Columns > Published on December 11th, 2015

Forgotten Authors: Why John Steakley's 'Armor' and 'Vampire$' are Worth Remembering

John Steakley only published two relatively obscure novels in his life. The first, published in 1984, was Armor, and while taking clear inspiration from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, it presupposed the space marine subgenre by a few years. Vampire$, published in 1990, was the second, and has a bit more of a reputation for being adapted into the dud that is John Carpenter's Vampires (1998). Even before Steakley passed away in 2010 from liver cancer he had faded from public view, with only a few projects like Armor II in the pipe. With this in mind, it’s fascinating to examine the similarities and differences between Armor and Vampire$, especially considering they share the same lead characters, Felix and Jack Crow, even though they're set hundreds of years apart.

Steakley himself led an uneventful life. Born in Cleburne, Texas (where part of Vampire$ is set), from an early age he knew he wanted to be a writer, even publishing a few short stories in Amazing Stories magazine. After attaining a BA in English from Southern Methodist University he made his way to Hollywood, wrote several unmade films and script doctored projects he could never discuss. This proved demoralizing and he returned to Texas. Aside from a few acting gigs, after Vampire$ he mostly kept to himself. He spent time on the set of Vampires but reportedly butted heads with Carpenter, who was battling with the studio over budget cuts. In the last years of Steakley’s life there were rumors he was working on a loose sequel called Werewolve$, and that Armor would be adapted into a SyFy channel mini-series. None of this came to pass, although he did release excerpts of Armor II online (excerpts that are now almost impossible to find).

Steakley has extremely readable prose with crackling action scenes and hilarious gallows humor. He's an author that is ready for a resurgence.

Armor doesn’t hide its connections to Heinlein’s famous novel. It’s about humanity’s war against an alien race dubbed "ants" by the soldiers that fight them, and there’s even a brief mentioning of South America having been attacked (in Starship Troopers, the "Bug War" is kicked off when the Arachnids decimate Buenos Aires). At the start, Felix is a "greener", a new recruit about to do his first drop into battle as a scout. The planet is Banshee, a desolate wasteland, and the initial battle is a disaster with only Felix surviving. He’s able to do so because of the "Engine", a psychological trance that allows him to become "a wartime creature and a surviving creature." After this dip into the narrative, there’s a timejump and point of view switch from third person to first. The new lead is Jack Crow, a space pirate that escapes prison and falls in with a motley crew aiming to heist a research colony. Along the way Crow discovers an old suit of armor, and revelations result.

Vampire$, meanwhile, takes place in the present, give or take a few years. Jack Crow is the leader of a group of Vatican-sanctioned vampire hunters. With the religious angle, these are relatively traditional creatures of the night affected by churches, blessed silver and the sun, and Team Crow has never been able to kill one at night. After a job goes bad with heavy casualties, Crow has to rethink his battle plan, especially since the blood-sucking fiends know his name. He introduces the idea of silver bullets to his squad and recruits an old buddy from his DEA days, a "gunman" named Felix. Felix, however, is a reluctant warrior and only agrees to help on certain conditions, namely money and a temporary status. The pieces in place, they take the fight to the enemy. The eventual movie adaptation would only take this as a loose framework, with the first 15 minutes staying relatively true to the source material only to veer off in a new direction that included leaving Felix out.

So why reuse the same two characters? One could argue that it's just Steakley wink-winking at his audience, and he admits as much on the publication page of Vampire$. Under AUTHOR's NOTE there's a blurb that reads, "This Felix is no other Felix. This Jack Crow is no other Jack Crow", a nip in the bud for any naysayers.

This reconceptualization isn't unheard of, especially in genre circles, with notable authors like Kim Newman presenting three versions of his beloved character Geneviève in Warhammer Fantasy, Anno Dracula and the Diogenes Club series. In Newman's case, however, there's a bit of meta play going on as the latter two feature a who's who of fictional icon appearances, so Newman is perhaps inducting himself into the canon. There's also the fact that he likes the character and wanted to see how she would react under completely different circumstances. More than likely that's what Steakley was aiming for, a kind of "what if?" experiment contemplating nature vs. nurture and what makes up the essence of humanity. If you were born in a different era, under different circumstances, would you still be you?

