The temptation is to describe The Quick by Lauren Owen in effusive terms – ‘a thrilling debut from Northern horror author!’ or ‘a new breed of vampire crashes the Twilight party!’. It wouldn’t even be a lie. However, there is something disingenuous about describing Owen’s slow, precise venture into being a published author in over the top terms. It does a disservice to the unique, curious appeal of The Quick.
Inspired by Owen’s study of Gothic Victorian literature, The Quick is a dustily languid stroll through a world (and underworld) where even the monsters play at having manners. In 1892 James Norbury has fallen in love. Inappropriately. Not an altogether unexpected development for a would-be poet with a more fervency than talent, except Norbury’s lover is both attainable (enthusiastically) and aristocratic. Determined to flee the disapproval of an older brother with political aspirations, and a strangely animalistic mien, the lovers determine to go on a Grand Tour of Europe.
Only a last minute detour to lay a scripted token of their love at the feet (literally on his doorstep) of the great Oscar Wilde ends with Norbury inducted into Aegolius Club, a society of monsters. Not that they would call themselves that. They are the cream of British society, men (and only men) dedicated to remaking the world in their image.
As Norbury struggles to find his way out of their chalky clutches, his sister, the redoubtable Charlotte, dares the unfamiliar streets of London in search of her brother. Once upon a time, when they were children, when she was the closest to a mother he knew, she had let him down terribly. No matter what happens, she won’t do that again.
As the siblings are drawn ever deeper into the clotted underbelly of society they meet monsters – the terribly human ‘Dr Knife’ and the rapacious, endearing child vampires who run riot in the slums of London. They also meet…not heroes, no one’s history is that simple in Owens world, but people trying desperately not to be villains or Renfields – the tightrope walker turned hunter, the monster that inflicted a terrible penance on his hungry flesh and even the wicked aristocratic brother who came – not good, but closer to that than he could have been.
The Quick is an elegantly written novel, and a phenomenally assured novel to have come from the pen of a first time novelist. Owens writing captures the sort of subtle, creeping dread that MR James would have been proud of, but can also dip confidently into eye-averting Lovecraftian body shock horror. All the while maintaining the delicate, archaic tone that infuses her work effortlessly.
Eschewing the seductive, transgressive side of vampire mythology, Owens reintroduces the vampire as grotesque. Not always on the outside – they do seduce recruits through the promise of eternal vitality – but on the inside. Death casts a dark pall over their perception of the world, blinding them to anything pure, and gradually rots its way out through their pretty skin.
With notes of true, chilling horror, well-drawn characters and a convincingly crafted mythology and surrounding world, The Quick is the first in what promises to be an engrossing, era-spanning series. Owens also ties in a nice line in social commentary in the best horror tradition – it isn’t exactly hard to draw comparisons between the Aegolius Club and cisnormative patriarchy.
That isn’t to say that The Quick sprang full-formed and flawless from Owen’s brow. There are places where the languid pace turns glacial (for nearly a quarter of the book it is a romance, one I enjoyed but still quite a chunk of the book before anything flashed fang) and some of the character digressions lasted a little too long. They weren’t poorly written, but that’s the problem. I shouldn’t be mildly annoyed to find myself back in the main story.
That said, when book two of Deckle Edge comes out, I will read it. Owen’s is a gifted young writer with a fresh (for all the antique draperies) and engrossing voice, and I can’t wait to find out what comes next.
To find out more about The Quick you can buy it here.