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'The Radleys': Vampires related by blood

THE RADLEYS, by Matt Haig (Free Press, Jan

THE RADLEYS, by Matt Haig (Free Press, Jan 2011) Credit: Handout

Did you know that the Bela Lugosi "Dracula" is the only film of its kind directed by a real vampire? Or that there's a bootleg copy of "Kind of Blue" that Miles Davis called "Kind of Red"? (You have to be a vampire to get a copy.)

No? Then you obviously haven't read "The Radleys," a mistake you should rectify immediately. Matt Haig's novel is not only head and shoulders above "Twilight" and all those other wimpy vampire romances, but, as an explorer of contemporary mores, Haig is more enjoyable company than writers with more "literary" pedigrees.

The British Radleys, in fact, aren't that different from Jonathan Franzen's American families. Love and passion have gone out of Peter and Helen's marriage. The two teenage kids are a mess. Rowan is teased mercilessly by the school bullies. Clara is kind of a Lisa Simpson, too smart and unglamorous to fit in.

Both also wonder why they're so pasty and sickly until Clara bites into the hand of a would-be rapist and discovers she has quite the taste for blood, forcing her parents to tell them they're really vampires. "That's a . . . metaphor?" Rowan asks, hopefully.

Lines like that make "The Radleys" ready for prime time - BBC Films and Alfonso Cuarón hold the film rights - but Haig is more than a good screenwriter. The dialectic he sets up between "instinct" and "civilization" is as smart as it is funny. Exploring civilization and its discontents is hardly new, but it's as pertinent to our world as it was to Freud's.

Besides, Haig has so much fun with the issue, who's keeping score? The Radley parents swear by a volume called "The Abstainer's Handbook," which teaches them how to be good assimilationists - get rid of that Miles Davis record and substitute Sting or Phil Collins. Goodbye "Wuthering Heights," hello "When the Last Sparrow Sings." And there's certainly no place in the house for vampire porn like "Vein Man," (which, like "Sparrow," is fictitious).

Helen, meanwhile, feels like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, particularly since she's had to repress her hots for Peter's brother, Will, who, unbeknownst to him, is the one who turned her into a vampire. No assimilationist, he - "Sympathy for the Devil" is his ringtone, and he's never settled for anything less than human blood.

Haig understands what drives both Will and Peter, and the suspense comes in wondering whom the children are going to side with. How ya gonna keep 'em down in the vegan suburbs when they've tasted real blood?

On the minus side, "The Radleys" doesn't have much of a sense of place - it takes lines like this to remind you that we're in England: "We're middle class and we're British. Repression is in our veins."

Ah, but the lust that dare not speak its name will eventually be heard. As Lugosi said, "Children of the night. What beautiful music they make." He could have been talking about "The Radleys."

THE RADLEYS, by Matt Haig. Free Press, 371 pp., $25.

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