John Marks has written the best vampire novel since Anne Rice published "Interview With The Vampire."
Full disclosure time: I wrote my senior thesis on how Bram Stoker revolutionized the vampire archetype. I have read more vampire stories than I care to admit -- from the "Radu Florescu" and Raymond McNally-penned histories to the cheesy wannabe Rice knockoffs. While there is a glut of bloodsucker tales out there, few are any good. They too easily fall into satire territory, with a titular Count emoting a brooding Christopher Lee intensity or sulking about like an ennui-stricken Lestat. Or the vampire motif just becomes a device used to justify a dressed-up "virginal girl discovers her wild side" romance novel.
But Marks, a former producer with "60 Minutes," has succeeded where everyone else has failed. He went back to Stoker's original novel and has updated it for the 21st century. And he shows that the characters and settings Stoker created are just as haunting today as their were a century ago.
"Fangland" isn't a literal re-telling of "Dracula," but it comes close, particularly in its first half. Evangeline Harker (who shares the same surname as Stoker's protagonists, Jonathan and Mina) is an associate producer for the television newsmagazine "The Hour." She is sent to Transylvania to meet with a shadowy Eastern European crime boss who, for reasons unknown, suddenly wants his story to be told. She meets with the eccentric Ion Torgu and feels instant repulsion, due as much to his physical ugliness and rotting teeth as the aura of putrefaction he emits.
Like her namesake in Stoker's novel, Evangeline finds herself trapped in Torgu's stronghold as Torgu steals her identity to complete business transactions and begin making travel arrangements from the Old World to the New World.
While the similarities between Torgu and the more famous Count Dracula are obvious, there are some important differences. Torgu isn't a traditional vampire -- he doesn't shirk from garlic or crosses, and doesn't spontaneously combust in sunlight. He does drink blood, but spills it with a dagger instead of the typical vampire canine teeth.
Stoker's sycophantic lunatic Renfield is here, too, in the form of a love-dumb co-worker of Harker's. The so-called "wives of Dracula" have morphed into Torgu's bloodthirsty Vourkulakis brothers. Marks even borrows the same structure as Stoker so effectively used, stringing together several narrative voices culled from memoirs, journal entries, and email exchanges -- a format that, when used adroitly, builds a framework and allows the reader to fill in the gaps with imagination. That can be much more terrifying than the written word.
But, in the biggest difference between Dracula and Torgu, Marks' antagonist has some real issues with sex; centuries of impotence would do that to you, I suppose. Harker -- a buttoned-down business girl -- relies on her sexuality to survive and to help her escape Torgu's clutches. Instead of falling victim to Torgu, she essentially victimizes herself, subverting her dignity and self-respect in a sort of self-rape.
One of the great under-appreciated beauties of Stoker's "Dracula" is the bittersweet ending. While Dracula is vanquished and Mina and Jonathan are reunited, both of them have looked into the eyes of hell, and it's obvious that neither will ever be the same again.
If Stoker turned the vampire into a Victorian anti-hero, and Rice recast the vampire as a sensual philosopher, Marks has invented a vampire that is both haunting and haunted. Marks' Torgu is a confessor to the millions of lost souls that still roam the earth -- victims of murder, genocide, and war. He is drawn like a magnet to New York City, where 2,000 victims of September 11 are waiting to share their secrets.
"Fangland" succeeds because it juxtaposes the primal horror of the vampire into the modern -- and seemingly safe -- world of television. And Marks skillfully details how Torgu manages to bring a modern newsroom into madness and murder.
Dan Murphy is a local freelance reviewer.
By John Marks
The Penguin Press
406 pages, $25.95