How Brian McGreevy is using his debut novel to rebel against the cultural obsession with Edward Cullen
Brian McGreevy published a peculiar and profane essay on Vulture last year. In the essay, "Why Don Draper Is a Far Better Vampire Than Any of Twilight's or True Blood's," the screenwriter-turned-novelist laments the "emasculation" of vampires in American popular culture. Whereas we once had menacing and handsome Byronic antiheroes, upholding the genre's Romantic tradition, McGreevy claims that we now have Twilight and True Blood, which "is essentially what you would get if a Tennessee Williams play fucked The Rocky Horror Show Picture Show." There's nothing to be frightened of—and in McGreevy's view, that's a wasted opportunity.
In his essay, McGreevy argued that the only figure in American culture worthy of Dracula's cape was Mad Men's Don Draper: debonair, "magnetic and urbane," and a danger to the women who get involved with him. You see, "men are predators at heart," McGreevy wrote. "It is a killer's heart that is the motive force of masculinity and predation its spirit." Draper has that, McGreevy says, and what's more, we'd be right to emulate him.
"You get certain people saying, 'Oh, this is an extremely reductive point of view and offensively untrue,'" McGreevy told me in a recent interview. "And at the same time, I'd be getting private emails from women saying, 'I want you to come over to my house and eat me.'"
McGreevy set out to correct the problem of the emasculated vampire with his first novel, Hemlock Grove, which came out last month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hemlock Grove is, essentially, McGreevy's essay novelized. It's a mystery story—who's killing girls in the titular town, a dying Rust Belt hamlet?—and a mashup of many classic monster-story motifs. The heroes are two teenagers: Peter, a gypsy and, when the moon is right, a werewolf, and his new friend Roman, a tortured, rich, handsome, egotistical, pill-popping, girl-abusing, vampire type straight out of the Byronic mold. Roman, whose brain-damaged sister, Shelley, has been turned into a gentle, Frankensteinian giant, is the scion of the Godfrey family. The Godfreys' steel holdings once dominated the area's economy, but the clan has since moved into biotech. While they're still fabulously wealthy, Roman's mother keeps dark secrets (the least of them is that she's having an affair with her brother-in-law). And the White Tower, the research facility founded by Roman's dead father, is a site of strange experiments and a source of rumor and conspiracy; it may also have a role in the gruesome murders, which involve the girls' being vivisected by some sort of wolf-like creature.
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The novel's language varies between orotund and something more pulpy, steeped in the brooding attitudes and sublimated fear of literary horror novels. Here's a sample of McGreevy's description of Peter's transformation into his werewolf persona: "Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess."
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story. The verbs in McGreevy's sentences tend to disappear into this thicket of language, and we sometimes long for a comma or full stop to break up the language parade. But it's part of McGreevy's effort to rehabilitate the genre, to return to it the sense of seriousness and pathos that has arguably been drained from it in the age of irony and self-parody. And in some ways, he does achieve this goal: Roman is a confident, domineering, aristocratic, and yes, Don Draper-like vampire—exactly the type of character McGreevy said was lacking in his Vulture essay. But McGreevy identifies more with Peter, the social outcast who seriously guards his independence.
"A lot of Peter is aspirational," McGreevy said. "It's almost like I created that character to be my own role model."
But unfortunately, McGreevy's attempt isn't always successful. The language is ponderous, the dialogue frequently oracular, as if the characters are always speaking in prophecy. There is also a number of loose ends left untended, as if this story is but a setup for a larger project.
And, indeed, the story of Hemlock Grove does not end with the novel—Netflix has plans to turn it into a television series. Along with the already-released Lilyhammer, as well as forthcoming projects from heavy-hitters like David Fincher and Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, the movie-rental service plans to adapt McGreevy's novel for its growing slate of original programming.
McGreevy will co-write the series with his screenwriting partner Lee Shipman, whom he met at the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers. Quentin Tarantino's one-time protege, Eli Roth—whose films Cabin Fever and Hostel have helped spearhead a revival of dark, blood-soaked horror—will direct and executive produce. Famke Janssen and Bill Skarsgard are expected to star, and the show will begin filming in Western Pennsylvania in June. Working with Roth and his team has been "a tremendous relief," McGreevy said. "I think collaboration is extremely interesting and exciting, and it's a process that's very valuable."
This is where Hemlock Grove may be able to have an impact on pop culture's current vogue for soft-hearted, day-walking vampires. If McGreevy has his way, the Hemlock Grove series will be an R-rated antidote to the chaste Twilight and the overwrought soap-opera-on-the-bayou of True Blood. Certainly the sensibility is there—Hemlock Grove is bleak, and despite its protagonists being high-schoolers, it's still packed with adult material. The novel is a mishmash of monster archetypes, and its mythology, which includes chakras, the reading of entrails, and a kind of power in the earth, a sort of black-hearted Gaia, is too opaque. (McGreevy confessed to me that he has some belief in the occult.) But in the right hands, this unwieldy work could be unpacked into a gripping TV show; Eli Roth seems like the proper choice to harness McGreevy's enthusiasms.