After a day reading, I’m in a writing mood. And boy do I have some comments on “this” one.
This is Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew (sibling’s great-grandson) second “Dracula” book. The first, Dracula: The Un-dead was an attempt by Stoker, a track & field coach, to reassert some sort of legal rights over Dracula fiction by publishing a book purportedly using unused portions of Stoker’s notes for the original novel. The idea came from Barker, a screenplay writer for direct-to-DVD horror films, who enlisted Stoker as coauthor. As best I can tell, the idea was to try to craft an expanded Dracula universe based on “unused material” in Stoker’s original notes – now in a museum in Philadelphia – put it in a novel with a Stoker’s name on it. I initially thought the idea would be to then accuse anyone who wrote anything dealing with Dracula of infringing on their copyright by claiming it’s derived from DUTD, not the original, but I might be reading to much into it. The real intent might be what the DTUD had on its cover – it is marketed as the “official” sequel to Dracula, and is now the first of a series that includes an author named Stoker which utilize Stoker’s original notes to tell the story Barker and Stoker think Bram has intended – even though as reviewers noted, it does so by taking the position that the original novel got much of Stoker’s alleged “vision” wrong.
Of course this is nonsense – they’re not taking “unused material” in the sense of a deleted scene from a completed movie – they are taking subplots and characters in earlier drafts that Stoker deliberately discarded, and telling a different story. It’s Star Trek with the starship USS Yorktown and Latin lover Jose Tyler as the ship’s navigator. Yes, that was in an earlier draft of Roddenberry’s show, but it was erased – not left unused – by later developments. But here Barker and Stoker are treating these discarded notes as what Star Trek fans would call “canon”.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that -tossing in new ingredients – but it hardly makes their story any more correct or official. It’s just a marketing gimmick. (Although I must regretfully tell you that I’ve now taken it down off the shelf and am going to read it again. I had not realized the opening scene was considered by some reviewers “lesbian vampire porn” the first time I read it, and now I’m intrigued). It is rather cinematic, which was probably the entire idea – selling the rights to a new Dracula movie with a Stoker’s name would have been a coup. (Did we mention it’s got lesbian vampire porn? Think Twilight meets the Kardashians). Alas, it went unsigned.
Anyway, Dracul is a prequel, beginning with Bram Stoker’s childhood and telling the story of the real Stoker’s interaction with Dracula, which later became the basis for the novel involving fictional characters.
Or maybe not – it was very confusing if this was supposed to be a real incident that inspired Stoker to write the novel, or if the novel was actually not fiction, and instead just a sequel to this book. The end of the book ties some of the elements of the book into the recently translated Icelandic version of Dracula, which is an interesting story in its own right, so it’s unclear how much of that book was by Stoker and how much was his Icelandic translator. In short, I’m a little unclear how the original D, DTUD and little d integrate.
But I digress.
It was not a lot of fun. It was horribly, horribly overwritten, so I was mentally editing the book as I listened to it, noting sentence after sentence after sentence that just wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t as bloody or exotic (no lesbian vampire porn I noticed, although I may not have known what to look for. I did miss it the first time in the last book too).
The novel follows Stoker’s epistolary format, where the story is told by the characters in letters and diary or journal entries. The problem is that Stoker and Barker miss the essential genius of the original Stoker’s novel, which while it stretched the amount of detail someone might include in a letter or journal entry, never broke the fiction entirely. Dracul frequently does. For example, the broad time line means that a character might be relating an incident that happened 20 years earlier, and they will drop into line by line dialogue and detailed descriptions in florid language of the surroundings for page after page after page. Just simply not believable. Another example is when the characters swear an oath that they will never recount the secrets that they share with each other which are given as a sort of entrance fee to an association of vampire hunters. But the character whose recorded and transcribed journal entry reflects this encounter proceeds to recount in his journal entry exactly what the others said.
This was doubly irritating because the action would have proceeded far better “without” the full recounting of the extraneous and unnecessary stories. If I’d had the actual book I could have skimmed and skipped forward – but not with an audiobook. A better author would have simply noted that the characters followed Vamberry’s odd custom of insisting on a deeply personal and frankly incriminating story from each before proceeding further to lock the members of the little group into a conspiracy of silence of sorts. Instead, you have a purported journal entry which was recorded and then transcribed of someone else’s deepest, darkest, secret which you swore you would never repeat.
What’s going on here is transparent – Barker is writing a screenplay for sale to a studio, not a novel in epistolary format. If it had been me, I would have included the stories but from the original author, added into the narrative with a brief introduction explaining how this oh-so-secret story was actually later provided by its original author. Wouldn’t have been hard to do.
More importantly, if you’re going to tell a vampire story where there is a giant impossibility at the center, the details have to be solid. That’s what made Dracula great – the book was so prosaic and matter of fact that the supernatural aspect grew almost completely outside the book’s text – and that’s what made it so frightening and real. I like to muse on whether that connection to reality was simply Stoker’s personality – he simply narrated what he knew, and his genius was that he didn’t realize that what he wasn’t consciously writing – a story of simultaneous horror and attraction to female sexuality – was what the book was really about. I am convinced he never realized that he was telling readers something deeply private about his own desires and fears – he thought he was just writing a Gothic horror novel. Readers today don’t catch that the only male vampire is Dracula and he stays in the background – the numerous other vampires in the novel are women, who are invariably described as “wanton and voluptuous” (which is a bad, bad thing, Stoker makes clear, although he doth protest a little too much, methinks, which is part of what makes the book so damn much fun).
The one good thing about this book, though, was that throughout the early chapters the supernatural occurrences were not matching up with traditional vampire lore regarding what a vampire can and cannot do, which I thought was a definite benefit because it built a sense of suspense, since I didn’t know what Bram and his family were dealing with. I have always thought that that was one of the marks of good supernatural fiction – an author that can add a twist onto what a supernatural being can or can’t do, or how they came to be that way. Stoker did it in Dracula, and Moonlight did it memorably during its one-season run, building a back story for the show’s vampires that made them new and interesting. (Maybe Twilight did too – I never watched it).
But at bottom the thing I’ll remember the most about this book is how frustrating it was to listen to. One review referenced its “purple prose” and that’s a good description. That’s tolerable when reading – it’s definitely harder to tolerate when listening.