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By Olivia Boler
Pop culture neophytes, take note: vampires, those icy-cold bloodsuckers, are red-hot these days--hot in movies, hot in literature, and hot in the blogosphere. From the Twilight books and movies to the True Blood series on HBO, you'd have to live in a bat cave not to know that the general public digs the undead.
Here in Noe Valley, Sanchez Street resident Clare Willis is making her own mark on the vampire scene--with the Dec. 1 release of her first novel, Once Bitten, a "paranormal romance" (Zebra Books).
"Actually, it's really a paranormal murder-mystery romance," says Willis, 44. "But the publisher gave it the paranormal romance label. At the heart of it is a straight-up murder mystery, and the heroine is solving it while trying to figure out if the guy she loves is a vampire. I like to say that it's Melrose Place meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--two popular TV shows, one a frothy soap opera, the other a witty teen adventure series.
In Once Bitten, the 28-year-old heroine Angie McCaffrey, a San Francisco advertising executive, has a new client--a cosmetics line for wannabe vampires. One of these wannabes is Eric Taylor, a sexy young gent. Angie and Eric feel sparks, but soon Angie's boss Lucy is found dead--and drained of blood--and Eric is the main suspect. Is Eric the murderer, and if so, is he a real vampire? Angie sets out to find the truth.
A few years ago, Willis was in the middle of writing her novel as a plain-old murder mystery when she came across an article about San Francisco "blood fetishists," people who put on performances at parties and drink each other's blood. "That got me thinking about wannabe vampires," says Willis. "And how a real vampire could use them as a cover."
Zebra Books, an imprint of Kensington, is selling Once Bitten in paperback format for $4.99. "I'm part of a debut authors program at Kensington, introducing new authors at a low price to induce readers to give us a try," says Willis. "Our subsequent books go up in price."
She is currently writing another paranormal romance about vampires set in San Francisco for Kensington, although she's not sure of the publication date. The second book is not a sequel to Once Bitten, but rather a story that will stand on its own, she says.
Willis is also working on a paranormal novella that's a ghost story--it will be part of a Kensington anthology published later this year. "I wanted to break away from the vampires for a little while." She says the heroine of that story, titled My Soul to Take, is someone who is skeptical about ghosts, but then the scales fall from her eyes as she encounters spirits from the great beyond.
Willis pens "normal" lit, too. She has written a couple of unpublished novels, one a young adult book and the other a historic novel set in Boston. "I just love to write, and I haven't settled into a particular genre."
Still, the raging popularity of vampire fiction can't be ignored. "I'm sure Twilight is the reason Once Bitten is getting published now," says Willis, referring to the four-book young adult series by Arizona phenom Stephenie Meyer. So far, Meyer's series has spun off two feature films, Twilight and New Moon, and sent teenage girls worldwide into a tizzy. "When I started writing my book, vampires were not the hot commodity they are now. The timing was right."
Originally from Berkeley, Willis has lived in Noe Valley since 1995. She has worked as an education writer and teacher, and was part of a large-scale education reform project sponsored by Harvard University. She has two sons, ages 11 and 13, and after they were born she began working freelance, "which segued into creative writing." Her husband, Vail Reese, is a dermatologist with an office in the "beautiful, historic building at 450 Sutter Street."
Willis calls herself an amateur historian, and she leads tours of the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street, as well as heritage hikes for third-graders around Pacific Heights. "In school, they're taught about San Francisco history as well as the architecture," she says. "The students learn about what life was like for Victorian children."
Willis' familiarity with Victorian history and culture, particularly in San Francisco, came in handy when writing many of the scenes in Once Bitten. In chapter 17 of the 352-page book, her lead character Angie, afraid her boyfriend might be more than a little different, seeks out a vampire expert who lives in a classic Victorian that has all the trappings of the era. (See excerpt below.)
The gothic atmosphere of fiction by Southern writers like Donna Tartt and Tim Gautreaux appeals to Willis. "There's no way I'll ever be a Southern writer, but I find plenty of those gothic elements in San Francisco."
Once Bitten is available at Phoenix Books and the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, both on 24th Street. To find out more, go to www.clarewillis.com.
Once Bitten was a gleam in Clare Willis' eye long before the Twilight movie frenzy.
Photo courtesy David Allen Studio
by Clare Willis
The address Nicolai had given me was a large apartment building on the corner of 16th and Guerrero, a gray three-story citadel with security gates on all the entryways and first-floor windows. I rang the bell on the middle door, and while the buzzer sounded I pushed open the metal gate. There were three flights of creaky wooden stairs before I reached flat number twelve.
A tall thin man answered my knock. A snarl of shoulder-length black hair framed a white face marked by black eyebrows and a black goatee. He wore black leather pants, black boots, and a frilly white pirate shirt. He looked to be in his mid-forties.
He shook my hand with a cold, moist palm. "I am Nicolai Blaloc. You must be Angela." He squinted at me as if his eyesight was bad. "Please come into the parlor."
I couldn't suppress a gasp when I entered his "parlor." Normally, Victorian apartments bear only the most vague resemblance to what they looked like when Queen V was alive, but Nicolai's made me feel like I'd walked into a time machine. Every inch of wall and ceiling was draped or painted or covered in ornate floral patterns, one laid upon the other in dizzying profusion. A mansion's worth of silk and gilt furniture packed the little room. He even had a baby grand piano with a piece of silky fabric tossed over it. Every table held a collection--crystal figurines, snuffboxes, and tiny pictures in silver frames. He also had an assortment of stuffed birds, some of them under glass bell jars, others mounted on the wall, a few in bamboo cages. The birds gave me the creeps; they all seemed to be staring at me with their glassy eyes. To complete the effect, the room was lit with flickering gas lamps. After giving me a few moments to take in the scenery, Nicolai directed me to sit in one of the high-backed chairs.
