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Matt Haig's black comedy 'The Radleys' looks at (vampire) family dynamics

From Bram Stoker through Anne Rice, there's a rich (and bloody) history of literary vampires.

Matt Haig's "The Radleys" follows this tradition, but only tangentially. The middle-class British family of four featured in the novel are vampires, albeit reluctant ones. When the story opens, the parents, Peter and Helen, are struggling with an ever-present bloodlust they are trying to deny. Their children, Rowan and Clara, clueless about their heritage, are constantly confused about why they feel and look so different from their peers.

Change the Radleys' affliction to alcohol, drugs or dementia, and the story still works.

"For whatever subconscious reasons, I'm always drawn to family," Haig says. "I never know why, but I never want to tackle it straight. I want to come at it from some kind of angle."

Haig's previous novels were all variations on the family theme. "The Last Family in England" was narrated by a dog. "The Dead Father's Club" was a reworking of "Hamlet" through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. "The Possession of Mr. Cox" featured an overprotective father in a tale of horror.

It wasn't until Haig read Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" that he felt compelled to write fiction.

"I suppose that was the impetus to get my thoughts down on paper," Haig says. "That book had a profound effect on me as a student of English literature. That was the only contemporary book of that time that had the same punch as reading the classics."

Haig classifies his books as black comedies, and "The Radleys" certainly fits that description despite a few blood-curdling scenes. The Radleys are coping with their predilection when Clara, being mauled by a rugby-playing bully, does what any self-respecting vampire would do: bares her fangs and defends herself.

But there also are scenes laced with lethal doses of humor, particularly one in which Peter is reminiscing about a Christmas past when his parents brought home "a department store Santa Claus" for he and his brother to feast on.

"If you're going into the dark, you need to have a torch and you need to lighten the way a bit," Haig says. "It's something that's there through the history of English literature. Shakespeare, even in 'Hamlet,' matches tragedy with comedy. If you're dealing with heavy, weighty stuff, to carry people all the way through, you need to lighten it."

Despite his emphasis on story, Haig does not shy away from vampiric details. He creates a clandestine police unit specifically designed to deal with the bloodsuckers, and also outs some famous vampires. Homer, Ovid, Machiavelli, Caravaggio and Nietzsche• Vampires all, as were all the Romantic poets except Wordsworth. Jimi Hendrix, "one of the most talented blood fiends who ever lived," now runs a rock club in Portland, Ore. The most famous vampire, Lord Byron, now works on the isle of Ibiza as a DJ under the alias Don Juan.

"You're always thinking, are they the right ones• Should Elvis have been a vampire?" Haig says. "You either go for the very obvious creatures of the night, sort of wild rock stars, or you go the other way and have sort of surprising choices, to get enough balance. I just wanted it be vaguely within its own universe, a vaguely forceful idea. It was fun, but I think you have to be careful with that sort of stuff because it can take over the book."

Readers will note the family name, Radley, and make an immediate connection to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." That classic novel featured the character Boo Radley, a spectral figure who, like the characters in Haig's book, shuns sunlight and becomes the subject of rumors in the neighborhood.

Haig was particularly struck by an image early in Harper Lee's novel where Boo is looking out a window.

"There's something sort of vampiric there about this pale outsider," he says. "But, the other thing about Boo Radley is what you see and what your prejudices are is misleading. ... I thought that was an obvious choice. It was only during the course of the novel that I discovered that Radley the surname meant of the red meadow. I thought that's quite fitting with vampires and blood. It might not just be poppies making the fields red. That was just a stroke of luck."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

'The Radleys' can be read as a metaphor for modern life, a family in the grips of a strange addiction. That reading, while legitimate, misses the great fun author Matt Haig imbues in his story about middle-class parents and their children who just happen to be vampires. Haig's prose deftly gambols between pathos and comedy, giving what's become a trite literary motif a bright, shiny makeover.

• Rege Behe

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