The Stake, by Richard Laymon — a book review

What about a vampire novel without any vampires?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

There may or may not be a vampire in this one. I’m not telling. But, I will tell you that a vampire isn’t the real villain in this well-written horror novel by the late Richard Laymon. In fact, although the vampire-adjacent content in the novel certainly drives the plot and sets the mood, this could have been a straightforward thriller without any supernatural content at all. The scariest scenes in this story have nothing to do with vampires, and everything to do with scary, fully-human people.

But, the vampire-related stuff is fun.

“Death of the Author” (or: La mort de l’auteur, in critic Roland Barthes’ native tongue) suggests that the author’s intentions or influences are irrelevant when a reader is deciding the meaning of a written piece of work. The author exists merely as a text’s origin point—its creator—but the text’s meaning is decided at its destination—the reader.

As someone highly interested in writers—some might say “obsessed with”—I reject some of the tenets of Barthes’ critical approach. At the same time, because I’m nothing if not a walking contradiction, I believe Barthes was dead-on. It’s why several people can read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and come away with different interpretations.

I remember hearing a story about Frost being asked why he repeated “And miles to go before I sleep” at the conclusion of this poem. In the version of the story I heard—or read, I don’t know: both are the same in my memory—Frost responded that he couldn’t think of another line. This may be aprocryphal, or a joke, or maybe—just maybe—Frost actually said it. And, if he said it, it’s conceivable that he even meant it. La mort de l’auteur suggests that it doesn’t matter. The message of the poem is the interpretation of the reader.

When I was a teenager, it was difficult for me to read this poem as anything other than a literal description of a man stopping by the woods on a snowy evening to watch them fill with snow. I believe my English teacher at the time deducted points from my test answer because my brain refused to let me see the poem as having a deeper meaning. I think it’s wrong to deduct points from an “opinion” question, but what do I know? I’m not a molder of young minds.

I’ve read the poem since then. Many times, in fact. And as the decades have accumulated between then and now, my interpretation of the poem has been filtered through my life experiences. It should come as no surprise that the interpretation changes. It’s clear to me today that the second “And miles to go before I sleep” is all about dying. Regardless of Robert Frost’s intentions.

If you’ve ever taken a class on interpersonal communication, you’ve seen some version of the following model.

When we’re reading something created by another, or watching a play, television episode or movie, or listening to a song, we are the receiver. Some of the “noise” indicated in the model are our own experiences or personal biases. The feedback portion of communication can come in the form of author interview questions. “What did you mean by . . .?” “Why did Character A do this?” And so on.

Death of the Author suggests that the author’s answers to these questions are less important than how you interpret things. I’m okay with this. It’s why I’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand several times in the last forty years and discovered something new in the text each time. Or interpreted something that wasn’t in the text. King is still alive as of the date of this post, so I could conceivably ask him questions about the novel. I won’t, though. And not just because, by this point, he’s probably given the same answers so many times that not even he remembers his original intentions when writing the story, only the answers he’s given to the same questions previously. I wouldn’t ask the questions because, in this form of communication, I am a collaborator in the process. Not merely the receiver.

When it comes to Richard Laymon, the death of the author is literal.

Laymon was already deceased when I first read one of his novels, although I didn’t know it at the time. This was The Traveling Vampire Show. I thought it was fun and entertaining, a quick and very visual read. Then, I read One Rainy Night, which was a straight-up horror movie in text form. The third Laymon novel I got ahold of, In the Dark, has been made into a low-budget movie that’s available on YouTube. I haven’t watched it yet, but it’s on the list.

I believe that recommendations from the likes of Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz led me to pick up the first novel in paperback. The rest I bought based upon my own opinion of the first one.

Having read four of Laymon’s forty-ish books, I believe I have a good understanding of his style. Simple sentences, which makes for a quick read. Visual, even cinematic, scenes. Over-the-top violence. Weird, often disturbing sexual content.

So, the stories may be written at a middle schooler’s reading level, but the content is strictly adult. Maybe even too much for squeamish adults.

