The Afghan Vampires Book Club
By Gary Barker and Michael Kaufman
Inspired by “Heart of Darkness” The Afghan Vampires Book Club is set ten years in the future. The U.S. and its allies had left Afghanistan and then returned to be mired again. After 200 U.S. troops are massacred by unknown combatants, one soldier, Tanner Jackson, is believed to have made it out alive. Through the underground world of neglected vets, British journalist John Fox tracks down the story. When Fox finally finds Jackson, he hears an impossible tale of war, violence, and revenge, but also a story of enduring love.Barker and Kaufman say the book was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s trip up the Congo River to find the horror is transposed to an Afghan war that hasn’t ended and apparently never can. For the authors, the “darkness isn’t with some colonial Other…It’s an anti-war story that highlights the tremendous impact of war on the soldiers who fight them and the society back home that wages the war. NATO isn’t the main victim in Afghanistan, not by a long shot, but young men (and now some women), often from poor or working class backgrounds, are trained to do something that humans really don’t do well—namely kill. All of our souls are corroded in the process.” Governments assume men can be plugged into the war machine and return without being scarred, Barker and Kaufman say. “Our societies believe men should be able to bury their emotions and take whatever is thrown at them, that ‘war is hell’ but they get over it. As the cascade of news stories about PTSD and veterans suicides are showing us, this simply isn’t possible. These stories are in the news, but we sought to use the steroidal power of fiction, which allows us to look at Western incursions in Afghanistan from the 19th century and onward but without being a history textbook.” The novel, the authors say, seeks to shine “a fictional light on the tragic and misguided wars of the moment; and to use a bit of the surreal to wake us up to the real.” —RO
The Afghan Vampires Book Club World Editions, 2015, 286 pages, $9.20 In a new novel that Jane Fonda described as “a marriage of American Sniper and Heart of Darkness,” The Afghan Vampires Book Club takes place in the 25th year of the US-Afghan War. Two hundred U.S. soldiers have been massacred in an event wrapped in mystery. Among the growing number of discarded veterans, rumors circulate that one soldier made it out alive. When British journalist John Fox tracks down Captain Tanner Jackson, he hears an astonishing tale of violence, coverups, and revenge, but also of enduring love. The book goes back and forth between John’s journal entries, which track the tightening noose around him, and Tanner’s account of the events leading up to the massacre. The excerpt below is from John’s journal and appears near the beginning of the novel, when John meets a vet named Cody who says he has information about the survivor of the Vod Am Massacre.
April 9, London
It had been Alistair’s idea to start the club—almost two years ago.
We were already well into the Second Afghan War, the one that came after the Obama withdrawal and the short-lived Russian occupation that followed. I thought the club was folly, really, a desperate act of frustration over this recycled war. But I humored him.
Alistair Thomason-Thorpe, 71 years old, two decades older than I, but determined to live the life of an English gentleman from before he was born, fragrant pipe tobacco, “old boys,” and all.
Our conversation that night had drifted pleasantly to the theatre season; updates on various acquaintances, and then back again to the latest reports from our current wars.
After discussing one particularly heart-wrenching item from the States, Alistair said, “I can no longer tell which stories are true and which are pure fiction, my dear John.” Alistair subscribed to more than 20 papers and magazines, from The Times to Tatler, The Times Literary Supplement to The Independent and The Guardian, as if he were on a one-man crusade to keep print journalism alive. Even one of the tabloids landed on his doorstep each day.
He had read me a story about a group of vets who formed an armed gang, invaded a casino on a reservation in Wisconsin, threatened to spill a “swimming pool of blood,” refused to surrender and were gunned down by a SWAT team, along with many other poor souls gambling their wages away. Thirty-three dead.
“According to this in-depth journalism”—with two fingers he held up one of the local tabloids as if he were holding someone’s used underwear—“the veterans said they hoped to cleanse themselves of all the barbarism they saw, or committed, in Afghanistan.” He had taken a thoughtful puff on his pipe and then said, “I never did understand this notion of self-cleansing violence, do you, old boy?” Alistair didn’t wait for an answer. “I do love this headline, though: ‘Vampire Vets Meet Bloody End.’’ He looked up at me and then said, “Do any of you actually report anymore or do you simply repost what you find online?’’ ‘‘Why bother searching online?’’ I said. “We simply run the press releases.’’ “I’m serious,” he said. “We should start a society. A club perhaps.” “Of…?” He took a moment before he said, “To collect all these terrible, barbaric, and unbelievable stories.’’ As he said this, I glanced at the picture of his son, mounted in an art deco frame and sitting alone in the middle of a dark oak bookshelf.
“No thanks,” I said.
“But why not?’’ “I already do that for my day job. Collect all those stories.” Two days later I received a handwritten letter. Alistair was perfectly capable of turning on his tablet and sending an email but he relished old-school style.
The letter was headed: “The Afghan Vampires Book Club: An Invitation.” He had sent the same letter to five others: a fellow amateur historian, two journalists, a short story writer of some renown, and his favourite antiquarian book dealer.
