Sangre: The Wrong Side of Tomorrow, is the second novel by author Carlos Colón. Set in Newark, New Jersey, it features vampire Nicky Negrón, living out his death as a chilled, undead vigilante with a lot to prove and some troublesome adversaries.
This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour.
Long ago, as one of the more daring pupils in my School for Respectable Girls, I was quite, shall I say, transfixed by Le Fanu’s Carmilla – an 1872 lesbian vampire novel that for some reason was not included in our school curriculum. It predates Bram Stoker’s fussy and derivative Dracula by a whole generation and is an intensely engaging exploration of desire, sexuality, repression, possession, death. OK. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to treat it as a “how-to” manual, but happily none of us died and we were perfectly thrilled by the clandestine (and even now unspeakable) investigations to which it led us. And that, I always thought, was the point of vampire novels.
Secrets. Repression. Deviance. Desire. The unspeakable.
Sex as death. Death as sex. Blood as life and sex and death. Consummation. Submission. Possession.
Sadly, after all the glorious transgression, we had to emerge into the tedious Sexual Revolution of the late 20th century – so I have lived the rest of my life imagining that vampire novels were firmly a thing of the past. Now that nothing is taboo and every sexual possibility is, as it were, on the table (with the lights on and nobody particularly interested because there’s something more interesting on the cell-phone) I assumed that the yearning excitement of vampirism must have longago turned to ash. I was therefore rather surprised to be asked to review a vampire novel that was published only last year.
History may have locked me out from this modern story – something that happens quite often to older people. (Readers: please be more careful when purchasing dodgy books as presents for your aunts.) I needed to find a way in, but it was by no means clear to me how this piece related to anything I knew or thought about vampires. True, the protagonist is a vampire – but there is a certain “so what?” to this status. In his case it appears to be something of an embarrassing medical condition rather than – as in the grand old days – a seething eruption from the darkest crevices of the unconscious. Yes, the condition still makes him dangerous to others and, as a result, at risk of some nasty social exclusion – a bit like having HIV before triple therapy. (Yes, I know you’re thinking about another virus too, but I’m just too bored to mention it). Vampirism also still demands significant changes to one’s lifestyle (no, I’m still not going to mention it) like keeping out of the sun and sleeping in a coffin – but sufferers of alopecia also have to keep out of the sun and people with heart failure may need a special bed, and nobody glamorises that. And like irritable bowel syndrome, or one of those terribly fashionable “food intolerances”, the sufferer turns into a diet-bore. There are compensations of course. Our modern vampire still gets some magic tricks, though they’re different now. (I used to like the one where they turned into bats…) Like Harry Potter, Nicky Negrón can make himself invisible and hurl things around like a poltergeist. Like Tom and Jerry, he can have a hole right through his chest and recover almost immediately. And he still has some sex – though now it’s the modern, compulsory, perfectly-satisfactory-but-nobody-cares-either-way sort of sex. And since this is America, even this frissonless activity is underscored by Good Clean Family Values. Our protagonist, after all, is a decent sort of vampire. He cares about his offspring, visits old friends in hospital, frets about his impact on the environment, feeds his neighbor’s cat, and only murders bad people. Poor fellow: despite all this, the public still doesn’t like him! (There are clearly some diversity issues here. We should start a #VampireUnlivesMatter movement.)
So where is the smouldering in this modern vampirism? Where is the shocking, intense, unspeakable electrical charge? This is vampirism reduced to a set of arbitrary narrative constraints. One could use the same plot whilst substituting some other sort of paranormality, say a tendency for water to become wine in one’s presence (good at wedding parties but awkward in school swimming pools) or a special whistle that makes all the rats in Hamelin jump into the River Weser. This is the vampire as yet another sort of X-Man – not as a signifier for the most overwhelming, appalling secret at which any book could surreptitiously gesture.
In the end I gave up the attempt to find in this book even the ghosts of the vampirism that fascinated me long ago. I shrugged and decided to read it simply as another crime romp, a boys’ book, full of peril and adventure and lots of juicy American violence. It works pretty well when taken like that. The flashbacks to our protagonist’s youth provide some warmth and depth to the story as a whole. They allow us to see our hero as a troubled individual with a difficult backstory, rather than a psychopath who just likes beheading people. (Fear not, gentle reader, these are cheerfully anodyne beheadings, not the horrific variety practiced by ISIS, of which we definitely disapprove: no American servicemen were harmed in the making of this novel). There are some good fights, some surprising paranormal impersonations (no need for the old latex-mask trick now!) and a lot of fun characters.
Yes, fun. This is (once I gave in and let myself get into it) a clever and witty book, and I liked it more as it went on. Perhaps, ironically, it even started to “speak” to me. It ends (no particular spoiler here) in an old people’s home. As a vampire, our hero never ages. (But hey! This is me as well! Just like Nicky Negrón, I now have a regretable “death face” , prone to appearing at inconvenient moments, but the face in my mind, though nevermore in the mirror, is still the girl of 16, which – let me think – just happens to be the age when Carmilla first bit me…) And despite our hero’s agelessness, he finds the friends of his youth have definitely aged (That’s weird! This afflicts my friends too!) and his children have grown up, and look much too old to him. (Hmmm. So many parallels, it is becoming uncomfortable…) It was only with these thoughts that the grimmest of truths occurred to me. Perhaps this really is a book that gestures at the great taboo of our time. Deep in our DNA, in the darkest corners of our being, there is a terrible inexorable force that compromises all our high ideals and turns us into something monstrous.
But, alas, it’s not sex we’re frightened of any more. It’s not desire that stalks and turns us, changing us into something alien, something hideously undead, so we leach the life-blood of those we love, until they are turned too.
No. These days it’s Age.
Born in Spanish Harlem and raised by Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx, Carlos Colón drew attention from his high school teachers with his penchant for storytelling. Before long, they nicknamed him Hemingway. After graduating from CUNY’ s Herbert H. Lehman College, Carlos dabbled in screenwriting for a few years before settling into the insurance business. Several decades later, Carlos returned to the entertainment world when he formed the retro rock ‘n’ roll band, the Jersey Shore Roustabouts. After twelve successful years performing live and producing two albums, the band moved on after their farewell concert in 2018.
Prior to that, 2016 saw the release of Carlos’ first novel, “Sangre: The Color of Dying”. It was later that year named as one of the Top Ten novels written by a Latino author. After receiving extraordinary praise from literary critics and the unexpected devotion of readers to his foul-mouthed, yet oddly endearing anti-hero, Nicky Negrón, Carlos knew he had little choice but to begin working on a sequel. In 2019, the follow up “Sangre: The Wrong Side of Tomorrow” was released and it received just as much praise as its predecessor. Readers are already hoping that there is a third installment in the works.
When not busy with his multiple projects, Carlos enjoys his private time living in the Jersey Shore area with Maria, his wife of 40 years, and their cat, Tuco.
The Hard Hat Book Site