To be honest, I had never read a Richard Laymon book before this one. I had barely even heard of him. His name gets so bogged down with the weight of names like Stephen King that one can go years without experiencing one of Laymon’s novels. Yet I picked The Traveling Vampire Show out at a Barnes & Noble, wanting to read what everyone was talking about, and was sure glad that I did.
Laymon’s 2000 Bram Stoker award-winner takes us all back to the 1960s (or in my case, for the first time), focusing on a boy named Dwight and his friends, Slim and Rusty. They’re all 16 and out of school for the summer, looking for things to do, and one day they find out that a traveling vampire show is coming through their town, with a supposedly lovely mistress as the vampire. It’s also an 18+ show, which spikes their interests more – will there be violence? NUDITY? Through the help of Dwight’s brother’s wife, Lee, they get tickets for the show, but encounter some problems along the way because of Rusty’s little sister. For a while, the three friends think that the weird vampire show workers are out to get them for killing a dog, but they find out all of the mischief was just a prank. But when Lee, Rusty, Dwight, and Slim finally make it to the vampire show at midnight, they find out that Valeria really is the lovely and fearsome vampire that they thought she would be, but they weren’t expecting all that they got themselves into.
Laymon’s ride to the past is amazing, especially because of his characterization of the three teens. The sexuality that runs rampant through Dwight’s mind is not exaggerated, but is a reality of a pubescent mind that can’t stop thinking of the opposite sex – and naked too. It’s true to life and allows the reader to relate to Dwight, whether male or female, because his thoughts are uninhibited. We can get closer to him because we are deep in his psyche.
It helps that all of the characters have some really distinguishing characteristics. Rusty is a chicken who tries to act tough, and though Dwight and Slim are best friends with him, they soon tire of his macho attitude. There’s also an undercurrent of strangeness running through him and his little sister that is presented but not dealt with in the book that leaves the reader wondering. Slim is a tomboy, but a feminine one who likes boys, especially Dwight. When the two get together towards the middle of the book, it feels right and not cliched because it doesn’t just magically happen as the book closes. It’s already been established from the beginning, and it doesn’t feel like love at first sight. Lee is one of the cutest characters; Laymon’s description of her is very flattering and the reader will have a crush on her just as Dwight does.
What I liked so much about the book is not the violence of the end finale, which is intense and a great closing to the novel, but the fact that Laymon doesn’t jump right into the vampire show. He spends more time with the teens, giving them a deep background and building their relationships up so that there’s a real shocker at the end. The backstories that Laymon writes about build off of normal teenage adventure stories but add originality to both tone and event. It feels like it actually happened at one point or another, and the bit about Halloween really made me yearn for the holiday.
The Traveling Vampire Show is not full of action or violence, though, and if one goes in expecting an onslaught of vampires and death, one might be surprised and a little disappointed. But the horror is still found with every turn of the page – it may not always be a literal monster, but Laymon is always tackling some emotional monster of being a teen or what it feels like to be in puberty that adds a suspense through the whole novel. It’s an emotionally charged, fun ride through a host of creative experiences that leaves you wanting more as you flip the back cover closed. I’ll pick up another paperback by Laymon any day.