What follows is my first “author’s note” about one of my works, and I’ve decided to begin with “Mark Red,” because it’s my first published book, and the first book I wrote as an adult since medical school.
Ideas for the stories I write tend to arrive in one of two ways. Often, of course, I simply think of the idea of a story, develop it, often start or even complete writing it, and come up with the title later. This was certainly the case with “The Chasm and the Collision” and “Son of Man,” as well as with the short stories “If the Spirit Moves You,” “Prometheus and Chiron,” “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,”* and “Hole for a Heart.” However, at times I come up with a title first, or a particular phrase seems like it might make a good title, and I develop a story to go with the title. Such is the case with “Paradox City” and “The Death Sentence,” and it is true in spades of “Mark Red.”
For those of you who have used email for a long time, the source of that title may be obvious. I’ve certainly used email for quite a while, and my first “mainstream” email account was with Yahoo. Many years ago, while learning to use that system, I discovered, like everyone else, that until you read them, the emails in the inbox server are kept in bold print, with a tally at the side, next to the inbox, that tells you how many “unread” emails you have in your queue. This number can mount up rather quickly if you’re selective about which emails you read, and for a person with even mild tendencies toward OCD (and I suspect that all humans have this to some degree or other), it can rapidly become galling, or at least irritating. Yet the prospect of opening all the emails even transiently, just to be able to clear them from the “unread” pile seems like a frustrating waste of precious time.
Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to discover the function of checking the check-box and then pulling down the menu that allows one to indicate that the checked email should be listed as having been read, thus clearing it from the “unread” tally, and lowering that number. This is a strangely satisfying thing to do, even though it surely accomplishes nothing of actual value in the world.
In Yahoo—at least at the time I first used it—that function on the pull-down menu was labelled “Mark read.” (The last time I checked, on gmail, the function reads “Mark as read.”)
I’m a person who enjoys a bit of wordplay. I do understand the tendency of others to groan at puns, especially at ham-handed ones, but I inwardly smile even at the clumsiest plays on words, because I just love language and all its many quirks. If this is a vice, it’s one with which I am comfortable.
Well, looking at the words “Mark read,” I couldn’t help but imagine the homophone, “Mark red.” My first thought when considering this was that it sounded as though one were using a red pen to make corrections on an email, but it didn’t take me long to think about what it might mean if it were instead the title of a book or story. What kind of story would have that title? Well, as someone who loves the book “Dracula,” and loved “’Salem’s Lot,” and particularly enjoyed Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles, the answer was obvious: “Mark Red,” would be a story about a vampire…a vampire named Mark. And for some reason, the name Mark makes me think of a teenager, possibly because in high school I had a friend named Mark (he bears almost no resemblance to the character in the book, though). Thus, the rudiments of the story idea began.
Those of you who have seen the cover to the book might not be surprised to learn that, originally, “Mark Red” was intended to be a manga. I first started to read manga as an adult, in my thirties (though I grew up on American comic books), and quickly became a rabid fan of the best of them, and even of some mediocre ones. I loved their way of story-telling, the black and white artwork, and the fact that the sorts of tales found in them are much broader, much different, than the stories told in American comics and graphic novels.
As someone who has done at least hobby-level drawing since he was very young, I decided to learn more about the art of manga drawing. I bought books on the subject, as well as quite a bit of rather serious equipment. You can see some of the results of this personal phase on my Facebook page and in other places where I’ve uploaded a representative sampling of my clearly-amateur drawings.
As I went along, I thought that it would be fun to draw a manga of my own, and the first one that I seriously considered was the idea of drawing the manga of “Mark Red,” my story about a teenage boy who, in seeking to rescue what he thinks is a human woman in distress, is instead stabbed by her mugger and would-be rapist. He is then saved by the woman he was trying to help, who happens to be a vampire. After easily dispatching her would-be assailant, this vampire saves Mark (Mark Reed was the only logical choice for his full name**) by the only means she has available: giving him some of her vampire blood.
Obviously, the fun part of this story would be to see how a teenager might try to go through his ordinary days as a high-school student while dealing with the fact that he was now a vampire…but I thought it might just be impossible for a true, full vampire ever to accomplish such a thing, so I created the concept of a demi-vampire, one who had been given vampire blood, but who had not had his own blood first taken in and then recycled by the vampire. Such a person might not be quite as powerful as a full vampire, but might also not share some of their vulnerabilities, at least not to as great a degree. He might also—potentially—be cured.
Probably my greatest joy and pride in writing “Mark Red” was the creation of Morgan, the vampire Mark tries to save. She’s pretty much my favorite character that I’ve created, even though she started out merely as a drawing and an idea, whose name followed quite a bit later (it references the Celtic goddess Morrigan, as well as the Arthurian villainess Morgan LaFey). She’s a vampire with a very strong moral compass, which is interesting enough in itself. After all, in the classic stories like “Dracula,” and in Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot,” vampires are presented as pure monsters, thoroughly evil by their very nature. But, as Anne Rice so beautifully recognized, vampires are intelligent beings (as opposed to mindless monsters like zombies and traditional werewolves), and as such have personalities, and friendships, and personal moral codes.
