The pop culture image of Count Dracula, vampire poster-boy, ranges from creepy to campy, spooky to sparkly, demonic hell beast to hot monster boyfriend. Apparently, part of this is due to Bram Stoker’s family, or his “estate,” somehow losing the American rights to the story and characters way back in the early twentieth century.
As a result, when I first read Dracula I had no idea what to expect. Much like how Frankenstein’s monster is actually an articulate reasoner instead of a grunting dimwit in Mary Shelley’s original book, Dracula is actually a fiercely intelligent, campaigning adversary instead of simply a solitary seducer lurking in his castle for unsuspecting females to happen upon it. He’s an imminently advancing predator with a whole arsenal of abilities that give him almost unchallenged power. And he would have gone unchallenged except of course for an engaged couple, their female friend, her three suitors, and an eccentric doctor. The group sounds like they belong in the cast of a societal farce or a comedy of manners, but their modern domesticity presents not only a contrast to Dracula’s old-world power, but a diametric opposition to it. Through a series of letters, diary entries, medical notes, and transcribed voice memos, their experiences take on credible dimensions as a real memoir. I really enjoyed the book, having read it twice and studied it in university, so of course I was interested in Dracula inspired books when I encountered them.
A classmate of mine recommended the novel by Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian, and described it as being about Dracula but more rooted in the history and actual culture of Romania, so I made a mental note and eventually read it. The narrative follows a historian (duh) whose academic career is haunted by the strange tale of her father’s experience with a book, bound in leather and apparently blank, that appeared out of nowhere when he was studying at the university. The strange draconian symbol stamped on it was apparently a warning, which her father took after a short investigation into the meaning of the symbol. When a similar book appears to the main character, she cannot resist the urge to pursue its secrets and seeks out her father’s former academic advisor. The advisor recollects the first book, and in fact still has it. After a comparison of the two, he agrees to assist the main character, but as soon as the endeavour is agreed upon, a series of tragedies begins that will dog their efforts across several continents.
Dracula: The Un-Dead
Billed as a sequel to the original, Dracula: The Un-Dead is an effort “to right the wrongs done to Bram’s original classic.” Co-written by Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, and Ian Holt, a screenwriter and Dracula historian, the book invites potential readers to give it immediate credibility. Picking up twenty years after the events of Dracula, the “band of heroes,” as they are repeatedly called in the book, has broken up, but their legacy continues in the person of Mina and Jonathan’s son, Quincey. A letter written by Mina explains the events that so nearly proved fatal to them all and warns Quincey that the danger may not be entirely passed as they had hoped. Quincey is an aspiring actor who becomes the protégé of the mysterious Romanian Basarab. Through this association, he becomes acquainted with the horrific reality of his family’s past, brought to the present by a new outbreak of ghostly attacks and bloody murders. Throughout, the police inspector closely associated with the Ripper murders is hellbent on finding what ties the atrocities together—and his main suspect is Van Helsing.
Upon reading The Historian, I was intrigued for about the first third of the book. The writing is quite enthralling and atmospheric, making the act of reading quite enjoyable, but the longer it went on, the more improbable and draggy the plot became. The characters were quite compelling and the actual foray into the setting and culture of Romania promised to bring reality to the legend. There is some quality dark academia/academic sleuthing as the historians and researchers they consult bring various manuscripts from the Dark Ages to light, but that’s partially also to blame for how long and uneventful this book ended up being. It’s difficult to keep the momentum going when you frequently break for 5-10 pages to insert a supposed historical document or account that’s dry as dust.
A similar weakness plagues Un-Dead, as significant portions of the narrative are dedicated to summarizing either the events of Dracula, the history of Dracula and Elizabeth Bathory, or the biographies of other historical characters that appear. The opening letter by Mina, for instance, is a covert CliffsNotes version of Dracula. And I don’t know about you, but if you’re reading a sequel, the assumption is that you’ve already read the first book. If you haven’t, that’s your problem, and you’re probably already resigned to the consequences of not knowing exactly what transpired before. For both Historian and Un-Dead, I got the impression that the writers had too much fun researching and felt irresistibly compelled to prove they had done so by shoehorning as much of it into their novels as they conceivably could.
