Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
16 July 2014
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams , American Morons , and The Janus Tree ), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.
The language in Motherless Child is generally less dense and moody than in some of Hirshberg's stories, and the prose is structured to encourage fast reading (it's a structure that is endemic in aspiring bestsellers).
Whenever the pace needs to quicken, Hirshberg starts writing sentence fragments and short paragraphs. Dramatic. Fragments. Of sentences.
And short paragraphs.
(But. You might find it predictable. Even annoying.)
And then there are the italics. Pages and pages of italicized text, mostly from the point of view of the character named The Whistler, a musician who makes our protagonists, the young mothers Natalie and Sophie, into vampires. The Whistler is convinced, you see, that Natalie is his Destiny. Yes, with a capital letter. Because it's important. He will stop at nothing for his Destiny.
All the conventions on display here have been used in commercially successful books, and for readers accustomed to such books, the conventions do exactly what conventions should do: they serve as a shorthand for effects that would otherwise need to be more subtly crafted. We see a page of italics, and right away we know we're entering a different viewpoint than the standard narrative viewpoint. We read short sentences, and frequent sentence fragments, and our reading is maintained at a certain pace and level of suspense. It's the same effect as movies get from the ever-familiar strings that fill the soundtrack whenever a character enters a perilous situation, a Pavlovian response to cues established long ago.
Hirshberg is a talented and intelligent writer, and so his use of such pulpy, rote effects suggests that he has focused his talent and intelligence elsewhere in the novel. It may even be that he set out to use these conventions so as to misdirect our reading, to send our expectations in a certain direction while performing a trick just off to the side. (Or not.)
One such expectation Hirshberg seems to have his sites on is the expectation that a vampire novel must contain particular elements, must answer certain de rigueur questions. Therefore, if we want to think more about what Hirshberg is up to, we should start with the question of why this needed to be a vampire story at all, especially since Hirshberg is not especially interested here in the vampire as vampire.
On the one hand, it's to its credit that the book's least commercial feature is that it doesn't spend much time at all on the vampire mythos. It provides only the most immediately necessary details of how this type of vampirism works, and makes only vague gestures toward any sort of history of vampirism in the novel's world. Usually, the attraction of vampire stories lies in the two things that Hirshberg here has spent the least narrative energy on: the history and rules of the vampires, and the overlap of sex with violence that the vampire's thirst for blood evokes. The vampires evoke lust in mortals, but we quickly move into Natalie and Sophie's points of view, where attraction is first a nuisance and then, once they are able to control their effect better, a useful tool.
It may be that Hirshberg's interest in vampires was in this idea of uncontrolled lust. The Whistler is a figure of such lust: he produces it in others, and suffers something similar to it himself with regard to Natalie. With their eternal hunger for blood, vampires are vessels of desire, metaphors for all-consuming libido. This most common feature of vampire legends is central to Motherless Child, and, as with many classic vampire tales, the prose gets most purple and breathless when it must represent this desire:
It took some time to walk back to the motel, and he'd even lingered longer in the club than he realized. Because of the orchid boy, and because he was Hungry. And because the thought of what he was about to do whipsawed through him like not even music had in such a long, long time. Was this Grief? he wondered. Fear of change?
Or was it love? For his Destiny? My God, was this love? (p. 108)
Hirshberg's sentences are most relaxed and interesting when the only thing they have to do is convey Natalie and Sophie's friendship. Recognizing that as vampires they won't be particularly good mothers, they leave their kids with Natalie's mother, Jess, and drive off through the American South. For a while, Motherless Child becomes On the Road with Dracula's Brides, and it's all the better for it—Natalie and Sophie are engaging characters, and Hirshberg is especially skilled with dialogue in these sections, making the character development seem effortless. As Natalie and Sophie travel on, aimlessly, trying to adjust to their new conditions, with Sophie wanting to go back to their children, their conversations serve as distractions for each other, but their conflicts and desires still fill the subtext:
"Did we just circle whatever city this is?" Sophie asked. "This this still Savannah? Weren't we just here?"
"I think so, yeah."
"We could try some music. You like the music."
"I love the music," Natalie said, and switched on the radio. Then she groaned. "I fucking hate this song."
The Troggs, claiming love was all around. Natalie had hated this song when she was dewy-eyed and ten and still believed in such things. Sophie reached to turn the dial and Natalie shoved her hand aside.
"No, I don't," she said, surprising herself. "Apparently, I love this song." And started to sing it. Yell it. Sophie yelled it, too, getting the words all wrong.
"Wind, not wing," Natalie barked. "How can you write anything on the wing?"
"Easier than on the wind," said Sophie, then she grinned, stuck her gum wad on her own face like a clown nose. Natalie floored the accelerator, and they hurtled away from town into the dark. (p. 98)
The gentle idiosyncrasies within the dialogue ("You like the music") signal the women's friendship and familiarity, and Natalie’s new feelings about the song show her changing circumstances and longings, as well as the chaos her life has become, for it is in just such moments that even the most hardened afficionado may find sentimental schlock profound, as Ani DiFranco once sang of a breakup moment: "Every pop song on the radio was suddenly speaking to me . . ."
The passage above is a perfectly calibrated scene, and there are a few others, but the characters don't get to develop as much as they could, because they're still characters trapped not only in vampirism, but in a vampire novel. For characters in fiction, genre is fate.
