Author: Richard Laymon
Publisher: Leisure Books
It has been over a decade now since The Traveling Vampire Show won the Bram Stoker Award for best novel. I had never acquainted myself with Laymon before, which is surprising considering that in my teens I devoured any Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel I could get my hands on. Evidently (if one believes Wikipedia) he was popular in Europe at the time, until he signed on with Leisure Books in 1999. So here I am, twelve years later, reading my first Richard Laymon novel.
The Traveling Vampire Show is a coming-of-age story about three sixteen-year-old friends: Dwight, Rusty, and Slim (Frances). It is told in first person through Dwight, a good-natured, albeit horny, teenager. The object of his affections is a girl names Slim, who is a tomboy in every sense aside from her looks. She is gutsy and loyal, even to their annoying friend Rusty, who is overweight, insecure, and constantly spewing out inappropriate remarks.
The story begins when the three teens encounter a flyer advertising an over-eighteen traveling vampire show. Even though they suspect it is a farce, the show features Valeria, a gorgeous and stunning vampire. Believing that they won’t be able to get into the show, they head over to Janks field in mid-afternoon to see if they can catch a glimpse of her before the midnight show. A stray mongrel attacks them, injuring Slim and separating the three. Little did they know, it was only a portent of things to come.
The Traveling Vampire Show is the kind of novel you can read in a day. The action is non-stop and the pages are filled with dialog. For me, this is a good thing, although I normally find books written like this to be a little shallow. I don’t make any claims that this novel is an exception, but in terms of writing horror, Laymon does an excellent job of building suspense. He is patient in unveiling what is truly behind the vampire show and leads Dwight on a winding path of discovery. We get some back history of the troubles at Janks field and learn of Slim’s difficult upbringing. Throughout the course of one day, the true natures of each kid is revealed when they are confronted with danger and their companions go missing.
The novel is as much about growing up as it is about the vampire show. Dwight is in love with Slim and through the adrenaline of their day, he discovers that the feeling is mutual. They are left alone for much of the day and there is an awkward sexual tension that continues to build throughout the novel. Dwight is extremely shy in this endeavor, but Slim is more forward and takes advantage of his bashfulness with coy seduction. Maybe for a teenage boy these descriptions would be tantalizing, but for me, much would have been left better unsaid. They are teenagers after all and their forbidden lust is not approached with the skill of an author such as John Updike.
As a coming-of-age story, it is easy to draw comparisons. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life and Stephen King’s The Body (Stand by Me) are two that come to mind, but I do not think that this novel reaches the same level of excellence that these two achieve. Slim is a character that is easy to fall in love with — she is cool, attractive, and dependable. Rusty, on the other hand, is an annoying third wheel and when his younger sister, Bitsy, enters the picture, the twosome becomes tiresome.
I can’t applaud this novel as being the stuff that should be award-winning, but it is an easy, enjoyable read. I actually would rank it about 3.5 stars, but since I don’t do fractions it gets rounded up. If you can put up with the incessant leers and deviant thoughts of teenage boys, the buildup of dramatic tension makes this a true horror novel (it’s not the presence of a vampire that defines it within the genre). If you enjoy reading authors like Dean Koontz or Stephen King, give Laymon a try. I will likely be checking out some of his older works.