The Delightful but Dark Victoria Schwab

*Absolutely laden with spoilers in Vicious, one of Ms Schwab’s books.

My pandemic induced reading marathon continues.  My relentless search for ghostly and strange literary fodder recently led me to Victoria Schwab (or V E Schwab as she also likes to be known.)  I’m four months past sixty.  I’m a housewife.  My nature is conservative.  I don’t swear. You’ll never hear the F word pass my lips, no matter how dire the circumstance.  I abhor violence. Can never watch the husband’s fave films alongside him – Die Hard, Die Harder, Just Die Won’t You – and then there’s the Bourne series, which he often views on a loop.  No.  Bourne just can’t be borne. Therefore, the likelihood of finding the likes of me amongst Ms Schwab’s readership ‘community’ is probably slim indeed.   For Ms Schwab does profanity. Ms Schwab does violence. Violence I would not have countenanced in my younger, thoroughly maternal days. But here I am. A fully paid-up member of Victoria’s fan club.

Victoria is just 33 but already has more than twenty published novels to her name.  I’ve recently completed three.  Ms Schwab features on the New York Times’ best sellers list, which is where I found her latest novel The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (think Faust meets Sci-Fi meets tortured romance.)  I gulped the book down and immediately my brain pleaded (like Oliver) ‘please sir, I want some more’ or, more aptly, were I one of Ms Schwab’s oh so cool characters: ‘just give me another line of cocaine why don’t you?’  Not that illicit drugs are ever cool dear reader.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is awash (if not absolutely swimming in) LGBTQ+’ism.   ‘My characters are all queer’ states Ms Schwab, as I later discovered when doing a bit of research.  Both the book’s protagonists are bisexual.  Their cool circle of friends almost all gay. They are, in the words of Blur (circa 1994):

Girls who want boys, who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys

Naturally, I wondered about Victoria Schwab.  Google revealed that Victoria is gay. Not lesbian – gay, coming out when she was 29. Victoria explains that gay (for her) is a looser term than lesbian, meaning ‘not straight.’  Victoria tweeted some time ago that she is still finding her way through a metaphorical hallway full of sexual diversity doors (something like that.)  She now solely identifies as gay, should that interest you.

A quick perusal of Ms Schwab’s Twitter account (which reminded me why I usually don’t frequent Twitter accounts) revealed that woe is you if you’re a gay New York Times’ best-selling authoress, daring to write male characters who simply ooze good looks and dangerous charm.  For certain members of the LGBTQ+ Twitterati will have a go at you. They’ll lay what they hope will be incendiary devices in your particular Twitter minefield.  Really, FAME is such a double-edged sword I sighed, as I scrolled ever downwards into the pits of the Twitter netherworld.  I did, however, expand my vocabulary on the way down, discovering the word cisgender (OED status 2015) or cis for short.  Those in the know tell me that I am cis because my personal identity corresponds with my birth sex. One of Victoria’s tweeple (Collin’s English Dictionary) fired off cisheteronormative (that’s one to go for in Scrabble) at her, thus accusing Victoria of perpetuating the heterosexual norm by occasionally featuring male and female characters who are attracted to each other.  Your average successful, genius author just can’t win, as J K Rowling discovered. Rowling by the way is partially responsible for Victoria Schwab the writer, in that she turned the previously sporty and non-reading Schwab into a fan of all things literary.

M Schwab’s prose is far from fancy, a style almost all current writers now go with. Gone are the days of Victorian purple prose (which I quite like) – you know, all that descriptive, ornate waffling that went on and on and on……Victorian prose and I share certain similarities.  Current authors call a spade a spade, without going into detail about its colour, style or condition.  The good ones also write ‘page turners’, something I’ve always thought of as a derisory term. Blame that on an English Lit degree which taught me that good fiction usually equals hard work, as in getting through the long-winded, mind-numbing boredom of it all.  In fact, page turners are a joy. Page turners can be as classic (Rowling, Stephen King) as your average long ago classics.  They plunge you right into the action, maintaining your interest until the very end. How many ye olde classics do that?  How many ancient tomes are unputdownable?  I mean, putting your average Jane Austen down after flicking through a few pages is really, really easy.  Here you go.  The opening lines from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or others of their daughters.

Stifling a yawn yet?  Compare with the opening lines of Schwab’s Vicious, which I immediately downloaded after finishing The Invisible life of Addie LaRue:

Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave. His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sound carried like wind through the dark.’

Want to know what happens next?  I certainly did.

