Let’s get this out of the way, right here at the start: You’re going to feel a strong Near Dark vibe in Richard Lange’s excellent neo-western vampire novel Rovers. The book is awash in the same kind of gritty, sunbaked, sweaty supernatural grime that Kathryn Bigelow’s cult-classic film wallowed in, and some of the characters even echo the indelible creations portrayed by Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton. (There’s even a mirrored-in-time Jenny Wright type!) But Rovers only uses the Near Dark atmosphere as a launching pad toward something more personal and even spiritual.
Rovers takes place during the United States’ bicentennial (summer 1976) and concerns itself with four distinct-though-rigidly-intertwined narratives. You’ll sense the strongest Near Dark style in the chapters that follow the Fiends, a violent, ragtag group of bloodsucking bikers—rovers—wandering the southwest in search of easy prey, scraping out a shadow-existence on the fringes of desert America. Another narrator provides moral counterpoint to the Fiends chapters, and that’s the perspective of Bible-toting family man Charles Sanders, whose story unspools by way of journal entries hastily recorded during his ultimately soul-staining search for those responsible for the death of his son. (These journal entries recall Dracula’s Jonathan Harker, one of the first characters in vampire fiction to serve as audience surrogate, entering wide-eyed and aghast into the realm of the bloodthirsty undead.)
But the narrative centerpoint of Rovers is its focus on the immortal brothers Jesse and Edgar. See, they’re rovers, too, and they have their own problems. Jesse, a tragic figure, is hopelessly mired in his own lengthy past, pining for a lost love and for a family bond that he left behind long ago (although it’s preserved in a well-worn photo album that he carries with him always). Edgar, meanwhile, is stunted, childlike in his man’s body, a forever-burden to Jesse as he trudges forward into an inevitable and perhaps unwanted future. (The chapters from Edgar’s perspective are darkly poetic miracles of narration.) When Jesse encounters a beautiful yet mortal young woman who looks remarkably like his lost love, he’s finally facing the impossible prospect of hope—unless, you know, everything goes horribly awry.
Rovers is a departure for Lange, who has been celebrated for his very human, observational stories of con men and gamblers, washed-out loners in search of redemption, lost souls both benevolent and malevolent. Obviously, Rovers leans into the malevolent—to striking effect. Turns out, it’s as if Lange were destined to go supernatural and horrific. He conjures a nightworld that embraces its influences and finds new ground to cover, from its more real-world-grounded take on vampires to its transcendent contrast between light and dark, which becomes absolutely poignant in the novel’s final words. There’s a blunt matter-of-factness to the violence in this book, such that no character is safe from it. Even a character you come to cherish might not be long for Rovers’ world, and that’s a big part of what makes the book compelling.
Many of Lange’s tales are set in and around Los Angeles, and all of them, long and short, have a potent sense of place, and that’s true of Rovers, which wanders a more sprawling southwest and culminates in Las Vegas, that morass of spiritual depravity. It’s an undead road trip, spiraling a downward trajectory from grungy motel to grimy roadside market to seething pit-stop bar, and damn, there’s that Near Dark vibe again! But Rovers is brimming with potentially redemptive character arcs that any other book might see to triumphant conclusion. Question is: Is Rovers the kind of book that’s interested in those? Either way, Rovers comes strongly recommended.