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Mirabile dictu, I am now on top of BOTH film reviews AND Doctor Who reviews, so at last I am able to move on to book reviewing. I have three unreviewed books in the queue, two of which I aspire to knock off today.

Like The Historian, this book came my way courtesy of the Notorious Dracula-Enabler of Old Meanwood Town, and I moved straight onto it after finishing the former. It is a very different book, though. Where The Historian was all about the atmosphere, this one is all about the action. There are dramatic carriage-chases, deadly duels, monsters on the Underground, encounters in dark alleyways, campaigns of vengeance stretching over generations - all the makings of a Gothic romp, really. But the prose is pretty ordinary; functional, rather than beautiful. And the authors' claims about what the novel is doing make it difficult not to scoff.

The background is that the Stoker family missed out on a lot of the potential revenue generated by the original novel, because some kind of minor technical mistake was made when filing for copyright for it in the USA. This came to light during negotiations with the Universal film studio in the 1930s, and once it had been revealed, it meant that the family lost all rights over any adaptation of the story. Meanwhile, a screenwriter and horror geek called Ian Holt had long been looking for the opportunity to write a Dracula sequel. Through various networks of Dracula enthusiasts, he eventually managed to meet Dacre Stoker, Bram's great-grandnephew, and they agreed to collaborate on this novel. So Ian Holt could benefit from the profile and marketing opportunities afforded by the Stoker name, while Dacre Stoker could re-establish a Stoker family stake in the Dracula character.

All of this is explained in an Afterword at the end of the book, in which both authors tell their 'story'. Unfortunately, though, between this Afterword and the novel itself it is patently obvious that a) Dacre Stoker is no writer (he literally says "Ian reassured me that, even though I had never written a novel before, I could do it"), and b) that Ian Holt is in truth much more of a film geek than a Bram Stoker aficionado. So we end up with this novel, which presents itself as The One True Sequel to Stoker's novel, but actually throws a lot of Stoker's canon out of the window, preferring the filmic traditions instead. Examples include:
  • Sunlight is fatal to vampires - famously invented for the innovative special-effects climax of Nosferatu (1922)
  • Carfax Abbey is in Whitby and next to John Seward's Asylum - invented for the stage-play to slim down the number of different locations, but popularised by Universal's Dracula (1931)
  • Renfield is a former partner of Peter Hawkins, Jonathan Harker's employer - Universal again
  • Lucy, who of course occurs only in flash-backs in this novel, having met a sticky end in the first one, is repeatedly described as having red hair - sounds like Francis Ford Coppola to me.
The in-story explanation for all this is that Stoker wrote his novel after a stranger (later, of course, revealed to be Dracula) related the basic events of it to him in the pub, but that those events were not related accurately in the first place, while Stoker also adjusted and embroidered them as he wrote them up. So this novel incorporates both Stoker's novel and Stoker himself, who appears as a character, but can also either keep or discard any of the details of Stoker's novel which it fancies, by simply declaring that those details either were or weren't 'true' narrations of the facts. Thus the surviving characters from Stoker's novel - John Seward, Mina and Jonathan Harker, their son Quincey, Arthur Holmwood and Van Helsing - all exist within this novel, and indeed young Quincey Harker finds out about Stoker's work and confronts him angrily about its resemblance to his family's real experiences. But those aren't actually quite the same as the events experienced by characters with the same names in Stoker's novel.

In some respects, this is fine, because it allows room for the exploration of the experiences and perspectives of Stoker's characters not covered in the original novel. There is some quite compelling stuff about how Holmwood really just wanted to die with Lucy, and twenty years later is still torn up about having been prevented from doing so, or about how Mina was actually in love with Dracula, and that Jonathan Harker's awareness of this has made him an alcoholic and is still poisoning their marriage. Great! Do that, Ian Holt and Dacre Stoker. There are always more stories to tell between the lines, around the edges and under the corners of Stoker's novel. But the purely mechanical changes which favour film-canon over book-canon felt off to me in a book explicitly positioning itself as a sequel to Stoker's novel. This is what the Afterword has this to say about the issue:
"Our dearest wish is all Dracula fans - of the book and of the films - will read and enjoy our sequel. To this end there are several areas which we felt that film fans had so embraced and had become so engrained into Dracula legend that we could not overlook them. To the literary purists we apologize, but we feel this is a necessary concession, made in the hope of once and for all harmonizing Dracula fans."
Is it just me that finds their self-appointment as the 'harmonizing' healers of Dracula fandom breath-takingly arrogant? And naive, for that matter. But that aside, I don't think it is necessary to do things like move Carfax from London to Whitby so that people who know the story of Dracula primarily from its film adaptations can enjoy this story. Besides, the experience of reading it is one of encountering less a deliberate and clever merging of myths, and more a distinct impression that its authors couldn't actually be bothered to read the novel properly. Basically, it feels like this is the Dracula screenplay which Ian Holt always wanted to write, and probably had written well before he met Dacre Stoker, awkwardly and not entirely successfully re-configured to fit the opportunities offered by the collaboration.