Now, with a title like Vicious, I should have known, shouldn’t I? (Vicious is nothing like The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.)  Here’s a scary nugget of information about Ms Schwab when she was very young.  The tiny-tot Victoria once tied her teddy bear’s paws behind its back, and did the same for other sundry soft toys, before hanging them (by the neck with bits of rope) from the stairs’ banister, while her parents were out.  No wonder Vicious is so relentlessly dark and well……vicious.  It’s also a re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (nothing wrong with your page-turning author plagiarising the classics.)  Now, I don’t know if Ms Schwab knows that she re-wrote Frankenstein, but I can assure her that she did.

Victor Vale and Eliot (Eli) Cardale are two superheroes.  Well, two college students (roommates) who end up with super-powers after repeated botched attempts at suicide. Victor and Eli are good looking, intelligent, and effortlessly cool pre-med students. The suicides are an attempt to die (obviously) but in a controlled manner, which may give them a shot at resurrecting from the dead, thus endowing them with super-human abilities.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

These crazy, deadly ‘science’ experiments (much like Frankenstein’s own unorthodox experiments) are Eli’s brainchild, since he’s convinced that EOs – ExtraOrdinary people, who are a feature of the Vicious universe – become EOs via near death experiences (NDE’s as the novel refers to them) and their subsequent resurrections.  I’m convinced Victoria subliminally named Victor after Victor Frankenstein (or maybe herself?) considering Victor’s successful choice of suicide is strapping himself to a metal table (as you do) before getting Eli’s girlfriend to hook him up to a massive electricity generator (the GF conveniently does research in an engineering lab.)  The comparison with Frankenstein’s monster here is undeniable, although with a nice Schwabian switcheroo.  Electricity brought Frankenstein’s monster to life – the generator kills Victor off.  I should say here that the monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein was not created using electricity generated by a gigantic, well-timed flash of lightening (film version only.)  Shelley’s monster came to life via a mysterious spark in his creator’s 18th century hovel of a college room.  Shelley didn’t explain the spark but was most likely referencing galvinism – an early 18th century practice of applying electrical currents to muscles to make them contract.  By extension, some medics thought electricity capable of reviving the dead.  Schwab wisely goes with a more cinematic production number when she zaps Victor, not with a flimsy, undescribed spark, but with an electrical mother lode.

Minutes after being zapped to death, Victor resurrects (much to his surprise, let alone ours) to find he’s been transformed into a human generator, able to control his own, and other’s people’s pain via an inner electrical dial.  Eli’s successful suicide method is to submerge himself in a bath of freezing cold water (also in his college room, as per Frankenstein) aided by Victor and lots of ice cubes.   Death by ice cubes gives him the power to regenerate after physical injury and to stay forever young.  So, the one is re-born in heat, the other in cold.  One is dark haired, the other blond. One is charismatic, the other logical and aloof. What do we take from this? That Victor and Eli represent elemental opposites?   I have no clue as Victoria isn’t talking good versus evil here, for both her protagonists are a peculiar, violent concoction of both.

Well, this darkly twisted novel progressed, shifting back and forth through a time period of roughly ten years during which things just got worser and worser.  Our two heroes end up hating each other’s guts (and literally stabbing each other’s guts several revolting times) and the whole thing becomes about Revenge, as Victor seeks to kill Eli, the EO monster he helped create – could we get any more Frankenstein?  For the charismatic Eli becomes a deranged murderer intent on killing off other EOs because they are unnatural (being sort of zombies really) and thus an abomination in the sight of God (even though he’s an EO himself.)  Yes, Eli is a Christian nutjob, given to dipping his fingers in his victims’ blood and then crossing himself.  How did the young, sweet Victoria (so open and engaging on her host of social media accounts) write this stuff when I could barely read it?   But read it I did.  In fact, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Victoria Schwab just may be the heiress apparent to Stephen King, or the Brothers Grimm (Vicious is sure grim) the more I think about it.  For modern Fantasy (time moves so fast that ‘modern’ is a relative term) is imbued with the myths and fairy tales that came before it.  I own a complete works of the Brothers Grimm, remaining almost untouched in a bookcase, such is the dire and utterly weird nature of the tales the brothers wrote down for posterity.  But there’s no denying that those dark and grisly tales contain nuggets of universal truths, and universal horrors, which many a writer must have consciously or unconsciously jumped upon.

I’ve just finished Vengeful, the sequel to Vicious.  Vengeful is possibly more vicious than Vicious.  As mentioned earlier, neither book is the kind of thing I usually go for (being so full of utterly gratuitous violence) which can only stand as a testament to Victoria’s writing superpower.  Fortunately, I’ve got roughly seventeen more dark and strange Schwab novels to get through – time that could not be more well spent in my opinion.

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