There’s much back-story on Morgan that I know, but that isn’t revealed in “Mark Red,” and will come out in the sequels, when I write them. She did not become a vampire by free choice, but was entranced into choosing the path by an unscrupulous and malicious vampire who was amused by her moral earnestness and loved the idea of turning her into a creature of seemingly inescapable evil, trapping her into a permanent moral crisis. This central pillar of Morgan’s character is what leads her to a quandary right in the beginning of the book: A teenage boy tries to help her, and in doing so he is mortally wounded by the assailant she had deliberately lured in; her only way to save the boy is to make him into something like what she is. She considers letting him die, as the lesser of two evils, but she cannot bring herself to do it. Knowing, as she does, that at least in principle demi-vampires can be cured (though she has no idea how it might be accomplished) she elects to save Mark, but then makes herself into his care-taker, committed to preventing him from becoming a full vampire—for in my universe, there is no cure for vampires, and they cannot ever die, even if it’s what they desire.
That is, of course, the root of Morgan’s ongoing dilemma, and the reason she’s never simply ended her own existence to escape from the need to commit evil: she cannot die. In my universe, vampires can be harmed; they can, in fact, suffer endlessly. But they can never ultimately cease to exist.
This is one of the key ideas I wanted to explore in the book. Many people, without thinking too much about it, might imagine that living forever, without the possibility of death, might be a good thing. They might even choose it if a genie offered them such a wish. But I don’t think they’ve thought it through.
Forever is a very long time, after all. If you’ve lived a million years, or a billion years, or a googol years, you’re mathematically no closer to having lived forever than if you’ve lived for only a minute. If you live forever, you’ll witness not only the deaths of everyone that you knew and loved, or ever come to know and love, but you will live to witness the death of the Earth, and the sun, and the galaxy, and in principle of the universe itself. And you’ll still be no closer to the end of eternity than you were to begin with (leave aside the idea that existence of any kind might not be possible if the universe were to end in some of the ways that it might do so).
So “Mark Red” plays with the horrors of immortality, and the fact the Morgan—the highly moral vampire—cannot just let Mark die, but also is not willing to allow him to become a full vampire, trapped into inescapable eternity as she is. It also plays with an almost “Spider-Man-like” situation, in which a teenager, who himself has a strong moral compass, suddenly gains incredible, powerful abilities. Unlike Spider-Man, though, Mark’s newly gained “super powers” are dark and dangerous, and make him into a creature that most humans would fear. He is, by nature, now a predator, designed to feed on humans. As such, it’s even more crucial for him to hide his new nature from his friends and family, a task which his vampiric vulnerabilities and urges makes more difficult than it might be if he’d just gained super-strength, speed, reflexes, and the ability to crawl up walls (though he does get those things). He certainly can’t become any kind of super-hero, because it would almost be inevitable, if he chose to fight against “bad guys,” that he might one day give in to the urge to drink their blood, and if a demi-vampire drinks a human’s blood and by doing so kills the human, the demi-vampire becomes a full vampire, and is thus incurable.
Morgan will not allow this to happen.
These are the ideas that grew from the title “Mark Red,” though many of them truly developed only as I wrote the story. But as considered and planned the manga idea, it quickly became clear to me that writing, drawing, and publishing my own manga was a lot of work, and I didn’t have enough love for the drawing part to give me the energy to do it.
Writing, however, is something that I’ve always done and always loved. Thus, when the debacle occurred that wrecked the shape of my previous life and landed me in a Florida prison, I decided to make the best possible use of the enforced separation from external civilization (if Florida can be called that), and write books. I chose “Mark Red” as the first one to write because it was one which I thought might have a good audience, and which dealt with issues of interest to me, and yet didn’t have the personal gravity of “The Chasm and the Collision,” which was a story inspired by my children, and so needed to be just right. I had written two books before (not published), but many years had passed since I’d written fiction in any serious way—the pursuit of a medical career tends to take a lot of time and energy away from anything else you might be inclined to do—and I feared I might be rusty.
“Mark Red,” even as it is published, bears some of the roughness that’s probably inevitable in a “first” novel, I can see that myself. But it was a labor of love, one on which I worked every morning starting at about three-thirty, when lights first came on in the prison dorm, writing three to four pages a day, five to six days a week, on cheap notebook paper with a cheap (but wonderful) Bic “round stic” pen, then mailing the pages away to my family about twelve at a time. I experimented with serializing the chapters of the book (I started to do this with “CatC” as well), but eventually realized that it was just not a workable means of releasing a story in the modern age…at least, it wasn’t for me. So, I finally released it as a full novel.
The subsequent volumes of Mark’s and Morgan’s story*** will be written under much more auspicious circumstances than the first, when I write them, and will likely be quite a bit smoother as well. But the original will always hold a special place in my heart. It helped keep me sane**** during one of the most horrible times of my life (so far), and if it never did anything more than that, I would still consider it a triumph beyond anything of which I could have dreamed. Still, I do hope that as many readers as possible read and enjoy it. If this author’s note makes you more likely to read the book, then that’s all to the good from my point of view. If you’ve already read the book, but this note gives you a deeper appreciation for it, then that’s all to the good as well. And if you’ve read and enjoyed this note but don’t ever read the book at all, for whatever reason—maybe you don’t like stories about teenage demi-vampires—well, that’s fine, too.
More author’s notes will follow this one, probably more or less in the order in which the stories were written. Some will be shorter than this one, which got longer than expected pretty quickly. Some might be even longer. Hopefully, they’ll be fun to read; I know they’ll be fun to write.
*Though you might think otherwise, given the title.
**I originally wanted to spell his last name “Read,” pronounced with a long “e,” but decided that was just a little too ham-handed, even for my taste.
*** This was never intended to be a pun on the name of the jewelry store chain, despite my admitted love for wordplay. It was simply a coincidence. Whether it’s a happy or an unhappy one, even I haven’t been able to decide.
**** As sane as I ever am.