Historian contains some intriguing sequences and character revelations as they travel across the continent and explore potential sites of Dracula’s new abode, guided by the strange symbol on the blank books. There is an interesting interweaving of timelines and subplots full of revelations about the main character’s parents and the truth of what happened to them, as well as the discovery of a secret society built to keep Dracula’s evil at bay throughout the centuries. But the ending was just… lacklustre? Abrupt? Conceptually lacking, let’s put it that way. Dracula is reduced to an eccentric, homicidal book collector with an irrational modus operandi that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Also, the ambiguous ending, after all of that, annoyed me no end.
In Un-Dead, on the other hand, I was definitely hoping for better things. In a way, I got them, and in a way, they were worse. I feel as though the execution was worse (far worse), but the concept was somehow better, if that makes any sense whatsoever. It definitely had the potential to be better, in the right hands. The way in which the story was woven into the Ripper murders was interesting, and the police inspector suspecting foul play by the “band of heroes” is completely logical because he doesn’t know the vampiric circumstances. Unfortunately, his confrontations with the actual members of the band were few and too short—given that two members of the band had been picked off prior to that. That’s another thing that made the book seem dull—the murders happened at almost predictable intervals all the way throughout the book, making none of them seem particularly significant or unexpectedly shocking.
More Specifics on Dracula: The Un-Dead
I read Un-Dead more recently so I’m just going to dive into the details and let Historian off the hook for now. I’ll come back around to it later.
In Un-Dead, Elizabeth Bathory, the Bloody Countess, was a brilliant idea to incorporate, but was horrible in execution. She was introduced in the most campy villain way possible, and immediately got sections from her perspective, which removed any and all mystery from her identity, motivation, and personality. And the backstory. Oh boy. I don’t feel qualified to dissect all that, but it was a mess and completely failed to do anything for the story.
All of the characters were invariably disappointing deteriorations of their past selves, except perhaps for Arthur Holmwood, who had the dubious honour of being the only somewhat respectable character in the whole thing. I say dubious because then his character is destroyed by him engaging in petty delight over Mina tripping on her skirts after she declines his hand to help her into the carriage. The pair of them, both in their forties or fifties by now, acting like petulant teenagers.
And if ever there was a disappointing character development, Mina Harker in this book compared to the original would win the prize. First off, I dislike marital unhappiness being used as conflict in a sequel, when at the end of the first book, the couple were happily married. It’s cheap. If you want to have a sequel in which the unhappiness develops, at least then we get to see it and you have to put some work into it as a writer. But none of this, “Surprise! It’s ten years down the road, they hate each other, he cheats on her, and she can’t stand the sight of him.” No.
Secondly, I kind of hate the romanticizing of Dracula’s attempted turning of Mina. There is definite innuendo about the whole vampirism shtick, and you can argue about the euphemisms of late 19th century whatever or the intimacy of drinking one another’s blood etcetera, but you can’t equivocally say that anything approaching love actually occurred between Mina and Dracula. I’m just done with the romanticizing of an actually good villain to make him some kind of anime antihero. It was only because Bathory is so ridiculously unhinged and chaotic with her killing that Dracula somehow looks okay by comparison. I hate it when fiction uses relativity to boost a love interest’s moral desirability. Miss me with that.
And the writing. For starters, Dacre Stoker isn’t a writer, so immediately, it looked to me like Ian Holt used the name to boost his book. Which is almost exactly what happened if you read the afterward. But then Ian Holt isn’t a novelist, either. He’s a screen-writer. Originally, Holt envisioned this novel as a screenplay and frankly, that’s how it came off. It’s very not good when the sentence “Quincey was brokenhearted” gets into the final copy without being flagged by an editor as abysmally flat. It’s textbook telling not showing, which might work in a screenplay as cue for the actor to then emote in a certain way, but this isn’t a movie and we can’t see Quincey in front of us being heartbroken (whatever that means)—the writer has to write the emotion.