"Angela, you look somewhat ill at ease. May I offer you a drink? A glass of wine, perhaps?"
"I'll have a glass of wine, sure."
He passed through a curtain-draped archway and returned a few minutes later with two glasses of red wine in tulip-shaped glasses. Nicolai arranged himself on the couch opposite from me. Somewhere in the apartment several grandfather clocks chimed.
Nicolai leaned back and stroked his goatee, as candlelight flickered on his face. He looked like Sigmund Freud in hell. "Tell me what you have been experiencing."
Where to begin, how much to tell, how much to trust? I had to tell him some of the truth if he was going to be any help to me. "My boss, Lucy Westover, is dead. It looks like she was killed by a vampire, or someone who wanted to make it look like a vampire's work. The police are after Les Banks, her boyfriend. He's the one who gave me your name. Les says he didn't do it, that Lucy was killed by a 'real vampire.' The man he was referring to is someone I've been, uh, seeing."
I rubbed my eyes. "This man I've met, he has told me some things that are hard to believe."
"But things have been happening to you that you cannot explain by natural causes."
Startled, I pitched forward to get a better look at Nicolai. "Yes, that's right."
"You are experiencing unusual symptoms. Nausea, headaches, a desire for darkness. Loss of appetite. You hear voices."
"Yes, that's right." My voice was a whisper.
Nicolai spoke in a soothing monotone, as if he were hypnotizing me. "This man, he visits you at night. You have, shall we say, encounters, with him that are both frightening and..."
He paused. I gulped loudly.
"...exciting." He put out one finger and stroked the tail of a stuffed black bird perched on a branch-shaped pedestal. "Yet I'll warrant you could not describe the exact nature of these encounters, am I correct?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice to work properly.
"You are powerfully attracted to him, yes, Angela?"
"Who are you?" I was gripping my wineglass so hard I thought I might crack it.
He leaned back, smoothing the ruffles on the collar of his shirt. "I am simply an observer. I am a scholar, a historian, a researcher. I follow groups such as the one that convenes at the House of Usher because that is where you usually find them."
My mouth felt dry. "Find who?"
Nicolai went to a bookshelf in a corner of the room and took down a large book bound in flaky brown leather with gold embossed text. He put it on the table in front of me and opened it to the front page, which had the spiky and not quite even type of a very old book. The title read, The Vampire in Legend, Fact and Art, by Mme. de Laszowska, with a publication date of May, 1785. There was a bookmark in the first third of the book so I opened to that page.
It was a print of what had originally been a woodcut, of a man's profile, with a sharp nose, small eyes and a pointed beard. He wore a simple crown on his head and a fur collar. His eyes glared at some distant enemy. The caption read, "Fourteenth-century Transylvanian count Vlad Tepisch, believed by many to be the first vampire."
Nicolai's words floated over the picture, the soothing, cultured voice of a professor giving a lecture. "The history of the vampire begins in fact, but the fabric of truth is frayed with time, interwoven with myth and make-believe to produce a patchwork quilt of legend."
I looked up from the book, pulling my coat around me as if it could offer some protection from the discomfort I was feeling.
Nicolai was looking at me with the professional smile of a therapist, but his eyes glittered in the gaslight. "The term 'vampire' is one of the most misunderstood in human culture. The word has many connotations that are not strictly accurate. For example, vampires are neither immortal nor supernatural."
"So you're saying they don't actually kill people?"
"On the contrary, they do kill people and many of them. One could certainly have killed your friend."
I was shocked. "You mean all the people at the House of Usher are murderers?"
A deep sigh. "No, no, no. Those people are human, engaging in behaviors that are fulfilling to them psychologically. Many of them were abused as children and are drawn to the vampire myth as a means of achieving power, or being close to power, in their own lives. They drink blood when someone consents to give it to them, but they are not vampires. No, the true vampire is something far beyond them, something they will never comprehend."
Nicolai stroked the leather of the book. His fingernails were long and filed to sharp points at the tips, each one a tiny blade.
"The vampire, while not immortal, lives much longer than a mortal life span, perhaps as long as two thousand years. Think of the redwood tree, the Komodo dragon. They breathe but their breath is cold, their hearts beat, but slowly. Like lizards, their body temperature adjusts to the ambient temperature. Naturally cold, they are warmed by blood, human contact, and warm environments."
I thought of Eric's cold hands, warming when he touched my skin.
"They require blood to survive, but the amount can vary, depending on the particular vampire. Some go for long periods of time without killing, while others, particularly in earlier centuries when it was easier to hide, vanquished entire cities."
"Nicolai, the things I've been experiencing..."
"Yes, you're wondering if you are becoming a vampire."
"No! That's not what I was going to ask. I don't believe in vampires. He could be doing this with drugs, with hypnosis..."
Nicolai turned to stare at me, tiny fires reflected in each of his eyes. "Angela, let's not waste each other's time. Why have you sought me out, instead of the police, or a psychiatrist, or, what are they called, a cult deprogrammer? I'll tell you why. Because you already know the truth, that only I can help you."
Unless you have experienced a religious epiphany yourself, any description of what I felt at that moment would be inadequate. What I had been denying over the last few days finally stood in front of me and blocked every other exit. Eric had been telling me the truth.
Printed with author's permission from Once Bitten by Clare Willis, copyright 2009 (Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York).