This is another book I've been moving from house to house, from state to state, for several years. I think I had this book when I was still in college, and I graduated in 1994. So ... dang, twenty-one years at least. I was big into horror when I was in high school, and that interest stayed with me through and beyond graduate school, so I read most of what McCammon had written up to that point, and really enjoyed it. I remember tearing through Swan Song in one weekend. So when this one came up in my reading list, I was excited to finally get around to reading it.
The problem with reading something like this is that my tastes have changed a lot since then, and that I'm a different person from who I was back then. I still enjoy a good horror story, but having read so many of them, what I call a good horror story is different from this book. It's about vampires, which is fine (I think it's required for a horror author to have at least one of these in their body of work), but ultimately it's a very ordinary vampire story. It's certainly better than the dark, brooding, emo vampire stories that have taken over the genre, but there's nothing extraordinary here to set it apart from other vampire stories. Considering that this book was published in 1981, that might not be a fair criticism, but it's true.
The good thing is that a talented enough writer can take an ordinary type of story and make it engaging enough to enjoy it. 'Salem's Lot is a great example. Little of what King writes could be considered ordinary, but when you look at the structure of that story -- one person against a vampire invasion, the slow takeover of a town, the main character losing a loved one to the vampires, and then a hard-won victory at the end -- it follows the same basic tenets of other vampire stories. But King's characterization and plot skills set the story above and beyond any ordinary vampire novel, making it something extraordinary.
McCammon has these same skills, but somehow it's not enough to elevate the story to being a classic like 'Salem's Lot. McCammon has said before that he doesn't think much of his first four books (They Thirst being the fourth one), because he felt like he was learning to write in public, and I wonder if that's the reason the book feels insubstantial. (Interestingly enough, McCammon references his own Bethany's Sin, one of those four book, in the narrative. One of the characters doesn't think much of it.) It's hard to be too critical of issues with the story knowing that, but there was still stuff that caught my attention. Here, McCammon has a habit of changing points of view suddenly in the middle of a chapter. In some cases, this is handled well, but in others, it's jarring. It wasn't uncommon to have him tell most of a chapter from one character's POV, and then in the last paragraph jump to someone else responding to that character. It felt clumsy, sloppy even.
McCammon doesn't shy away from going big, though, with the scope being the entire city of Los Angeles. The events of the novel happen in about a week, with the goal of the vampires being to take over the entire city of eight million people. That scope means there are a lot of characters, with a lot of them getting a lot of face time in the story. Not all of them wind up being long-term characters, and my guess is that McCammon wanted to create a connection between the reader and the character before making them a victim, but it didn't work for me. They felt too cliched, too two-dimensional to really sympathize with them.
There was still a lot to like in the story. Things happen quickly, and it reminded me a little of a zombie plague. Interestingly enough, I finished watching Fear the Walking Dead while I was reading this, and one of the things I liked about that show was the character who said, in the second episode, "When civilization ends, it ends fast". The same is true of They Thirst. Plus, McCammon included a massive sandstorm near the end of the story, which I thought was used to great effect.
I'm glad I read the book, to bring myself one book closer to reading all of McCammon's horror novels (Mine is still on the shelf), but I'm not sure if I could recommend it, save to the most hardcore of vampire fans. Then again, people who have read and enjoyed McCammon's works would enjoy it for the curiosity factor, if nothing else. I can't rank it among his best novels, though.