I rode the Metaphysical Seesaw at the Fair of the Senses. Actually, I read Karen Ullo'sJennifer the Damned, which oscillates between the ordinary world of a teenaged girlanda world ofGothic bloodlust and murder. The plot swoops through wrenching events; the writing bursts with sensory-surround. Swinging dizzily from the quotidian to the fantastical, Iflailed to make connections andfind solid footing, until I was tumbled out at last into a place of resolution. On second reading I begin to see, within the chaotic seesawing world,a pattern of desire, belief, choice and consequences, and grace.
Vampire lore, and horror in general, are territories of a foreign country I have no desire to visit. But Ullo folds the horrors forthrightly into her story and integrates the consequences of horrific acts into the mainstream of the narrative––no excuses, no evasions, no pleading of special circumstances. Life is deeply wounded and forever changed by criminal actions, but it does not grind to a halt, and the actions do not completely define the criminal. The joint between the heinous and the mundane is greased by humor that acknowledges the absurdities of Jennifer's situation. The grit of self-pity, however, is almost entirely absent from her character.
In a dream, Jennifer Carshaw sees her soul dangling just out of reach. Vampires, Jennifer believes, do not have souls. But if this metaphysicalproposition is a lie, then redemption is possible, even for a vampire. And bloodlust is not a fate but a temptation, very powerful but not irresistible. This revelation would open up a new possibility for the vampire, no longer doomed either to death by a stake through the heart or to an existence of hot, fatal impulse and endless, lonely exclusion. The finale might open into transformation of the vampire and of integration––or re-integration––into the human family. But if the vampire has agency, she must eventually assume responsibility for her blood murders, and the hour of reckoning loomsalong with the possibility of a new life of freedom. The reader is left to ponder at what point and to what degree someone traveling the trajectory from soul-enslaving lies to liberating truth is responsible for actions that issue from, and accompany, the former.
Jenniferwas not born a vampire; she was ripped from her mother's womb just before birth by the murderous vampire Helen, who takes and raises her after transforming her into a vampire-to-be. Despite this Ur-tragedy, Jennifer is an attractive character––perceptive, compassionate, equipped with a quirky, dry sense of self-assessing humor. The story opens on her 16th birthday, a fateful day when the long-incubatingvampiric proclivities burst forth even as she tries to continue her life as a brainy teenager navigating a varietyof relationships (including a first-ever romance)with her clueless classmates. Indispensible to Jennifer's existence––and indeed, to her salvation––is the unkillable love of a small group of religious sisters, in whose convent in Baton Rouge she lives. Helen left Jennifer with the sisters in the mistaken belief that exposure to their teaching about the love of God for humanity would throw into relief the unequivocal exclusion of the vampire from the community of human and divine love. Eventually, the temporary sensoryeuphoria and satiation of drinking victims' bloodproves to be a tantalizing, empty promise. A pivotal moment occurs when Jennifer has a powerful realization of divinelove and of the possibility of a new life, extended to her for the taking. Out of pride, she refuses the offer and commits a truly heinous act.
Four years later she is in Los Angeles, with a new identity, working as a make-up artist by day and killing by night when the need becomes urgent. Here she is presented with two offers of love: One is a self-sacrificing love resonant with redemptive possibilities but requiring painful truth; the other is a less demanding love based on shared, mutual emptiness.
Jennifer's choices become clear, but other things are not so clear. The motivation for Helen's desire to experience motherhood remains murky. How Jennifer passed through childhood in the company of her redoubtable pseudo-mother without incurring debilitating trauma is also unclear. The psychological boundary between the persona of the vampire and that of the bright young woman is not quite convincing: She certainly feels guilt and regret but she is not crippled by denial and repression. There are painful problems but no intractable neuroses in the psyche of the blighted Jennifer. The faithful devotion and sexual self-control of her movie-star boyfriend, formerly a philanderer, is not entirely believable. Characteristics traditionally associated with vampires seem to be sorted for the convenience of the narrator: no disfiguring fangs, pointed ears, or empty mirrors, which would be too difficult to integrate into a story featuring much close social interaction. Aversion to sunlight is neutralized by sunscreen. But red lips, radiantly seductive appeal, super strength, and speed are retained and are used to good effect by the author. In the first half of the book the narrative voice seems a little too mature for the sixteen-year-old to whom it belongs. This problem is resolved in the second half, when Jennifer, working in Hollywood, is twenty. Jennifer retains her virginity in Babylon, a virginity entirely suited to her character and in the protection of which she can draw on the super-strength of a vampire, though the feat is managed almost too easily for someone so alone and so attractive. Here again the story's limits are served: What would happen downstream from sexual love with a vampire? What monstrous offspring?
Much attention is rightly given to description of Jennifer's struggle with the urge to control blood-lust, which, when denied, grows over time into a raging torment. For this blood-lust the chief stimulus and organ of sensation is the olfactory; Ullo's descriptions of the lovely, tantalizing perfume of life-in-the-blood, a bouquet of aromas unique to each individual and bearing the imprint of his or her personhood and deeds, is a striking manifestation of the infinitely precious and unique beauty of each human soul (and beyond that, of the beauty of the Eucharist). The logistical difficulties inherent in concealing an alter identity are also well articulated.
The style of writing suits the story. Whimsical, somewhat disjointed syntax correlates to the vampire's disconnects from the world. Adjectives, adverbs and phrases which float from one context into another, create a hovering veil of associations, not quite in contact with the nouns and verbs which they are called into existence to serve, and are analogs of the girl who hovers between worlds. Description and narrative are, in places, not stream-of-consciousness, but stream-of-sensation in character. This mode of writing serves to lift the reader over the abyss between vampire and human teenager. Ullo's story is not without difficulties, most of which are traceable to the uncertain metaphysical boundary between the human and the vampire. However, the story is boldly (not brutally) told, the main character is well worth knowing, and the writing is fragrant and creative. A luminous, common-sensical, and life-affirming Catholicism is a welcome inversion of a dark, superstitious Catholic quicksand caricatured in Gothic fiction.
Carolyn Watson is a medievalist by training and she has published one book and several articles on topics ranging from 4th-century ivories to 14th-century manuscripts. She is also interested in art theory, especially ideas of beauty and creativity. She teaches at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.