Rhapsody in Red: “Dallas Teller’s Kill List” by Peter Molnar (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

RhapsodyRed“Dallas Teller’s Kill List” is the second of two novellas that comprise Peter Molnar’s collection Rhapsody in Red, the first being “The Remainders”.

Thirty-year-old high school English teacher Conor Crenshaw has won a local Educator of the Year award. But his young, gifted exterior belies inner trouble: Conor not only talks to himself, he hears a voice in his head that talks back. His self-doubts intensify after an incident in which one of his pupils, Dallas Teller, takes a gun to school; although this would-be school-shooter is apprehended before he can do any harm, Conor is left with the feeling that the local parents blame him for the near-tragedy.

After Dallas is taken into custody Conor learns that the boy had a list of victims on his person: a list that included nine students from Conor’s class and one teacher – Conor himself. Meanwhile the voices in Conor’s head continue to taunt him, making enigmatic references to the death of his mother Tilly; sure enough, he later hears that his mother has been found dead at the bottom of her cellar stairs. At that point, repressed memories begin flooding back for Conor…

The sound of the fingernails against the glass started again, only now every tap knocked pieces of broken glass away to be taken away by the Gulf Stream gusts that had travelled all the way north to hammer Conor’s house in southeastern Pennsylvania. To drive him insane with the sudden onslaught of seemingly lost or repressed memories. Of who he’d been.

The monster he was. The puppet. The Educator of the Year who wore a human face to conceal the predator beneath. Conor strode towards the window. The curtains had parted just enough the rain rushed in, falling sideways, and dappling his face. He drew the curtains all the way with a violent sweep of his hands.

Clicketyclackclicketyclackclicketyclack

They were waiting for him, just as he’d expected they would be. Hovering. Dancing on air. His brothers and sisters. The family he never had and always wanted.

The novella then shifts focus to Conor’s wife Maddie, who must pick up the pieces after her husband’s apparent suicide attempt. Conor’s personal problems have only intensified: he refuses to admit that his mother Tilly is dead, and accuses his wife of having buried her alive; he soon becomes a mental patient, at which point he is reduced to eating insects and biting staff members. Meanwhile, Maddie hears from the school guidance counsellor Mary Marguerite that the nine students on Dallas Teller’s kill list have formed into a clique – despite having little in common before the attack, and having no idea that they were on the list together. Now known as Crenshaw’s Children or simply the Nine, they exhibit disturbing behaviour:

“The Nine were walking side-by-side wide across the halls once more. Banging into the freshmen. Oblivious. Trance-like, even. I caught them doing it once.” Mary stalled, drummed her fingers along the edge of the small oval table. “Their expressions. Their … eyes.”

“What about them?”

“They looked strained. Not in control. Helpless.”

“Helpless?”

“Mouths pulled back into these rictus grins. Skin tighter than normal, like they’d all taken their faces off and then just stapled them back on.”

Both Maddie and Mary are determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Maddie visits her husband in his ward, while Mary (who becomes the story’s central character) visits Dallas in custody. Between them, the two start to form a picture of what happened. The voice in Conor’s head, his belief that Tilly Crenshaw was buried alive, the mysterious force controlling the Nine and Dallas Teller’s thwarted attempt to slay them: all of these stem from a single phenomenon. The Crenshaws, and Crenshaw’s Children, are tainted with vampirism.

This novella shares a volume with “The Remainders”, a story whose psychic vampires that feed upon racism and strife mark a self-consciously modern update of the vampire theme. “Dallas Teller’s Kill List”, meanwhile, belongs to a strain of vampire fiction that goes back as far as Dracula.

The whole point of Bram Stoker’s novel is that the vampire is abroad in what was, at the time of publication, a modern urban environment as opposed to the hazy period settings used by earlier vampire authors like Polidori and Le Fanu. When Stoker’s time faded into history, it fell upon later generations of writers to apply his own methods to their own eras. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975) is a famous example of a novel that transplants a Stokerian vampire into the late twentieth century; and with “Dallas Teller’s Kill List”, Peter Molnar applies his own update to the genre.

And these are very much vampires in the Dracula tradition, capturing the demoniac power and charnel-house grotesquery that is found in Stoker’s writing but diluted by film versions. But while the vampires themselves have survived the transition from the late Victorian era largely intact, their surrounding environment is very different: “Dallas Teller’s Kill List” locates its undead against a twenty-first century backdrop of school shootings, child predation and frank discussions of mental illness.

The story never allows its supernatural elements to become cheap analogies for issues of mental health, as a lesser work may have done. Rather, the vampires serve to bring to the surface the problems that have been forced into repression by social stigma. When the school principal casually mentions his eight-year-old daughter taking Prozac, he is turning his face to a society that would rather not discuss such matters and instead allow them to rot and fester.

When the supernatural phenomena begins, long passages are taken up with characters discussing the psychological ramifications of familial breakdown. Conor Crenshaw’s father – the story’s vampire patriarch – left the family during his childhood, leaving Conor with guilt and shame at having possibly contributed to his father’s departure (an emotional thread tying back to “The Remainders”, whose protagonist faced similar guilt). In turn, the nine pupils become “Crenshaw’s Children” partly because they themselves lack fathers, a void that they feel a need to fill. The teacher’s unhealthy relationship with his pupils has obvious parallels with sexual predation, and the story is not coy about addressing these: prior to finding that the vampires are genuine, Mary is convinced that Conor is an abuser.

Meanwhile, Mary turns out to have a mental illness of her own, one that is the cause of much personal shame and embarrassment; and when she gets close to the truth, it also provides ample means for her opponents to gaslight her into silence. Her status as a single mother with an autistic eight-year-old daughter is still another point of vulnerability. Faced with stigma where she should have been given support, Mary must hold herself together long enough to take on the monsters plaguing the town.

All of this makes for a successful update of the Stoker template: the vampires are still the grisly revenants of folklore, while the story makes full use of its contemporary setting. Between this novella and “The Retainers”, Rhapsody in Red shows that the traditional vampire still has plenty of value.

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