Sunday 26 September 2010

Fiends from the Past

I don't know how things are in the USA, but in the UK the seeds planted in the mind of many a small child on February 26th 1977 are now bearing fruit in writers of every sort of alternative fiction. That was the day when the first issue (prog, as it was described) of 2000 AD first hit the streets. I was eight years old. Now I'm in my forties and letting the dark things that lurk somewhere in the recesses of my memory seep out into my work. There's nothing as straightforward as the wonderful cameo by Max Normal in Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who episode Gridlock, but there was one 2000 AD story that has to be acknowledged as an inspiration for my first novel Twelve. The connection may be surprising, since 2000 AD was a science fiction comic, and I don't (currently) write science fiction. But this particular comic strip wasn't SF – it was pure horror.

Fiends of the Eastern Front, by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra, d├ębuted in Prog 158. By then I was twelve. I'd never read it since then, but when the idea for a vampire story set during Napoleon's invasion of Russia came to me I immediately remembered what a powerful combination vampires and war make. Fiends was set on the eastern front in World War Two, with a mysterious squad of Romanian soldiers fighting alongside the Germans. It's the obvious location for such a story – the cold and the long nights providing the perfect environment for vampires to hunt. I quite deliberately didn't go back to look at the comic strip when I was writing Twelve, and it was in fact only last week – now that I'm three books into the quintet – that I got round to it. It's a reflection of modern life (and my indolence) that it was easier to order a bound single volume online than venture into the loft and pick out all the relevant editions from my hoarded comic collection.

I'd been fairly sure that I hadn't been ripping it off wholesale, and I was pleased to find no surprises on that front. The only idea that I knowingly took from Fiends, though it's a widespread piece of folklore, was that a vampire could be killed by decapitation. I could even recall the exact wording of the commentary: 'There are many ways to kill a vampire. Decapitation is one of them.' I think that's echoed in Aleksei's words in Twelve when he first kills one of the voordalaki by that means: 'Ever since Iuda had mentioned it, I had been itching to try decapitation as a method for despatching one of these creatures.'

As it happens, and I'd forgotten, the vampires in Fiends conform to just about every bit of folklore that there is: they don't like garlic or crosses; they can transform into bats and wolves; they can't cross fresh water; they can be killed by silver bullets. None of those characteristics applies to the voordalaki of my novels. One notable difference is that my vampires can be killed by fire, where those in Fiends cannot. Again, that was one of the few things I specifically remembered, and remembered almost exactly Captain Constanta's words when he revealed himself to have survived being incinerated by a flamethrower: 'Cringu told you I can grow from the smallest speck – even from ashes, you fool!' I made a definite decision that that was too unphysical for the world I was creating.

So I was well aware of the general connection between Twelve and Fiends of the Eastern Front – vampires fighting in a human war – and I knew a few specific characteristics that I'd chosen to use or ignore. However, there were two connections between the stories which I noticed on rereading Fiends that I had completely forgotten. Whether they come down to coincidence or subconscious recollection is hard to say.

The first is in the specificity of numbers. As the title suggests, Twelve is about twelve vampires, and much of the story involve the hero, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, picking them off one by one. In the opening of Fiends its hero, Hans Schmitt, is found dead and entombed and on the walls of the cellar he has drawn the silhouettes of ten vampires. He gets through them rather quicker than Aleksei, managing to kill seven of them in one assault. For me, the number came from the fact that I wanted to name my creatures after the apostles – so I suppose we should blame my childhood reading of the Bible, rather than of 2000AD, for that.

But the most surprising thing was the discovery that, like Twelve, Fiends was written in the first person. I'm often asked why I chose to write in the first person and I can't say anything other than it simply seemed right. The decision has a major impact on plotting, and in subsequent books I've not found it possible to put together an entire story from one viewpoint. You might think it difficult though for a comic strip – a medium in which the fourth wall is so evident – to be written in the first person. Fiends, however, is told mostly through the diary of Hans Schmidt, discovered with his body in the cellar in Berlin in the present day (as 1980 was described at the time). Thus every caption is, unlike most strips, part of a first person narrative. Again it could be coincidence, but I suspect that format may have influenced me.

So what next? Will one of my novels feature a character loosely based on Walter the Wobot, Judge Dredd's irritating sidekick? I doubt it, but it can't be denied that 2000 AD has been an inspiration to me as a writer. And I bet I'm not the only one.

Splundig Vur Thrigg.

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