Arts & Culture » Lit

Vampire Secret Agent Man

Christopher Farnsworth's book series explores supernatural espionage


In the mid-'90s, Christopher Farnsworth was an investigative reporter and the associate editor at Boise Weekly, which as he puts it, "was a whole other century."

Farnsworth broke a story about corruption at the Ada County Housing Authority that resulted in a near-liquidation of the agency staff. It made his reputation and that of the paper.

"I knew we were onto something when, in the middle of an interview, the chairman of the authority's board grabbed my notepad, ripped my notes from it, swung his cane at me and then tried to run out of the building," Farnsworth wrote in an article reflecting on his time at BW.

Farnsworth pays the bills in a very different way now, as author of The President's Vampire series of novels about--and stay with us here--a vampire who works for the president fighting supernatural plots against mom and apple pie.

For those trying to draw a connection between investigative journalism and vampire secret agents, know that it's a bit of a mystery to Farnsworth as well. He always liked mythology and the supernatural but not vampires.

"I've read all the [vampire] books. I've seen all the movies," said Farnsworth. "But it's because I was always freaked out by them as a kid, so mostly I was looking for ways to kill them."

Farnsworth was particularly disinterested in the recent surge of vampire fiction. Having moved on from journalism, he was content to spend his time writing a series of unproduced action screenplays.

But then he discovered an odd factoid in American history: a sailor who was convicted of killing and drinking the blood of his crewmates, then inexplicably pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. So Farnsworth provided a reason: The vampire sailor had taken an oath to serve the nation. The ideas for a series of novels were quick to follow.

"I just thought it would be really cool if Jack Bauer were like a vampire," said Farnsworth.

Ignoring that Kiefer Sutherland played David, the archetypal modern bad boy vampire in The Lost Boys long before he played agent Jack Bauer on 24, it's an apt description of the character Farnsworth created: Nathaniel Cade.

Cade works out of a secret chamber beneath The Smithsonian, where he and his human handler--disgraced former presidential aide Zach Barrows--must deal with everything from gangs of Lithuanian werewolves to zombie terrorists to a virus that mutates humans into lizards a la the reptilian conspiracy.

Many threats Cade and Barrows face are hatched by master villains whose motives and identity are hinted at but will not be revealed until later in the series--which Farnsworth expects to go for 10 volumes.

One of them kept Cade from stopping 9/11, something he is more than a little bitter about--despite being a soulless killing machine, Cade is also a dedicated patriot.

Dostoyevsky The President's Vampire books are not. But each of the three novels is gleeful, pulpy fun with pages so packed with action that they practically flash by.

In the third novel, Red White and Blood--which Farnsworth will promote in Boise on Wednesday, May 2--Cade faces The Boogieman, a supernatural presence that has possessed some of history's most notorious killers. Cade has killed the host many times in the past but the presence has endured, and now he must combat it in the middle of a presidential election. By the novel's end, villains are upping the stakes and the framework for an inevitable and epic showdown is starting to show.

"Eventually, I'll answer what happened to Cade on 9/11 and reveal the Big Bad at end of series," said Farnsworth. "It's something so far out of his weight class, it's a genuine question if he survives it."

The Boogieman is the first villain in the series to truly frustrate Cade. But he is also the perfect example of what makes the series compelling as a whole, as the Boogieman is inserted into some of American history's bloodiest moments to offer a counter-narrative.

But Farnsworth doesn't stop his historical tidbits there. The novel's plots are all a grab-bag of national and international headlines, including everything from electoral politics and the Colbert Report to child soldiers in Sudan, all dressed up in the finest of supernatural conspiracy theories.

Farnsworth deliberately writes in whatever scares, repels or outright disgusts him as a means of working through those issues.

"I'm trying to, in some way, point out the real horror," said Farnsworth. "The horror of what is out there in reality is so much worse than anything I can come up with."

For example, The President's Vampire, the second novel in the series, opens with Cade shoving a grenade in Bin Laden's mouth and throwing him over a cliff.

"That was my Captain America punching Hitler in the mouth moment," said Farnsworth. "My chance to fight back against all the terrible things in the world and get some small victory over them."

If this is all sounding a bit cinematic, know you aren't the only one who thinks so. The series was optioned by Lucas Foster, producer of the Brangelina vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

But the possibility of 10 books and a potential film franchise in a saturated genre does raise the question of how long interest can be sustained.

"You always worry about vampire fatigue," said Farnsworth. "But trends are an artificial construct. The idea that no one is going to buy a book because it's not in a current trend is just not really true."

Farnsworth's experience as a screenwriter taught him to be skeptical of trend-watching. His former agent told him vampires were done two weeks before Twilight opened in theaters.

"Maybe a vampire secret agent is the death knell, the thing that will put vampires in the coffin once and for all," said Farnsworth. "But people still seem to be hungry for these kinds of stories."