We were to gather the most improbable, disturbing, unbelievable, and absurd stories—fiction and non-fiction—that were coming out of the two-and-a-half decades of the start-and-stop Afghan War, as well as the ongoing Syrian-Lebanese-Turkish war, the Venezuelan campaign, and the new counter-insurgency efforts in Indonesia and Argentina, and post them on a website. It was, he conceded, more of a storytellers’ club, but he preferred the sound of “book club,” just as he preferred books, especially leather-bound, to any other medium. I think he tossed “vampire” into the name as a nod to the bloodletting threats of those casino-invading veterans, although perhaps it was merely acknowledging the absurdity of the whole exercise.
He wrote that once a year we would meet at his country home near Oxford, where he would announce the winner. The prize would be a case from his wine cellar, a coveted prize ever since most of the Northern Hemisphere’s grape production had gone awry.
“The goal, my dear friends, is to figure out if the story is true or pure invention. Only then,” his message continued, “will the winner take home the wine.” I had phoned Alistair. I’m certain he would have preferred a letter but I wouldn’t have known where to buy a stamp. Again I said no.
The next evening I was having an almost peaceful dinner with Sandra, who, at the time, hadn’t yet started her A levels. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she already knew about Alistair’s idea since he was her godfather and one of her sources of afterschool employment. “He asked me to register a domain and set up a website for him.” There have been years when she sees more of him than of me. I believe that would be every year since she was born.
My wonderful daughter—she would not use the same adjective for me, I know—heading, she hopes, for medical school after her gap year, that is if I can somehow save enough money working as a serious journalist to help her. This mutual desire is perhaps the one thing Sandra and I have agreed on in many years.
A few days later I had flown off again, to Delhi. But it wasn’t long before I received Sandra’s note: “Hi John. www.AfghanVampires- BookClub.com. Check it out!’’ I could not say no to my oldest friend. And I would do just about anything to reduce my daughter’s animosity toward me. Who knows, she might even start calling me “Father.” In the first year of the competition, the winning story was about a French aid worker who fell in love with an Afghan woman from a Taliban family and convinced her to flee the country with him. Anyone who knew anything about Afghanistan knew that couldn’t end well. On the way to the airport, they disappeared. Their car was found more than 200 kilometers away with the suitcases still in the boot but no blood and no sign of gunshots or struggle. Months went by before anyone heard anything else of the story. The French government sent investigators; U.S. inspectors poked around, but nothing turned up. Nearly six months later, a package arrived at the French Embassy, addressed to the French ambassador from “the people of Afghanistan.” Inside was a small box with a note that read: “After your men look at our beautiful women, they’ll never have eyes for another.” You can imagine what was in the small box.
It was easy to figure out the truth versus fiction question on that one. Not even a crazy Frenchman would try to date an Afghan woman in Afghanistan.
By the second year, as the challenges of making a living as a journalist increased, even for one who has books, prizes, and more than a few scars from his war reporting, I started using the site to find story ideas. It had become an open (if anonymous) website with postings from one and all. The challenge was sifting through the imaginative conspiracy theories, the pedestrian conspiracy theories, the absurd rumours, paranoid fantasies, and stoned jokes concocted late at night in a barracks, in hopes of finding the hint of a real story.
In its first two years, I hadn’t even posted a story on the site let alone won the competition, though of course this didn’t bother me. It was merely a pastime for an old friend and a small source of income for my daughter.
Both Alistair and Sandra were as persistent as biting insects, intent as they were that I take this year’s competition more seriously.
The hook for me came from a posting by a U.S. veteran who claimed to have the real story behind the Vod Am massacre, which had been a scoop for me just a few months before.
Cody was his name. I wrote to him. He ignored me. I wrote again and asked if I could meet him. He said, “Maybe” and three days later wrote to me again to say, yes, if I could come to Baltimore.
If an idea is hot, I can get expenses paid by Judith in Brooklyn.
Though Judith’s business is thriving as one of the more successful agent-editor-management-epub houses, the enthusiasm and support of Judith and her staff is conditional on how high I happen to sit on the charts.
My social media lines were static. My world journalist rank had fallen to 482. My credibility index was still high, but my name recognition was spiralling down.
“Judith. Me.” “Jesus, it’s only seven here.’’ I heard the rustle of cellophane as she unwrapped a fresh pack of her Marlboro Easy Trippers. I heard her light one and take a short toke. I waited.
“Ah,” she finally said, “nothing like the first hit of the day. So glad I live in a civilized state.” “Listen, I think I’ve found a big story.” “Your stories are always gonna be big.
I must be time travelling.’’ “Judith, pay attention.
Something happened at Vod Am. Something they covered up.” “The army always covers its mistakes.” “This is different.” “How?” “I don’t know yet. There’s someone I need to interview.” “Where?” I heard her take her second toke.
“Baltimore.” No sound until there was a gush of air as she exhaled. “What?” “Baltimore.” “Why?” “I want to eat crabs. And talk to a vet who knows things.” “Call me only when you’ve got a book.”
Gary Barker is the author of two nonfiction books and three novels, all published by De Geus/World Editions in the Netherlands. He is the founder and international director of Promundo, a global NGO promoting gender justice and violence prevention by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls (promundoglobal.org).
Michael Kaufman, a Voice Male contributing editor, is the author or editor of eight books, including the novel The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars (Penguin Canada). He is currently writing a book about men’s leadership to help achieve gender equality and transform the lives of men. He can be reached at email@example.com.