It’s 1924, and the Vamp-Art Café in Chicago’s Towertown opens from 6 p.m. ‘til midnight, seven days a week. The neighborhood is inhabited by bohemians, burlesque and vaudeville stars, film actors, writers, artists, poets, political radicals, circus and fairground folk, female and male impersonators, hobos, “temperamentals,” and vampires.
The above quote is from the introduction to The Orange Spong by St Sukie de la Croix. The titular “Orange Spong” is Ra, the Sun, who, it turns out, is the god of vampires. For de la Croix’s vampires can walk about the Roaring Twenties in broad daylight, and need not fear garlic, crucifixes, or holy water; nor do they drink blood. So the vampires who frequent the Vamp-Art Café are nothing like the bloodthirsty revenants of Stoker’s Dracula or F. W. Furnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (which, by the way, they disdain as libelous lies). Rather, they have more in common with the sophisticated and cosmopolitan immortal characters of Anne Rice—minus the blood-drinking.
So what do vampires do if they’re not drinking blood, either indiscriminately, or specifically of the evil doer? In general, these vampires instead confer immortality upon mortals by sucking out their fear of death; specifically, the denizens of the Vamp-Art Café meet every night to tell stories from their centuries-long existences. The Orange Spong records one such evening, with the seven pieces therein flanked by eight interludes “Back at the Vamp-Art Café,” which introduce each of the storytellers. Many of the speakers are ex-pats from Europe, meeting in this Chicago salon, paralleling the similar Parisian salons populated by contemporary American artists.
Although some of the vampires in this novel are centuries, if not millennia, old, most of the stories fall during the fin-de-siècle period of the nineteenth century or immediately preceding/following. One notable exception is the final story, “In the Beginning,” which ironically closes the collection of stories with the vampires’ origin story—an Adam and Eve story retold from a vampiric point of view.
Despite all of the historical name-dropping throughout the collection of stories (e.g., the Brontë sisters and Lewis Carroll), it is clear from the quote above that vampires are not part of what we consider “normal” or “polite” society—they exist always on the fringes of it. Two stories (coincidentally, my favorites) in the middle of the collection especially deal with outsiders: “The Other Side of the Door” and “The Woman in the Puddle.” The first describes the love between a ventriloquist and his dummy; the second describes the journey of a man who initially flees the woman he sees reflected in water, until he finally gives in and follows her. Both stories also explore the theme of transformation, as the ventriloquist’s dummy becomes a vampire over the course of the story (for even nonhuman objects can confer immortality in de la Croix’s milieu), and the protagonist of the latter also transforms—not into a vampire, but something distantly related.
Regardless of whether you are a vampire purist or not, these stories will entertain you, while they titillate you with their strangeness, provoke you with their ideas on the nature of art or immortality, or amuse you with their unusual historical details. Certainly you will never look at a head of lettuce the same way again.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske