Vampires have become such clichéd creatures. From the seductive stand-ins for sexual awakening in Bram Stoker's Dracula to the suave, sophisticated killers of the 20th century horror films to the recent tamed, sensitive Edward Cullens of Twilight and its ilk, vampires reflect their times, but at a distance. Despite their lust-filled aspect, vampires are too removed from our own psychological conflicts to represent anything truly threatening. Or so it seemed until I recently read Grace Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps.
Read the book description provided above. Imagine vampires that are not sexual stand-ins or sly killers, but instead are junkies looking for their next fix, searching for identity in a world stripped of it. As the nameless female narrator of The Orange Eats Creeps states:
Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way. Some call it having a restless soul. That's a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt. I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true. For better or worse, for good or merciless, I can't help but go through life with a selective view. My body does it without conscious thought or decision. It's a problem only if you make it one. (p. 5)It is a true "teenage wasteland" that comes to (un)life here, but one that exists outside of The Who's "Baba O'Riley." Set in the Pacific Northwest, after some indeterminate disaster, The Orange Eats Creeps does not inhabit just a locale but also takes up residence within one's psyche, especially for those of us who came of age in the 1990s. There is none of the comforting "this is another's problem, I have nothing to worry about here" to be found within its pages. The narrator's travels, her literal and metaphorical searches, her takes on life, people, and the bullshit that comprises life - all of these are compacted to fit into quick-hitting rabbit punches that leave the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable within their own skins.
The Orange Eats Creeps is full of sounds and smells; decaying, rotting, festering, empty sounds and smells:
I sat awkwardly perched on a stool in the middle of the room, the only place left, while Seth rolled cigarettes with the other dudes. A prehistoric bluegrass 45 rotated on the portable next to the door, the dead man sang a giggolo is the only way to go-o. The record cracked and popped, the sound of slowly opening a peanut butter sandwich. They let us sleep in an RV on the property and I woke alone in the afternoon with the sweet charred flavor of burnt baked beans wafting in through the window. Some flaky Anarchos had been heating up some shit at the campfire next to the car and then left it there for long enough to have reduced the can of beans to a firm, dry brick on the fire. (p. 22)
Krilanovich utilizes smells and sounds throughout this story. Not only do we get to see the last frayed edges of civilization up close in living color, we get to smell its decaying corpse belch out its rotting putrescence in variegated browns, oranges, and blacks. It is a hopeless world, one where the wandering hobo vampires are in search of a fix, whether it be found in meth, speed, sex, or just a purpose. It is a setting where days are divided into three distinct parts:
Throughout the story, there are several allusions to orange, such as this claim by one of the narrator's peripatetic companions, Jacob:
The night is brown browntime, the day is orange orangetime, then pink pinktime. (p. 23)
"We own nothing but what's inside. It's the middle of the night in here," he said, pointing to his chest. This is what we own: our thoughts, orange and sickly. You feed it nothing but sorrow and it grows and stars come out and you are the King of your own Island of Night!" (p. 36)
Such thoughts, whether they be those of the narrator or her occasional fellow vampiric junkies, dominate much of the story. They have been bequeathed nothing but the rotting remains of a civilization. Theirs is the search to find something allay the suffering, to assuage the betrayals of their parents' generation. This desire is made concrete in the narrator's search for her older foster sister, Kim, who disappeared some months before the story begins. This quest, which leads the narrator to travel the dangerous The Highway That Eats People, is not one tinged with hope (it is implied in several places that Kim may have been murdered), but rather one full of desperation. The narrator frequently refers to her "undead" state, to the tensions inherent in not being able to die and possessing a teen body is that forever dying. Throughout The Orange Eats Creeps, we witness this conflict played out in a warped, surrealistic setting, where reality seems to bend and past and present conflate into a dreamlike whole that leaves the reader puzzling over what is real and what is unreal.
The Orange Eats Creeps contains so many levels of reaction and interaction within its 172 pages that sometimes tangled knots appear. There were times that the blurred lines between the narrator's dreamtime and her waking moments became so intertwined that it was difficult to pick out just what was really occurring, although it should be noted that this seems to be precisely Krilanovich's intent, that of exploring what happens when events crash together and are subsumed by the internal conflict of the narrator. Sometimes, the intensity of the narrator's thoughts and the passivity she took to some horrific events overwhelmed certain elements of the story; the drug-induced ESP and the connections alluded to in the blurb quoted above to the Donner Party girl were neglected for large stretches of the story. Yet despite these moments of confusion and underdevelopment, on the whole The Orange Eats Creeps was a horrific, visceral novel that grabbed my attention and made me confront several unsettling aspects about the banal evils that surround us. The emptiness of the hooking up and of the consumption of speed reminded me too much of my youth and of those I knew in my teens and early twenties. Krilanovich captures the negative vibe that so many members of the Latchkey Generation experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s in a take no prisoners-style approach. Twist it just a little bit, away from the concretized metaphor of the bleak, brown-and-orange wasteland and toward the bland, soulcrushing nature of teen life during this time period and it could read almost as a superbiography for so many of us that endured those years while seeking to find our way and ourselves through the haze of drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships.
Although it is far from a cheery novel, The Orange Eats Creeps contains enough elements of hope to keep its readers going until the end. While I cannot truly claim to have "enjoyed" this novel, I certainly can say that it is one of the most powerful, moving, and unsettling stories that I have read in quite some time. The fact that this is Krilanovich's debut novel makes this novel a greater accomplishment than the fine work it already is. It feels as though it is a story that has been "lived" and in witnessing this, we are changed as a result. It is truly a remarkable work, one that will leave me thinking about its uncomfortable truths for a long time.