You probably belong in one of two camps. One, what I’ve said about Richard Laymon’s style has made you realize that his novels are simply not your cup of tea, and you would never read his stuff. Or, two, you’re intrigued by the darkness I’ve hinted at, and you would take at least one of Laymon’s novels for a test drive before passing judgment. Maybe, like me, more than one.

The Stake fits the pattern.

Right off the bat, we are introduced to two married couples who are exploring a ghost town located near where they live. The couples are Larry and Jean, and their nextdoor neighbors Pete and Barbara.

Larry writes horror novels. Just like Richard Laymon did. I’ve heard there is an unwritten writer’s rule that says you should never choose a writer as your main character. But, there’s also a rule that says write what you know. It could be that both of these rules are a little flexible, because most of my favorite writers have written stories with writers in the lead roles. Some readers, such as myself, are interested in the secret lives of working writers as well.

While Larry, Jean, Pete and Barbara are in the ghost town, Sagebrush Flats, they literally stumble upon the dessicated corpse of a naked woman in a coffin, in an abandoned hotel. The dead woman has a stake driven through her chest. Conversation, as you might imagine, ensues. Was the woman the victim of some maniac who thought she was a vampire? Or, is the woman really a vampire who will immediately rip out their throats if they pull the stake out?

Tell me this doesn’t sound like a terrific hook for a horror movie. Laymon summoned images of the desert and ghost towns to my mind’s eye as I was reading, and the events of this opening Sagebrush Flats sequence were deftly brought to life through well-chosen details. The conversation between the four characters was believable. There was a slowly building tension in the circumstances.

My goal isn’t to ruin your experience of actually reading this novel. But, I’m going to warn you away from it if you’re truly expecting a vampire horror novel. This book isn’t that. In fact, although the staked corpse in the ghost town coffin is a very important set prop throughout the novel, and the driver of some of the action in the story, it doesn’t actually factor into the story again until the conclusion of the novel.

The real story of the book is more of a thriller, though it’s also a mystery and a crime novel. Larry and Jean’s only child, daughter Lane, factors heavily in the present-day story, while Larry is researching past serial disappearances in their area, including the identity of their Sagebrush Flat corpse. The story lines eventually clash together, after the tension builds to a near-unbearable level.

The ending was a satisfying one.

I haven’t said much about the author Richard Laymon. Truth is, I don’t know that much about him. He was born and raised near Chicago, Illinois, and moved during his teens to California. Success in America eluded him until 1999 or so, but he was already a success in Europe, especially the UK. As he became affiliated with Leisure Books, he began to gain a following in his home country as well. Then he died suddenly, at age fifty-four, in 2001.

He had already been deceased for a couple of years before I read one of his books. I read the first one, then began researching to see what else he may have written, and found out he had already shuffled off this mortal coil.

I felt a little cheated, and then felt crummy for being so self-involved that I felt cheated. I also felt that familiar thrill I always feel when reading something written by someone who is already gone. I think, in some insane way, that I am helping to prolong the writer’s life. Reading someone else’s words is a lot like peeking into an active, living mind. The writer is speaking to me from the past through symbols recorded on a bound stack of papers.

I know it’s not magic. It’s art and craft. But, it could be mistaken for magic.

There’s something akin to magic in Laymon’s writing as well. It’s something difficult for me to describe. But, it’s there. I’ve already given you plenty of warning about the content. Definitely NC-17, and not for anyone with a weak stomach or heart.

I also know what Richard Laymon looks like. I watched an interview with him from twenty-five years ago or so. He looked like a normal, middle-aged guy, with thinning hair and a bookish demeanor. Eyeglasses. An insurance agent or an accountant. A harmless, nextdoor neighbor type of man. Which sounds a lot like the descriptions you hear of captured serial killers from their neighbors.

Firewater’s I-Have-a-Stake-in-This Report Card: A-

It didn’t change my life, but I don’t ask that much from my entertainment. I will forget most of this novel with unsettling speed. But, I can tell you right now that I enjoyed reading it. And I will read more of Laymon’s stuff later as well.

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