Live Girls (1987) by Ray Garton

Live Girls
Live Girls




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Does it matter what part of the body a blood sucker bites? I asked myself this question after reading Ray Garton’s Live Girls (1987). If we consider the OG vampire, Dracula, the answer is a resounding “yes.” He leaves visible neck wounds to claim the women he wants and challenge the men who would stand in his way. Like the canine practice of peeing on a hydrant, puncturing the throat marks territory and asserts dominance. So what does it mean when the vampire is a woman, and she drinks from a part of the body that’s a little bit further . . . down? Live Girls emphasis on fellatio prompted me to think about the traditional neck bite as a cultural signifier. Aside from catalyzing this new and interesting train of thought, however,  the book didn’t do much for me. While I don’t expect representations of gender equity in my 80s paperback horror, I was disappointed and quite frankly bored by our hero’s gleeful incineration of sex workers. That’s the kind of right-wing violence that would happen in real life, and I expect more imagination from my fiction. And despite all of the sex, the plot is dull. It’s your basic vampire seduction without the heat because Anya seems pretty checked out. By the end, I was, too. 

Walter Benedek’s wife and niece have been ravaged and desanguinated by his brother-in-law, Vernon Macy. A reporter for The New York Times, Walter has a hunch that Macy’s transformation into a killer began with his visits to Live Girls, a peep show joint in Times Square. Walter surveils Live Girls and notices the novel’s other protagonist, Davey Owens, who visits the club three times in less than 24 hours. Davey is a reluctant editorial assistant at Penn Publishing, where, despite his literary tastes and complete ignorance of firearms, he sifts stories for a gun porn magazine called Brute Force. When his girlfriend Beth leaves him for being poor and spineless, he begins visiting Live Girls, where he meets Anya, a stunning sex worker and vampire, who is slowly draining his blood. After being passed over for a promotion, he quits his job and spends his time obsessing over Anya and rejecting the overtures of former co-worker, Casey Throrne, a smart young woman who, for some reason, wants a romantic relationship with him. By the time Benedeck confronts Davey about what is going on inside of Live Girls, it’s too late. Davey is consumed by Anya and one feeding away from becoming a vampire himself. But when Shideh, the ancient vampire entrepreneur who owns Live Girls, kidnaps Casey and Walter’s wife, Davey must take action. Combining his new found strength as a vampire with the vigilante skills he learned editing Brute Force, he unites with Benedeck to destroy the monstrous women of Times Square. 

The vampires at Live Girls feed through fellatio, puncturing their customers so carefully that they don’t even feel it. In a situation where they could just as easily bite the neck, wrist, or leg, Garton’s choice of body part is a deliberate one and, at first, I thought he might be subverting the traditional power dynamic of the blow job. Introduced to mainstream America by Deep Throat in 1972 and bolstered in the late 90s with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, fellatio is typically regarded as a submissive act for women: on their knees, they do all the labor, while the men sit back and enjoy the ride. But in Live Girls, this relationship seems to be reversed. Davey pays for the privilege of sacrificing himself to Anya, who is merely playing with her food. And men who exploit women, like Cedric the pimp, are murdered and resurrected to become Shideh’s servants or waiters at The Midnight Club.

However, when I considered the modus operandi for the novel’s male vampires–that is, the location, motive, and forcefulness of their feeding–I understood that, far from offering a reinterpretation of a sexually submissive act, fellatio in Live Girls reinscribes traditional roles and marks a broader marginalization of the books’ female vampires. Like Dracula, Macy and Davey demonstrate their power by marking visible areas of their victims’ bodies. But they don’t just bite necks–they tear out throats. Macy shreds his wife from chin to sternum and rips his daughter’s breast from her body. His family was a burden to him and, with no fear of the police, he doesn’t care who sees the carnage. In this same ultraviolent style, Davey kills Chad for getting the editor position, Vince for stealing his girlfriend, and Stella for passing on his promotion. Without fear of being caught, these men boldly disrupt their communities. The sex workers, on the other hand, must exercise restraint and discipline. They must hide their existence by puncturing “private” areas and control their appetites, keeping their prey alive for the sake of repeat business. These women mask their God-like powers to keep a job that sucks. What good is immortality if you have to spend your life in a dingy, dark box fellating the dregs of society?

And this brings me to the question of “clean” blood and who has access to it. Live Girls came out during the AIDS crisis, and Garton’s characters–both human and vampire–are deeply concerned about contracting sexually-transmitted diseases. When vampires drink diseased or drug-tainted blood, they develop severe deformities that can make it difficult to fly, feed, and blend in with humans. It can even kill them. Vampires can protect themselves, according to Anya, by avoiding humans who exhibit symptoms of illness. Sounds like she needs some sex education. But even if this advice weren’t garbage, the women at Live Girls do not get to choose their prey–it’s whomever walks in the door–and they are entertaining a high risk demographic–IV drug users and men with multiple partners. While they are forced to eat the equivalent of contaminated twinkies, the men who work at  The Midnight Club, Shideh’s upscale venue in a posh part of the city, enjoy caviar. Not all of the male vampires in Garton’s novel are loud individualists, mangling bodies and painting walls with gouts of blood. Some of them wait tables and quietly satisfy their needs by going down on high society women, “the wives of city officials, [and] politicians” (130). I don’t have any statistics, but I think it’s safe to say that this population would provide a safer meal than the junkies stumbling into Live Girls. So despite their beauty, strength, and immortality, female vampires are (almost) at the bottom of the food chain. This glaring disparity must be Shideh’s fault because, if the book teaches us anything, it’s that women make the worst bosses. After all, that’s why Davey killed Stella. 

As his vengeance on Stella indicates, Davey completes a standard 80s’ conservative character arc, moving from spineless to strong, pro-gun control to full-on Rambo. Though he begins the novel as a patron of the Times Square sex industry, he ends it as a right-wing terrorist, detonating Live Girls and the adjacent building. “I want them to burn,” he seethes, “Anya, Shideh, the women who work those booths, I want them all to burn.” When Walter warns that “[a] lot of innocent people will be killed and hurt,” he frames himself as a hero, rescuing the people he has endangered: “Not if I can help it. I’m going to clear the customers out of the booths.” In other words, the male patrons are innocent but the sex workers who cater to their desires are not. Neither total nor random, Davey’s violence is horribly specific and historically familiar–he wants to punish these women for his own weaknesses. 

Bleak scenes like this are balanced by some hilarious gore. I’m thinking here of the flying penis scene, in which a crippled bat, sporting “pendulous testicles, bobbing beneath a huge, glistening erection,” receives a bullet wound which, of course, causes the creature to vomit profusely (277). Unfortunately, great scenes like this aren’t enough to keep Live Girls from going down. 

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