 

Felix is the POV character at the start of Armor, with the third-person perspective keeping him at a distance. He's quiet and resentful, lamenting the futility of war, especially on an intergalactic scale. He's not from Earth, but it's unclear where he was born. He's fearful but relents to the Engine, allowing it to take charge with little resistance. Later in his life, and this is treated as a twist in the book so this is technically a spoiler, he becomes a wealthy ranch owner named Lewis, a pacifist drunk that doesn't allow weapons on his planet. He does, however, don his armor one more time and saves Crow's life in the process.

In Vampire$ Felix is almost identical in circumstances and personality. He's a former man of violence, an ex-drugrunner that Crow met in Mexico. He's constantly referred to as "gunman" by the other vampire hunters, and is admired for his inherent, almost unconscious skill that kicks in during battle. This is described as being "Like a robot" by one character, and not coincidentally, "Like a machine." Felix is also gruff, anti-social, reluctant to trust and very, very rich, owning a bar called the Antwar Saloon in a not-so-subtle nod to the character's roots. He reluctantly returns to battle, but unlike Armor in which his fate is let uncertain at the end, Felix's denouement sees him a married man and reinvigorated leader of Vampire$ Inc. 

Jack Crow is similarly comparable between the two books. He's introduced in Armor as telling his story from first-person perspective, a remorseless pragmatist that caves in a dwarf's face while escaping incarceration. He doesn't have much patience for nonsense, is quick to bed willing participants, and his eyes light up at the sight of green. He's a pirate, sure, but he also has a heart of gold and under pressure will do the right thing. Crow also has little respect for authority and is dismissive of war from the perspective of a draft dodger, his morals and sense of self-preservation having led him to a life of crime.

But there's one quote that Steakley re-uses in Vampire$ that sums up Crow's approach to most situations: "Bullies don't want to fight you. They don't want to fight at all. They simply want to beat you up." In Armor, this is prefaced with, "I remembered something somebody had once told me a long time ago." In Vampire$, however, Crow is a bit more approachable of a character and not such a legend, so this saying is intercut with, "Crow's grandaddy had told ago told him." 

This Crow is much more straightforward in his heroism, taking this as a credo to stand up for the little guy, whereas the pirate considers it a philosophy on why to pre-emptively take out an enemy. The Crow of Vampire$ runs headfirst into fighting the epitome of evil, and reports directly to the church as a consequence. This lifestyle has a toll, so Crow drinks hard to avoid the memories and the ghosts of his former comrades that haunt his dreams. He also keeps his living friends closer, and finds a kinship in Felix that only men of war understand.

So what was Steakley hoping to accomplish with this repurposing of characters? Regardless of his claims it's apparent they are the same people in what is perhaps a book-length long meditation on fatalism. One doesn't need to be too literal; no time travel is involved, and the future versions are not reincarnations of past lives. It's an author remixing the parameters of a life and still determining that the whole of human existence will result in the same essence. Felix is eternally plagued by ennui and yet cannot escape the inevitability of his ability to kill. Jack Crow, as well, is destined to be a roguish scoundrel with a hidden conscience.

The only hope of escaping the cycle is Felix's renewed spirit at the end of Vampire$, but even then that's negated by the musings of the thinly veiled Pope during their last exchange: "For, of course, it would not end. Not for this planet. It would end for this brave young soul seated beside him. But not well. This is one of the great tragedies." But at least Felix finds a scrap of happiness, however brief.

Unlike J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee whose dearth of output helped build a mystique and appreciation, Steakley is nearly forgotten just five years after his death. He was never critically acclaimed or taught in the classroom, and the one adaptation of his work has the director's name above the title. He is, however, a fascinating author that was able to approach character from multiple perspectives. Even without the question of Felix and Jack Crow, Steakley has extremely readable prose with crackling action scenes and hilarious gallows humor. He's an author that is ready for a resurgence.

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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