Infocult reviews John Marks' Fangland, a Dracula-inspired novel. Cross-posted from Goodreads.
What a strange, ambitious, and frustrating book. Fangland is a retelling of Dracula in the present, with the twist of adding a tv news show as the novel's focal point.
The Dracula version is interesting for readers of Stoker's novel. The similarities are numerous. Fangland begins with a character named Harker who travels to Transylvania to connect with a mysterious, powerful man about a business deal, then things go awry. The villain travels to a powerful imperial city - here, New York - and begins to wreck havoc. Both books cast themselves as collections of documents, although Fangland falls short on this score (little use of tech; some "documents" lack materiality, and one is openly made up by the editor). There's a Renfield in the Marks version. In both the villain is destroyed at the end, with Harker(s) playing a key role.
The differences are intriguing, beyond the updating of time and place. The focus on The Hour(clearly a parody of/tribute to 60 Minutes) returns to Stoker's use of technology, and implies an unremarkable argument about tv replacing empire. Jonathan and Mina Harker are replaced by one protagonist, Evangeline Harker, and her husband, who's useless, uninteresting, and removed from the plot. Evangeline breaks from Stoker in her post-Romania sojourn. Instead of merely recovering in a nunnery, as with Jonathan, this heroine has surreal adventures around eastern and central Europe, culminating in the destruction of a truly interesting character. Clementine is a missionary, or a secret agent, or a cross between the two. But Marks never fleshes out her background, a thread left dangling pointlessly for the novel's second half.
The focus on a tv show ultimately breaks the book. Marks dwells on it lovingly, giving us a vivid lesson on modern tv news production. It soaks up most of the book's action, characters, word count, and emotional intensity. Half the time this feels like another novel, a satire of tv news... but that satire never really connects with the Dracula plot. Are tv news shows vampiric? Perhaps (I'm persuaded), but Marks doesn't go in that direction. We can forget there's a vampire for chapters.
Another difference is the nature of the villain. Ion Torgu initially appears as a Dracula-style vampire: charming, scary, mysterious, removed, powerful. But Marks turns him into something unusual and noteworthy. Torgu doesn't bite people, in part because his teeth are lousy (!). Instead he stabs a person, bleeding them into a bucket, then quaffing from that container. Moreover, his m.o. is based on a kind of ghost history. Torgu speaks with and for the murdered dead. His curse is to bear witness. Draining blood powers that, somehow. He doesn't turn people into traditional vamps, but into... drained, dying witnesses. This theme is suggested by an epigraph from the Odyssey, the great scene where clever O. feeds a trench with blood to summon the dead. It's a also, and more to the point, a fascinating riff on that great Stoker passage beginning:
“We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races... (link to passage)
I wish Marks had done more with this idea. It never progresses, simply repeating, much as Torgu and his victims repeat a litany of atrocity place names. Worse, this new vampire mechanism makes plot actions hard to follow. Can we kill Torgu with a sharpened stake? Can we edit his cursed videos? Did it only take a kiss to kill him?
Speaking of which, the opposition of sexuality to vampirism is also intriguing. The scene where Evangeline uses her sexualized body to shame Torgu is surprising and powerful. But it isn't clear why this works. Does the villain's curse render him a prude, and, if so, how? Later in the novel Evangeline opposes life and death, somehow aligning herself with life (which doesn't make a lot of sense, given her anti-life actions: not having a child, committing murder, etc.), perhaps in a kind of Norman O. Brown type of thinking. But this cuts against the way humans eroticize murder and death. It's counter to the erotics of vampires, and even of ghosts, which might be what Fangland is really about. It's the opposite of, say, Chris Hedges' War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning.
Another twist to the Stoker novel is the book's 9-11 theme. I was initially ambivalent about this, as it seemed gratuitous in the beginning, then possibly acceptable given the nature of the villain's curse. But it went nowhere by the end, save for giving some unnecessary background color to the tv crew.
The plot proceeds at a fairly compelling pace. The opening quarter is exciting, then things slow down in New York (a/k/a Whitby and London). The final crisis ramps things back up.
The haunted media aspect is good. Torgu records some interviews, and everyone who sees them gets infected by the victim-witnessing curse. Some kill themselves in response. A touch of Ringu, eh? Then the curse infects the tv show's production system. It doesn't go beyond this, but it's a nice idea.
Some small things irked me, like the division of the novel into books. Too many. 385 pages isn't enough for 15 "books", especially when some "books" are composed of a single chapter. The British star chamber wasn't an 18th-century thing (266).
Overall, a novel with an interesting concept. Worth reading for those interested in vampires of the non-sparkly sort.
One quick note: the villain's last name is Torgu. I can't help thinking of Torgo, from the splendidly bad movie Manos: the Hands of Fate. Sigh.
(thanks to Annette for the gift!)