Given the prevalence of vampires and werewolves in contemporary culture, one wonders why it has taken so long for them to reach the Pittsburgh area. (We’re a world-class city, dammit!) With typically gray skies and an abundance of abandoned steelworks and subterranean coal mines, our region possesses a strong Gothic quality that ought to be an absolute magnet for the undead.
Now, with the publication of native author Brian McGreevy’s debut novel, they have arrived in Steeler Country at last, strutting their supernatural stuff in “Hemlock Grove.”
It has been four long decades since the author Anne Rice reimagined Count Dracula as the mesmerizing and touchingly lonely immortal, Lestat, thus reviving the genre of classic horror. Since then, what began as a titillating foray into the dark psychosexual realm of moral relativity for the Me Generation has devolved into the stale standby of publishing, reducing the once-virile vampire and his rapacious rival, the werewolf, to stock characters trapped in the deathless ennui of overexposure. Yet this type of fiction continues to sell, and sell well, as though readers themselves, once infected, must continue to devour a steady diet of the same.
For the hungry, “Hemlock Grove” will feed the need. McGreevy does little to alter the surefire formula in this buddy-story-cum-gorefest, but he does provide a welcome infusion of local color and wry humor, substituting the traditional frisson of fear with a conspicuous hipster vibe.
Hemlock Grove is one of the many old industrial towns close to Pittsburgh that arose, in the words of urban historian Franklin Toker, “in the medieval way, as partners in a development of mutual benefit.” For many years it was dominated by The Godfrey Steel Company, “encompassing 640 acres and employing upwards of 10,000 men in the endeavor of building the country.” As the looming, throbbing, smoking, steaming, flaming, churning center of everything in town, it determined the very rhythms of people’s lives, just as the great castles of Europe did in the Middle Ages. Now, post-Pittsburgh Renaissance, the mill (known to all as Castle Godfrey) sits on the riverbank “shuttered and half-razed in a field speckled with white and gold… an old dead thing that interrupts a flower bed.”
While the mill still appeals to some (mostly misfit monsters and necking teens) as a romantic ruin, it has been upstaged in the popular imagination by the aggressively phallic, futuristic tower of the Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Technologies. As a manufacturer of prostheses and artificial organs operating “at the vanguard of genetic manipulation,” the institute was the brainchild of the late J.R. Godfrey, who “foresaw, correctly, that while the malleability of material properties was what defined the crucial advances of the nineteenth century, it is the malleability of life itself that will define the twenty-first.” The company now operates under the direction of the sociopathic, hypertrophic Johann Pryce, who hopes for nothing less than to “do for medicine what Bessemer did for steel.”
Although the bright Biotech tower is perpetually illuminated, there are dark doings thrumming below ground, in the form of secret experiments to revive dead bodies, which rely on funding (and other things…) from J.R.’s widow, the “unpleasantly beautiful” Olivia Godfrey, matriarch of Hemlock Grove’s answer to aristocracy. But the dubious activities beneath the White Tower are either unsuspected or overlooked by the optimistic townfolk, especially when grisly, mutilating murders of young women begin to occur with menstrual regularity.
As fears mount, aspersions are cast on the young newcomer Peter Rumancek, “a very hirsute young man” of Romanian peasant stock, whose ratty ponytail, reserved manner, and trailer home in the woods relegate him to the bottom of the social heap at Hemlock Grove High School. Peter is in fact a werewolf, but not the werewolf in question. He is therefore anxious to identify and dispatch the creature that is terrorizing the town before he is copped for the crimes by the devil-dogcatcher Chasseur, the Agent K of diablerie. He discovers an unlikely ally in Roman, the suave scion of the Godfrey clan—with eyes “the color of money” and some serious mommy issues—who has no more trouble recognizing Peter as a vargulf than Peter has recognizing Roman as an upir (vampire).
For all his money and his magnetism, Roman is a confused, heartbroken and friendless teen, unable to control his base impulses, unaware of his true identity, and trapped in his too-cool-for-school image. A cruel, manipulative bastard he may be, but with a secret desire to do good—as plainly evidenced by the fact that every time he rapes a girl he uses his telepathic powers to erase or alter her memory of the event. Roman has no regard whatsoever for women—or anyone at all—except his cousin, Letha (who is inconveniently in love with Peter and pregnant with what she swears is “an angel’s” baby) and his singular sibling, Shelley.
Presumably named for Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein,” Roman’s 14-year-old sister is “the epic fornication of mystery and enigma… seven and a half feet tall, her head and shoulders hunched, her skin the pensive gray of a late November sky.” On her feet are two “hermetically sealed plastic cubes roughly the size of milk crates,” rumored to be full of potting soil. And she glows. Because the narrative alludes on several occasions to her death, it is assumed the Shelley is more the product of Dr. Pryce’s efforts than those of her nominal parents, J.R. and Olivia. However, the strength of the Godfrey name ensures that her entitlement is never questioned.
Despite her monstrous appearance and patchwork pedigree, Shelley is easily the most human and endearing of the book’s characters. One side of her misshapen face is paralyzed, rendering her mostly mute, but she expresses herself eloquently in an epistolary exchange with her thoroughly pathetic uncle Norman, a psychiatrist with a first-class case of denial. In her emails, issued from the seclusion of her attic refuge, Shelley displays a sweetness and vulnerability that belie her precocious mind (Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” is a favorite reading selection).
In contrast to Shelley is another young lady of letters, Christina, who is Peter’s neighbor and a surprisingly dangerous little groupie. In an effort to increase the breadth of her experience and thus enhance her worth as a writer, Christina undertakes a series of ill-fated, quasi-sexual adventures (including kissing a corpse) that prove to be positively transformational.
For most of the book, this cast engages in the usual round of activities—incest, adultery, sadism, substance abuse, shapeshifting—while the reader tries to deduce who the killer might be. To paraphrase Christina, “...there’s no literary value, of course, but once the blood and guts start flying, oh boy!”
The final bloody “resolution” of the mystery actually raises more questions than it answers (including that eternal question, Who shot J.R.?), leaving the door open for a long succession of sequels. No doubt this was part of the novel’s appeal when it was picked up by Netflix earlier this year for production as an hour-long dramatic series.
Perhaps when the series runs in 2013, “Hemlock Grove” will do for western Pennsylvania what “Twilight” did for the Olympic rainforest, providing it with a perverse sort of celebrity. And then, after what feels like a long, lonely eternity of waiting, our region might rise again and live out the dream of resurrection that lies at the heart of all horror fiction.
Sandra Levis is a freelance writer living in Point Breeze.