lifted them as effortlessly as if they were a pair of willow wisps, and once they gained a specific altitude, the Twin Brother Remainders burned across the sky, red and bright as comets, guided by the dreadful tremors of injustice and hatred and blood spilled in vain that called to them from afar. The Twin Brothers touched down in so many cities and small towns over and over again, they developed something of a uniquely intimate connection to the United States of America. They’d come to know America in a biblical sense.
The Tarvills’ backstory follows them across the race riots of 1917 St. Louis and 1919 Chicago, into the civil rights protests of the sixties. Each step towards equality lessened their power, but this was replenished by each new atrocity in the name of racial strife and white supremacy: the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the 1992 acquittals of the officers who attacked Rodney King, the same year’s riots in Los Angeles.
The litany of racist atrocities extends into the present day. The novella’s fictional setting of Biltmore is the site of a racist police killing, the victim being one Laurence Cain, whose death is protested by a civil rights group called the Open Eyes. Also present is is the Nativity Movement and its leader Jefferson Morgan, “a neo-Nazi and outspoken white supremacist, credited in part with pioneering the alt-right movement”. All of this makes a veritable buffet for the hatred-vampires, but there is a powerful force moving against them in the form of societal progress:
Progress vibrated the Earth’s tectonic plates in a much different fashion than when terrible events transpired like the attacks on 9/11 or Tiananmen Square or the Holocaust. They conducted a different tune. In a major key as opposed to the minor keys created by the tragedy of humankind. Cruelty. Gaither had told her the Twins were weakened by such progress.
For all of its racially-charged subject matter, the emotion that comes through most strongly in the story’s treatment of ethnic strife is not anger but anxiety. A pronounced awkwardness – a desire to do the right thing, mingled with a deep uncertainty as to exactly what the right thing is – is central to the character of Natalie. The novella’s choice of protagonist, a white woman who shares her head with the spirit of a murdered black man, allows a richly ironic exploration of this ambivalence.
In one scene Natalie tells Gaither about Tre McKinley, a celebrity whose stated commitment to activism strikes her as an insincere attention-grab. Filled with schadenfreude, she gleefully describes helping McKinley to call up an ancestor of his in a filmed séance – only for the spirit to turn out to be that of a Virginia slave-owner, at which point the actor ordered all filming abruptly ended. Gaither, listening to this anecdote, is unimpressed: “you sound no better than this actor, Tre McKinley, even though you’re posturing yourself that way.” He then delivers a long, detailed account of his murder at the hands of the racist twins, after which he concludes his admonishment: “Try not to place yourself above anyone else when it comes to fighting for equal rights. It’s obscene.”
In another memorable scene, Natalie is accosted by an angry white protester who speaks in a mixture of street lingo and social justice terminology (“You think you can just hang around and rubberneck like some privileged ho?”) Gaither’s spirit, after declaring that the confused young man needs things cleared up for him, takes over Natalie’s body and grabs the teenager by the throat:
Gaither spoke in her voice. Natalie felt completely and utterly hijacked. It terrified her; her own voice filled with such wrath. The boy’s face was turning blue. He offered a feeble kick at Natalie (Gaither) but it never connected with her (him).
“You’re not helping things, you little shithead! I want you to go home, and I don’t want you to come back here because I’ll be waiting for you, and I will finish what I started. All it will take is a tightening of my grip. Say right around your windpipe. You feel my fingers around it right now?”
No response. Gurgling sounds, like soapy water running down a clogged drain. Another half-hearted kick.
“You’re about to die. So I’m going to drop you. And you’re going to run. Run home to your mother. This is not your fight. You’re a fraudulent little fucker, and you’re insulting Laurence Cain’s memory. Run. Run away.” With that, Gaither dropped the boy to the sodden asphalt. “Run. Now.”
Gaither is far from the only ghost haunting the narrative. Although Natalie’s partner Danica is dead by the story’s beginning, the romance between the two – with all of its highs and lows, prejudice and reaffirmation – is detailed through flashbacks. Unfolding at the same time is the story of Natalie’s relationship with her parents, who disapproved when she came out as a lesbian. During the course of the novella Natalie learns that her father is dead, and deals with the emotional burden of believing herself responsible for contributing to the stress that killed him. Once again, the novella’s exploration of prejudice is multi-faceted, capturing not only victimhood and oppression but also the associated guilt and shame.
The story of Natalie and Gaither is never defined purely by prejudice, and the novella pits the two against an array of threats and anxieties that range from the fantastical to the mundane. Throughout the story Natalie has visions of a deer ridden with tumours, a figure that is apparently trying to give her some sort of message (the Tumour Deer also appears in the book’s second novella, the only direct link between the two stories). She also suffers from epilepsy, the cause of which she discovers during the course of the narrative.
Meanwhile, Gaither’s involvement with the afterlife has allowed him to meet God; he informs Natalie that the Almighty has no prejudice against her for being a lesbian (“Oh, Girl, God couldn’t care less that you’re gay. That’s a human hang-up, you get me?”). This is not, however, to say that God is forgiving:
“Let’s just say the God you’ve come to understand is not entirely the God of the New Testament. In fact, that facet of the Creator is gone. What we’ve got up there beyond the stars is pure and unadulterated Old Testament. Vengeful. Disappointed as a father on the day his son gets expelled from high school. I know things you’d never, ever wish to know. About the future. How long you’ve all got? Human beings. God’s greatest folly.”
The story’s climax depicts a Civil War re-enactment at Gettysburg (this allows for more depictions of racial awkwardness: the organiser of the re-enactment, a history teacher who has been branded a racist and received death threats, delivers a speech condemning white supremacy and clarifying that the performance should not be taken as an endorsement of the Confederacy). The performers dressing as long-dead Union and Confederate soldiers are joined by literal ghosts – pale, white faces risen from the grave. Back in Biltmore, the white supremacist Jefferson Morgan (“The Devil personified”) stokes the flames of racial hatred.
The vampire twins, with their ultimate aim of provoking a race war, have much to feed upon. Natalie, still suffering from both epilepsy and emotional strain, must hold herself together long enough to help Gaither to confront the evil spirits.
“The Remainders” is a vampire story which establishes early on that its vampires are evil, and then tackles the question of exactly what evil they embody. The answer of racism, and the story is both bold and imaginative in its exploration of this theme. The novella may be subtitled “a Revenge Fantasy”, but it is far more complex than this label might imply.