After a chance encounter with a gorgeous, older woman during his first week in New York City, Carl is a hunter for the Night Watch, an organization far older than the city itself. Carl hunts Peeps – parasite-positive people who are ruled by the microscopic creatures inhabiting them. The parasites make them averse to familiar things, including daylight and loved ones; Peeps hide in the dark, below ground, barely human until they’re caught by hunters and treated by the medical staff of the Night Watch. Peeps are better known to most of us as vampires.
Carl and the other hunters have adapted differently to the parasite infecting him – a carrier, he has increased strength and senses, a high metabolism and a raging appetite, he rarely needs to sleep and he always wants to screw, but he’s kept his humanity and he functions in the world. Having tracked down the girlfriend he accidentally infected, Carl’s next target is Morgan, the woman he slept with a year earlier. In the process of tracking her down, Carl discovers a threat greater than the Peeps – something gigantic, something that sets off visceral, instinctive, ancient alarms within him, is stirring below New York City.
Peeps is a triumph – the characters, particularly Carl, are strong and convincing; the plot is novel and persuasive; the dialogue and internal monologue are realistic and ring true; and Westerfeld creates the most internally consistent reason I’ve yet come across for why vampires (or the ancient peeps on who the myths are based) would be vanquished by crucifixes and holy water.
The novel is crafted so that chapters of narrative are interspersed with chapters in Carl’s voice about a variety of parasites, from Crohn’s disease and trematodes to guinea worms and screwflies. In addition to introducing general readers to a hidden part of the natural world, Westerfeld uses these sections to set up the biggest twist in the novel.
While some may find the guinea worm, on which the medical caduceus is based, the most interesting, I was already familiar with it. I was captured by toxoplasma gondii, a microscopic parasite far more interested in cats, their final host, than people. Toxoplasma occupies around half of humans; though not apparently harmful, research has uncovered some really interesting personality traits associated with people inhabited by toxoplasma, including spending patterns, interest in following social conventions, perceived attractiveness, reliability and, unsurprisingly, propensity to have cats or dogs as pets.
I found these little nuggets of digestible, fascinating information (including genetic research looking at whether human body live pre- or ante-dates the development of clothing) as fascinating as the plot. That’s not in any way to take away from the novel itself, but the two elements are essentially interconnected.
Westerfeld has tucked in other little interesting facts (like that the olfactory part of our simian ancestor’s brain was assigned memory, which is why smell is so evocative; or that flowers smell like the insects they’re trying to attract - butterflies smell like jasmine) that appeal to the trivia collector in me.
It is indicative of the strength of his writing that these elements enhance, rather than detract from, his writing. Carl picks up a neophyte on his journey, and some of these morsels are disclosed to her, others more directly to the intended audience. At no time did I feel lectured to, or hit on the head with the stick of I-researched-it, just intrigued.
I read Peeps the first time five years ago, when it was released; pretty much every time I’ve read another vampire novel I’ve been reminded of how well crafted Westerfeld’s universe it, and I find I’ve referenced it several times through this blog, in a variety of contexts. It really is a rare and exciting combination of informative, involving, believable, paranormal and memorable. Go, read it now! - Alex