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Vampire tale is -- ahem -- as tasteful as the genre will permit

There are two kinds of readers in this world: those who will tolerate vampire fiction -- even profess to enjoy it -- and those who will not. From the way that last sentence is cast you can probably tell which camp Yours Truly falls into; truth be told, chronic vampire-avoidance has never been a point of shame with me. Why do we need vampires when we have human beings who seem scary and screwed-up enough?

Still, there are those who insist upon vampire literature as a pleasure -- and an art form -- unto itself.

And now, to top it off, here comes "The Society of S," a novel which aims to transcend those ironclad categories as it blurs the line between what vampire fans desire and what all other readers will endure.

Does it succeed? Yes, on a modest level, as a dark tale of adolescence and self-discovery, but more so because the characters themselves are engaging and human -- and because they keep a certain healthy sense of skepticism about the whole blood-drinking, night-walking, stake-avoiding business themselves. Not because they drink blood, in other words, but in spite of it.

Especially the novel's narrator, Ariella Montero, who when we first meet her lives with her handsome and polished father, Raphael, in a creepy Victorian house in Saratoga Springs. (Ariella later tells us that vampires are drawn to place names with lots of "S" sounds in them.) Ariella, at 13, begins to grow suspicious of dear old dad when she notices that his basement laboratory is producing strange odors, all the while her father is keeping her on a strict, bland meat-free diet. And what about those weird deliveries from a blood business? Then the house cat dies, mysteriously, one night out in the garden, and worse yet, a girlfriend of Ariella's dies as well.

Is someone out for blood? Is it Raphael? And what about Ari herself -- is she really human, or is she one of the unlucky vampires who, the book insists, walk among the rest of us, undetected and unknown? "If you ever want to hide from the world," Ariella states at one point, "live in a small city, where everyone seems anonymous." Or maybe it's just that everyone has secrets to hide, which would be true enough of small towns. We've never needed vampires to tell us that.

Anyway, Ariella, budding into a young woman, embarks upon a journey of personal scrutiny both literal and metaphoric; she tries to figure out the secrets behind her parents' marriage and her mother's disappearance at the same time that she travels south to Florida to find and reunite with her mom. By the book's end, Ariella has obtained her answers -- at least, most of them. Enough to satisfy, you could say.

Hubbard, a Florida writer and previously the author of prize-winning short story collections, does a good enough job here of shaping the mind of a young girl to keep us reading -- yes, even those of us who find vampires a wee bit silly. Ariella goes through some dark stuff on her way to the truth.

But isn't that the story of adolescence, with or without the gore?

Charity Vogel is a News Features Reporter.

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The Society of S

By Susan Hubbard

Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $2

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