Some of the writing choices were unfathomable, like why they chose to let really bad puns slip into their narration if they didn’t want the whole thing to come off like a joke. Now, I will admit to being partial to a pun. If I already liked the book, perhaps I could have forgiven these and even enjoyed them in all their corniness, but as it was, well… just get a load of these: “the words were like a wooden stake piercing Stoker’s heart.” Get it? Wooden stake? Haha. And this one, in the middle of a gory, slaughterous attack on a police convoy: “He had been gutted… innards spilling out of his body. [He] felt ill, and a strong urge to vomit. But as he tumbled back, he realized he no longer had the stomach for it.” Oh, mic drop. Good one. Nothing like a little humour to conclude a violent murder scene.
In fact, the murders are unnecessarily graphic, when something that really ratchets up the tension would be more innuendo, less explicit gruesomeness. The looming threat, the imagination running rampant about possible undisclosed horrors, seemingly meaningless odd events that just tease the senses with potential vile significance… that’s the kind of thing that keeps me interested. (And something The Historian did much better.) Also, a little mystery surrounding the villain of the piece would be nice. Instead, as I mentioned, we get complete scenes from Bathory’s point of view almost from the word go, and they run to the exceedingly melodramatic and hand-rubbingly villainous. She’s a joke, if a violent and distasteful one, much like the puns.
Also, while on the subject of perspective, we get scenes from way too many perspectives. I like multiple perspectives in a story as much as the next writer who has way too many characters they want to develop. But having multiple scenes from the perspectives of characters who are soon to die without conveying any of their interior ruminations to another character (which means they do nothing to impact the plot in any way) is just a waste of time. And it’s not long enough to make me care about the character before they are summarily despatched, so what was the point?
Treatment of the Original Dracula
Here’s where we come back to The Historian. In the interval since I’ve read it, which is close to a year and a half, I can’t remember specifically how it treated the original novel. I remember one of the main characters looking for the novel to use a partial reference for the legend, which is how he meets a woman who has taken the only copy out of the library just when he wants it desperately. But I don’t believe that the account was taken as much more than fiction within the world. Which is fine. Because I don’t remember it that well, I don’t think the treatment of Stoker and his novel was egregiously disrespectful or even that significant.
On the other hand, Stoker, his novel, and an attempted stage production are all within The Un-Dead‘s world. Stoker is portrayed as a hack who stole a story he got from a drunk in a bar, and wrote it pretty much verbatim without even changing the names of the real people who played parts in it. He’s desperate for a play to revamp his late-Gothic novel and show the world that he is more than a flunkey for the late Henry Irving, actor extraordinaire. Instead he is soon cowed by another divo actor, the ridiculously egotistic Basarab, who commandeers the production, changing the script to give himself as the Dracula character a sympathetic, heroic slant. Eventually, Basarab frightens Stoker so much that he has a stroke and dies soon after. If the unflattering portrayal of the author of the work they use as their inspiration isn’t enough to grind your gears, this is an example of another useless characterization only to kill the person off.
At the end of everything, I was expecting my review of The Historian to be the one that was less than flattering, but oh, boy, Dracula: The Un-Dead topped it hands down. The thing that made me maddest about it was I was prepared to completely write-off the integration of the ideas extending from the original novel, but somehow they could have worked. Given the holes in knowledge that the group had throughout Dracula, and the potential for slight unreliability with the narrator/transcriber (which was most often Mina), this idea could have been killer. But the execution was just so awful that it almost made it worse that the idea itself had actual potential. The Historian on the other hand is an enjoyable reading experience, well-written and crafted, but the payoff at the finale was a bit disappointing to me because of the amount of build-up.
The YA steampunk series Stoker & Holmes by Collen Gleason is in an alternate history world where there also happen to be vampires and fairies. The Stoker family of the original Bram Stoker are vampire hunters, a la Buffy (extra-strong, fast, etc.), and his sister is one. She meets the niece of Sherlock Holmes and the two teens of course team up, as they encounter an Egyptian secret society, a time-traveller from an alternate future (basically our present), and mysterious fairy men with unknown covert agendas of their own on the steamy platforms of their alternate London. I read the first book, The Clockwork Scarab, a few years ago and it was a fun, atmospheric romp that made me think I might like to read the rest of the books sometime, though it didn’t absolutely hook me with the need to read them immediately.