Natalie and Sophie's flight from and return to their children is the novel's narrative spine, and their flight is also away from and back into the expectations of a horror novel. A writer can ignore or subvert many conventions, but some must be maintained for the writing to be readable within a genre, whether the genre of the novel or the genre of the horror novel or the genre of the vampire horror novel. The prose conventions Hirshberg employs are markers to reveal a genre's force, like the little puncture wounds of fangs in the neck of a bloodless corpse.
Hirshberg spends little time justifying the characters' recognition of their vampire status after their encounter with The Whistler, nor does he waste many words on showing doubt or skepticism in Jess when Natalie comes back and says hardly more than, "Take the kids, run away, and don't ever tell me where you go." In many ways, this is a smart move—pages of dithering about whether vampires are real would do little other than bog the book down at the point where it could least afford a bog. (This is a vampire novel; therefore, vampires are real. QED.) Hirshberg performs some authorly hocus pocus and makes the condition of vampirism almost immediately incontrovertible, its presence so clear that anyone newly vampirized thinks not, "How could this be real?" but rather, "Okay, so this is my new reality. This is the story I'm in."
Jess's immediate perception and acceptance of her daughter's new condition is less believable—so much so that Hirshberg is forced to address it at the end, with Natalie thinking, "How had my mother known? How had she understood so much about what was happening here?" (p. 265). It's a legitimate question, one likely to have occurred to the reader, and it never receives a satisfactory answer beyond Natalie's suddenly scary eyes and Jess's motherly intuition.
In the universe of Motherless Child, motherhood is the most powerful force of knowledge and desire, the strongest and most meaningful glue in the cosmos. The mother stands as an opposite to the vampire: the selfish, destructive instinct of the vampire (to kill for blood) is opposed by the life-giving, altruistic instinct of the mother (to birth and to protect the child). The vampire is an irresistible force, the mother an immovable object.
Whether the climactic pages of Motherless Child strike you as effective or inane may depend on how much you accept the novel's premise that motherhood trumps all else. Because we spend so little time with the mothers as mothers (instead of as mothers separated from their children and distracted by plot machinations), we must simply accept the sublimity of the mothers' connections to their children—like sentence fragments and short paragraphs to heighten tension, the universal power of motherly feelings is a convention that, if dispensed with, would reduce this novel to nonsense.
Motherless Child ends with a Sophie's Choice sort of moment, though this novel's Sophie is not the one making it, nor is the choice quite the same as William Styron's Sophie had to make. (Styron's novel is a study of evil, guilt, and violence, whereas Hirshberg's is narrower in scope and effect.) We can read Motherless Child as a story of freedom and responsibility—at first, Natalie and Sophie are freed by their newfound vampirism, but in the end they must find a way to become responsible for their children, as must Jess, who says to Natalie, warning her away from chewing on an innocent bystander, "This is your fight. And mine" (p. 263).
That is a statement of fatalism, even predestination. Natalie has been forced into fighting The Whistler because The Whistler, like a love-blind adolescent, has decided she is his Destiny. Jess is forced to participate because she is Natalie's mother. The situation is the fault of the man, not the women. They are blameless, but nonetheless burdened, agonized, annihilated.
It's accurate to say, then, that in addition to being a book about motherhood, Motherless Child is a novel about a man's obsessive, abusive love (or desire) for a woman. The Whistler has decided that because Natalie is his Destiny, he has the right to do whatever he wants to make her "his." He has no compunction about destroying everything she knows and loves, so long as, in the end, she does what he wants, becomes who he imagines she is.
Our world is full of such abuse, full of families sent into flight, full of mothers fearing for their children's safety. This may be a novel of magic and vampires, but the monstrous forces within it are all too ordinary and all too real. Such forces don't need melodramatic prose conventions to make them horrifying, nor do they need to be morphed by metaphor into vampires or other beasts—indeed, for all their shock and gore, the fantasy elements of Motherless Child add a distancing, comforting veneer. I've heard far more chilling stories from women who live just down the street.
And yet I don't think it is a fair criticism to say that Motherless Child is less horrifying than the real world we all live in. It doesn't seem to me that Hirshberg set out to write the grittiest, nastiest, meanest, most gut-wrenching, soul-destroying piece of fiction he could. There are numerous moments in the story where it could have taken darker turns, shown more misanthropic tendencies, slashed more viscerally into the reader's sense of morality and propriety. For instance, despite attending to the wrenching shift in feeling that accompanies transformation into a vampire, Hirshberg chooses not to have Natalie and Sophie's vampirism move them away from human emotion, especially not motherly emotion. Their minds change far less than their bodies and senses do. A potentially more disturbing, more frightening, less conventional novel would have proposed that vampirism dulls or even snuffs out maternal instincts, and the shock of the ending would have been that Natalie and Sophie were perfectly happy to leave their children behind, or even to prey on them. Our protagonists would have shown themselves to truly be monsters. Instead, Hirshberg lets them remain mothers to the end. And though she may feel like a motherless child, Natalie, at least, also ends up very much a daughter. The horror in Hirshberg's horror novel is tempered and tamed by its paean to motherly devotion.
Being a horror novel, Motherless Child may not end with lots of sunny happiness; but being a novel that affirms the power of motherhood, it is, nonetheless, like any set of genre conventions, comforting.