After snarling my way through Michael Talbot's A Delicate Dependency--I only motivated myself to finish because it's unusual to find neo-Victorian vampire thrillers referencing J.-K. Huysmans--I found Lauren Owen's own fin-de-siecle vampire novel, The Quick, rather more interesting. Its fragmentary quality (third-person limited narrator, diaries, "scholarly" texts) is quintessentially neo-Victorian, but, as other bloggers have pointed out, also harks back to Dracula. (There are other Dracula echoes, too, like a remark about a Dutch specialist in vampirism...) The vampires themselves give Owen the opportunity to parody both the Victorian gentleman (the veddy exclusive Aegolius Club) and the sentimentalized Victorian child (Liza and her fellow child-vampires, who also owe a little bit to Anne Rice). Too, a good chunk of the novel evokes Victorian debates about vivisection, courtesy of "Doctor Knife," who vivisects/dissects vampires in order to identify the precise extent of their powers and origin; one thinks of Wilkie Collins' less-read sensation novel Heart and Science.
The Quick's somewhat loose plot could be summed up as a failed quest romance. James Norbury, who has the misfortune to undergo the "Exchange" without his permission, had been on his way to escaping repressive London with his gay lover, Christopher Paige; Christopher, however, does not survive the vampire attack, and the increasingly-empty James spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out how to eat without killing people, among other things. His sister Charlotte, desperate to find a cure for James' new, ah, condition, never finds it. Edmund Bier, who is initially sure that vampirism "might be used for good" (loc. 1630), finds all of his noble ideals leached out of him along with his humanity. Augustus Mould ("Doctor Knife") proves unsuccessful in his life's work. Many of the named characters wind up permanently kaput, as opposed to temporarily. Arguably, the one character who lives truly "happily ever after" is little vampire Liza, precisely because she cares about nothing save enjoying her permanent childhood; when we last encounter her, we hear that she "made friends" (a wicked pun) of lost children in the Underground and rests confident in the fact that "they could play forever, they would never get old" (loc. 6824). As a vampire Peter Pan, Liza is simultaneously innocent and sinister, rejecting the adult vampires' power games but building up her own rule on the theft of mortal children.
The decay of all these plots suggests that the Victorian era is on the downward swing of the decadent movement--America, Charlotte reads, is "the land of the future" (loc. 7071)--and the epicenter of this decadence is the Aegolius Club. The vampires at the club, despite some loosely floating ideas about world power and so forth, are all as sterile mentally as they are physically. Although the reform-minded Edmund initially contrasts with the older vampires, who lie about silently and do nothing but "stare at the fire" (loc. 1874), Edmund's goals turn flaccid once he gains control of the club. Edmund's project, as represented in the draft of a recruiting speech he intends to give to other club members, is deeply conservative and patriotic in the old-fashioned imperialist sense: warning that "our country's influence is not what it was" (loc. 2368), he calls for his fellow vampires to rescue the British empire from its own imminent collapse. Overtly racist and sexist in his appeals, he casts vampires as (potentially) the last remaining bastion of pure English tradition, protecting the Quick from dying under the weight of their own political and sexual shenanigans. This emphatic Englishness is actually a nice twist on the vampire-as-invader trope, of which Dracula is the most famous example: no foreigners necessary to prey on the nation, the English upper classes will do. It's no wonder that the vampires turn out to be homophobic--instead of being Anne Rice-style bohemians, the vampires are, as it were, the dessicated remnants of the Tories. Needless to say, though, this imperial project goes nowhere, much like Augustus Mould's researches. Vampirism is one of those endlessly mutable metaphors, and here it suggests that the wealthy class is also the parasitic class (literally); their attempts to enlarge their ranks by bringing in new blood/money, in the form of American Arthur Howland, precipitates the club's destruction. The club can look backward, but cannot modernize.
Arguably, the most disturbing thing about the novel--aside from characters being impaled, vivisected, shot, that sort of thing--is Mould's discovery that prospective vampires do not need to consent to undergo the Exchange. The initial revelation is a parody of the travails of Biblical translation: "Amongst other bungles, invitus has been rendered repeatedly as invited instead of unwilling, leading to the misinterpretation of an entire passage" (loc. 2306). Given the erotic connotations of vampirism, the implications of this discovery are especially creepy: instead of maintaining at least a fig-leaf of consent (it's pretty clear that "consent" is often obtained under dubious conditions), Mould and Edmund elect to experiment with non-consensual transformations, which sure sounds like figurative rape. Their "Undertaking," as they call it (perhaps another pun...), strips all the goopy romanticism from the vampire sex symbols of the Twilight series and their relatives, and turns the vampire's bite into agonizing violation instead of erotic funtime. The Quick emphatically does not associate biting with erotic pleasure (vampire's or victim's), and the transformations described for us are all frightening and painful, even when the vampires are marginally more sympathetic than those at the club. (The impoverished vampires under the guidance of Mrs. Price, including Liza, have a greater sense of community, but they're still dangerous, deadly characters.) In the end, The Quick's vampires aren't gods, or supermen, or potential boyfriends, or enlightened intellectuals (like the vampires in A Delicate Dependency): they're outmoded, amoral mediocrities--strong, to be sure, but not really capable of achieving anything--who can only maintain what power they have by brutalizing those weaker than themselves.