Some months ago, the title “The Moth Diaries” by Rachel Klein wandered into my awareness. A rave review from a friend whose tastes I often share, then news of a joint Irish-Canadian film production (the finished movie, now at the Venice Film Festival, is looking for a distributor) in various locations, including Fangoria magazine and Afterellen.com.
What is it about? Well, given this venue one can safely assume ‘vampires’ but not in any conventional way. As hinted at in the title, the bulk of the book are the journal entries over the course of school year. The diarist is a junior at an all-girl’s boarding school, one of a fistful of boarders–that is, students who live in the former hotel now transformed into a private academy. She also composed a forward and afterward. From these we learn her therapist suggested this diary be published, an account to show the thoughts of someone with borderline personality disorder coupled with depression and a psychotic episode. More intriguing, at least to me, was the revelation of no further episodes. None? For three decades? Not one?
Immediately I wondered if she were indeed disturbed at all, but had perhaps glimpsed a world outside our expectations of time and space, of cause and effect, of biological life and death.
One of only three Jews in a mostly-relentlessly blond and christian school, our narrator portrays herself as an eager student. Perhaps by an act of will she has made herself fit in after two years. She came here soon after her father, a sometimes poet, committed suicide. That fact, the gaping wound such a thing left in her then-fourteen-year-old soul pervades the book, albeit often subtly. Her best friend, a vivacious blond named Lucy shares a bathroom with her. They planned that, having achieved a certain seniority. But directly across the hall now dwells a new student. Enessa. The strange one, from somewhere in Europe, with skin too smooth and odd habits. She who never seems to eat, and avoids direct sunlight whenever she can. Enessa who says disquieting things and shares with our narrator several elements–including a dead father, Jewish ethnicity, and an intense friendship with Lucy.
Jealousy proves but one pitfall for the boarding girls that year. Another is curiosity, about boys and death and philosophy–and about Enessa. In time, the deaths begin. As the narrator takes part in the dynamic of cloistered girls in the throws of puberty, she sees things. Patterns that may or may not mean anything. Or even be real. One is so subtly bizarre it almost has to be an hallucination–or genuine evidence of something paranormal about Enessa. But which is it?
At no time does the book come out and say. From her perspective as a middle-aged wife and mother, looking back on her teenage self, the answer seems straightforward. Not dismissive at all, but contemplative. Self-obsessed she says of herself at sixteen. Indeed, she looks at her own daughters, pleased at how their avoidance of her own issues and problems. If this entire novel is nothing more than an account of one girl’s journey into her own personal nightmares, then it would be a fine novel indeed. But one cannot help but think–what if she was right? Evidently the school suffered some very strange events indeed, including more than one death! The diary entries become increasingly odd, dreamlike, probably delusional to some degree–but she seems to have functioned well enough for the better part of a year. Her words wander, maybe hallucinate, but do not rave. Her conclusion that Enessa is a vampire is an intuitive leap, but really wouldn’t it take someone pushed to extremes to actually come to that conclusion? Whether they were right or not? Me, I’m not so sure she wasn’t right. Dealing with issues, certainly. Overreacting to many things, oh yes. Lacking the perspective maturity grants, definitely. But after all, if her mind did not look ‘outside the box’ could she have noticed a real vampire if one existed?
Speaking of vampires, the book also contains lots of sly homages to the classics “Dracula” and “Carmilla.” The latter even pops up as a reading assignment in class, and the general plot points of Le Fanu’s work end up translated into this modern setting. But the central character in this case is not Laura, but the equivalent of Laura’s best friend–the kind of intense friendship that the very young seem to easily find, with all the depth and heartache it seems of a lifetime. Indeed, that is an amazing part of the novel as a whole. An entire world of teenaged girls opens up to the reader, ones isolated from the rest of the world and turning their own interactions into a cosmos of their own. Yet we recognize in that sub-universe the same way we treat the details of our own lives.
What about the vampire? If Enessa is indeed undead, she comes across as a physical ghost almost. Although the narrator clearly doesn’t realize it, she finds Enessa intensely attractive and in some ways so does the reader. Compelling, and also a bit repellant. Tragic as well, trapped outside of any cycle in life save survival, gliding through the life that at least our narrator enters and in which she participates. She makes for a haunting as well as haunted creation, even if she’s nothing more than a remote, sophisticated teenager hovering at the center of some weird coincidences.
Hopefully the film will do this remarkable novel justice. It has become one of my favorite vampire novels, even though it might not even contain a real vampire at all.