Allow me to get my lack of knowledge and bias on the table: I haven’t read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I am not a big fan of the horror genre. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by John Marks latest novel Fangland. Here is the teaser from the back cover:
Evangeline Harker, Associate Producer on television news magazine The Hour, is sent to Transylvania to scout out a possible story on a notorious Eastern European crime boss named Ion Torgu. But she finds the true nature of Torguâ€™s activities to be far more monstrous than she could have imagined.
In the New York office that once stood in the shadow of the Twin Towers, Evangelineâ€™s disappearance causes uproar and a wave of guilt and recrimination. Then suddenly, months after her disappearance, sheâ€™s found convalescing in a Transylvanian monastery, her memory seemingly scrubbed. But then who was sending e-mails in her name? And what do those crates delivered to the office contain? And why does the showâ€™s sound system appear to be infected with some strange aural virus? As a very dark Old-World atmosphere deepens in the halls of one of Americaâ€™s most trusted television programmes, its employees are forced to confront a threat beyond their wildest imaginings.
Marks, a former producer for 60 Minutes, is clearly trying to update or re-imagine Dracula and use his own experience as a backdrop/setting. This is an ambitious undertaking and Marks deserves credit for “thinking big.” But in the end, he loads too much onto the project and it sort of collapses from the weight.
The basic story line is a good one: producer travels to Romania to check out crime boss for potential big story but instead gets caught up in some sort of evil plot which is transmitted to a NYC newsroom with disastrous results. And this plot – particularly the early sections in Romania – works well for the most part. There is an air of mystery surrounding the identity, and nature, of the reported Eastern European crime lord Ian Torgu. The threat isn’t simply physical but existential or psychological. The character of Clementine hints at even a spiritual element. The tension builds slowly and the mystery pulls you forward. The central character Evangeline would like to believe she is a hard nosed news producer but she is in many way naive and sometimes longs for a simpler more romantic life with her pastry chef fiance.
But Marks is not content to just tell this story or do so in a straightforward way. Instead he introduces half a dozen secondary characters whose lives and thoughts we follow through diary entries, emails, and various other communications. Some of this creative perspective helps the reader see the whole story – or the same events through a different perspective – but much of it simply drags the story down. The character of Austen Trotta, for example, was completely inexplicable to me. Perhaps, if you have an interest in the fictional musings of an aging newsman this character might interest you, but for me large chunks of his journal were just filler with little or no impact on the plot or insights into the novel’s themes. In fact, the whole inner workings of The Hour program felt like dead weight to me. Instead, of building on the tension and meaning of the threat Torgu presented Marks goes into detail about the office politics and workings of the news show. Some reviewers commented that this was a satirical commentary on media, news, and globalization but I didn’t see it.
In addition, the exact nature of Torgu never really makes sense. He is a vampire of some sort but he doesn’t drink blood by the traditional manner but rather drains his victims via a knife and a bucket. He mesmerizes and paralyzes his victims with some sort of chant of the names of places associated with massacres or mass killings: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Nanking, etc. He seems to have at least a couple of accomplices to help him, and the dead often hover in the background, but what he is or why he exists is never really explained.
The idea, touched on in relation to the above effects, that the only way humans can function is by putting the horrors of their history behind them and moving on is an interesting one. If we really thought about the dark side of our history, and the ability of man to practice cruelty on a frightening scale, we would be paralyzed by guilt, fear, and sorrow. In an important sense you must escape the past to live your future.
But again, Marks never really flushes this out. Some people encounter Torgu become his slave or willing accomplice, some get something called the wasting disease and eventually die, others go insane, while still others feel instincts of violence and rage but seem able to control these impulses for the most part. I never really understood exactly what Evangeline wanted or why.
I seem to be in a rut of reading books that show potential but whose plots are overly convoluted and whose often rambling prose and multitude of characters make finishing the book seem like a chore at times. These books have their rewards but seem too cluttered and messy to really shine.
And once again, I was surprised by the dichotomy of review reactions. Here is a sampling:
– PW gave it a starred review:
. . . Marks manages to make the familiar fresh, so that even devotees of the original will find themselves rapidly turning pages and being drawn into Evangeline’s fate and the stories of her friends and colleagues at The Hour.
– Library Journals raves as well:
Marks (The Wall) has written an electrifying modern tale of horror that pays homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He goes much further, however, creating a hideous vampire more horrifying than anything that ever came from Stoker’s imagination.
– With Kirkus we finally get a little criticism:
A disappointment for horror fans; though Romania provides good, scary fun, the New York scenes are a mess.
Moving past the paragraph reviews and blurbs.
– Rod Lott at Bookgasm had some of the same reactions that I did:
Harkerâ€™s story is told in her own voice, and is interesting. But her escape is early in the book â€“ like first-quarter early â€“ and the remainder is never quite as exciting. Contributing to that is FANGLANDâ€™s Stoker-esque shift among other charactersâ€™ POVs, sometimes through letters, journal entries and e-mails â€“ though the delivery methods vary, the stories of Harkerâ€™s colleagues and lovers arenâ€™t nearly as compelling, even if Torguâ€™s infection of evil finds them on their side of the globe.
Thereâ€™s an oddness at play here, as I was never quite sure whether to approach FANGLAND as serious or satirical. For example, the aforementioned escape plan of Harker struck me as disturbing and hysterical, all at once. Am I supposed to cringe or laugh? With Marks eyeing for a near-epic length, Iâ€™m guessing the former, but ultimately the intriguing concept wore out its welcome. Marksâ€™ writing is rich, but the plot is too familiar, even when placed in the rather novel BROADCAST NEWS milieu.
– The Village Voice says similar things but with fancier words:
Marks never quite marries his Transylvanian vampire narrative and the slick New York newsroom storyline. To say nothing of Marks’s other subjects: the events of September 11, the minutiae of television production, seemingly endless observations on the machinery of suffering and horror. Indeed, Marks stuffs so many ideas and concerns into the book, alternating among diary entries, email correspondences, therapy journals and good, old-fashioned third-person omniscience, that the considerable shivers it first arouses soon dissipate. The crepuscular yields to the merely miasmic. Ostensibly a meditation on the very nature of terror, Fangland increasingly forgets to terrify.
I find these varying reactions interesting. Is this just a matter of taste? How can people find a book horrifying and thrilling – a real page turner – when others find it messy and hard to follow? I am sure taste plays a big part. If you are a patient reader who enjoys the journey as much as the destination you will enjoy this type of novel more because you are more willing to put the time in and enjoy the characters and descriptions along the way even if it doesn’t all make sense or add directly to the plot.
In this case those with a knowledge of the genre and the Dracula story might appreciate the winks and nods more than I did or those with an interest in the news media might find more to enjoy in the setting and New York side of the plot. But sometimes people just like different things and react to the same book in different ways. The mystery of life and all that. I am no raving relativist, but taste matters in these things.
For my part, I did enjoy Fangland and can appreciate what Marks was trying to do. I just think he got a bit carried away and the result is an imaginative but flawed novel.