Vampires, a familiar trope in horror fiction, often cross over into other genres as well. In Chris Panatier’s The Phlebotomist, they run a dystopia based around a caste system defined by blood-type. Willa, the titular blood scientist, lives with her grandson Isaiah in a city ruled by a state-run corporation known as Patriot, which sells citizens food, shelter, and necessities while permitting them to sell blood in return, as a way to pay for their services. Corporate executives and managers secretly call themselves Ichorwulves and belong to a hidden vampire society—while low-level employees like Willa, and everyday citizens of all kinds, are still humans and act as a food source for the Ichorwulves. In theory, the citizenry lives in different neighborhoods based on blood type, with universal donors like type O negatives in gated communities and universal recipients like AB positives in slums; but in reality the vampires oppress everyone. Their society entirely revolves around a rigged game of social advancement. However, once Willa discovers the existence of vampires, she joins a gang of criminals and attacks the institution with love as only a grandmother can.
Traditionally, vampires attempt to entrap humans with physical pleasure: one of the most memorable images in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, comes from the nightmarish sequence in which a group of female vampires attempts to seduce the buttoned-up English solicitor Jonathan Harker as he rests in Dracula’s castle. Despite appearing monstrous, the erotic quality of vampires inspired modern writers to reimagine them as love interests (see Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Vampires have a kind of gentility, and a sensual charm which not only allows them social prestige and castles full of treasure, but also a means to attract victims. In Panatier’s novel, however, sex is downplayed: the Ichorwulves are infertile, and kidnap children instead of creating vampires through a biological process. If this sexlessness jars with one of the essential components in vampire literature, Willa has already seen youth and romance come and depart during her lifetime; any sensual charm the Ichorwulves might inspire simply elicits no reaction in her. Willa does register an acute fashion sense among them, but views it as the flamboyant eccentricity of people with more money than her.
By contrast, Willa favors a utilitarian approach to personal style: a black coat required for her work uniform and a gaudy pink wig so that Isaiah can always find her in a crowd. Indeed, Willa structures everything around Isaiah. To feed him, she reluctantly buys processed food from Patriot and lives in a small apartment, even though she maintains skepticism about Patriot’s profit margins, and blames the entire system on mere greed. The Ichorwulves’ impeccable dress, mansions, good food, and drones that can transport them like a flying car echo the mansions of previous avatars of the vampire trope, but to Willa merely seem like the trappings of a capitalist oligarchy.
To control the citizenry, the Ichorwulves rely on fear of wars against unnamed enemies, alleged crop contaminations, and of course propaganda. The latter involves not only faked reports of impressive blood harvests—to encourage citizens that the end of the blood shortage might be near—but also a fleet of empty supply drones to fake productivity. This innovative ruse works well enough, to the point where characters who might be starving consider themselves lucky to have a more compatible blood type than another caste. The false caste system, then, impressively revolves around a more pragmatic attraction than sex: blood is supplied voluntarily to the vampires, unknowingly, and in exchange for necessities like food and shelter.
Acts of selflessness are posited by the novel to be the best way to undo the dystopian society. For example, Willa’s love for her grandson ultimately protects him from the Ichorwulves, and, when given an unexpectedly large sum of money, she impulsively decides to buy a group of homeless children a meal rather than saving it away for her and her grandson’s use. It is this free meal that brings Willa into contact with the criminals with whom she forms a kind of resistance against the Ichorwulf government.
This idea that acts of selflessness can undo the kind of closed system that runs a corrupt government, however, is a simple solution to a complicated problem. The temptations of material greed represent a core tenet of the vampire trope, but it also creates a scenario in which the vampires do not have much depth as characters or antagonists. It also minimizes the danger Willa might feel for herself. While many parents readily admit to structuring their life around their kids, they still have idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses. Willa has few exploitative characteristics beyond parenthood. Since Willa does not feel a sexual draw from the Ichorwulves, and generally focuses on children's needs, the vampires have no way to draw sympathy from her. The Ichorwulves play into further stereotypes with a shared tendency, as a species, to brag about the intricacies of their system to Willa. On the multiple occasions where she finds herself alone with an Ichorwulf, the vampires taunt her by explaining exactly how their social hierarchy works.
Even though Willa feels little sympathy for the Ichorwulves, two encounters allow limited opportunities for more reflective insight. First, Willa narrowly avoids being murdered and eaten by an Ichorwulf when her boss, Claude, intervenes. Claude’s decision to let Willa live comes as a surprise to her. Other than a casual greeting to Isaiah, he seems to care little for her personal life. Just before Claude himself suddenly dies, he reveals that he, too, was an Ichorwulf, that he just starved from not drinking enough blood, and that he hated the violence associated with their whole society. Unfortunately, Claude has little to do but save Willa’s life and then die. She does not miss his friendship later in the story, nor consider his kindness when considering what monsters the other Ichorwulves prove to be. There is, though, a second instance in which an Ichorwulf provides insight: a human criminal, Everard, who gets turned into a vampire after the Ichorwulves fail to fully exsanguinate him. Pre-transformation, Everard cared for a clutch of street urchins and knew every single one of their names. Afterward, he remembers none of them and only thinks of drinking blood and feeling hungry because traditional food no longer has an appeal to him. He, too, dies—and before he can become assimilated into Ichorwulf culture. In this way, he offers little in the way of insight, but instead presents the Ichorwulves as ravenous animals that have little in common with humanity. These two depictions offer contradictory accounts of life as an Ichorwulf: though both are marked by hunger, one suggests kinship and the other total corruption.
Interestingly, however, the humans, too, only band together to overthrow the vampire regime once they’ve been united by exchanges of food. First, Willa feeds the local children, which puts her in contact with the Locksmith, a criminal leader who hacks Patriot computers and drones. The Locksmith, in turn, provides Willa with fresh produce from an illegal garden tended by a colony of HIV patients. Likewise, the sharing of restricted candy—which the Ichorwulves use to lure children with luxuries—represents a kind of tainted communion that the Ichorwulves use to indoctrinate the younger generations. But the exchange of food, when resituated as an act of pure selflessness, becomes the initial dent in the vampires’ system, and ultimately turns out to be their undoing: Willa poisons a large stockpile of blood that several Ichorwulf executives consume at a public festival. This event decimates the Ichorwulf population within the city, but enough escape to promise they will return to harass humankind in the future.
Exactly how they might do so remains ambiguous. The Ichorwulves were selective enough that they did not have an army before Willa’s mass poisoning crippled them; any clue to their grand strategy gets muddled by the Ichorwulves’ constant expository dialogue. Even Kathy, an assassin trainee whom Willa rescues before she can be turned into a vampire, provides little information about vampire combat training—despite her personal experience of the Ichorwulf regime. Kathy’s backstory hints at a larger, more elaborate culture, but that line of inquiry curiously shuts itself down. Once the dominoes behind Patriot begin to fall, it becomes apparent that the entire government runs on propaganda: the Ichorwulves, as unapologetic and unsympathetic monsters, have no foothold to begin to reestablish their domination of humans; but we are then left to wonder how they ever achieved it in the first place. If the initial draw had been given further examination, perhaps a more sinister threat might have been conjured.
Ultimately, it is Willa’s intuition and motherly love which combine to topple a vampire society that relies on human needs. When humans act beyond those selfish urges, they escape this circuitous trap (though only if the Ichorwulves allow them ample opportunity—which, disappointingly, they do time and time again). The inability of humans to find any similarity between themselves and the Ichorwulves, however, takes what should have been an intricate system and places it tantalizingly beyond the reach of the story’s simplistic scope.