Herald Scotland

Gary Barker & Michael Kaufman

The Afghan Vampires Book Club (World Editions)

Let’s jump forward a decade to 2025: “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.” American forces have been trying to subdue Afghanistan for the best part of 25 years, and have come no closer than their British or Soviet predecessors.

British journalist John Murakami Fox and his older friend Alistair Thomason-Thorpe have taken to getting together to discuss the stories they hear coming out of the war. They start the Afghan Vampires Book Club to collect the strangest anecdotes and try to separate the true from the made-up. That’s how Fox comes in contact with Captain Tanner Jackson, a secretive US veteran who takes cloak-and-dagger measures to avoid surveillance.

Working for the most part on separate continents, and taking only one chapter at a time, they co-author a book which Tanner promises will tell the truth about the Vod Am Massacre – a brutal confrontation which left only one survivor out of 193 American soldiers. Tanner is right to be cautious. As soon as Fox edits the first completed chapter and sends it to his e-book publisher to post online, it’s clear that spooks are starting to circle around him.

Tanner’s manuscript is a chronicle of mounting dread, about men who have been fighting too long in a place they don’t understand, and in particular about Captain Tanner’s nemesis, the sadistic Captain Ditka. Both men are sent with their platoons deep into the Afghan mountains to track down a stealthy and deadly group of mujahideen who can appear and disappear like ninjas and have a trademark of draining bodies of their blood.

Barker and Kaufman make no pretence that this novel isn’t a homage to Heart Of Darkness. As Tanner travels deeper into the mountains to liaise with his unhinged counterpart, Ditka, we’re clearly meant to be reminded of Marlow heading upriver towards Kurtz. Inevitably, they’re dragging along some of Conrad’s colonial baggage too – fears of white men going native in a dark continent – stirring unease in the modern reader that the authors only partially allay with a twist that no one, least of all John Fox, sees coming.

Partly a satirical broadside against the insanity of war by two writers who have spent years campaigning against violence, The Afghan Vampires Book Club also works as conspiracy thriller, speculative fiction and full-on descent into hell.

June 5, 2015