Fangland: A Novel
by John Marks
A review by Jessica Bennett
In this extraordinary new thriller of a bloodsucker novel, John Marks has crafted a horror story that rivals its most noted forebear: Bram Stoker's Dracula. Taking a cue from Stoker, the book is a collection of journal entries, letters (well, e-mails -- this is the 21st century, after all), and extensive notes which supposedly chronicled events as they happened. The trick still works; the intertwined first-person narratives lend the book a documentary feel that heightens tension as it increases the believability of a fantastical plot.
Evangeline Harker is a little bit Jonathan Harker and a little bit his beloved Mina, hero and heroine of Dracula. Like Jonathan, she is a professional, forging on with her work even when instinct might be telling her to get out of Transylvania. And like Mina, she is beautiful, stalwart, brave, and smarter than many of the men around her (even if many of the film adaptations have relegated Mina's role to damsel in distress). Evangeline is an associate producer for The Hour, television's most respected newsmagazine (think 60 Minutes, the show where the author was himself a producer before he became a novelist). She sets off on a trip to Romania to scout a story about a shadowy crime lord, Ion Torgu. Like all of us, she knows the stories about Transylvania; the specter of Dracula hovers over all that transpires on her journey, especially in her conversations with the creepy Torgu, and the idea of a Dracula theme park even pops up obliquely. This foreknowledge makes her a bit squeamish, but also fortifies her in the face of doom: after all, they're only stories, right?
Evangeline figures she's seen her share of horrors. The Hour is situated in offices at Ground Zero, a location they returned to as soon as possible after the destruction of 9/11. (That day figures throughout the book -- even the introduction, a letter from the supposed anthologizer of the book, claims that it is "generated in the spirit of the 9-11 Commission Report on the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.") When she finds herself Torgu's prisoner, however, she begins to realize that there are parts of the world much more frightening than New York:
Ahead, in the night, yellow eyes winked. The howls of animals furled out like a wind. I saw stars up high, and I wished that I had been one of those housewives in suburban New Jersey who never did anything in this world except make a home for a wealthy commuting businessman and his well-protected children.
Marks goes far beyond the normal homage to Stoker: he appropriates the general outline of the Dracula story and makes it not just fully his own, but the story of our time.
Instead of the moments of fang-baring or heart-staking we've all come to expect, Torgu's murderous intentions are more human, and thus far more chilling and recognizable, as when Evangeline first encounters the evidence of Torgu's bloodthirstiness:
I began to understand for the first time that every man and woman who had ever been forced to strip and stand before their own mass grave, every girl ever slaughtered before her parents' eyes, every village ever annihilated, every name ever extinguished for all time on the whim of a butcher, every single little massacred citizen in every little place I had never heard of since the dawn of time, had actually existed.
As Evangeline plans her escape, Torgu emails a coworker posing as her and sends tapes to the studios in New York. One by one, the staff of The Hour begin spiraling into madness. The disease spread by the evil Torgu is communicated by a chant listing places associated with murder and death -- Hiroshima, Treblinka, Nanking, Congo -- and anyone who hears the tapes falls under his spell. The virus of the chants infects the show's audio equipment and spreads quickly until only a few brave souls remain to fight it.
The gruesome beheading of Daniel Pearl reminded us all what a risk the news media takes in reporting dangerous stories. Through the violence Evangeline and her co-workers are victim to both abroad and back home, this book reads at times like a tribute to those slain on the job -- even if their main motivation was simply to make good television and impress their boss, they were still courageous in ways many of us would never understand. There are hideous, shameful events in history, and certainly in our present as well. Somebody's got to be there tell us about them.
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