Monday, January 07, 2008
My novels #13: Operative Vampyr
FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT: Operation Vampyr [Black Flame, 2005]
Russia, 1941. The mighty German army is smashing its way through the crippled Russian defences. Idealistic your German soldier Hans Vollmer joins the front on the eve of the invasion of Russia, unaware that darked things than the enemy stalk the battlefields. When he is saved from a Russian attack by a Rumanian platoon, led by the mysterious Lord Constanta, his relief is short-lived.
Why do they never see the Rumanians during the day? Why do the Russian dead wear expressions of complete terror? Why are their bodies drained of blood? What unholy bargains has the Fuhrer made in order to win this war?
Fiends of the Eastern Front was created in 1980 by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra as a ten-part serial for iconic British comic 2000 AD. The hybrid of war and horror genres made the strip stand out among the weekly's usual sci-fi thrillers, but it remained unique in the comic's long history.
Fast foward quarter of a century and Black Flame's then editor, Jay Slater, phoned me to ask if I was interested in adapting the short-lived story into a potential trilogy of novels. Jaw's a massive WWII buff and was excited about the possibilities. I wasn't convinced it was possible to turn 44 pages of comics into nearly quarter of a million words of prose, but it sounded an interesting challenge.
I'd read Fiends, thanks to a collected edition given away free with an issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, but didn't hold the life-long nostaglia for the quirky strip possessed by those who read it on first publication. When I re-read the story to see what elements could be adapted, I found it entertaining but chock full of holes.
It's never clear why Constanta and his vampire enter the war beyond a mistrust of Russians, let alone why they would switch sides to fight with the Russian against the Germans as Rumanian forces did in 1944 [and as happened in the strip]. In comics form Fiends jumps whole years of the Eastern Front conflict and essentially follows a single, lowly rifleman with the Wehrmacht. Novelising the comic version wasn't going to work, I needed to find my own approach to the material.
Before Jay's phone call I knew nothing about the Eastern Front battles of WWII, beyond passing mentions in the 60s US sitcom Hogan's Heroes. Over the next year I immersed myself in the many, many, many elements of that theatre of war. It quickly became clear a trilogy of novels would never be enough to cover the sprawling war and all its key battles - I needed to be selective.
Finding a structure that would make each book a satisfying read yet build over the series to a gripping trilogy was essential. I decided to replicate certain elements of the original strip in the first book, taking the German point of view. But Jay was eager to include tanks and planes as well as riflemen, so I invented three brothers, one serving in Panzers, one flying a Stuke and one on the ground.
The launching of Operation Barbarossa made an obvious start point, and the end of 1941 when the German insurgency stumbled in the Russian winter suggested itself as a good place to end the first novel. In the original strip the viewpoint character spends years finding out about the vampires before he rebels against their presence.
My viewpoint characters needed to made the same discoveries and decisions, but in a much tighter span of time. So I researched the stages of the invasion and how they would interlock with my plotline. Indeed, my abiding memories from Operation Vampyr are researching - scouring bokshops and the internet for background info about the war, the warriors, the battles, the strategies, the weapons, the life.
It may seem perverse to take such care in being historically accurate when writing a story about vampires in WWII, but I felt it was important to get all the little details as accurate as I could. Nailing the background and context somehow seemed to make the incredible that little bit more credible.
Crucially, I needed to identify a motivation for the vampires - what did they hope to gain by entering the war? Once I had that, plotting and writing the book became so much easier. Nevertheless, Operation Vampyr was not an easy write. All that history, all that detail was a massive drag on the process. I spent far too much time worrying about getting the technicals details right, sweating the small stuff.
I haven't read the book since it was published, but I guess all my efforts paid off. Operation Vampyr has been translated into Spanish, it sold thousands and thousands of copies in the US [despite having not a single American soldier in it] and thousands more have borrowed the book from British libraries. It's out of print now, but you can get it and the other two books from this trilogy as a big, fat omnibus edition.