“Love Hangover” by Sheree Renée Thomas (2021 Ignyte Awards)

SlayNoireRecently republished in The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), “Love Hangover” originally appeared in SLAY: Stories of the Vampire Noire, an anthology devoted to stories about black vampires and vampire hunters. Sheree Renée Thomas sets her story in seventies New York, where lovers of the disco scene spend their nights in search of transcendence. Into this setting is born Delilah Divine, a singer who performs at club after club and causes other stars of the era to pale in comparison: “Bianca Jagger rode by on a white horse, her black locks shining ebony waves, but all eyes returned to Delilah.”

The story is narrated by Frankie, one of many to fall under Delilah’s spell – but one of the few to get close to her. Frankie notes that, while Delilah appears to be around twenty, she speaks as though she is much older, even sharing memories of Berlin in the 1920s. As it happens, Delilah is a supernatural entity who drains life to fuel her songs:

“Where did you learn to sing like that?” I asked. She looked at me with dead fisheyes that should have run me away, but I was already hers before the first time we even touched or danced.
“From the throats of a thousand, thousand men and women. But the children,” she said, closing her eyes as if the memory pained her, “their voices are too sweet. I cannot bear the taste of their songs.”
I thought she was high. I’d seen her with blow and biscuits, poppers and whippets–whatever made the music and lights, the dance and the tempo last longer.

Although “Love Hangover” appears in an anthology of vampire stories, it takes a step outside the box in terms of definitions. Delilah has vampire-like attributes, but when the story pins down her specific identity, it refers to her not as a vampire but as a siren. Frankie cites multiple versions of the sirens’ mythological origin during her narration before concluding that Delilah is something still more ancient. This siren acknowledges her sisters, but refuses to be reunited with them: “I’d rather die than meet their judgment,” she says. “They take the joy out of this cursed life, what joy there is.”

By associating her beauty and allure to the legendary song of a siren, the story is able to integrate Delilah into her disco backdrop – sound, spectacle and central character all blurring together, with musical analogies abounding (“She had tasted death and knew she would always live, in one form or the next, like the singer resurrected in the record’s groove”). When she reveals her true form, Delilah departs from stock iconography of bats and belfries and is revealed instead as a being of stony-scales and waterlogged feathers:

If it wasn’t for the expression in their eyes, defiance, oblivion, I would not have recognized the creature that rose from the waters. Stories tell of ships and men dashed against the rocks, but what I saw that night was the nature of stone itself. Hard, iridescent metallic scales covered what used to be toned brown skin. Gone were the delicate bones under soft flesh. Water droplets dripped from long golden feathers. Neither an angel nor a demon, they were another creature for which I had no words. The wind howled as they rose. Wings, scales, the twin-tailed serpent, not fully dragon, not fully fish.

Frankie’s relationship with Delilah places her in a similar position to many other mortal protagonists who have fallen in love with vampires. As the deaths pile up, she is forced to admit that Delilah has been manipulating her, and that she has in turn been acting as an enabler. But while the underlying plot may be familiar, the story’s decision to set its vampire romance within seventies disco culture is deeply unorthodox – and thoroughly appropriate. “Love Hangover” celebrates disco as a genre pioneered by racial and sexual minorities in the face of oppression, which makes a fitting backdrop for a vampire: the eternal misfit and the queerest of queer; the predator that breeds in places shunned by respectable society, where victims can be unnoticed.

The climax chooses a particularly evocative setting. The place is 653 Broadway, former location of Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (which, as Frankie points out to us, was once frequented by Walt Whitman) and later the site of the disco Infinity. The year is 1979, which saw the end of the disco decade, the destruction of Infinity in a fire, and the so-called “Disco Demolution Night”, a publicity stunt presided over shock-jock Steve Dahl in which a crate of disco records were destroyed. This last event is framed by the story as a racist and homophobic act of cultural vandalism:

A bonfire had been set up, a disco demolition, by a twenty-four-year-old disgruntled rock deejay. He was angry that the music we loved, pioneered by mostly Black and Latino gay artists, had taken over the air waves. His airwaves. The music provided a powerful platform for those who were often invisible.

The story has Disco Demolition Night and the fire at Infinity blur together into a single apocalyptic moment. Against this backdrop is the final confrontation between Frankie and Delilah – the melancholy moment at which the beautiful destroyer must herself be destroyed.

As well as still more evidence of just how versatile vampires can be, even when adhering to a standard plot structure, “Love Hangover” is a heartfelt celebration of a bygone era in popular culture. The phrase “disco vampire” may conjure up an image of kitsch parody, but this story reflects a true passion for a diverse subculture – and an eagerness to pass this love on to the reader.

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