[CW: References to sexual assault, murder, abusive relationships.]
Spoilers: The entire plot will be revealed.
‘Coming-of-age’ doesn’t generally mean killing spree. But adolescence means breaking free, expressing who your truest self is, and Clover is a vampire. In the process of finding herself and overcoming trauma a lot of people will die.
Clover wants to leave home, live her own life. Unfortunately for her, her brother Marcel is an incestuous bastard who keeps her locked in their castle. Unfortunately for the world, she’s a vampire hungry for human blood. She escapes her brother’s clutches, and hightails it to the city, killing this person and that, stopping only for sunrise. But there are people following her, a P.I. Marcel hired, and an Order of animal-headed figures.
Skelly costumes a bildungsroman in the cape and fangs of a vampire film (actually the sex and fangs of a 70s vampire film). The tropes of vampirism intensify the conflict of the coming-of-age story. Our protagonist, Clover, must break from the womb of childhood, and through a debauched adolescence come to a compromise between the needs of her Self, and the needs of society. In My Pretty Vampire, Clover’s individual needs are to drink and kill: self-actualisation through hedonistic murder. Society would prefer she not kill people. But like any decent bildungsroman, the poles of Self and Society are not synonymous with Good and Evil.
We readers, as human beings with an interest in living, can understand Marcel and the P.I.’s concern about Clover’s violence. A free society finishes when my fist reaches your face, or her fangs meet your neck. In a realistic setting, where the selfish excesses of self-actualisation rarely spout (much) blood, a reader can be lulled into the protagonist’s self-justifications. Clover is a predator, only a metaphor away from a murder-rapist. Skelly doesn’t contrive justification for Clover, like more squeamish vampire writers do. Clover could drink animal blood; human blood is merely a matter of taste. Nor does Clover prey on the worst of society. Her first kill is a truck driver. She does kill two skeevy guys, a drunk who acts boorishly to his prostitute, and a guy who creeps on schoolgirls, but Clover doesn’t justify this as a cull of undesirables. She kills them because they remind her of her brother.
But while her brother keeps her from spree-ing, his dominion is not altruistic. Marcel does not love his sister, though he thinks he does. He loves an image of his sister. After she’s fled, Marcel stares at a photograph of a smiling, brown-eyed Clover – not the hungry, red-eyed predator we know. Towards the comic’s middle, we learn Marcel delivered Clover to an Order of vampires so that she could live forever. The bunny-headed cultist says, ‘The one you love will never die. (How selfish.)’ Marcel does not want an immortal sister, he wants a forever young sister.
Marcel tries to arrest Clover’s development by force. He wants his innocent schoolgirl sister to live eternally. Like any decent guardian he gives his charge rules, but his rules reveal what a selfish guardian he is. With context clues, we know Marcel orders Clover to study, to wear her school uniform, and to avoid smoking. Sensible rules for a teenager, but Clover is a vampire, four years past high school. Why study? Her brother refuses to let her leave their castle, what good will a high school diploma do? Why wear a school uniform when she cannot go to school without bursting into flames? Why avoid smoking? If age cannot whither her, tobacco won’t. Marcel does not love his sister: he loves a girl who will forever fulfil his fetish for innocence.
The reader becomes complicit in this reality-denying innocence worship. People don’t like rooting for unredeemed murderers. As Clover slays her way through the city, the reader conjures justifications for actions. ‘Did these people deserve it… In the context of the metaphor… Well, when you consider where she came from…’ Skelly never validates these justifications. The P.I., Marcel’s agent, wants to bring Clover back into her restraints. With the incomprehension of far-removed authority figure, he says, ‘I’m sure you don’t like hurting all these innocent people…’
She does. That’s who she is. What the P.I., or Marcel, or we readers would like her to be does not change who she is.
But Clover does not start as who she will become. Although always evil, although always predatory, something within her, even deep as her subconscious, restrains her. The comic opens in her dreams, on a red rose bleeding black blood. Roses symbolise sadistic lust, having thorns and associations with romance – but notice how the sadism and lust are tempered. The roses have no thorns, like a vampire defanged. The roses bleed, but they bleed black blood. For the first half of the book, all the blood is black. Black is not the colour of blood, black is the colour of censored blood. In Clover’s dreams and her first murders, which hypothetically happen outside her brother’s control, her savagery is sanitised.
Blood turns red in chapter four. She has just hit her lowest. The daylight burnt her unconscious, and she enters a lucid nightmare. The animal-headed Order grabs in images suggesting gang-rape, and the leader of the group is her brother. He holds a throbbing dagger to her face and tells her to ‘kiss it’. When Clover awakes, she kills a prostitute’s john.
The john is a boorish drunk, publicly molesting the weary prostitute. His is the first red blood in the comic. Clover does not kill him for the prostitute’s sake. Clover does nothing for anyone’s sake. In this creep, whose every affection is assisted masturbation, who snaps at the slightest withholding of the affection he believes he’s owed, Clover sees her brother. The john’s blood runs red because killing him was more than feeding, it was sacrifice. She killed her brother in effigy.
The compromise she makes with society makes sense in this light. The bat-headed leader of the vampire says he will not stop her, for her ‘evil is too beautiful to destroy’. He says she can live, so long as she lays low. In the end, Clover has found a place in the world, forever tormenting her frantic-eyed brother. She must cause suffering, but of all humans her brother most deserves her hate.