Fangland by John Marks
Nina Power relishes a Dracula for the TV generation
Perhaps the most curiously adaptable of all our fantastical creatures, vampires have been invoked to symbolise everything from our fear of sexual desire, the pain of addiction, the lure of immortality and the contamination of blood by new and fearful viruses. The vampire’s curiously updatable relation to human history provides the impetus for John Marks’ third novel, which seeks to link our fanged friend with perhaps the most prevalent of our contemporary concerns, namely terrorism.
At first glance this looks like a dubious premise, substituting political analysis for something explicitly mythical – can we really think usefully about terrorist acts by invoking some sort of underlying evil force? Surely by dehistoricising our analysis of the origins of violence we risk understanding nothing of its motivation. Luckily Marks avoids any overly superficial connections in this regard, preferring to leave open the question of whether some sort of incomprehensible dark presence is responsible for the death and destruction of human history, or whether we ourselves must answer for it. In many ways this novel reads like an attempt to come to terms with recent events – the empty shadows of the World Trade Center hang heavy over the entire book, even as it zips around from Transylvanian gangster hideouts to yet remoter monasteries.
The not-quite-heroine of the novel, Evangeline Harker, is a quick-witted Associate Producer working for a top-rated television news magazine, The Hour. Sent on a reconnaissance mission to Transylvania to try and get a story out of the suspicious-sounding Ion Torgu, she is held hostage and disappears off the radar for several months. Meanwhile, back in The Hour’s New York offices, things are going horribly wrong. Some sort of linguistic virus has infected many of Evangeline’s colleagues, who can’t get the place-names of various atrocities out of their heads (Treblinka, Nanking, Lubyanka and so on). The origins of this dark and haunting mental tic are obscure – perhaps something to do with the strange emails which seem to come from Evangeline’s own account, but sound very little like her.
Evangeline herself is scrabbling about in the wilderness in parts of old Europe so decrepit they make the cosmopolitan New Yorker feel almost sorry for them, were it not for the fact that she’s being hounded by a deranged vampire desperate both for the fame her television show might bring and for her blood. Evangeline encounters a strange missionary woman, another American named Clementine Spence, whom she befriends in a mistrustful sort of way, as well as beds in wretched communist hotel rooms. Some might say filling your novel with vampires and lesbians might be a cynical ploy, but, for better or worse, Marks avoids the scurrilous in favour of the darkly sentimental: “I will say that, in the few weeks of our love affair, I cared for Clemmie very deeply, though never with the sense that our situation would last.” Let’s just say that things get somewhat complicated for Evangeline in Europe before she eventually returns to New York to find her fiancé and colleagues in varying degrees of mental and physical disarray. Her task is to try and sort out the horror that seems to have taken over the entire office, not aided one jot by the fact that her vampire interviewee-turned-murderous-stalker turns up one day in New York and begins living in the building.
One of the most interesting things about the novel, apart from the vampires and lesbians of course, is the treatment of technology and our fears about those other sorts of viruses; much of the news show’s equipment gets infected with all manner of disconcerting effects, from silent soundtracks to murmuring voices that can’t be scrubbed from the tapes, no matter how hard the technical staff try. Marks asks us to question our 21st-century beliefs, not so much in mythical monsters, but in the omniscience and power of the media. It comes as no surprise to read that the author is a former producer of 60 Minutes, the CBS investigative news programme. His twisted version of the show via Evangeline Harker’s role on The Hour reminds us that behind the perfectly packaged news lies madness and savagery, as well as the occasional good guy or gal who would do anything to put the truth across.
Despite the best efforts of Buffy et al to put a stake through the heart of every last one of ‘em, Marks skilfully indicates how and why vampires continue to map so very well on to contemporary anxieties and fears. By making the vampire himself greedy for celebrity, and updating the virus theme through clever portrayal of email messages and convincing descriptions of warped technology, we come to see that not so very much lies between the dark lore of Eastern European myth and the creeping fears of a damaged West. ■
Fangland is published by Vintage