"You humans, however, are practiced executioners." I'll never
forget the voice of the Zanti Misfits, those horrifying ant-creatures
with beatnik-like human faces that crawled forth from a flying saucer
in an episode of The Outer Limits. The Zanti, unable to kill their own
kind, sent their prisoners here, telling us they just wanted them off
their own planet, but knowing that we would kill. And we are remarkably
effective at killing, so skilled that it's difficult to wrap one's brain
around the numbers. John Marks does just that, however, in 'Fangland',
a gripping and often very funny modern media update of the story Bram
Stoker told in 'Dracula'. Marks makes remarkable use of the vampire legend,
tweaking it to fit his own funereal visions of both the cost of the 20th
century and the people behind the news. He manages to evoke genuine chills
in 'Fangland', to use the vampire well and wisely.
The shadow of mass murder hangs over every page of 'Fangland', from the
meta-fictional introduction, which compares what will follow to the 9/11
Commission Report, to the evocation of death writ large upon the world.
The story begins when Evangeline Harker, who works for a TV news magazine
called The Hour, is sent to Transylvania to see if an infamous gangster
will make an effective interview. She does not return when expected,
but her letters and journals do, as do some large boxes shipped over
from Transylvania and stashed in the back of the offices where The Hour
is produced. As the boxes fester, things go badly and Evangeline's story
unfolds in her notes and journals and via a collection of emails and
other assorted documents. The big picture is not pretty.
Marks deliberately mirrors many of the most effective bits of 'Dracula'
and places them in a chilling contemporary context. He evokes the dislocation
of the business traveler, and the unease of an urban dweller sent to
a remote, blasted landscape that is far more common here in the 21st
century than we would like to believe. He then slides those bits of unease
back into a very modern, technological business, the news, and uses them
to create an almost suffocating atmosphere of menace leavened by the
sort of absurd humor that one actually encounters on the job. Our pre-occupation
with graveyard humor on the job says quite a bit about our attitudes
towards the lives we lead. Nothing good.
In Evangeline, Marks has done quite a bit more than Stoker did with his
Harker. As she is plunged into the real and imagined nightmares of Eastern
Europe, she prattles on about her wedding. Marks gives us a real woman
confronted with an escalating understanding of how our ability to kill
one another has created a wedge for the unreal to make its wormy way
within our world. Her voice in emails and journals is the right mix of
mundane and mournful. As she discovers she has power than she imagined,
Marks find a fascinating, mordant fulcrum point upon which to turn the
Her co-workers back in New York seem equally real, if a bit more caustically
portrayed. The grand old men who inhabit the ivory towers of our perception
are wheezing, sweating worriers, unable and unwilling to make a decision.
The greedy young men are quickly subverted by emailed professions of
love. A virus creeps into the video archives. The world is going to hell
and we are going to watch.
Marks prose is chameleonic, matching itself to the character and situation,
as required by the sort of patchwork narrative he's created. For all
the insights into character and place, for all the veracity and imagination
that Marks puts into the particulars, it’s the complicated story
arc that fixes in the reader's imagination. Our perceptions of the world,
of our lives are no longer local. We do not live our lives in a single
city, even if we stay in a single city our entire life. The world, and
death writ large, have crept into every facet of everything we do. Marks
uses a collage approach to create narrative that is extremely compelling
and atmospheric. I found myself constantly creeped out for reasons that
were not easy to fix. Marks creates dread. Dread. It’s not your
friend, even when it's shot through with mordant laughter at the absurdity
of our lives.
Dread is your friend if you’re a reader, however. Marks has done
something very unique with the concept of the vampire. He's dug up our
fears and dragged them out for us to experience, made us realize that
they have crept through into every facet of what we do and are. The dead
are always with us – until we join them.