I have to admit that after the first time I read Bram Stoker's Dracula it took me years to work up the nerve to re-read it. It was one of the most singly terrifying books I had read up until that time. In spite of its archaic language, and the almost absurd melodrama of the story, there was something about the way in which Stoker wrote the story that made my skin crawl and my mind ache like no other book had done before or has done since.
Perhaps it took a 19th century author's perceptions of good and evil, or it might have been the style, a mix of the old naturalism and the new realism, that allowed the evil incarnate of Dracula to come to life. I don't think it could have been the actual story, because I've read and seen variations on the story in a number of different guises, and only the silent movie version, Nosferatu, came close to capturing what Stoker managed, so it had to have been in the telling.
In the 21st century, vampires and other legions of the undead have taken to popping up all over the place. Zombies have shuffled off their mortal coil as either attempts at social commentary/horror with it being a disease or virus run amok in our plague-ridden society, or as outrageous comedy/satire where the characters don't notice anything wrong until the undead try to use them for appetizers. But it's the old standby, the vampire, who has made his mark on popular culture thanks to the long running television show Buffy The Vampire Slayer based loosely on the movie of the same name, and of course Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire books and movie.
No matter what we think of any of the present incarnations of Bram Stoker's famous blood sucker, there can be no denying that the fiend from the pits of hell is here to stay in all his glory. While I must admit to having a rather jaundiced view of most of the modern versions – save Christopher Moore's Blood Sucking Fiends and its sequel You Suck – there was something about the new book by John Marks, Fangland, published by Penguin Canada, that caught my attention and piqued my interest.
Perhaps the fact that it was set in the world of television news, a bastion of evil and the undead if I've ever seen one, or its promise of "biting satire", that had me hoping the author would be able to breathe some fresh life into the story and make the undead alive again in a way they have not been for over a century. That John Marks had worked behind the scenes for the original television news magazine 60 Minutes made it seem all the more likely that he would be able to deliver on the promise of opening a vein or two when it came to writing about the world of television news, in the process of telling his story.
Associate producer at the venerable TV news show The Hour, Evangeline Harker is much like her predecessor in Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker — young, wide-eyed, newly engaged, and anxious to succeed in her chosen profession. So when she is sent off to Romania in an effort to meet with the mysterious Ion Torgu, reputed to be the head of all of Eastern Europe's underworld activity from drugs to prostitution, to asses his potential as the subject for an interview, she disregards her colleagues' premonitions of danger.
Evangeline is given even an extra warning in the form of a mysterious woman, Clementine Spence, whom she meets in the hotel coffee shop in Bucharest. As they are both headed for the same ultimate destination – the small town in Transylvania (an odd coincidence that Evangeline fails to understand the significance of as she fails to understand the significance of most things until it's too late) where Evangeline is supposed to meet her contact – the offer of a ride seems like the most natural of suggestions on Evangeline's part.
It turns out that Clementine is her last chance at turning back from a road to… well, we're in Transylvania and Evangeline is meeting with a man who will insist that she leave with him immediately and then attempts to cut her off from the rest of the world by making her sign a series of letters telling everyone that she's secreted in negotiations of a delicate nature and can't be reached. Does any of this sound familiar? Well it's straight from Stoker's Dracula of course.
In fact, despite a few variations, Fangland follows Stoker's plot faithfully. Torgu is not a bloodsucking fiend; instead he is a blood-drinking fiend who worships the sites of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century and brings the dead from those places to life. He is akin to our collective awareness of the subject and wants to bring all of humanity the gift of that knowledge and the ability to hear the stories of the dead. Is it any wonder that he wants to be interviewed on television, or at the least to have entry into the world Evangeline Harker comes from?
When the scene shifts from Transylvania back to the twentieth floor offices of The Hour we find mysterious events and behaviour are the order of the day. Torgu has found a minion among the lowly to prepare his way, and in television there ain't nothing lowlier than the production assistant. Promises of power and exclusive interviews carve him his entree into a world that's ideally suited to his needs.
Paranoid and secretive, the employees of The Hour need little manipulation on Torgu's part to be played off against each other. Those within his power are easily separated from other staff either because of the divisions between the technical and on air personnel or due to their own ambitions. This is where author John Marks is able to put his knowledge of the behind the scenes machinations of a television news show to good use, as the horror of the circumstances is leavened with his cutting descriptions of how a network news show is an ideal spot for horror to develop and flourish.
I have to wonder what his former colleagues at 60 Minutes make of his descriptions of the on air talent as prima donnas, producers as despots ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists, and associate producers as bright-eyed and blinded by ambition to the realities of anything but "how will it play in Peoria?" There's nothing innocent about the wide-eyed Evangeline Harker, or anyone else for that matter on the staff of The Hour, more a blinkered, wide-eyed stupidity that blinds them so much they are easy prey for Torgu and his plans.
There is so much back-biting and discord among those who compete for coveted time slots in each week's show, and to make their story "The Story" of the week, that the work place is referred to as "Fangland". They are past masters of manipulating reality so that it becomes good TV, and in the end the story is secondary. Torgu's offer of the most sensational stories ever told — the individual story of every person who died in any of the twentieth centuries horrors — is like raw meat to a shark, but also shows us how far removed the world of television news is from the realities of the world.
Torgu isn't the vampire in this book, even thought he drinks blood by the bucketful. The vampires are those who are waiting and wanting to feed upon the stories of the dead that he can offer them. Fangland is a biting satire of the world of network news shows, that makes use of Bram Stoker's Dracula story to emphasize how removed the stories that appear on our television screens are from the real horrors that exist in our world.
John Marks has created a world full of people who can't see beyond the artificial sets their interviews take place on and even when the real world intrudes in the shape of incalculable horrors they can only see it in terms of their own reality. Vampires steal the life blood of other creatures to continue their own existence – television news presents stories that have had their life blood drained from them, and both create a form of life that is neither living or dead.