This one presents itself in grand Gothic tradition, just like Dracula, as an authentic 'found' document - specifically the memoir of Mircea, son of Vlad Dracula, written in 1480, discovered by Abraham Van Helsing in a Russian monastery in 1898, translated and annotated by him, and then 'found' again by Peter Tremayne in an Islington street market. The story starts in Rome, where Mircea, twenty-two years old, has recently been orphaned following the death of his mother, Dracula's second wife, who had fled there for safety in 1462 when Dracula discovered she was having an affair. He is well-to-do but gets himself into trouble after seducing the wife of a local prince, and decides that the time is right to take up an invitation from his older half-brothers, Vlad and Mihail, to return to Wallachia and claim his share of their birthright now that Dracula is dead. Naturally, when he gets there, he finds them living in a remote and spooky castle, appearing only at night and plotting to turn him into a vampire so he can help them restore the house of Dracula to its rightful mastery over the world. Meanwhile, Dracula himself is not as dead as people have been led to believe...
'Peter Tremayne' is apparently a pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, who is also a Celtic historian and now best-known for the Sister Fildelma murder mystery series. I actually think it's fair enough for a non-specialist historian not to have debunked Florescu and McNally's theories about Dracula for himself, especially since the main grounds for questioning their claims came from the study of Stoker's notes in the 1980s. Meanwhile, his historical grounding is clear throughout, and he has certainly absorbed what was known about the historical Vlad in the the late '70s pretty thoroughly and gives room in the novel to different perspectives on him. Mircea begins the story believing that his father was a popular ruler who had been just to punish the Saxons for trying to overthrow him, but as he meets Saxons on his journey through Wallachia who don't know he is Vlad's son, he discovers that to them he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. Later, in Tirgoviste, he meets an abbot in whose view Vlad was driven by an excessive puritanical austerity which led him to punish the immoral, but also wonders whether the horrific stories about him can really be true, or invented by his enemies to discredit him. Others note that VLad may have been harsh and ruthless, but at least he drove the Turks out, while Mircea himself knows of plenty of other contemporary rulers who impale at least as much of Dracula - including John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester (aka the Butcher of England).
That said, some bits of Tremayne's background research felt like they had been crow-barred in for the sake of it. On the way to Wallachia, Mircea travels through Dubrovnik, but no action takes place there. Rather, it is mentioned, we are treated to a paragraph about its history, economy and demography which reads for all the world as though it had been copied out of an encyclopedia, and then we just go straight into "When I left Dubrovnik, I noticed almost immediately a drop in temperature." So... why bother with a copy-and-paste description of what was actually nothing more than a staging-post on his journey? Meanwhile, there are plenty more nods to Stoker's novel beyond the simple presentation of the story as a first-person documentary account. E.g. Mircea sees blue flames flickering in the darkness as he approaches Castle Dracula, which his coach driver stops and bends over to do something. Later, he learns that one of the ways Dracula may have become a vampire is by dabbling in sorcery and conjuring the devil, while in the final moments of the novel Dracula tells Mircea he has not won because he will spread his revenge over centuries and has only just begun.
( The castleCollapse )
( Brother JohnCollapse )
( Dracula and his originsCollapse )
After all this, the actual ending felt slightly disappointing. Mircea fights off most of the vampires with a sword blessed by the Pope, through which he feels some kind of magic power surging as he lifts it against them. That felt like a bit too much of an easy solution, I think - as when a Doctor Who story is essentially solved by waving the sonic screwdriver. During the sword-fight, a candelabra is knocked over into a tapestry, setting the castle ablaze, and Dracula himself is lost somewhere in the flames - which of course creates plenty of opportunities for him to escape and go on to further adventures. As Van Helsing spells out in a final note appended to the manuscript, that includes those recorded by Stoker.
If there's another book out there which combines Stoker's Dracula, the historical Dracula and Hammerish notions of vampirism as rooted in ancient paganism, I'd sure as hell love to read it. Until then, this one will enjoy a special place in my heart, despite its occasional ineptitudes and rather weak ending. I remain unclear as to why it is titled 'Dracula Unborn', as I couldn't see that that title matched up with any of its characters.