I never really thought much about writing vampire fiction.
I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I read a battered paperback copy of Carrie when I was fourteen, and ‘salem’s Lot continues to be a top 5 King novel for me, if not my favorite (it’s always a toss-up between this and The Stand, frankly) and despite my attempts to turn myself into a King clone in the 1980’s, I’ve never been very good at writing horror. I love to read it–there are some truly terrific horror writers publishing now (if you’ve not read Paul Tremblay, you really need to start), and they are, if you’ll pardon the incredibly cheap pun, killing it. I can do creepy. I can do Gothic. I can do atmosphere and all those marvelous things I love in horror fiction. But I cannot, for the life of me, scare people. I don’t know why I can’t write anything that gets under your skin and into your nervous system; the kind of thing that makes you leave a light burning after you go to bed. I wish I could write like that. I’ve certainly tried a few times…I still have an idea for a horror novel sitting in the back of my brain that I am really going to have to try to get around to writing at some point, because I really should give it a real try sometime.
I have always enjoyed reading vampire stories. “salem’s Lot has always been one of my top five Stephen King novels; I loved Dracula (oh to write an epistolary novel!) and numerous other such tales. It took me awhile to come around on Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (a tale for another time), but I did eventually. Twilight never struck any chords with me. But the one thing I never thought I would do was write about vampires, despite loving them the way I do–going all the way back to my childhood and Dark Shadows. I don’t think I ever would have written about vampires, but my editor at Kensington thought I could; thought I would do a good job at it, and encouraged it, beginning with an offer to write an erotic vampire novella for a collection to be called Midnight Thirsts.
Go home, old man, Rachel thought, tapping her black fingernails on the counter.
It was a quarter till nine, fifteen minutes before she could lock the doors. Everything was clean and the cash register was already counted down. All she had really left to do was dump the remains of the day’s coffee down the sink, lock the cash drawer in the safe, and turn everything o. She’d be gone by ten minutes after at the latest.
She glanced out the big windows fronting the coffee shop. The streetlight just outside cast a yellowish glow in the thick mist pressing against the glass. She shivered and looked back at the old man. He was sitting at one of the tables in the far corner, with the same cup of coffee he’d ordered when he came in around seven thirty. He hadn’t touched it. It was still as full as when she’d filled the cup, only no steam was coming off the black surface now. He didn’t seem to be watching for anyone, or waiting. He never glanced at this watch, which she’d spotted as a platinum Tag Heuer, nor did he ever look out the window. Every once in a while. he would look up from his newspaper and catch her staring. He’d smile and nod, then go back to his reading.
Apparently, he was determined to read every word.
She stood up, bending backward so her back cracked. The night had been really slow. The Jazz Café, even on weeknights, usually was good for at least thirty to forty dollars in tips. Tonight, when she counted out the tip jar, it yielded less than seven dollars. Just enough to get her a pack a cigarettes and a twenty-ounce Diet Coke at Quartermaster Deli on her way back to her apartment. It wasn’t, she thought, wiping down the counter yet again, even worth coming in for.
Usually, on this kind of night, cold and damp and wet, Rachel was kept busy with orders for triple lattés. The tables would be full of people who would coming in shivering, bundled against the cold wetness in the air, which seemed to penetrate even the thickest coat. They’d hold their steaming cups of coffee with both reddened hands, talking and laughing. SOme would be doing their homework on laptops.
She liked busy nights, when the orders kept coming and the tip jar filled. Then, the time seemed to fly by, her closing shift passing in the blink of an eye. She hated the slow nights, when every passing minute seemed to take an eternity. She glanced back at the clock on the wall, then back at the old man. If you would just leave, she thought, I could go ahead and close early.
He’s kind of good-looking, she thought as she sipped her tepid cup of green tea, for an older guy.
At that moment he look up, and their eyes met. His were blue, a deep blue with some green in it. Once again, he nodded his head to her and smiled, but this time he didn’t go back to his newspaper. He held her eyes.
Not to worry, my child, I’ll be gone soon enough.
She turned away, shaking her head, the hair on the back of her neck standing up…
As is frequently the case with my work, The Nightwatchers began as a short story. Within a year of moving here, Paul had struck up a friendship with the director of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (which is where he now works), and as such he volunteered us both to help out with the 1997 Festival. I worked at the sign-in desk, where people picked up their badges and so forth, and it was in the lobby of Le Petite Theatre de Vieux Carre, a marvelous old theater on the corner of Chartres and St. Peter, right across the street from the Cabildo, and kitty-corner to Jackson Square. It was very old, and the main stage was named for Helen Hayes, who’d actually played there before. It was haunted, too–every building in New Orleans is–and I heard some of the stories. Being a volunteer, I had access to back stage, upstairs to the balcony, the prop attic; everywhere. (I eventually used some of this knowledge in Jackson Square Jazz.) At some point during the weekend I had an idea for a story–a horror story–about a theater company rehearsing in an old haunted theater in the French Quarter, where the person always cast in the lead female roles is also sleeping with the director. The young actress who deserved the part doesn’t listen to company gossip, but she does eventually find out that the rumors are true, and at some point made a deal with a devil who appeared to her in her dressing room, on and on and on. I called the story The Nightwatchers, because to me, that was what the devils/demons were called–they watch at night for souls to prey on. When I was asked to write this novella, I dug out the story and reread it, deciding it was perfect to adapt into something new.
I played with it a while, and couldn’t quite get it right in my head until I decided to abandon the theater idea; I’d tried turning the girl into a gay guy but it didn’t really work. I also couldn’t seem to get the atmosphere right, either, and I was convinced–still am, in fact–that the atmosphere had to be just right or the story wouldn’t work. Then one night I was walking through the lower Quarter in December–meeting Paul somewhere, I think–and it was one of those evenings when the fog is so insanely thick that you literally can’t see more than a foot or so in front of you at any time. As I walked along the sidewalk, with the old buildings pushing up against the sidewalk, when I heard the sound of hooves on the street–and realized, bemusedly, that in the fog and the only light from a gaslight–that I could have traveled back in time. Only in New Orleans can you feel like you’ve traveled back in time when it’s foggy, I thought, and wrote an entire scene around that feeling when I got back home. It was the perfect mood/atmosphere for the story, and it worked very well.
And as I wrote the novella, I got more and more into the characters and started imagining my own supernatural world, with vampires and witches and werewolves and everything else, including a ruling council over the paranormal world, the Council of Thirteen, and the old man Rachel sees in the coffee shop is a representative of the Council, in New Orleans to hunt a rogue vampire…a vampire who believes her young friend Philip Rutledge (now the center of the story) is the reincarnation of someone he loved hundreds of years earlier when he was human (shades of Dark Shadows!) and so wants to turn Philip into his eternal companion, and it’s up to Nigel and Rachel to rescue Philip.
It was a lot of fun to write, and I left the ending a bit open so I could write more about the characters if I ever chose to do so; I actually slotted a continuation novel into my writing schedule; it was supposed to be what I wrote next after finishing Mardi Gras Mambo…needless to say, life conspired to keep me from ever getting around to this book. I am still a bit disappointed I never carried on with the story; I used this same mythology when I returned to writing about vampires again several years later with Blood on the Moon.
So, that’s how The Nightwatchers came to be a story. Writing this now I see the parallels between what I wrote and some things I read and enjoyed (or watched, a la Dark Shadows); and is my “Nightwatcher” group that different from Anne Rice’s Talamasca? Probably not.
I did read and enjoy the other novellas back in the day; I’ve been meaning to revisit Michael Thomas Ford’s because it was particularly memorable.