That probably sounds hugely snobbish, but there you are. People get annoyed if what they find when they open the covers of a book doesn't match what is promised on the front. In fact, you can end up cancelling out the goodwill you would have achieved by being more honest about what you are doing that way. Because it's not actually as if this book is dreadful in and of itself. Like I said, the new angles on Stoker's characters which build on what he wrote, rather than contradicting it, are fun. And there are some quite good inter-texts which again don't contradict Stoker, but enrich the story by evoking the wider tradition around his text, and thus in turn drawing meta-referential attention to its status as a work of fiction. Like for example when a character within the story who is also a famous actor, and who later turns out to be Dracula operating under a pseudonym, is described as having inherited the acting mantle of Henry Irving - widely believed to have informed Stoker's characterisation of Dracula. Or when within one chapter we meet a French police inspector with the surname Jourdan and an English sergeant with the surname Lee who is exceptionally tall, followed later by a reference to a doctor with the surname Langella. That sort of stuff works for me as a nice nod to the filmic tradition, without also undermining the very book you are supposedly writing the definitive sequel to.

Oh, I should add that this novel also manages to weave both Countess Bathory and the Jack the Ripper legend into its story. Bathory turns out to be far more evil than Dracula, and indeed his mortal enemy, and would have been a lot of fun, except for the fact that part of the way she is characterised as evil is by playing up her (possibly-historical) lesbianism in a manner blatantly designed to thrill heterosexual male readers. Not very helpful, frankly. Still, between her and Dracula, one of the 20th-century characters is at one point prompted to have some quite insightful thoughts about medieval rulers, and how that background might have forged the vampires she knows:
"Blood was cheap in the fifteenth century. Murder and death were common. Brutality was an accepted form of control. The only thing that separated the beloved rulers from the tyrants was whether or not their cruelty was justified. It was from these dark ages that Bathory and Dracula had sprung. They were the last surviving relics of a bygone era."
That's exactly the sort of stuff I mean when I say that it enriches the character of Dracula-the-vampire for me to imagine that he is also Vlad III Dracula, so I enjoyed that.

Basically, then, this is a cracky mash-up of Stoker's novel, its many filmic adaptations (though especially the American ones), a load of other Gothic tales, and some historical people and events, all wrapped up into a ripping adventure yarn with a surprisingly brutal ending. As such, it's a pretty good read. But the definitive sequel to Stoker's Dracula it is not.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2014 04:26 pm (UTC)
LOL at my description :-)

I enjoyed it as a 'top load of old nonsense romp' especially as I was very sad when I read it and it was perfect distraction nonsense. But I had similar misgivings about it but the worst bit about it for me was the mist. Utterly dreadful.
Nov. 16th, 2014 04:41 pm (UTC)
Yep, good distraction / escapism is about right. What was it that particularly annoyed you about the mist, though? I did notice that at one point Bathory explains that she can't actually turn into a bat, wolf, mist or whatever, but instead uses her hypnotic powers to make people think that's what they're seeing. But that didn't entirely seem to match up with the way it was then described, merging into the London fog and completely enveloping people and so on.
Nov. 16th, 2014 04:51 pm (UTC)
IIRC it was the way the mist was used in a non consensual sex scene. Made me feel sick.
Nov. 16th, 2014 04:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes - indeed. All part of the Bathory-as-evil-lesbian thing which annoyed me too!
Nov. 16th, 2014 07:44 pm (UTC)
Not just undead but un-dead? *trembles in fear of the deadly hyphen*

(fun review I enjoyed reading this)
Nov. 16th, 2014 08:04 pm (UTC)
I believe the hyphen is a carefully-observed Stokerism - all part of their positioning as The One True Sequel. So, yes, we should tremble!

Glad you enjoyed the read. :-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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