Friday, November 15, 2019

Dying in Bangkok

Dan Simmons, author of CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT (1992; reviewed here in December 2014), wrote several other pieces of vampire fiction. Simmons' "Dying in Bangkok" (1993), included in his story collection LOVEDEATH, uses eroticism, addiction, and art as background for predation by superficially human alien vampires. The narrator, Dr. Merrick, suffering from AIDS, tells the double story of his first visit to Bangkok, on R and R from Vietnam in 1970, and his final return there to die in 1992. As a young soldier in 1970, Merrick, like most of his comrades, knows only a few crude phrases of Vietnamese, enough to negotiate for sexual favors. He is even more ignorant of Thailand. His sexual naivete (he has yet to plumb the mysteries of oral sex and gives no thought to using condoms during his encounters with prostitutes) mirrors his insular attitude toward foreign cultures. Merrick's best friend Tres (pronounced "Tray") serves as a bridge to the alien world of the Far East. He speaks fluent Vietnamese and delves eagerly into the exotic culture of Bangkok. Tres escorts Merrick on a pilgrimage to a heart of darkness, symbolized by movement from the familiar to the foreign, from ersatz American to the Orient. They progress from the enclave set aside for American soldiers and a "flophouse hotel" with prostitutes in the lobby to more exotic attractions such as a "no-hands bar," then from this relatively safe red-light district into the areas seldom seen by Westerners, by way of a hired boat along the "narrow one-way klongs [canals]" with their "blind turns" and "sagging bridges" hazardous with "rotting timbers" and a near-collision with "a high pier with its tall pilings rising ahead of us like a slammed portcullis." Merrick gapes in wonder at a "blackened mass" of "tumbledown shacks and half-sunken sampans," unable to comprehend that, "People live in those." Images of strangeness, decay, and entrapment overshadow the journey.

It culminates on a barge where Mara, a nonhuman creature who feeds blood, mouth-to-mouth like a female bat, to her baby daughter, performs in a grotesque sex show where she draws nourishment from willing victims. Men pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of exposing themselves to audiences while Mara's bizarrely long, prehensile tongue with its razor-edged suckers drains blood from their penises. The ecstasy of this experience overrides pain and fear. Reflecting on Mara's species later, Merrick realizes they must secrete an anticoagulant like leeches and vampire bats. The baby reminds him of an "almost embryonic" infant kangaroo, and he compares the lesions on the victim's penis to the marks left by jellyfish stings. Mara's feeding clearly has addictive properties, since Tres, although he returns to the hotel with dangerous bleeding from his genitals, is determined to repeat the experience. Merrick blames himself for being unable to restrain his friend from self-destruction. Although Merrick learns a local name for these creatures, yellow-eyed phanyaa mahn naga kio—"demon-human incarnate" beings indwelt by the spirit of the serpentine naga—he knows they're not literally demons but products of natural evolution. Unlike many fictional vampires, they aren't ancient and powerful but vulnerable to disease and death, and they appear to age at a human rate. Merrick's animal imagery portrays them as subhuman rather than superhuman. He regards their human appearance as a mere facade, so killing them would be justified.

As a soldier in Vietnam, he couldn't admit his homosexuality even to himself. By the time he returns to Bangkok in 1992, he still has never publicly come out of the closet. At that point, he knows the city and its language and customs. As a sophisticated traveler, he compares and contrasts Bangkok with his home, Los Angeles, both metropolises ironically known as "City of the Angels," both in the throes of mob violence. He visualizes Bangkok as doomed to an apocalyptic AIDS plague. Having spent twenty-two years searching for Mara and her now grown daughter, he has tracked them down to use his own infected blood as a means of expiating his sense of guilt by avenging the death of Tres.

This novella combines an exotic Asian setting with a fascinating glimpse of humanoid but nonhuman vampires, whose predation blends seduction with horror. Vampire fans who don't mind a bit of gruesomely explicit imagery should appreciate this story. I've analyzed it in greater detail in my nonfiction book DIFFERENT BLOOD: THE VAMPIRE AS ALIEN, which you can find here:

Different Blood

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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