The vampire genre has been thrilling readers since the 1700s, with few changes to the tropes of this horror category. Depending on the author, vampires have been presented as the undead (Bram Stroker’s Dracula 1897), as an alien species (Gustave Le Rouge’s Le prisonnier de la planète Mars 1908), and as products of disease (Richard Matheson’s I am Legend 1954). In Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall’s The Cowboy and the Vampire: A Very Unusual Romance, the bloodsuckers are alive, but die each dawn as the sun comes out. They can be killed by the sun, and they do sleep the days away in their coffins, but they cannot be killed by crosses for mankind has lost its faith, making religious symbols ineffective. Hays and McFall have also developed a mythology of the vampires being a distinct species that have lived among humans. So as a vampire novel, The Cowboy and the Vampire is sure to satisfy Dracula fans’ expectations. However, this book has a little something extra to offer readers. A little something that harkens back to the days when man fought against the wild in the name of civilization. Hays and McFall have succeeded in mixing the Western genre tropes with the Gothic conventions to create a zany grey romance.
Westerns are often based on subgroups, like cowboys, who live by codes and honour. And among these cowboys, authors generally add one who is a bit more of a nomadic wanderer. A character who operates in isolation, a bit further outside the boundaries of his society. This is the hero who doles out private justice. And this is the protagonist, Tucker, in Hays and McFall’s novel. Tucker relates better to his horse and his dog than he does to people. He has little ambition outside of browning his toast on the woodstove, and roping a cow at the local rodeo. And when Tucker looks out over his father’s land, his heart swells with a settler’s pride of ownership. He is content, in Lone Pine, Wyoming, until Lizzie, a New York reporter with a 2000-year-old curse in her veins shows up with her camera and her curiosity. That’s when Tucker’s world is turned upside down by fanged bloodsuckers and there’s only one avenue left for this cowboy. And that is to “ride”.
The authors succeed with this novel on a number of levels. The contrast between bad-vamp Julius, an ancient but classy and compelling Dracula type, and Tucker, who duct-tapes his soles on his boots, creates a tickling anticipation within the reader. As much as we want to see them shoot it out, we also love the polar contrast of these two well-known characters in fiction. But the shootouts do arrive, and they are delivered in classic Western locations.
The first occurs at the cabin, in the wilderness, on a rainy night in a scene that’s been replayed on theatre screens over and over, and we love it. A sound outside. The dog barks. The woman clutches her dress, and the man stands tall in his cowboy boots. He throws on his slicker, grabs his gun and plants his hat on his head, and we just know the Cheyenne or the Sioux are waiting outside, and yet we need him to go. Because that’s what the Western hero does, and Tucker doesn’t let the reader down. Only this time, it’s not “Indian” marauders attacking the cabin. It’s vampires that wait in the rain. Vampires that slaughter the stock. Vampires that move like shadows in the dark. And after they take his woman, Tucker tracks them (by plane) and hunts them (with a modified “six-shooter”) and steals her back. The final scene in the novel takes place in a Mexican fort, stronghold of the good vampire, and a perfect place for a Western grand finale.
The Cowboy and the Vampire is not just a whimsical text. It’s full of humour and very enjoyable, but it also comes packed with solid imagery, themes and conventions from both the Western and Vampire genres. Hays and McFall have succeeded in constructing a deliberate plot that delivers through humour, romance and action, and leaves the reader pining for a field, a horse, and a few more hours of daylight.